Must Christianity Change?

by Neil Richardson

(Some reflections on the contemporary ‘heresy’ of relevance)

For years now we have been trying to make everything – the Church, worship, the Bible, the gospel……relevant. But what does that mean? What, if any, are the theological foundations for such an approach? Bonhoeffer wrote somewhere that the relevance of the Bible is axiomatic it’s a given. The problem, I suggest, lies elsewhere. So, first, a provocative quotation – and its biblical basis!

  1. ‘Christianity is always changing itself into something which can be believed’ (T.S. Eliot). Is this true? Is it Scriptural? And if it is both true and biblical, how do we engage with it?

Change is built into both Scripture and Christian tradition. In the Bible, stories and teaching are ‘re-cycled’; both OT and NT embody an extraordinary amount of change and diversity, with ‘borrowings’,  additions, and losses or omissions.  The process has continued in Christian history and tradition. That is the nature of an incarnational (contextual) faith, (‘the Word became flesh’).

The ongoing task is the re-discovery of orthodoxy – i.e. the Gospel – in each generation: fundamentally, the ‘doctrines’ of the Incarnation and Trinity, including the cross and resurrection of Jesus which are their heart, however variously and differently expressed. (‘To say the same thing in a different context means saying it differently’).

And so to two more quotations…..

  1. ‘We cannot know the ‘full number of the Gentiles’ (Romans 11.25-6), but ‘it seems clear that it will take thousands of years before the Gospel is preached in a clear and compelling way to all nations’ (K. Ward, The Word of God. The Bible after Modern Scholarship (SPCK 2010), p.143).
  2. ‘Can the many faces of Christianity find a message which will remake religion for a society which has decided to do without it?….It would be very surprising if this religion, so youthful  yet so varied in its historical experience, had now revealed all its secrets’,     (Diarmaid MacCulloch,  A History of Christianity, London Allen Lane 2009, p.1016).

So who knows what mutations of the Christian faith the future might hold? Two questions have impressed themselves upon me throughout my ministry:

  1. How far must Christianity change in order to remain Christianity?
  2. How far can Christianity change without ceasing to be Christianity?
  3. So who – or what –should be the drivers of change?

Making things ‘relevant’,  I’ve suggested, is the wrong place to start. Its suspect nature becomes apparent as soon as we start to think about making God relevant. We are not engaged in  a P.R. exercise, as if it were just a matter of ‘trying to get our(?) message’ across. There is a crucial difference between faithfulness to the Gospel and chameleon-like salesmanship.

The Gentile mission in the New Testament can guide us in discovering how change happens. (Instead of thinking   of ‘getting back to the Bible’, we should think about going forward with the Bible).

The Acts of the Apostles suggests i) prayer – i.e. sustained attention to God, ii) love, (the opposite of fear), and iii) the Holy Spirit, are fundamental in the process of change. All imply, or require listening. (Note the place of dialogue in the ministry of Paul, Acts 17.2,17f, and 18.4).So one vital task will be our prayerful engagement with the Bible and with Christian tradition alongside our loving attention to the Church and to the world.

  1. Last, but not least, my final quotation here has haunted me ever since I read it (in, I think, Evangelism in the Wesleyan Spirit):

‘The Gospel hasn’t really been preached until it has been heard’ (Albert  Outler).

So how  far must  Christian preaching and worship change in order to remain Christian?

How far can Christian preaching and worship change without ceasing to be Christian?

That will require ( at least)

– attending to our congregations and their contexts

– reading the Bible  searchingly, persistently, prayerfully

– offering a message which evokes and nurtures faith.

      The heart of the matter: the story of Jesus, and all that flows from that – including the preacher as an ‘icon’ of the Gospel (e.g. 1 Cor. 2.1-5, 2 Cor. 4.5).

A final thought: preaching, like the Faith, mutates – always has, and always will – or should – in faithfulness to the Gospel  and in the service of those who hear.


Human or Functionary? Jesus meeting people in role.

by John Howard

How do we relate to people when they are in defined roles? My reading of the Gospels leads me to the impression that Jesus saw the person behind the role and was willing to set aside the easy prejudice many roles encourage. It is both a challenge for us as individuals and also a theological statement about the value Jesus placed upon human dignity.

I have recently moved to the West Bank. Often I travel into Israel and therefore go through one or other of the checkpoints on the Separation Barrier. There I meet soldiers, men and women – often seeming more like boys and girls – many of them young enough to be my grandchildren! They respond to me – or rather they don’t respond to me – it’s as if I am not a person, I am an item passing through to be checked but not engaged with. But then I reflect – do I see the eighteen year old female soldier as a person, I certainly struggle to do so. Their weapons threaten me and I see them as a soldier not a human. Sometimes they are talking between themselves or on their mobile phone and wave me through without even looking at me. Without any kind of relationship can we be human to each other? How do I love a soldier when they are in role? How much easier it is to treat a person badly when they are dehumanised by a function.

Jesus in the Gospels comes across soldiers on quite a few occasions. The Holy Family flee from the slaughter of the innocent{1}. The centurion comes to Jesus so that his servant might be healed{2}. During his arrest a soldier is injured and Jesus heals him{3}. It is a soldier who is the first to recognise the nature of the Jesus who dies on the cross{4}. Can we identify the fundamental element in how Jesus and his followers (who write the Gospel stories), relate to others they meet, who are also representatives of an occupying force? Few if any bible commentaries seem to look into this question. Each of the texts I refer to in this essay have more familiar theological themes which are usually the focus of comment. The closest I’ve found is in Matthew Henry’s commentary when he says of the centurion: “Though he was a Roman soldier, and his very dwelling among the Jews was a badge of their subjection to the Roman yoke, yet Christ, who was King of the Jews, favoured him; and therein has taught us to do good to our enemies, and not needlessly to interest ourselves in national enmities. Though he was a Gentile, yet Christ countenanced him.”{5}

Meeting a person in a role, where they act as functionary is of course not limited to soldiers. Amongst many others, shopkeepers, police, teachers, and dare I mention it – ministers of religion all put on roles – and we all encounter them in these roles.  A soldier is perhaps on one end of a spectrum that has many degrees of role taking within it. To meet the individual is to engage as person to person. To relate role to role is to deny the encounter of human to human, but in many situations it is very difficult to pierce the role and meet the person. To even attempt it at a checkpoint puts your life at risk. I compromise and try a friendly wave but get no reaction.

I remember years ago crossing a checkpoint in a coach when two very young soldiers got on the coach and went round checking passports. The oldest person on the coach a lady nearer 90 than 80 suddenly said to the girl soldier “- well – don’t you ever smile then,” and the girl burst out laughing. The whole atmosphere changed the two soldier suddenly became human, and waved goodbye to us as we drove on out of the checkpoint.

The openness of Jesus (and for that matter the Gospel writers) towards soldiers seemingly seeing beyond the role to the person is reflected in Jesus’ attitude to other groups, Tax Collectors, and even the Pharisees as well as soldiers. Jesus’ encounters with the Pharisees seem usually to be hostile but when one comes to him in secret he responds openly to him as a person{5}. Here perhaps we begin to gain an answer to the question I asked about Jesus’ fundamental element in his relating to others outside the group of disciples. It is an openness to the other coupled with a refusal to accept the role individuals were playing. He sought the person.


  1. Matthew 2: 14
  2. Matthew 8: 8.
  3. Luke 22: 51.
  4. Luke 23: 47.
  5. Matthew Henry’s comment on Matthew 8: 8 as recorded in bible
  6. John 3: 1ff.

Britain, Methodism and Cultural Identity

by Roberta Topham

A conversation overheard in a book shop between two assistants this July:

Assistant 1: The Cubans are going to do their best to keep their culture and identity now that diplomatic relationships have been restored between Cuba and the US.

Assistant 2: Oh, a bit like us and Brexit then.  Now we’ll be able to keep our identity. [Pause.] But what is British identity?

Assistant 1: Not sure, but I suppose we will just have to become more like Boris!

I guess I might not be alone in sincerely hoping the speaker was joking.

This little incident nicely illustrates the question of identity which has been talked about in our country a great deal in recent months.  I am wondering what Christian faith has to contribute to this issue?  And what the recent discussions on the subject might have to say to us as Methodists?

I come to these questions as a Methodist minister who has studied as a social anthropologist.  Culture and identity have long been key tools for the anthropologist in understanding societies.  Culture has been defined as referring to “those socially transmitted patterns for behaviour characteristic of a particular social group”.[i]  Writing more recently, Dutch cultural anthropologist, Toon Van Meijl suggests that after the concept of identity was imported into anthropology from psychology, it came to be understood as “the historically and culturally rooted self-image of a group of people that was predominantly sketched and sharpened in contact vis-à-vis other groups of peoples.”[ii]

Coming from Northern Ireland, where I spent my youth during “the Troubles” among people who constantly defined themselves as Protestants or Catholics, Unionists or Republicans, I recognise the truth of this.  Identity is something people talk about more and put increased energy into when they feel under threat.  After the EU referendum there was much talk in the press about how a large proportion of the vote to leave the EU had come from the more economically deprived areas of Britain.  A perceived lack of social and economic capital coupled with an inability to change that situation is usually experienced as threatening. For some in the UK the reclaiming of a supposedly independent British identity seemed to provide a means of regaining these things.

There are, of course, positive aspects to having a strong sense of cultural identity. Where I live in Yorkshire there has been a never-ending sequence of village fetes, feasts and galas through the summer.  Local culture and a celebration of identity seems alive and well here and is a stimulus to social integration and human well-being.

As modern anthropologists point out, however, few if any cultures are static or tightly bounded.  In an increasingly globalized world, cultural identity is becoming more complex.  For many, old ways of living and thinking are being challenged and changed as a result of the contact with others from different backgrounds that happens through work, media and travel.  The increased pace of globalization and the millions of people migrating each year mean that most societies are constantly encountering new ideas and practices.  Individuals who migrate are taking their ideas, cultures and practices with them while also learning new ways to live in their new home societies.

Methodist communities in Britain are in the middle of this. Many congregations, perhaps especially in our cities, have become and are becoming more diverse.  Others might not yet have experienced much cultural diversity themselves but will be aware of the changing nature of wider society.  It strikes me that we have choices to make between retreating and proclaiming a traditional identity or moving outwards to embrace the new while keeping in touch with our roots.  In last week’s blog Inderjit Bhogal reminded us of the call to love the stranger.  I am suggesting that we might also let the stranger love and change us and see that openness as part of our identity.

One anthropological account of culture may help us in this.  French anthropologist Pierre Bourdieu suggested that culture is embodied in individuals as a set of dispositions which have been internalised through socialisation into a particular society.[iii] He called this set of internalised dispositions the habitus.   From the habitus people  know how to carry on.  That is, in a particular culture they know what is culturally appropriate at any moment, even when facing new circumstances.

When it comes to living in an increasingly multicultural society, there is, in my observation, something especially valuable in the Methodist habitus.  Methodists learn to internalise an openness of heart when encountering others, especially those in need.  In short we might call this a disposition towards welcome and inclusivity.  In this, of course, we draw our example from Jesus, who crossed regional borders, travelling to Tyre and Sidon, and the Decapolis, mixing with Syrophoenicians and Samaritans and being inclusive.  Of course Methodists are not alone in this, but we are well placed to take a lead in developing a modern British identity that is open to others.  We know very well whom we would suggest to the shop assistant in the overheard conversation that “we will have to become more like”!


[i] Roger M. Keesing, Cultural Anthropology (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1981), p. 68.

[ii] Toon Van Meijl, ‘Culture and Identity in Anthropology:  Reflections on “Unity” and “Uncertainty” in the Dialogical Self’, International Journal for Dialogical Science, 3 (2008): 165-190, on p. 170.

[iii] Pierre Bourdieu, The Logic of Practice,  trans. Richard Nice (Cambridge: Polity Press, [1980] 1995.).

Sanctuary for All

by Inderjit Bhogal

I hold up three themes, images and challenges for reflection as we give attention to the plight of people who find themselves uprooted from their homes owing to war, persecution, poverty or climate degradation and calamities.


Figure 1: Mother and Child by Francesco Piobicchi, published on Francesco’s blog, disegnidallafrontiera, and used with permission.

The Image here is from Lampedusa. It is drawn by the Italian Artist Francesco Piobicchi who works there with an Ecumenical Church programme called Mediterranean Hope. It is a mother and child.

Lampedusa is a small Italian Island in the Mediterranean. It is the first piece of rock that many refugees land on.

In October 2013 nearly 400 refugees drowned here when their fragile vessel capsized and Francesco draws actual events, to provoke discussion.

The woman and child in this image drowned in the sea. The woman gave birth to her baby as she drowned. They were both lifted from the sea. The baby was still attached to her mother by the umbilical cord.

The Bible insists that we are all made In the Image of God and contains the command to “love your neighbour, as yourself”.

But no less than 37 times the Hebrew Scriptures challenge people “love the stranger”. There is no other ethical requirement repeated so often.

According to the Bible we encounter God, the Image of God in the face of the stranger.

Jesus said that his followers will see his face and serve him in those considered to “the least important”. How do we treat the most marginalized people?

The followers of Jesus have no option but to love the stranger by sharing good hospitality.



Figure 2: City of Sanctuary Logo

Consider making your City, Town, Village, Church, School, University, Business a Sanctuary, a place of welcome, hospitality and safety.

The idea of Sanctuary is thousands of years old and rooted in the Bible with the concept of Cities of Refuge as set out in the Book of Numbers 35:6-34 [also Joshua 20:1-9; Deuteronomy 4:41-43].

I have used this idea to develop the movement known as City of Sanctuary. It progresses the idea to providing safety and hospitality to vulnerable people, for example – Asylum Seekers, children whose lives are in danger, victims of domestic abuse and older people who suffer indignity.

The Image above is the logo of City of Sanctuary, and symbolizes the ancient Celtic Proverb:

“It is in the shelter of each other that the people live”.

A few weeks ago Derby Cathedral was made the first 21st Century Cathedral of Sanctuary.

I’d like to see every Church, Synagogue, Mosque, Mandir and Gurdwara offering sanctuary, a safe space to hurting, vulnerable people, especially refugees.

There are excellent initiatives being taken by churches and church groups building welcome, hospitality and sanctuary alongside refugees today and some examples can be found on the City of Sanctuary website

Make your place of worship a sanctuary where all are treated with warm welcome, generous hospitality and protection from harm.



Figure 3: Rublev’s Trinity

The best Christian symbol of what I am holding up is the Sacrament of Holy Communion, a revelation of the world as it is meant to be, a foretaste of the heavenly banquet, where all are welcome and valued equally, and where no one is excluded or made to feel like an outsider, a stranger.

Look at Rublev’s portrayal of the Holy Trinity which is well known.

We see here a community of humanity and hospitality.

No space for hatred and harm here.

A foretaste of the Heavenly Home and Banquet that God prepares for all people. God is the Host and all are welcome.

We are called to practice such hospitality on earth, modeling the hospitality of heaven. Holy Communion at its best reveals the new world we are called to build.

Building humanity and hospitality and challenging hatred by challenging inhumanity and inhospitality.

I conclude by commending the work of All We Can on refugees and the excellent resource they have produced on this theme.

It is called “To all the people we can” and provides worship materials, recipes and activities for Church groups. You can obtain it on

My own resource Sanctuary for All offers material local house groups and study groups can use. It is suitable for Lent or Advent, and includes suggestions for worship and prayer. You can obtain this on

Living as disciples in an angry world

by Dave Markay

Nearly fifty years after the “Summer of Love”, will the months we have just lived through be known as the “Summer of Anger”? Vicious terrorist attacks, attempted coups, military crack-downs, heightened referendum rhetoric, political party in-fighting, populist rage, a rise in hate crimes, growing movements of intolerance… It’s been one of the hottest summers on record, and there’s no sign of the temperature falling any time soon.

Writing after a week of particularly violent tragedies, the columnist Fidelma Cook turned the focus on ourselves, lamenting, “Life goes on but, oh, at what cost to our souls?” (The Herald, 23 July 2016). Or, as one person I know sighed with exasperation: “How much more of this can we take? I mean, I want to be a Christian and all, but I can feel myself getting swept up in all this anger, almost like I am getting radicalised.”

Reflecting theologically on anger – around us and within us — addresses not only the safety pins on our lapels, but the condition of our hearts behind them. It forces us as individuals and congregations to confront the question: “Who would God have us be in the midst of all this hatred?”

I have found some comfort in a 3rd century letter in which one Christian described his place in a violent world:

“…if I climbed some great mountain and looked out over the wide lands, you know very well what I would see – brigands on the high roads, pirates on the seas; in the amphitheatres men murdered to please applauding crowds; under all roofs misery and selfishness. It is really a bad world, Donatus, an incredibly bad world. Yet in the midst of it I have found a quiet and holy people. They have discovered a joy which is a thousand times better than any pleasures of this sinful life. They are despised and persecuted, but they care not. They have overcome the world. These people, Donatus, are the Christians – and I am one of them” (from Cyprian’s ‘Letter to Donatus’).

What was their secret, that little band of Jesus-followers? I suppose they were not entirely consistent, not always Christ-like, nor “quiet and holy” 100% of the time. But they must have been on to something — enough to be noticed as slightly peculiar and even appealing to those who observed them. Amidst the brigands and pirates of their day, they seem to have been paying attention to Someone else more intently.

Prayer has sometimes been defined as ‘paying attention to, stretching towards…listening carefully for God.’  When other voices scream out, our quietness is not a contemplative escape; more a counter-cultural way of listening. Amidst argumentative chatter and loud vitriol, it is not easy to hear the voice of the One who commands Peter to put his sword back in its sheath, or who looks down from the cross at the angry faces, and forgives them. With so many other voices clamouring for our attention, his is not an easy voice to catch or to follow. Cyprian’s Christians had to be quiet for a reason.

Baptising a little baby one sultry Sunday morning in July felt innocently incongruous after the headlines of the previous week. The parents of the child gave me a prayer they had been inspired to write for the occasion. So, somewhere between asking them “Will you turn away from evil and all that denies God?” and “Will you set before your child examples of faith that through your prayers, words, and deeds, she may learn the way of Christ?” I read their prayer. In it, they thanked God for their daughter and concluded with these words: “We pray for every child, born so full of hope, each one as precious as our own; help us to raise a generation of goodness to build a beautiful future for your wonderful world.”

After reading their prayer on that hot morning, the water in the font felt especially cool. In fact, the whole baptism felt different: less show, more purpose; less ritual, more resolve; less ceremony, more faithful defiance against all that is bad. If radicalisation means ‘getting back to the roots’, we were being reminded of our own.

We finished the liturgy: “Do you trust in Jesus Christ as Lord, and the Holy Spirit as Helper and Guide?”

Response: “With God’s help we will.”

Resignation: success as becoming nothing

by Julie Lunn

In a previous blog Martin Turner helpfully prompted us to ask ‘what’s wrong with success?’ describing the difficulty Methodists have at times with being successful.  A key emphasis at the heart of the theology of Charles Wesley indicates a fundamental spiritual disposition offering a radical concept of ‘success’.

For Charles Wesley, particularly evident in his poetic texts, but present in his prose writings too, is the centrality of the believer’s resignation to God.  Resignation for Charles is an anagogic word, it has spiritual intention, and denotes an essential spiritual attitude which enables the eventual fulfilment of God’s economy of salvation for each believer in the believer’s sanctification.

The spiritual intention Charles invested in this word was familiar in his time and culture.  The etymology of resignation indicates that from the thirteenth century in British sources it could mean ‘[t]he action or an act of relinquishing, surrendering, or giving up something;’ or ‘[t]he action or fact of resigning from one’s employment, from an office, as a member of an organization, etc.’, originally particularly used ‘with reference to the relinquishment of a benefice or office by a priest’.[1]  However, from the early fifteenth century à Kempis’ The Imitation of Christ, introduced a new meaning of resignation, ‘the action or fact of giving oneself up to God’.[2]  Resignation as relinquishing something is evident in Charles’ use of the word, but almost used exclusively within this framework of relinquishing to God.  It is for Charles a spiritual matter.

Resignation, as a spiritual discipline, is a positive attribute for Charles Wesley, not a negative one.  It involves an act of intention and desire; it is an offering given to God, of things and people, of the will and heart and even of life itself.  Clearly its meaning in Charles’ context is significantly different to the way it is used today.  Resignation for Charles Wesley does not imply a powerless, passive acquiescence or surrender; indeed, surrender is a word Charles rarely uses.  Resignation and to be resigned for Charles, is an active, deliberate act, choice and state.

Resignation is therefore something of a paradoxical concept for Charles.  It embraces an active passivity, and strength in abandonment, to God. This paradox finds a parallel in Mack’s work on agency and passivity in early Methodism.  Mack explores the two-fold characteristic of Wesleyan soteriology, ‘[i]n conversion, the sinner must be roused and actively willing to accept God, who then takes control of the individual and transforms him or her.’[3]  Whilst Mack does not analyse Charles Wesley’s role in great depth, she does refer to the complexity of agency and passivity as it appears in some Methodist hymns, Mack comments,

“… their impact was to instill in the worshipper a movement toward self-effacement and surrender to God’s power on the one hand, and a heroic energy, both in conquering the self and in serving God, on the other.  In certain hymns the fusion between surrender and agency is total, both style and substance conveying the essential paradox of Methodist soteriology.”[4]

The active resignation Charles promotes echoes the agency and passivity of the believer in Mack’s analysis.  But just as she sees this in relation to conversion, so the pattern is the same for sanctification.  For Charles active resignation is the predominant process through which the believer can prepare herself to receive God’s gift of sanctification.   The attitude of resignation at the heart of holiness means, ironically perhaps, that the anagogic progression upwards to a heavenly realm is an act of resigning, letting go, divesting; a downward movement of the will, desires, and the self.  Success is seen in nothingness, in becoming nothing, in the emptying of self, which mirrors the kenosis of the Incarnation. Spiritual ‘success’ is in becoming as nothing, so that Christ may be all in all.  Perhaps this inherent Wesleyan spirituality, attested to each year in our Covenant service, explains our struggle with ‘success’?

28 Now let me gain perfection’s height!
Now let me into nothing fall!
Be less than nothing in thy sight,
And feel that Christ is all in all.[5]


[1] OED online, s.v. ‘resignation,’ 163604#eid25632292, accessed May 17, 2015.

[2] ‘15th cent. in à Kempis De Imitatione.OED online, s.v. ‘resignation,’ /Entry/#eid25632292, accessed May 17, 2015.

[3] Phyllis Mack, Heart Religion in the British Enlightenment: Gender and Emotion in Early Methodism (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 49.

[4] Mack, Heart Religion, 48.

[5] Charles Wesley, ‘The Promise of Sanctification’ in John Wesley’s Christian Perfection, a Sermon (London: Strahan, 1741), 44-48, st.28.

Oceans of justice

by Richard Clutterbuck

Early posts to this blog pointed out that language which initially seems to point inward to the life of the Church (social holiness, the priesthood of all believers) also says something important about the outward mission of the Christian community. Following this, I’m thinking about the way in which our experience of the created world helps shape our language about, and understanding of, God, and how, in turn, that understanding can shape our response to the needs of creation.

In his presidential address, Roger Walton reminded us that holiness starts with and comes from God; it is God’s holiness rather than ours that should shape our understanding. Vice-president Rachel Lampard used the phrase ‘oceans of justice’ and  It’s that word, ‘ocean’ – as a metaphor for the Christian God – that I focus on here. The metaphors we use to talk about God matter and are significant pointers to the way we engage with the world from which they come.

On a recent visit to the churches in Oceania, my friend Bishop Winston Halapua asked me why I thought John Wesley had a written a hymn beginning with the line, ‘O God, thou bottomless abyss’. Halapua has written about moana[i] – a Polynesian word for the ocean – as a way of understanding how God, the world and humanity are connected. He points out that for islanders the ocean isn’t so much the barrier that separates us as the thing that connects us to each other.

Wesley’s hymn, ‘O God, thou bottomless abyss’, appeared as 42 in the Methodist Hymn Book and in an altered form (‘O God, thy being who can sound?’) as 54 in Hymns and Psalms.  It is absent altogether from Singing the Faith. The hymn – a by-product of Wesley’s unsuccessful missionary service in America – is a translation from the German O Gott, du Tiefe sonder Grund  by Ernst Lange, and was first published in Charlestown, Georgia, in 1737 as part of Wesley’s Collection of Psalms and Hymns.   It was introduced to Wesley by the Moravians he encountered on his rough crossing of the Atlantic – the pietist Christians who  sang and prayed with confidence while the rest of the ship’s company was in panic –  so he may have picked up a (for him) new way of understanding God through the experience of a safely-completed ocean voyage. Here’s how it begins in the MHB:

O God, thou bottomless abyss,

Thee to perfection who can know?

O height immense, what words suffice

Thy countless attributes to show?


Unfathomable depths thou art

I plunge me in thy mercy’s sea

Void of true wisdom is my heart

With love embrace and cover me[ii]

The hymn goes on to use the metaphor of the ocean to explore the immensity, power and unknowability of God, as well as God’s benevolent provision and all-encompassing love. It’s an interesting contrast to the way the sea is depicted in the Bible. The people of Israel were landlubbers, the sea was a threatening, chaotic force always in danger of overwhelming the order of creation. Noah’s flood, Jonah in the fish’s belly and so on. But we can view the ocean in a more positive light. Sometimes the ‘big picture’ message of the Bible needs different language.

Two brief conclusions: First, our language about God needs to reflect the transcendent immensity of one who is ‘wholly other’. The recent first volume of Katherine Sonderegger’s Systematic Theology[iii] is a helpful corrective to  the fashionable, but often naïve, social trinitarianism of much contemporary theology. Sonderegger reminds us that the God of the Judeo-Christian tradition is first and foremost one, and she goes on to explore the traditional perfections of this one God who is omnipotent, omnipresent and omniscient. It is not merely because of our human limitations that we cannot fully plumb God’s depths; it is the very nature of God to be beyond understanding. ‘Deep ocean’ or ‘bottomless abyss’ – turns out to be an apt metaphor for the Christian God.

But the places where we find our metaphors need our attention, too. If the ocean points to the nature of God, then our understanding of God should point to the way we treat the ocean. It is in the oceans that the effects of climate change are most felt, with devastating consequences for fish stocks, the health of coral reefs, the sea levels around coastal communities and patterns of extreme weather. This calls for an urgent and radical Christian response. Solomon Island theologian Cliff Bird[iv] talks about ‘oceanising John Wesley’ and draws out  ecological principles from Wesley’s approach to creation.

In conclusion, if the oceans, as a facet of God’s good creation, point us to the unfathomable depths of God’s being, so dwelling on God’s depths should lead us to treat those same oceans with justice, love and respect.


[i] Winston Halapua, Waves of God’s Embrace: Sacred Perspectives from the Oceans, Canterbury Press, 2008.

[ii] There is a brief account of the different versions of this hymn in Companion to Hymns and Psalms, edited by Richard Watson and Kenneth Trickett, Methodist Publishing, 1988, p. 65

[iii] Katherine Sonderegger, Systematic Theology. Volume 1, The Doctrine of God, Fortress Press, 2015.

[iv] Cliff Bird, ‘”Oceanising” John Wesley? Towards an Ecological-Ethical Reading of John Wesley for Contemporary Oceanic Methodists’. Unpublished conference paper.