Reclaiming Ritual

by Graham Edwards.

On Thursday night I went into the street outside the house and applauded the NHS, most of my neighbours were out there too.  We have done this for several weeks, I expect we will do it for some time to come, and week by week it has become a bigger event in the neighbourhood.  At first it we clapped, now there are pans being banged with wooden spoons and tambourines being played.  Neighbours have shouted conversations across the road, nod to each other over fences and hedges, and wave to those further down the street!  It is right that we applaud the NHS in these strange days, but I wonder if it is becoming or has become something more, I wonder if it has become a ritual.

A ritual can be defined as a repetitive pattern of symbolic behaviour (Rambo, 1983, p. 509), which Knott (2005, p. 101) argues become a “central creative process by which people make a meaningful world they can inhabit”.  That is, rituals do something, they are not simply a language to be interpreted  they are, as Davies (2002, p. 113) notes, and end in themselves.  Rituals are a way of communicating or, as Edmund Leach (1976, p. 45) states, sending “collective messages to ourselves”, these messages might concern our values, priorities and our self-understanding.  Indeed, one television advert currently running has the narrator describing “clapping for carers with neighbours after a really wobbly day” as “the unity you needed to remember”.  Rituals communicate to individuals, those sharing in them, and beyond us to society as a whole.  In the 1960s, Victor Turner describing rituals among the Ndembu of Zambia, realised that rituals were often concerned with times of crisis or transitional moments in the life of the village.  Society, he argues (1969, p. 103), is a process in which change is expected and inevitable.  Ritual, therefore, offers the opportunity to participate in the moments of change and transition, by granting a ‘voice’ within the changing world.

The ritual and symbolic language we ‘speak’ has an important place in our world, and of course it has an important place in the life of the church.  In recent weeks, however, the rituals we have been accustomed to have been unavailable to us – physically attending church services, shaking hands, sharing the peace, celebrating Holy Communion and so on.  The great surprise in many places has been that, as new kinds of ritual have emerged, we have maintained a new form of connectedness.  We have taken part in worship using Zoom (other video conferencing software is available!), shared recorded sermons and prayers, and have sent worship materials in the post.  We have connected to people who have not been part of our churches before and realised that the connectedness we value is not simply a physical ‘thing’.  Though, in truth, this is not a new revelation, perhaps the experience of lockdown has forced us to remember.  When Victor Turner describes his understanding of ritual he argues that they operate in transitional or liminal places where the shared experience allows ‘relationships of immediate, direct, heart to heart experiences’ (Davies, 2002, p. 125) to form.  I suggest that church communities exist in a kind of liminal transitory space, as the shared experience of faith shapes, and is shaped by, our life in the world.  This shared life forms relationship that might be called Communitas, but I prefer the description Avery Dulles provides, mystical communion.  Dulles claims the church is “not an institution but a brotherhood [sic]” (2002, p. 40).  Drawing on work of the sociologist Ferdinand Tӧnnies and Arnold Rademacher, Dulles maintains that

the church is in its inner core community (Gemeinschaft): in its outer core, however, it is society (Gesellschaft).  The society is the outward manifestation of the community; and the society exists in order to promote the realisation of the community.  The community is the ‘real’ as contrasted with the phenomenal, church (2002, p. 41).

While we can explore the society of the church, the community is where the bonds of mystical communion exist, these are beyond physical and continue to connect us.  Lockdown and its effects have forced us to remember this connection, and express it in new ritual, and ‘speak’ it into the world.

As we continue to experience the life of the church in these uncertain times, I wonder what rituals we will need to allow us to participate in the changes to our society and speak hope and love with the voice of faith.

Davies, D. (2002). Anthropology and Theology. Oxford: Berg.

Dulles, A. (2002). Models of the Church. New York: Doubleday.

Knott, K. (2005). The Location of Religion. Durham: Acumen.

Leach, E. (1976). Culture and Communication. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Rambo, L. R. (1983). A New Dictionary of Christian Theology A. Richardson & J. Bowden (Eds.),

Turner, V. (1969). The Ritual Process (Vol. Ithaca NY): Cornell University Press.

Coronavirus and Climate

by Julie Lunn.

Coronavirus leaves me feeling conflicted.

On the one hand I am deeply sad about the number of those who have died and continue to die from the virus and those who have contracted it.  I feel for the families who have lost loved ones, and whose loss and grief is compounded by not being able to say goodbye in person, or to attend funerals. I feel for those who are our front-line NHS workers; who risk their lives daily through their deep faithfulness to their work, and commitment to bring healing, to preserve life, and to help others whatever the cost.  I am so thankful for them and I wish they did not have to go through it.

I also feel frustrated that in the UK we did not act more quickly to deal with this virus.  I watch the daily update on the BBC news app – tracking the very gradual decline of infections and deaths, and, although I know it’s going to be slow, I long for the numbers to plummet, for the decline to be rapid, for the virus to be gone.

And on the other hand I am conflicted because I love the streets being quieter, I love the air being cleaner, I love the more frequent visit of birds – and an increasing variety of species – to our garden (probably because we now have time to feed them each day).  I like the quietness, I like being at home, and not driving to work each day, navigating traffic queues, breathing petrol fumes.  And I am very glad about the decrease in global carbon emissions – that’s a chink of light in the dark place of this pandemic.

So what are we to do with all that?  As Christians where is God’s call to us?  God’s movement is always towards redemption.  It seems to me that we are called to work in tandem with God to redeem the loss, grief, suffering, danger, death, and pain, and to make those chinks of light a permanent outcome for the whole of God’s creation.

The Carbon Brief website states:

Pre-crisis estimates of GDP growth suggested CO2 output might rise by around 1%  … in 2020. But even if this previously expected growth is deducted from the estimated coronavirus impact, the … effect is so large that it would still result in the largest annual fall in CO2 emissions ever recorded, in records going back to the 18th century.[i]

A recent Guardian editorial put it like this:

It’s too soon to say with any confidence what impact coronavirus will have on the climate emergency. The brakes placed on economic activities of many kinds, worldwide, have led to carbon emission cuts that would previously have been unthinkable: 18% in China between February and March; between 40% and 60% over recent weeks in Europe. Habits and behaviours once regarded as sacrosanct have been turned on their heads: road traffic in the UK has fallen by 70%. Global air traffic has halved.[ii]

That’s a chink of light.  I am convinced that God’s redemption is for the whole world and not just human beings.  ‘God so loved the world that he sent his only Son…’ (John 3:16).  Is this drastic reduction in carbon emissions a tiny rebalancing of the relationship of humanity with the environment? A hint of Jubilee?

But it isn’t all sweetness and light.  It comes with a warning.  The trend has to continue.  Unless carbon emissions continue to decrease, any gain will be lost.  Each year we need a similar drop in emissions until, says Glen Peters from Cicero, ‘net-zero emissions are reached around 2050’.[iii]

There are a number of theological themes which emerge from this danger and possibility.  There are chimes here with the prophetic warnings of the Old Testament.  Jeremiah (9:10-14) connects the destruction of the land with the faithlessness of God’s people.  ‘Why is the land ruined and laid waste like a wilderness, so that no one passes through? And the Lord says” “Because they have forsaken my law that I set before them, and have not obeyed my voice, or walked in accordance with it…”’.  Northcott comments on such prophetic warnings, ‘The devastation of the land is not only seen as the judgement of a vengeful God.  It is also interpreted as the consequence of the human rebellion against the created order and wisdom of nature.’[iv]  There is a disconnect between humanity and the rest of the created world, which should not be, which is not God’s intention.

Theological themes emerge from the New Testament too.  The Guardian editorial cited earlier continues, asking, ‘Could the renewed shock of human vulnerability in the face of Covid-19 make way for an increased willingness to face other perils, climate chaos among them?[v]  As Christians we know about vulnerability.  It is at the heart of our understanding of the Incarnation and Atonement.  We’re not afraid of it, but respectfully embrace it, because God has been there.

So how do we catch up with those who are going before us, and help lead the way in facing the perils of climate chaos?  This is arguably the biggest challenge and witness the church faces in this generation.  How do we pray, work, act for governments, institutions and individuals to decrease carbon emissions, turn to green energy, reduce consumption and change our lifestyles?  What will we do?  What will you do?  What can your church do to decrease carbon emissions?  Can we use our video-conferencing that we have become suddenly familiar with, more?  Can we use less car travel? Less air travel?  Produce less waste?  Do more working from home?

I’m going to make my own oat milk (Google it) and get on my bike.

[i] https://www.carbonbrief.org/analysis-coronavirus-set-to-cause-largest-ever-annual-fall-in-co2-emissions.

[ii] https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/apr/12/the-guardian-view-on-the-climate-and-coronavirus-global-warnings.

[iii] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-52485712.

[iv] Michael S. Northcott, The Environment and Christian Ethics. (Cambridge: CUP, 1996), 171.

[v] https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/apr/12/the-guardian-view-on-the-climate-and-coronavirus-global-warnings.

Which world?

by Richard Clutterbuck.

I’m writing this in the week I would usually have spent at the annual conference of the Society for the Study of Theology, three days of mind-stretching presentations, renewed friendships and convivial conversation. But not, of course, this year. SST 2020 is one of the countless casualties of the Covid-19 crisis and ‘Theology and Borders’ will have to wait until 2021. I can’t claim that a cancelled theological conference compares with the many personal tragedies and financial hardships that surround us. Nevertheless, I’ll miss something that has been an annual stimulus to my thinking for over thirty years. Instead, I’ve been trying to get through some of the books I bought at previous conferences and somehow never got round to reading. Perhaps theology will, after all, have something to contribute to life after lockdown and its new normality.

One book that seems especially relevant to our present situation is Kathryn Tanner’s Christianity and the New Spirit of Capitalism. Based on her Gifford lectures of 2017, this is a short but densely-written work that deconstructs the current phase of finance-driven capitalism and offers a Christian alternative to its destructive and dehumanising processes. She begins with a reference to Max Weber, who famously coined the phrase ‘Protestant work ethic’ and linked the ideals of Protestant Christianity with the spirit of early capitalism. Weber’s argument may have had something in it, but contemporary capitalism, says Tanner, is very different; rather than producing goods or supplying tangible services, it is primarily concerned with extracting profit from financial markets. It is entirely dominated by decisions made in buying and selling stock, basing its value on the confidence of the market rather than on any intrinsic worth. What is needed now is a Protestant anti-work ethic to counter capitalism’s dire consequences.

In a series of chapters Tanner introduces the effects of this ‘new spirit of capitalism’ on the humanity of those who work for it and who live within its financial sphere of influence. Her charges are well-researched and damning. Contemporary capitalism expects the total commitment of those who work within its institutions. They are asked to shape their own ambitions and desires to those of the company, whatever the cost. Finance-based capitalism also distorts our relationship with time. It collapses both past and future into the present. The past is something we cannot escape. Companies and households burdened with debt can never be free of the obligations imposed by a system in which debts are repackaged to become a new financial product. As a result, we are chained to the past. Similarly, the future has no open reality. It, too, only exists as an aspect of the present. Risks are managed by the market to ensure that, whatever its future peaks and troughs, those who have assets now will continue to prosper. The result is a world that combines a herd mentality (in which everyone follows the market trends) with a radical individualisation in which human beings are pitched against each other as they compete for jobs, promotion and bonuses.

It isn’t difficult to see how inadequate this financial capitalism has proved in the Covid-19 crisis. Only the intervention of central banks stemmed the meltdown of financial markets and only the social contract between people and governments can mitigate the crisis in health and the threat to livelihoods.

Which brings me to the other side of Tanner’s book. Besides critiquing finance-driven capitalism, she sets out the way in which Christian faith can point to an alternative world and to an altogether better account of human flourishing. She takes some of the building blocks of traditional Christian theology: sin, conversion, forgiveness, resurrection, salvation, and fashions them into a hopeful and challenging vision. Christian faith frees us from a past of debt and sin and offers a future shaped by God’s promise of salvation. In place of capitalism’s insistence that nothing truly changes, Christianity can face the radical discontinuities of human history with a faith that embraces both death and resurrection. And in place of capitalism’s claim to shape our identity and make us compete with each other, Christianity gives us a shared identity in Christ. Because of God’s grace, we are not justified by our work, nor damned by our lack of it. As Tanner says,

“Christian beliefs about a shared origin and fate entail, in sum, a refusal of the privatizing of risk and reward at the heart of finance-dominated capitalism. One fails, morally and otherwise, in the company of others. And one gains salvation by God’s grace alone.” (p. 205)

Or, as we are constantly being told: ‘we’re all in this together’.

Of course, there is a wide gap between a somewhat abstract theological treatise and the practical outcomes that everyone is looking for in this time of crisis. Nevertheless, Tanner gives a fine example of what Christian theology should be about. She has made a serious and disciplined study of the economic world that she critiques. She has, without embarrassment, taken the traditional framework of Christian faith, and demonstrated its relevance for the situation in which we live. And she has made the grace of God in Christ the lynchpin of human flourishing. A post-Covid 19 new normal will require us to follow her example.

Theology Unmuted

by Clive Marsh.

We are using a whole new language. (‘Are you on mute?’, ‘Send me a link’, ‘Are you the host?’) Digital natives (those who’ve lived with computers since birth) are simply saying ‘welcome to our world!’ (the new real world?). Those not au fait, or even wanting to be au fait, with such technology are saying ‘but I’m now not part of the “we”’ you’ve just referred to. So when this is all over, I won’t be within what you’re calling “the new normal”.’ And I won’t even mention the question of ‘Zoom Communion’. I’ll just say it’s at times like this I’m glad I’m not a presbyter. No one can buttonhole me (even virtually) and ask why on earth we can’t ‘do Communion’ across the WWW and expect me to be able to do anything about it.

‘Zoom Communion’ is, though, just the tip of a very large iceberg of issues raised by the digital world for the ways in which the church conducts itself, undertakes its mission, and in which theology takes shape. I can quite see why those who actively explore ‘digital theology’ become exasperated with a church which seems to go at a snail’s pace when, from their perspective, ‘things have to change (and quickly)’. I can also sense (and sometimes share) the alarm of what might happen if too many changes happened too rapidly, and too substantially.

There can be little doubt that when our lockdown ends, or as its strictures are gradually relaxed, when social distancing is eased, and when we take stock of what has been happening in recent weeks, digital theology will have more allies, or sympathizers: ‘you know, that Zoom thing really is good. It’s got me thinking about the different ways our theology of conferring could happen.’ ‘Pastoral care could be thought of differently, you know, than we’ve been doing it for years.’ ‘More people might be willing to join in with meetings, so we could have a more diverse group.’ ‘Class meetings could make a comeback.’

That’s only the positive stuff, of course. There are counter-arguments too. Lots of people I know are ‘Zoomed out’ already through all meetings and one-to-ones going online. Plenty are missing seeing others (really seeing), not to mention the extroverts who need their hugs. I’ve been wondering myself whether I’ll get things wrong ‘after lockdown’ – or at least behave awkwardly – by hugging people I’ve never hugged in my life before (and can’t honestly remember whether I have) simply because I’ll be so pleased to see them. It will take a while to adjust after the initial re-assessment of social relations (actual and virtual). But we will, I hope, start to ask harder questions, and in fresh ways, such as: when do we need to meet in person? What is best done online, not just for money-saving reasons, but also for the sake of resisting climate change, and to save time? And these practical questions are caught up within a bigger range of issues of direct theological import, not least about creation, Sabbath, and what ‘church’ is anyway.

Behind those hidden, theological framework kinds of questions other, even more basic, stuff is buzzing around too. What is ‘really real’ anyway? The terms ‘virtual’ and ‘real’ have become fuzzy, but have helpfully pressed us to say what is ‘real’. ‘Fake’ has also intervened as an overused, but still important, term. ‘Virtual’ is not the same as ‘fake’. But the realm of the ‘fictional’, the ‘made-up’ is tangled up in there too. This has always been the case in the worlds of faith, belief and theology. We do make things up (even some of our God stories) but that’s only because it’s sometimes hard to get at what’s true and real (really real), as what’s real and true has never simply been about ‘what happens’ or what we can prove (scientifically).

I recall that one of the first pieces I ever wrote which had to do with the Internet (20 years ago? I can’t even remember) was prompted by claims that it would give us a whole new understanding of the Holy Spirit. I’ve seen some of the thoughts I put on paper back then re-emerging in articles and blogposts which have appeared in recent weeks. The Holy Spirit is really real, even whilst not visible, and yet seems very active as people connect ‘virtually’.

A new insight brought to my attention in the lockdown is how inclusive some new more informal forms of church are proving for those on the autism spectrum. People can be involved (e.g. doing a craft or art activity at home amongst family members) in a ‘bigger congregation’ without necessarily having to look at the camera, and without the stress (for them or for other family-members) of ‘going to church’.

All I hope, in the post-lockdown phase of the church’s life, is that we don’t get polarized, and that we do really reflect carefully and appropriately critically on the experiences that we’ve been having. For some, it will be about ‘getting back to normal’ (for which read ‘proper worship’). But what if the online worship has sometimes felt more ‘real’ than some of our past Sunday activity? What if we find that online life has added a new depth to what we go back to experiencing on Sunday (or Monday, or Wednesday, or whenever our face-to-face worship happens)? There will, in other words, need to be fresh considerations about what is real, and what helps us connect with the Really Real (I’m sure someone must have used that term for God before) in all our post-lockdown theological debate – whether or not the word ‘theology’ itself is used.

A Theology of Consciousness

by John Lampard.

I have never been any good at philosophy, but am aware that different philosophies undergird theological ‘constructions’. In the past, for example, theologies have been built on the philosophies of Aristotle or Plato. In the last century theologians have used the work of different philosophers as a basis for their theology. For example Moltmann used the philosophy of Bloch and Bultmann and others the philosophy of Heidegger.

The problem of making theology relevant to people’s perception of the world we live in is that there is no ‘base’ or commonly accepted ‘experience’ on which a widely accepted philosophy (or theology) can be grounded. Science, and the scientific method, have been wonderfully successful in creating the modern world, and the way in which we perceive it. The methodology of rational based science has made it very difficult for theology based on a philosophy other than a scientific one to find credibility in today’s world. Is there perhaps an answer? Is there a possibility of a theological approach which is guided or underpinned by a rational, science-based philosophy?

What led me to begin to explore this position has been my abiding interest in the science of cosmology (and I only have an ‘O’ level in science). I am fascinated to discover how our understanding of the nature of the vast expanding and deeply mysterious universe can somehow be incorporated in theology, as it was before Galileo. Can the queen of science (theology) regain her throne?

My interest was aroused when I heard a radio programme, and then read, Philip Goff’s Galileo’s Error: Foundations for a New Science of Conscience, Rider, 2019, £14.99. Goff has no religious belief, but time and again he is crying out for a way of filling the void. He ends his book with the words, ‘I cannot help being excited by the possibility that… the yearnings of faith and the rationality of science might finally come into harmony.’ (p.216). That is very much where I stand.

I have purposely missed out a vital part of Goff’s quote because it is initially so off-putting and needs explanation. It refers to a worldview of ‘panpsychism.’ I have to admit that the objection to this word by my spell-checker and my own suspicion of anything associated with ‘psychics’ and ‘pan’ in theology is immediately off-putting. But I hope you will persist with my reflection.

‘Panpsychism’ is the study of consciousness, and has been around for centuries. It is based on the scientific observation of the extraordinary ability of so much of the created order to be aware of its environment, and often of itself. This ranges from human beings to animals, plants, and to a coronavirus, and Goff argues further down the chain to inanimate objects, right down to sub-atomic particles. He refuses to limit consciousness to ‘ert’ or living matter and he includes the ‘inert’. He offers as evidence the totally mysterious ‘quantum entanglement’ of two electrons which light-years apart can still ‘influence’ or have a ‘consciousness’ of each other. Particle physicists scratch their heads over this apparent measure of ‘consciousness.’

Galileo’s ‘error’ was that his philosophy created physical science (which has been wonderfully successful) by setting sensory qualities outside its domain of enquiry. Science deals with quantities, not qualities. Goff quotes Alfred Russell Wallace who wrote in 1870, ‘There is no escape from this dilemma – either all matter is conscious, or consciousness is something distinct from matter.’ Goff’s answer is that all matter is conscious, and some measure of consciousness is part of the nature of all that is. Those who propose panpsychism argue that consciousness is part of matter’s intrinsic nature; it is not an added extra.

If all matter has its own level of consciousness, it means that the way in which we view the universe, and its very creation, has to alter. Goff argues that science has been amazingly successful in analysing how matter works, but cannot explore the intrinsic nature of matter. If consciousness resides in the very heart of reality, which some scientists are beginning grudgingly to accept, it opens up a creative field for theologians to develop a new philosophical basis for theology.

I was interested that Goff says it will take many years for philosophy to flesh out a recognisable system incorporating panpsychism (and hopefully a better term for it). Perhaps those who are working in the field of theology could work with them and offer us a new vision of the work and purpose of God based on a philosophy of consciousness.

Where is the church? Where is Christ?

by Sally Coleman.

So, we have made it past the celebration of Easter Sunday and are making our cautious journey into this vastly different Easter Season. We did not gather as we normally would, did not break bread together, share breakfasts, or family celebrations in a gathered way. Instead from behind locked doors our cries of Alleluia may have been heard. I know one or two took to the streets to do so, but whatever we did this Easter Sunday just past was completely different to what we may have been preparing for.

Some say that our experience was perhaps more authentic to that first Easter morning, reflecting that the first disciples were gathered behind locked doors for fear of the authorities who had crucified the one they called Lord and who called them friends. Those who did venture out came away scratching their heads in disbelief, and doubt and questions were voiced. ‘Alleluia! Christ has risen!’ was not proclaimed on that first Easter Day.

Even Mary, who encountered the risen Christ was confused at first; she did not recognise him until he spoke her name, and when she went to hold onto him was told not to. He needed to ascend, to complete his work of transformation. Instead she was told to go and tell the disciples that Jesus would go ahead of them.

I wonder then what that means for us today, we have a sign on our building at Wesley Hall, Sheffield that says the building is closed, but the church is still alive and well – at home, worshiping, caring and praying. We are scattered yet connected, and in some ways have become more outward looking. We have been sent from the buildings to different corners of our communities. I wonder if we are beginning to encounter the Christ who has gone ahead of us into our homes and neighbourhoods?

One thing that we have done is to invite community members to join us in lighting a candle at 7pm every evening and placing it in an outward facing window. Interestingly this practice is growing as people share with their families and neighbours what they are doing and why. The church is lit up with prayer every evening, if only through the simple act of lighting a flame.

We have also been forced to slow down. Queues at Supermarkets offer unexpected opportunities for conversations, and people seem more ready to talk (from a safe distance). Has Christ gone ahead of us here? My suspicion is yes, and while I acknowledge that being able to go out wearing a collar has always opened a number of opportunities for people to converse with me, if you’d asked me earlier this year if I thought I would find myself praying, not once but a number of times with people in queues and car parks, I would probably have laughed.

What it has shown me is that people are asking questions of eternity and do want spiritual assurance of hope. These people may never have entered our churches on Easter Sunday, and our practices may have seemed strange to them, but here and now in the simple art of conversation, and in the lighting of a candle in prayer, the church is alive and well. Perhaps we need to hear Jesus’ words: do not cling to what was, for I have gone ahead of you.

“Alleluia! Christ is risen! “He is risen indeed! Alleluia!”

by Jennifer Hurd.

The season of Lent is over and Easter is here. Once again we celebrate God’s truth that death and destruction will never ultimately triumph, and life and love reign supreme. In spite of everything that seeks to give an impression to the contrary, the resurrection is a resounding divine ‘No!’ to all that threatens to destroy us, and God’s universe-echoing ‘Yes!’ to everything that brings joy, peace and wholeness. It means hope and faith in place of despair and doubt.

On Ash Wednesday I began a long-anticipated Sabbatical period, planned to continue until Pentecost Sunday. As the COVID-19 outbreak escalated, I seriously considered curtailing it, and prayed and sought wise counsel. In the end, confident in my colleagues, I decided to continue, and changed my programme accordingly. My objective in planning the Sabbatical for this time was as an opportunity to enter deeply and intentionally into the Lenten and Easter journey in a way the general course of ministry doesn’t usually allow. Originally, I had a demanding bootcamp of a Lent in mind, with plenty of self-denial, self-discipline and spiritual and physical rigour. I intended deliberately to take myself off into the wilderness, metaphorically or perhaps even literally. Then I listened to the 3rd April 2019 Lenten session on pray-as-you-go.org, the Jesuit daily devotional website. I was already aware of the etymological roots of the word ‘Lent’ being in the Old English for ‘to lengthen’, reflecting how the days grow longer with the onset of spring during the season. However, some words from that online session expanded this idea and struck me deeply:

‘Perhaps we’d do well to think of Lent as the greening time of the year – in the Northern Hemisphere at least – something new beginning in the natural world, life reappearing and blessing us again with springtime and hope.’

Lent not as a season of negativity but of positivity? Lent not as a season of denial but of ‘greening’ – of creativity, renewal, new life, hope and flourishing? Lent not as a spiritual bootcamp but as a spiritual springtime? This seemed to call for further consideration for a Sabbatical Lenten journey, leading into a celebration of new life at Easter.

The ‘go-to’ theologian for the concept of ‘greening’ or ‘greenness’ is Hildegard of Bingen, the twelfth century German abbess, mystic, musician, poet, teacher and healer. ‘Viriditas’, her Latin word for the idea, is subtle, nuanced and difficult to translate (just for a change!), but it includes inferences of vitality, fecundity, lushness and growth, reflecting the divine nature. Its opposite is ‘ariditas’, with its inferences of drought, aridity and dryness. The latter might touch on a self-denying understanding of Lent as wilderness or desert, but I was beginning to sense the possible tension between Sabbatical and Sabbath – intended as a ‘greening’ time, if ever there was one! – and my original thinking about Lent. Which way to go? Self-denial or flourishing? Giving up or taking up? And was there actually a tension between the two? During the weeks leading up to Ash Wednesday, as time allowed, I pondered how to approach my Lenten Sabbatical.

In the end, I went with Lent as ‘the greening time of the year’. I decided to try to use the season to cultivate some much-needed ‘viriditas’ in my relationship with God and with others, as well as with myself. I didn’t give anything up, as I usually do. Instead, I spent more time appreciating less – less chocolate, wine, cheese. I consciously and deliberately expanded my devotions and reading and intentional time with God. I offered voluntary help in our local . I didn’t just fill up the garden bird feeders and rush away – I watched the birds emptying them as well. I noticed the new shoots in the terracotta pot that holds the indestructible lily on the patio; early on, I went to the theatre, cinema, art galleries, and reflected on what I saw. I slept; I walked; I continued knitting the cardigan intended for summer 2014. I baked for the first time in years and I tried my hand at calligraphy. Was I wrong, especially in the context of COVID-19? Should I have gone with my original idea of Lent as a bootcamp? It’s too late now – obviously, I didn’t. Easter has dawned; the promise of Pentecost awaits and in the meantime, we celebrate the potential of newness of life, its ‘greening’.

Being Grounded

by Barbara Glasson.

It is very irksome to have been grounded. I am deeply indignant; I do not feel that I have done anything so outrageous as to warrant being put on the naughty step for an indeterminate length of time. I reflect, that ‘being grounded’ was not a strategy that my parents had in their punitive kitbag. The biggest sanction I recall them having was ‘being ashamed’ as in ‘you really should be ashamed of yourself for crayoning on the piano’. But, as a punishment, ‘being grounded’ has become more prevalent, it seems to involve all kinds of levels of solitary confinement and restrictions to movement depending on the level of the offense. To be isolated from others and from our freedom to move about is indeed a miserable thing.

This phrase ‘being grounded’ has taken this recent trajectory of punishment by confinement but it also has a quite different and parallel connotation. ‘Being grounded’ is a phrase used by therapists to help people through panic attacks. It is used by clergy to centre us in prayer. It is used by mental health services to keep patients in touch with reality. It is not about punishment at all but about a feet on the turf existential reality check. Literally, putting us back in touch with the ground. If I think about this use of the phrase then I think of physical reality, of my feet on the solid surface of the earth, I can feel it through the soles of my feet, this firm and steady place, this present moment.

Currently, in the face of Covid-19 we live these two meanings at the same time,  We are both confined in our movements but also back in touch with the place on which we stand; we can do no other!

For the theologian Paul Tillich there was a tension between God as ‘presence’ and God as ‘ground’. And maybe this tension is useful to revisit right now. The thing about ‘ground’ is that is a place of assurance, it is a place to stand still, to be ‘rooted and grounded’. It is an anchor point, something that underlies everything else, it is firm. Which is curious because to ‘be ground’ is to be mashed into a lot of little bits, such are the mysteries of the English language! I digress.

To think of God as ‘ground’ as opposed to ‘presence’ is to move God away from analogies with human foibles and uncertainties. God becomes part of existence, the reliable substrate of life. God underpins everything and centres us differently in relation to the earth. And, whilst I personally don’t want to relinquish the sense of God as ‘presence’ I am also reassured and fortified by a sense of God being the ‘ground’.

I have recently discovered a book by Edmund Newell, The Sacramental Sea in which he explores the relationship between humanity and ‘The Deep’.[i] He draws initially on the book of Genesis, in which he reminds us that when God made the world the Deep was already there as dark, primal chaos. In Genesis 1:9 we read, ‘Then God said, let the water under the sky come together in one area, and let dry ground appear’. So the dry ground is the antithesis of the chaos, the ground is the place on which God will position the whole of creation, it is declared good,

So, to be ‘grounded’ is not simply a good psychological tool or centring device in a metaphorical sense, it is to be centred firmly on the holiness of God’s loving purposes for the world. When we are grounded in the presence of the Divine (however we want to describe this) God’s presence is not arbitrary, it is the core of who we are, it is our very being.

‘Being rooted and grounded in love’ as the writer of the letter to the Ephesians reminds us, (Ephesians 4: 17) is to be given the gift of comprehending the width and depth of God’s love for us. To be grounded, is to be held in the sure and certain foundations of God’s grace.

This is not to dismiss the punitive nature of being grounded, because surely the reason for our present predicament is within our shared humanity’s neglect of the natural balance and order of the Earth. But it is to say, that if we can find our relationship with the Creator to be the place where we stand, then maybe a new perspective and a new sense of grace might come as gift?

[i] Edmund Newell, The Sacramental Sea: A Spiritual Voyage through Christian History, (2019, London: DLT)

 

Going Viral

by Catrin Harland-Davies.

As I write this, the country is closing down. Those who may be vulnerable to infection have been advised to stay at home, pubs and restaurants have been told to close, and we cannot gather for worship.

The response of many churches, circuits and districts has been to find ways of connecting us remotely, to care for one another and to worship together. But many of us are feeling a strong sense of dislocation and despair. And, for some of us, our natural reaction in such times is to turn to our Bibles for encouragement.

The Bible is certainly not silent on such experiences. But I’d like to home in on two fairly significant themes that have been resonating with me over the last week or so. The first is exodus and the second is exile.

Exodus

A band of slaves, pursued and afraid, lands on the far side of the Red Sea to see their enemies swept away and freedom suddenly theirs. The story of Moses and the people of Israel in the wilderness begins with exhilaration, jubilation, adrenaline pumping and a new adventure dawning. I doubt there are many who feel like that about the Covid-19 crisis, but there do seem to be many who are rising to the challenge with maybe just a slight sense of challenge and adventure. But in the 40 years that would follow, the Israelites began to wonder whether what they had lost was so bad after all.

Yet what lay ahead was the promise of something amazing! I find myself looking back longingly at a time when we only had Brexit, austerity, rising crime and floods to deal with! And perhaps we hope for a future which may, despite all the pain, feel better and more hopeful. Will this force us to rethink our investment in the NHS, our treatment of those in poverty, or the blind eye we turn to parts of the world with far greater mortality than the virus will bring? Will our worship be renewed and reenergised? And will we have discovered a new and deeper community spirit, through being denied each other’s companionship for so long?

The reality is probably that the promised land will not be flowing with all the milk and honey that we optimistically hope for, but maybe, as we land on the far side of the Jordan, we might find reason to rejoice – which will not, as is so often the case, and was so for Israel, later look back to the time of wilderness or suffering as somehow a golden era to be mourned in turn.

Exile

A large proportion of the Hebrew Bible was probably written during the Babylonian exile – a time of grief, frustration, anger. You just have to read Psalm 137 to see how deep the emotions could run. Without their Temple, their sacrifices, their usual patterns of worship, how could they even be God’s people? But even amongst the grief, that question of despair became a question of practicality – how, in practice, could they be God’s people? So we see the codifying of laws, a tightening of purity regulations and questions of Jewish identity. Some of the more legalistic parts of the Torah (Genesis to Deuteronomy) were probably written during this period. And in the midst of this, there comes also the call to buckle down and make a go of it: “Build houses and live in them,” Jeremiah tells the exiles[1]. This is for the long haul, so there is a need to make the best of it.

But this is not just about strategies for survival in the present reality of exile; what will happen at the end? The concern with purity of life and worship is about a desire to keep faith away from the normality of life at home, but also about a concern that life could pick up where it had left off, once exile was over. The grief was for a way of life and worship lost, that might never be recovered. The Jeremiah approach recognised that there might not be an end close enough to be in sight.

Throughout, there is the question that remains for us now, in our much shorter, but still real, exile: what about the return? The canon is not neutral; the order of the books in the Bible is not accidental, but reflects something of the theology of those who put it together. The Jewish Scriptures end not with Malachi, as the Christian Old Testament does, but with Chronicles, and the promise of return to Jerusalem. But would the exiles actually return, and would life return to normal? The question for us as a church must be, not only how do we cope with the exile, but how do we welcome one another back at the end, and to what? What will our church look like, and will we want to return?

Like the Israelites in the wilderness, and the exiles in Babylon, our task – our challenge – is to keep faith. God has not left us, even when the doors are shut.

[1] Jeremiah 29:5

The Serpent-Christ

by Frances Young.

The Serpent-Christ [1]

Deep, deep in the veins is the poison lodged.

The mind is crippled: no antidote

For wisdom’s sting, while the serpent sleeps

In the noon-day sun, warm on the tarmac,

beautiful.

Weak, weak is the heart by venom infected –

Yet seemingly strong: for the serpent-coils,

Tensed like a spring, speak power to leap

To the heavens, up the heated stones of Babel,

masterful.

Beaten, beaten down like wheat in a storm

Are dreams of good: no peace but a sword

While the wound festers. The serpent sleeps

In the noon-day sun, warm on the tarmac,

beautiful.

High, lifted on high, is the antidote:

For life is hid with the serpent-Christ

Who bears the serpent’s curse, and refines

Knowledge of good and evil – now

inseparable.

That poem emerged years ago from  pondering a striking modern crucifix I’d seen in an old tumble-down church in a French village – an outline figure remarkable in its curvacious, almost coil-like shape – the serpent-Christ. On the bike a few days later I’d almost ridden over a snake basking in the sun on the heated tarmac.  Insight into a whole series of biblical associations was triggered, which came to me afresh this year in response to the lectionary for the first two Sundays in Lent.

The train of thought began with John 3.14-15: ‘Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up..’; and turning to Numbers 21.4-9, that strange story  took on new meaning.

The people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.”

This ‘miserable food’ was nothing other than God’s gift of manna. Then we’re told, ‘the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died.’ The people came to their senses, confessed their sin and asked Moses to plead with the Lord to rid them of the snakes. Moses interceded and was told to make a serpent and set it up on a pole so that anyone who’d been bitten could look on it and be healed. The bronze serpent is the antidote to the snakebites.

In the ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead, snakes appear as hostile beings to be repulsed with spells, but also with magical powers for renewal of life.[2] Generally in antiquity, the serpent was a symbol of wisdom.[3] Jesus is reported to have said, ‘Be wise as serpents.’ The name, Naasenes (Naas = snake in Hebrew) or Ophites (ophis = snake in Greek), was given to certain gnostic heretics; clearly they were snake-worshippers, the snake symbolising the knowledge or wisdom which brought salvation. In Genesis the snake tempts Adam and Eve with the promise of knowledge, and some rediscovered gnostic texts depict the serpent as the ‘goody’ in the story, offering the knowledge needed to escape from the clutches of the ‘baddy’ Creator-God.  From the usual point of view they read Genesis upside-down; but what was there to stop them? The serpent was a symbol of wisdom.

The snake-bite in the desert was an attack of ordinary human wisdom. When you’re dying of hunger and thirst, and not getting anywhere, what’s the commonsense thing to do? The antidote was the bronze serpent raised on a pole – the true wisdom that comes from God. So arises the Gospel insight that the wisdom of God was embodied in Jesus, the Son of Man, lifted up on the cross as the antidote to the serpent’s curse.

The challenge: where is divine wisdom in the current wilderness of climate change and coronavirus?

[1] Select verses from a poem published in Frances Young, God’s Presence. A Contemporary Recapitulation of Early Christianity (Cambridge: CUP, 2013), pp. 255-6. Biblical References: Genesis 3.1-7; 11.1-9; Numbers 21.4-9; John 3.14-5.

[2] The Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead, British Museum Exhibition, November-March 2011. See John H. Taylor, Spells for Eternity. The Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead (London: British Museum press, 2010), p. 65.

[3] Statuettes of the Cretan goddess of wisdom show her with snakes in her hands. The healing wisdom of the Greek god Asclepius was symbolised by the snake.