Nostalgia

by John Lampard.

The Queen’s Platinum Jubilee offers the nation an opportunity to indulge in a burst of nostalgia, from remembering the 1953 Coronation (for older readers!) to ‘it was better then than it is now’ etc. What is the role and place of nostalgia when it comes to re-calling our church history or in theological thinking?

A recent book, Rule Nostalgia: A Backwards History of Britain, by Hannah Rose Woods, examines the use of nostalgia as a means of critical analysis.

She argues that we use nostalgia primarily as a means of fuelling or bolstering modern debates. To illustrate this, she reminds us of the wonderful words of William Rees-Mogg, spoken after June 2016, that Brexit was ‘Magna Carta! It’s Waterloo! It’s Agincourt! It’s Crecy! We won all of these things!’ Only the most ardent Brexiteer might spare a blush.

The problem for me is that history and nostalgia are almost inextricably linked once one tries to use historical knowledge to critique the modern world. My interest is obviously in the matter of church history and the situation faced today by almost all the churches of the western world (it’s not just Methodism!). We can look back to the time when bishops ruled the roost across the land. Or we can look back to the great church-going period of the mid-Victorian era when about half the population were in church on a Sunday. Or the practice of family prayers and Bible reading at the beginning of the day – or even saying grace before meals. Or I can look back on the 1950s crime-free Eden of my youth, with lively Youth Clubs and when the church was packed on Parade Sunday with uniformed organisations. Each of these memories or recollections can be used as a means of criticising what is going on in the church and world today. Is the Christian faith, the church or society in a ‘better’ or ‘worse’ state today?

Nostalgia can be a very selective means of criticism. When the bishops ruled the land, people were punished in unspeakable ways, apart from a lack of any human rights. In the ‘Christian’ mid-Victorian era there were estimated to be 80,000 child prostitutes in London alone. Family prayers could be a means of harsh family control, and seventy years ago two boys attempted to rob me at knife point in a ‘respectable’ part of London. As soon as we draw from the nostalgic past to contrast how things have deteriorated today, we urgently need to find other facts which suggest that such a picture is incomplete.

Thinking on Woods’s book draws me to two further reflections.

How much does nostalgia, particularly for the life of the early church as depicted in the Bible, affect our reading of it today? Apart from the ‘communist’ ideal of having everything in common in the early Jerusalem church (which may have led to near famine and the need for the first example of ‘Christian Aid’ from other churches), the life of the early church depicted by Paul offers little material for a nostalgic view. I suspect that our Methodist Discipline Committee would be overwhelmed by life in the Corinth church. A rosy view of the Primitive church offers little to appeal in a current world of human complexities.

A more complicated question arises over the extent to which our study of and expressions of theology today is overlaid with nostalgia. Our language and symbolic thought structures still hark back to a ‘biblical’ understanding of the universe. I struggle (as did John Robinson in the 1960s) with phrases such as ‘God sent…’, ‘come down from heaven’, or ‘Jesus came…’, on any occasion other than when we quote the Bible, rather than expressing what lies behind the words, in a sense of revelation and discovery. Too much theology is based on a nostalgic world view created by still taking the Bible too literally, in a world which is being revealed by the Hubble telescope and the Large Hadron Collider. Am I alone in getting spiritual excitement and sustenance in the exploration of the amazingly complex and wonderful world around us discovered by scientists looking at either the indescribably massive or infinitesimally small? Our understanding of the nature of time revealed by scientists must surely impact on ‘eternity’ and ‘everlasting life’. I get more visceral spiritual excitement from the discoveries of scientists, almost lost for words by the sheer wonder of what they are revealing, than wading through the dull, endless attempts by worthy theologians to ‘re-create’ an outdated world view. A nostalgia for a simple ‘up’ and ‘down’, which we hark back to by our overreliance on what we might have grown up with, will not enable relevant theological thinking. It is all God’s world, but our nostalgia for the past hinders us from trying to re-think our theology in terms for today.

So, I will wave my flag and remember 1953, but I will not be nostalgic! And I hope theologians will be limbering up for the reign of King Charles III.

God of love, Creator of the food chain

by Josie Smith.

I observed my cat one recent morning ruining a newly-planted flower bed in the course of pursuing a frog near the adjacent pond in my garden.    This is the nature of cats, I realise, but seeing her doing this raised questions in my mind, not for the first time.   She often suggests questions to me which are also both simple and profound.

(We have had a few simple yet profound Monday morning questions of late in Theology Everywhere, where the only possible answer was ‘both / and’.)

Can anyone tell me how to reconcile the concept ‘loving God’ with the predatory hierarchy, AKA food chain which appears to be a necessary part of the design of the created order?   

I know about that rather charming word picture about lions lying down with lambs, but lions and lambs have different digestive arrangements and neither could be sustained by the other’s diet.    The whole of nature, it seems, is designed so that the stronger, faster, cleverer or more toxic beasts live by killing and eating those lower down the food chain.  (Though there are enlightened cultures in which hunters will apologise to the animal they have just speared to death and ask its forgiveness, showing respect to their prey before consuming its strength to maintain and enhance their own.)  

How do we differ?  Genetically we, lions and lambs, cats and humans alike, are all made of the same stuff of life.

Are we in fact different from the rest of the natural world?    My football team has to be capable of beating yours, our child needs to have better exam marks than yours, and so on.    In international relations it would seem that the food-chain principle has always applied.   A diplomat would put it more delicately perhaps, and a dictator in other terms, but recent world events have furnished many examples – one could express it as ‘My tribe is stronger and better than yours so I propose to gobble up your land if I have to kill your population in the process.’

My generation was taught to believe that the human race (then known as ‘Man’) differed from all other created beings in having a soul, and more words have been written on this theme than ever angels have danced on pinheads.    But we now know that trees can communicate with other trees, that all sorts of creatures have recognisable language, and only recently someone with very sensitive recording equipment has picked up sound communication from a living mushroom. 

The more we learn about other living things – the close family relationships of elephants, communication systems of bees, design and construction skills of ants, birds and beavers, navigational skills of butterflies – the more we respect and marvel.    I am a cat person, but dog lovers will tell you of the devotion a dog will give its owner.    (Cats don’t have owners – it is cats who have humans, but they too are capable of a genuine relationship with another species, often us.)   And   crows, for example, are very good at problem solving.    As are some squirrels.

What is the soul, and why do we think we are alone in having it?

We have faith in a creator God, otherwise why are we reading – even writing for – Theology Everywhere?    And our mythical ancestor whom we call Eve was born with a silver question mark in her mouth, thus giving rise to the sciences which grew alongside theology.     Wondering ‘What if?’ leads to experiment, which may lead anywhere and sometimes in unexpected directions.

So I worship God, and (not ‘but!’) I also ask a lot of questions.

I am not able to answer – or find answers to – many of the questions I meet every day.    The best questions don’t have answers, but lead to deeper questions.   A Catholic priest I used to know turned questions aside by using the word ‘mystery’, but I prefer to understand life by the both/and principle.     My theology is not ‘systematic’, but proceeds by flashes of insight and by niggling doubts.  

And perhaps especially by walking with those who have also encountered the God whose name and nature is Love.

Walking with Micah along the road of institutional injustices!

by Paul Nzacahayo.

I smiled to myself the other day when I heard the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby in conversation with Stephen King, referring to one of his predecessors, Michael Ramsey, who used to start his day by banging his head on his desk repeating ‘I hate the Church of England’. I couldn’t help it but ask: ‘What had the Church of England done to him? If he hated the church that much, why didn’t he resign and leave the church?’

Justin Welby was speaking about his predecessor in the context of a conversation about the church being a flawed institution. This coincided with something I had been grappling with since my colleague, Dr Carlton Turner, presented a paper in which he spoke about Christianity being toxic. This was in reference to its entanglement with abhorrent systems such as slavery, and colonialism which have left indelible and torturous mark on human history.  My colleague referred to the colonial Christianity and its impact on both the colonizers and colonized; and argued that missionary Christianity served and continues to serve the interests of the colonizers with terrible consequences on the lives of the colonized, who were marginalized and dehumanized by the process.

It has been argued that Christianity spread through the world as part of the colonial agenda, and there is ample evidence to support this. At the same time, I would want to recognize the good that many Christian missionaries sought to do. The church is able to share God’s love with people across the globe: educational facilities from primary schools all the way up to university, and health care facilities from small local medical centres to big hospitals, are good examples of this. For some of us, without missionary education we wouldn’t be where we are. I attended church primary and secondary schools; the cost of my theological training for ministry was paid by the church; and when I came to Edinburgh University for my master’s and doctoral studies I was funded by a German Christian organisation. On the other hand, I also know that within church institutions harmful or toxic attitudes, traditions and beliefs have become entrenched. Over a long period of time, such beliefs and practices have become accepted as ‘common sense’ or ‘normal behaviour’ even though they might marginalize and demonize certain groups of people. 

That is my dilemma; and I wonder whether Archbishop Michael Ramsey faced that dilemma every morning when he sat down at his desk. Perhaps he had in his office something that reminded him of where the church as an institution had fallen short. I am sure there was something there or within him that reminded him of the beauty of the gospel imperatives and the ideal of God’s kingdom that the church is called to live out. It is this capacity for the church to be a curse to some and a blessing to others; to be unjust to a group of people and to be fair and just to another, which calls for a dynamic theological discourse.

Micah asks the question: ‘what does God require?’; and he answers his own question saying: ‘to do justice, and love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God’. I like the image of ‘walking with God’ which assumes a constant movement in which new insights and understanding lead to deeper faith and growth. In the context of my colleague’s paper, walking with Micah might mean being aware of how much colonial thinking has impacted us as both colonized and colonizers, has shaped our behavior today, and will continue to shape our thinking in the years to come. This is what some scholars have called inherited coloniality in which the former colonized continues to unconsciously feel psychologically bound to the colonizer with behavioral signs to prove this.

Inherited Christianity or inherited church or even inherited theology is flawed and toxic with potential to damage as well as potential to be a blessing which can heal and bring new life.  Therefore, Micah’s focus on doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly is a challenging call for the church. How do you walk humbly as an institution? Methodists have been criticized for being obsessed with committees; but I happen to think sometimes that is the only way an issue can be considered in its angles and facets. I am thinking of the Methodist Church’s Faith and Order committee for instance, which scrutinizes established practices and beliefs to make sure they still stand up to the principles of God’s kingdom. If new insights and understandings are translated into action and not left to gather dust in minutes and reports, or hidden in the cloud of online storage, then this is also doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly.  For leaders, if doing justice and walking humbly means you daily face the failings of the church in way that makes you bang your head on your desk, that is a price worth paying for institutional injustices to be dealt with.

Celebrating Easter when it still feels like Good Friday

by Will Fletcher.

The inspiration for this post came whilst talking with my father-in-law, a supernumerary minister, in the days following Easter Day.

For personal reasons, I’ve found myself this last year reflecting on, and identifying with, the suffering Christ. I’ve discovered great comfort being in churches with a crucifix, whether physical or in stained glass, on which to meditate. They stand in great contrast to the Methodist churches with, at most, an empty cross. Through this year in personal circumstance, national and world events, it has been reassuring to reflect upon Christ entering into the suffering of our world.

This made it easier to prepare for Holy Week and Good Friday as we journeyed with Christ on that path to the cross. The cry of ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ felt more natural, than the triumphant ‘It is finished.’

The jump from Good Friday to Easter Day felt, this year at least, far too short. The situations in my life and in the world, hadn’t changed in those couple of days, so how could we suddenly switch to ‘Alleluia! Christ is risen!’? We were celebrating Easter, but so much seemed to scream that it was still Good Friday.

As I have begun reflecting on this (and this is only an early reflection, rather than a more rounded conclusion), I have appreciated more those early Easter experiences. The possible original ending of Mark’s Gospel in 16.8 with the women, having heard from the men in dazzling outfits that Jesus is risen, fleeing in terror and saying nothing to anyone; Luke’s account of the women being disbelieved by the eleven disciples, and then Peter looking in the empty tomb before going away to ponder what he had seen. As the disciples woke on that first Easter Day, they were still trying to process all that had happened on Good Friday, and a joyous Easter Day celebration hadn’t been on their radar. Maybe there needs to be more space within our Easter celebrations for that wondering and processing that isn’t all ‘Alleluias’ and smiles.

I value having a season of Easter. We don’t have to cram the whole of our Easter celebration into one day; making that huge shift from Good Friday lamenting, to Easter celebration in one go. It acknowledges that there may be different stages of the journey through this season, and things may not all be magically resolved at the end of it.

Psalm 22, quoted by Jesus from the cross in Mark’s Gospel, begins with that cry of despair – ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ It doesn’t sound very appropriate for Easter, but may provide a pattern for how we travel through this time when we don’t feel the full force of Easter joy. Those faithful people of God who heard Jesus’ cry would likely have known that the psalm doesn’t remain in such a desperate tone. Instead, the psalmist continues to believe, despite their current circumstances, that one day God will respond and rescue, and that they will come again to praise God in the great congregation. They remember God’s action in the past, and trust in that memory for future hope. In rediscovering the form of lament in our worship, we may find ways of expressing hope even in the midst of despair, and acknowledging the new life of Easter, even in the midst of feeling the trouble of Good Friday.  

Finally, I wonder whether an adaptation of another Christian tradition may help those who struggle at this time. Christians have been encouraged to see every Sunday as a ‘mini-Easter,’ celebrating that new life of Christ each week of the year. However, I wonder whether in a similar spirit, we might consider marking each Friday as a ‘mini-Good Friday.’ There are some Christian traditions who fast every Friday to remember Christ’s Passion. We may not go to that extent, but we may wish to use each Friday in some way to mark the pain, suffering and brokenness in our lives or in the life of our world. This can remind us that it is okay not to be okay, or not to be full of happiness all the time.

The empty crosses and focus on the resurrection speak a powerful message to all who come into our churches or join us in worship. But maybe we need to make more space to remember the suffering Christ, and to acknowledge the realities of Good Friday in our lives and in our world, even as we take part in our Easter celebrations.

Puzzles

by Frances Young.

The first time I met the man who has been my husband for over 50 years he and a friend were doing a Guardian cryptic crossword. I sat on the touchlines making somewhat caustic comments – to my linguistically-trained mind the tricks and conventions were just ridiculous! But then I had never been any good at puzzles, outshone by younger siblings, fearful of failure – though I suppose some would have thought I was doing puzzles all the time as I struggled to read and write Greek and Latin. No – I was never a puzzler! Yet late in life I’ve discovered Sudoku and Codewords and have to discipline myself not to get addicted and waste all day on them… They are definitely therapeutic, certainly a distraction from pressures and anxieties, a better accompaniment than reading to listening to music – you really can listen… And they say, there’re a possible antidote to dementia, a serious consideration in one’s 80s! Puzzles are to be celebrated.

But should we treat Scripture as puzzles deliberately set for us by the Holy Spirit? Believe it or not that is exactly what significant Christian theologians of the third and fourth centuries did think. I wonder if they might be onto something.

Augustine, the great theologian of the Western Church, whose life spanned the fall of the Roman Empire in the early fifth century, composed a treatise On Christian Teaching. It was essentially about interpreting and communicating scripture. He knew all about teaching classical literature – professionally he had been a rhetor, an educator, before his conversion. He had been one of those cultured despisers of the scriptures – they lacked style, being written in awful translationese, and were thoroughly alien and strange. But once a priest and bishop he devoted himself to making sense of them. He could then exemplify their natural eloquence and wisdom, while admitting that in places it was hard work to find it. Problems and ambiguities of many kinds were presented to the casual reader, “so thick is the fog created by some obscure phrases.”

I have no doubt that this is all divinely predetermined, so that pride may be subdued by hard work and intellects which tend to despise things that are easily discovered may be rescued from boredom and reinvigorated.

No one disputes that it is much more pleasant to learn lessons presented through imagery, and much more rewarding to discover meanings that are won only with difficulty… In both situations the danger is lethargy. It is a wonderful and beneficial thing that the Holy Spirit organised the holy scripture so as to satisfy hunger by means of its plainer passages and remove boredom by means of its obscure ones. Virtually nothing is unearthed from these obscurities which cannot be found quite plainly expressed somewhere else.
(De Doctrina Christiana II.6-7)

This kind of attitude did not come out of the blue. In the East the first great biblical scholar, Origen, had, more than a century earlier, suggested that the aim of the Spirit was to conceal the truth:

The word of God arranged for certain stumbling blocks, as it were, and hindrances and impossibilities to be inserted in the midst of the law and the history… for the sake of the more skilful and enquiring readers… By giving up themselves to the toil of examining what is written [they will discover] a meaning worthy of God.
(De Principiis IV.2.8)

He thought the prophecies “are filled with riddles” and the aporiai (puzzles) were intended to move readers into seeking deeper meanings.

All this may seem rather surprising, but in fact it helped to get a hearing in the culture of the time, and eased acceptance of this “barbarian” collection of books. How it helped is illuminated by the essays of Plutarch (a pagan thinker) discussing oracles: philosophers attributed such prophetic phenomena to the workings of providence, but also recognised they were often very enigmatic. Plutarch suggested that the god deliberately posed problems in the form of riddles or puzzles so as to create a craving for knowledge of the divine. The culture encouraged the idea of revelatory concealment, of hidden mysteries. No wonder then that the entire Old Testament was treated as a system of prophetic symbols and riddles pointing to Christ, if only you worked hard at teasing them out.

So to my questions for today: how do we find a way to encourage contemporary “cultured despisers” to try reading the Bible? And do puzzles have a theological purpose?

Take Art: Light Emerging from Dark and Dwelling

by Inderjit Bhogal.

The story of creation in Genesis affirms the place of both light and darkness (Genesis 1:1-5).  The light that God creates does not eradicate darkness. In fact, a new day begins, in Hebrew understanding, with evening, with darkness. I like that. Life begins in darkness. Day begins with darkness.

This presentation flows from my passion to achieve justice for refugees. Around 1000 refugees a day are coming in to Italy and Spain. At least 1200 of them died in the Mediterranean Sea in 2020, and over 1800 in 2021. There are many refugees who want to return home when it is safe to do so.

Before colours were developed and used in art, artists worked with black to make all art. This is certainly true in India. A friend in India taught me to draw, using Indian Ink only. All images emerge from black. (a number of short films on YouTube illustrate this). As you read, I suggest black line drawings to illustrate my words.

My favourite word is “dwell”. In my view “dwell” sums up, and is the key to unlocking the message in the Gospel according to St John. It is a frequently used word in the Gospel. It will repay close study, beginning with the use of the word in Chapter 1:14 where we read, “The word became flesh and dwelt among us”.

The word translated “dwelt” is the Greek word from the root skenos which gives us a picture of a tent (here, draw a tent). It is translated as “shelter” in Revelations 7:15. It is the word we find in the Septuagint text of Exodus 25:8 where we read God’s request to Moses.

“Have them build me a sanctuary, so that I may dwell among them”.

So, John 1:14 literally speaks of God pitching a tent in the midst of humanity. God wants to take sanctuary among people. A tent is a good image. It shows God travelling and pitching with people in all their travels. It is intriguing that Churches use the image of a boat as an image of Church.

Many years ago I read a book called Theology of Hope by Jurgen Moltmann where the author gives two images of Church. A Boat and an Arrow. There are, of course, many other models or images of Church.

The Boat image is used in the logo of many church organisations (draw a boat). Where does the idea of a boat to symbolise church come from? Noah’s Ark which is focussed on salvation resulting from getting into the ark. The mission of the church is to rescue people from the choppy waters of life for eternal salvation. Only those who get into this boat will be saved. The Arrow image speaks more of a movement, and direction. (draw an arrow)

Images of Boats are very much in the news. Creaky, leaky, overcrowded boats carrying refugees desperate for safety and sanctuary. Many boats overturn. Many people perish. Many refugee people crossing seas have drowned in the last year.

Overturned boats give a different image to contemplate (draw an overturned boat). It looks like the roof of a house or shelter. This is the plea of people escaping danger and threat to life.

The word ecumenical comes from the word Oikumene (from the root Oikos, house) meaning household of God. The household of God includes all people, all created order. This is what God wants to save, according to the image of the covenant we read in Genesis 9 in the story of Noah.

This brings me to the logo of City of Sanctuary which shows two people standing beside each other, holding hands which are raised between them to head height making an arch or a roof of a shelter, a dwelling (draw the City of Sanctuary logo).

This logo brings us back to the image of a tent, a shelter, a sanctuary. There is an Irish Celtic proverb which reads, “it is in the shelter of each other that the people will live”. This is the heart of the City of Sanctuary idea and movement.

I am trying to encourage churches to explore this idea, and to develop and promote the concept of Church of Sanctuary. This includes a commitment to ensure communities and congregations of worship work and pray together to build, embed and promote cultures of welcome, hospitality and safety for all. And to do this with pride.

Make your place of worship a sanctuary where all are treated with warm welcome, generous hospitality and protection from harm. A Christian symbol of this is Holy Communion, (draw a picture of Rublev’s Trinity 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.

There is more of this line of thought in my book Hospitality and Sanctuary for All (available from me or CTBI).

Questions:

  1. When and how does the day begin for you? With the dark or with the light or even another time?
  2. What do you think of the notion of ‘sanctuary’? How may our churches become places of shelter and sanctuary for people post the pandemic?

Good and Bad Theology – and Why They Matter

by Richard Clutterbuck.

It’s fifty years since I first ‘caught’ theology. In 1972 I failed some university exams, dropped out of my biology course and began the journey that would lead to ordained ministry and a lifetime as a student and teacher of theology. I can still remember the buzz from first reading John Macquarrie’s  Principles of Christian Theology. I settled on systematic theology and Christian doctrine as my main areas of study and teaching. In other words, I’ve been interested in reflecting on the main affirmations of Christian faith, the ways we hand these on from generation to generation and the connections we can make between different affirmations and the world we live in.

This means that I see things rather differently from Andrew Pratt (The illogicality of faith, March 28th).  He worries that an over-emphasis on creeds and faith-as-affirmation has blunted Christianity as a way of living out the lordship of Christ in the world. I think I see what he means, but from my perspective, creeds and doctrines do matter, not least because they have a profound effect on the way we understand the world and act within it. Bad theology is one element in the perversion of human behaviour, prompting and underpinning evil deeds with divine sanction. By contrast, good theology, sound Christian doctrine, helps to underwrite a way of life that models itself on Christ. Two contemporary examples illustrate this.

The first is very close to home. In an essay in The Guardian[i], to mark the recent Netflix documentary on Jimmy Savile, Mark Lawson wrote about Savile’s distorted theology of salvation and its part in his horrendous catalogue of sexual abuse. Savile, a life-long committed Roman Catholic, believed in a God who judges us according to the balance of our behavioural accounts. We are admitted to heaven if our tally of good deeds is longer than our list of sins. His frantic charity work, fund-raising, sponsored runs and cycle rides, were all part of a desperate attempt to compensate for the abusive actions that he knew were wrong. He really seemed to believe that he could earn his place in heaven by – as it were – bribing God to ignore the many sins he had committed. Repentance, mercy and grace do not seem to have been part of his theological vocabulary.

The second example is even more current. Several observers have noted that Vladimir Putin’s hostility towards Ukraine is at least partly driven by a theology and spirituality that legitimises aggression. According to the Religious Information Service of Ukraine[ii], this theology combines a belief in the divine inspiration and vocation of the Russian nation with a Manichaean mindset, setting a virtuous, godly Russia in opposition to the dark and evil West.  While there may be an element of political expediency in Putin’s religiosity, it does seem that this mystical nationalism is a genuine conviction. Once again, bad theology is linked in with disastrously immoral and destructive action.

Now, I don’t want to argue that believing in the traditional creeds will guarantee a life of righteousness and responsibility – there are far too many counter-examples for me to do that. But they are part of the story of faith, which is always a combination of belief and action. Last Saturday – Easter Eve – I joined the congregation in my local parish church for the Easter vigil. As part of the service we re-affirmed our baptismal vows, confessing our faith in the words of the historic creeds, and at the same time we renounced evil and promised to follow Christ.

Let me briefly mention two authors who can help us see the relevance of doctrinal affirmations. The first is the American theologian, Ellen Charry. In By the Renewing of Your Minds [iii](one of my all-time favourite books on doctrine) she takes examples of doctrinal controversy and developments in each stage of Christian history, from the New Testament to the present. In each case (for example, the trinitarian theology of St Augustine) she shows how doctrine is presented in order to promote a vision of the Christian life, not simply as a form of abstract speculation.

My other example is a contemporary British Methodist theologian, David Clough. Clough (a fellow contributor to Theology Everywhere) has made the focus of his work the Christian approach to non-human creation, particularly animals.  In On Animals[iv], he takes some of the central affirmations of Christian doctrine, creation, reconciliation and redemption, and helps us see how they can direct our attitudes and behaviour towards animals.

So, let’s not abandon the creeds, or water down the key affirmation of Christian faith. Instead, let’s make sure that we don’t separate doctrine from discipleship. They really do belong together.


[i] The Guardian, April 1st, 2022.

[ii] https://risu.ua/en/russian-world-20-and-putins-spirituality_n126473 , accessed 16-04-22.

[iii] Ellen Charry, By the Renewing of Your Minds, The Pastoral Function of Christian Doctrine, New York, Oxford, 1997.

[iv] On Animals: Systematic Theology: Volume I: London, T&T Clark, 2012

The Gospel of Race

by Aaron Edwards.

It has become customary at theological conferences nowadays to include a panel discussion on race. These tend to revolve around the problem of “whiteness”, with the invariable outcome that the white people present should become, in one way or another, less racist. If we’re unsure whether we are in fact racist, we’re told it’s probably in there somewhere, covertly submerged within our very deepest theological convictions.

This intensity of focus is not difficult to understand given the parallel tensions within western society at present, exacerbated by the viral responses to the death of George Floyd, an event which seemed to take on cataclysmic significance, catalysing a new “great awakening” of racial consciousness. Many theologians and preachers even saw the phenomenon in divinely revelatory terms. Pulpits usually reticent to preach socio-political issues suddenly found their sermons saturated with Critical Race Theory alongside numerous apologies for white privilege.

The super-charged narrative means any theological panel discussion tends to become significantly less “discursive” than expected. In one recent panel I attended, an influential black theologian lamented the lack of BAME representation in UK theological institutions, stating this was, in no uncertain terms, “a demonic apartheid”. Thus, any white theologian within UK theology is necessarily a perpetrator of deeply oblivious systemic oppression, the kind Hannah Arendt called “radical evil” (think Eichmann et al!). How does one begin to respond to such claims within such a climate? The person making this comment then added that the time was over for yet another panel on race – radical action was the only solution left.

I’m certainly not unsympathetic to homiletical rhetoric on significant issues, nor to critiquing inconsequential virtue-signaling panels. Indeed, the academy often seems to specialize in prolonging debates precisely to avoid transformative action! But what if you don’t agree with the premises – let alone the conclusions – of the discussion? What if you do need to talk more? What if the idea that most-white-theologians-are-unknowingly-racist-especially-if-they-think-they’re-not is wrong? How could someone articulate such a belief without incurring the charge of “whitesplaining” (an always-pejorative term connoting an essentially undefendable accusation)?

It was Robin D’Angelo’s bestselling book, White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard For White People To Talk About Racism (2018), where the astonishing claim was made that “rational argumentation” was a typical “behaviour” of white people when accused of racial privilege or bias. Charitably, this likely refers to the stacking-up of countless propositions purely to enhance one’s invulnerability to critique. But the obvious problem with D’Angelo’s observation is that only via some form of “rational argument” could we have any hope of being persuaded that such diversionary filibustering was even wrong. The notion that rational argumentation is an ethnically particular “mode” of engagement is an alarmingly racist claim with disturbing implications – yet robust discussion of such problems has become virtually impossible.

This problem echoes the ill-fated era of Unconscious Bias Training, eventually scrapped by the Civil Service after it was discovered that, far from reducing racial tensions and inequalities, it often made them worse. Meanwhile, churches who already came somewhat late to the systemic antiracism party continue to roll out such training in the vain hope it offers some pneumatological magic to heal deep-set wounds which fall within the purview of the Gospel alone. Whenever someone tentatively points this out – say, at a conference – the increasingly common response is that “the Gospel” is itself a “white” construction (thus, just the kind of thing a white person would invoke in general to avoid confronting racism in particular).

The Church rightly wrestles with its own problematic legacy on race, a problem still bearing wounds for many communities in today’s world. But Christian theologians and churches have too swiftly adopted strategies of racial reconciliation which not only find their basis beyond the Gospel, but often actively undermine it. The adoption of such strategies grates against much of what was revealed and achieved in the Cross and Resurrection (obvious examples include new birth, expiation of guilt, divine grace, and paradoxical forgiveness – there are many more!).

It’s not coincidental that just when academic theological conferences are hosting panels debating systemic whiteness, the very same debates were already occurring in other subjects (decolonising mathematics is the latest iteration). Regardless of reverse-engineered public statements, it’s clear that the principal lens through which much of the Church views race today is not the Gospel. Our theology must always remain attentive to the cries and laments of injustice in our world. But it’s concerning when the roots of such attentiveness are identical to what was already happening before the Church “caught up” with the appropriate rhetoric/paradigm/programme.  

Tertullian’s famous warning of the irreconcilability of Jerusalem and Athens can often be overstated, but it should never be far from our minds today. True, the Church has always made use of non-Christian wisdom, but usually via annexation rather than wholesale adoption. We live at a time where western Christianity’s ingratiation in worldly systems of thought and action is epidemic. To even hear the declaration of “worldliness” today often brings patronising eye-rolls rather than honest Biblical self-reflections on the indistinctness of the Church’s prophetic witness.

Ironically, the Church’s historic complicity with racism is rightly deemed heinous precisely because it was “worldly”, because it repudiated the logic of the Gospel. In our fretful attempts to confront this legacy today, we inadvertently allow a worldly ideology (“antiracism”) to become a gospel unto itself. We must allow the Gospel to interrupt us on its own terms, however inconvenient such terms may be at any given point. If not, the light that the Church alone is given for the sake of loving the world is hidden under a bushel for the sake of pleasing the world.

Take up your cross

by Philip Turner.

Though I attended my local Methodist Church at least twice each week as a child, I do not remember seeing a cross.  I saw organ pipes pointing upwards, casting a shadow over the raised pulpit, but no cross.  It was only later that a small wooden cross was rebelliously placed on the communion table under the pulpit.  It was only after that when, where once had been a flower festival display at the back of the chapel, a cross remained that flower arrangers decided not to dismantle, and the rest of us let it be.

I’ve often wondered why my childhood Methodist chapel was designed without a cross, and the congregation had, for many years, been content to leave it that way.  It is still a mystery, but this year I feel I may have some insight.

Since January, my church community has been steadily reading reading the account of the last few days and hours of Jesus’ life in Mark’s Gospel.  I’ve read this account many times, yet the impact this year feels different.  It isn’t because, unlike in my childhood, I now have a cross to look at: my church meets in a nearby coffee shop where there are no fixed displays of faith.  But reading Mark, and honestly struggling with what it means today, has presented a picture of the cross that has shaken me to the core.

This is because, in Mark, Jesus tells his disciples, no less than three times, that he must die.[i]  It is because Mark highlights, not so much Jesus’ physical pain, but how he is humiliated.  It is because Mark painstakingly shows how his so-called ‘disciples’ left him, his faith leaders disown him and the civil authorities make fun of him.  So far has popular opinion swung away from him, that not one single person casts a sympathetic vote in his favour.  Not even his mother, in Mark’ account, comes out in the support of her son.  And God remains silent.  The desolation goes even further.  On the cross, the last remaining thread of human dignity and and self protection is removed; Jesus’ body is shown as frail and completely exposed for all to see.  Yet, what is most disturbing is not what is seen, but the invitation we can still hear.  We remember that Jesus has said, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.‘[ii]

Samuel Wells[iii] highlights, among other things, that 90 percent of Jesus’ life was obscured and hidden.  The remaining 10 percent was his recognised public activity, and a small percentage of that was his suffering and death.  The implication is that, for those of us who seek to follow Jesus, it might be reasonable to expect a similar outline for our own lives.  Yet, to what extent is that our expectation?

I work as a chaplain in my local acute hospital where I often meet patients and their families who are shocked by the realisation that this life is short and that they must, one day, die.  Fortunately, unlike Jesus, most of us need not experience pain: modern medication has almost eliminated that necessity.  However, it is beyond the ability of modern medicine to address the humiliation highlighted in Jesus’ experience.  Modern medicine can’t relieve the hurt we feel when people let us down.  There is no painkiller for the abandonment that we can feel. The reason, Frances Spufford assures us, is the Human Propensity to Mess things Up, which means that we should not be surprised when we experience human cruelty.[iv] 

I wonder whether those of us seeking to follow Christ often reach for the vision, but avoid the realism.  This might have been the reason for the absence of the cross in my childhood chapel, yet I suspect that the visual cue does not automatically lead to engagement with our own cross that Mark’s Gospel presents.  Certainly, I am both grateful and disturbed by the realism that my current church community has uncovered.  Yet, I also reach for the vision. Morna Hooker reminds us, ‘Jesus loses his life, and is saved by God; he accepts shame, and receives glory; and he expects nothing less from his followers.’[v]


[i] Mark 8.31; 9.31; and 10.33f

[ii] Mark 8.34

[iii] Samuel Wells, A Nazareth Manifesto (Chichester: John Wiley & Sons, 2015), p.24f.

[iv] Francis Spufford, Unapologetic (London: Faber & Faber, 2015), passim and p.233..  He prefers the initials HPtFtU..

[v] Morna D. Hooker, Not Ashamed of the Gospel (Carlisle: Paternoster Press, 1994), p.53.

Jesus, the community worker

by Paul Bridges.

Six months ago, my wife and I visited Coventry and had the opportunity to see the Methodist Modern Art Collection. My approach to art is similar to my approach to theology – I love exploring it, but claim no expertise. I was looking forward to seeing the collection, having failed on several previous occasions to marry my diary with its location. It was a long but enjoyable thought-provoking day.  ‘Pink Crucifixion’ by Craigie Aitchison, and ‘The Washing of the Feet’ by Ghislaine Howard both captured our imagination. 

However, whilst enjoying the whole collection, the truth is I really wanted to see one particular picture. A piece that I had never seen for real but have fallen in love with from a distant – Eularia Clarke’s ‘The Five Thousand’.

Eularia Clarke – The five thousand, from the Methodist Modern Art Collection © TMCP, used with permission. http://www.methodist.org.uk/artcollection

It is for me, and I assume from the title, a modern version of the feeding of the five thousand. It depicts a 1970s church outing with the congregation enjoying fish and chips whilst listening to an only partially visible preacher. A woman with a pearl necklace, a couple of men smoking, babies in carrycots, toddlers and children, a few people snoozing, most eating and listening to the preacher. The picture and the biblical story speak to me of the Kingdom of Heaven or in other words the value of community.

The story and the picture are for me a miracle of generosity and community spirit, rather than a metaphysical miracle – and no less a miracle for this. This is a miracle that we can still see today when people respond to need and genuinely share what they have. People generally want to help each other, and even more so when food is involved!

At Huddersfield Mission, we have recently had the opportunity to formalise some work that we have been doing for many years – supporting local communities. We have two staff who are using community interventions to tackle health inequalities. So, I ask myself what might Jesus and the story of the feeding of the five thousand tell us about community development.

The feeding of the five thousand starts by someone -in this case the disciples- seeing the need. Too often agencies, professionals and churches start with a solution- borrowed from Google or a book – this is the wrong place. Community work needs to start with people or as the mug on my desk reminds me: “It all starts with a brew.”

The disciples had a solution, but also made the problem one of resources – we need lots of money, they said. Jesus had a different approach, he understood the need and saw that the people already had the solution, but perhaps did not know it yet. This is an asset-based approach, rather than a deficit model. The Kingdom, time and time again is built on what communities already have. Let’s not simply assume that communities have problems and we, the church, has the magic answers to fill the gaps.  Following Jesus is a much more active process than this. Community work cannot be done solely from a desk, and involves getting our hands dirty – or at least doing the washing up!

It is important to add here that an asset-based approach is not an excuse for saying that communities don’t need more resources, they do, but resources are only ever part of the solution. Asset Based Community Development is more about the attitude we have to people rather than resources.

Jesus’ solution was based on modelling positive behaviour and then involving everyone – those that came with nothing, and those that had enough to share, and everyone in between. Too much community development only involves the immediately willing, but real change needs to involve everyone. This is frighteningly difficult at times.

Perhaps Jesus could have ordered a huge takeaway for everyone via UberEATS, but the following day the poor would have been hungry again. Modelling the sharing of resources among everyone, shows a way of solving the problem for today and tomorrow. The best solutions always resolve the immediate issue and the underlying problem. Too often we are drawn to immediate solutions that at best are short term and at worse lead to dependency.

Jesus is often described as a fantastic story teller, and he was surely that, but to me he was also a brilliant community worker.

Finally seeing Eularia Clarke’s – The Five Thousand – for real reminded me just how little of the preacher is visible in the picture, and perhaps this is the last lesson for those of us grappling with community development – the story is not about us!

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