I am actually beginning my phased return in January but I will conduct a small informal service later this week  as a trial run. In this I hope to express my most heartfelt dreams for my renewed ministry.

These have prayer and particularly Eucharistic prayer at the very centre.

In trying to decide what I will say  after more than a year of enforced silence I have been beset by the preacher’s abiding temptation to try to say EVERYTHING. This has only got worse as I have reflected on  my chosen text, the first ten verses of Mark.

Anyway here are my main thoughts

  • I am personally very grateful to God and to other people, I do not think it matters if  a person who has my gratitude has no feeling of God’s presence
  • Christians shouldn’t act as though we have better access to virtue than others
  • what the Church does is Really Important
  • this Importance doesn’t depend on impact
  • traditions matter
  • traditions don’t help us
  • we are called to be like Christ

There will be more but Nick got too


This week the Revised Common Lectionary has paired an interesting couple of texts. We have Luke 4:14-21 (Jesus in the synagogue in Nazareth) and 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a (“one body  in the Spirit”). At first sight there isn’t an immediate connection between them and I suspect they are joined because the RCL is following two simultaneous tracks, through Luke and through 1 Corinthians, that are not strongly aligned.

At any rate I was at first puzzled and uncertain about what to do with them this Sunday. Should I continue with my exploration of the way the Spirit equips the Church (begun last week with the immediately prior section of Paul’s letter)? Or should I return to my reflections on the Spirit’s empowering of Jesus (begun the week before when thinking about the baptism of Christ)?

Then it came to me that this was in fact two ways of approaching the thing I really wanted to talk about, the Spirit’s empowering of the Church to be Christ’s body (the centre of Paul’s attention in our epistle) in order to continue to proclaim God’s good news (as Jesus does in the Gospel passage).

Here the two key points are 1) the role of the Spirit in the two texts and 2) the relationship between the text Jesus reads, with its explanation of what the Spirit has anointed the prophet Isaiah to do, and he remark when he has finished: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing”.

When we hear read the account of Jesus’ reading and of his claim of fulfillment, what is happening?

When this text is read in a church, in the midst of the body of Christ constituted out of our weakness by the Spirit, the scripture is fulfilled again: the good news is proclaimed.

It is true that our salvation is not yet complete. It is true that peace and justice do not yet reign without qualification. It is true that we still await the return of Christ in glory.


In the Church Christ remains present. His coming does fulfill the scripture, he does inaugurate the kingdom of God. We are given the opportunity to participate and to inhabit that kingdom, in the power of the Spirit.

A couple of times recently I’ve had occasion to think about whether and when it’s right to refuse to engage with people whose views or actions we don’t like. The first of these was when somebody who went to Israel’s centre for the study of the Holocaust at Yad Vashem with the same Council of Christian and Jews organised group as me decided not to attend a reunion gathering because the CCJ would or could not “disinvite” Israel’s ambassador in light of Israel’s actions in Gaza. At least one of our group feels unable to attend an event at which the ambassador is present while the assault on Gaza continues. The second was during an exchange in the United Reformed Church Facebook when somebody expressed their negative assessment of Roman Catholicism in highly intemperate language. It was denied that Roman Catholicism was Christian, doctrines were ascribed to Roman Catholicism and described as demonic heresies. In response another member of the group stated their intention to withdraw not only from that thread but from the whole group if the person concerned was not denied access to it.

In both cases I feel sympathy with the opinions of those actually withdrawing or threatening to do so. Israel’s actions in Gaza are appalling and its overall policy towards the occupied territories is deplorable. Similarly it is profoundly wrong and at variance with the ecumenical vocation of the United Reformed Church to deny the catholicity of Roman Catholicism. My own theological positions, indeed, tend to stress “catholic” rather more than “Reformed” and to be interested in and open to influence from Roman Catholic thinking, which I fully accept as one part of the universal and apostolic Church.

However in neither case do I think it right to refuse to be part of a conversation in which people with whom we disagree or of whose actions we disapprove. All parties have to have the right to express their opinions, although it may sometimes be right for the collective to decide that some may not be party to some parts of the conversation using, ideally, criteria that are clear and defined in advance. Thus I would be prepared to agree that some URC forums be closed to people who clearly and repeatedly deny or reject positions established in our Basis of Union, provided that it was properly shown that they did so and agreed that they did.

The Facebook group in question is not, in fact, established on that basis. There is a code of conduct and some of the remarks in question could be held to have breached it but that equally could be argued not to have done so. To refuse to engage because someone has expressed views we find abhorrent seems wrong to me.

On Israel I see no possibility of progress without proper engagement with the state and its representatives and am, I think, opposed to the idea of boycotts directed towards it. There is a real and very serious problem for Christians in our relationships with modern Israel. A state that defines itself simultaneously in ethnic (secular Zionism) and religious (religious Zionism) terms and also appeals to liberal norms of equality under the law and democratic sovereignty is a major challenge to contemporary theological reflection on politics, especially where our proper attitude to Judaism itself is such a problem for us.

To retreat into an outrage that refuses even to recognise Israel as a full member of the community of states (implied to me in all boycott types actions) seems to me a fundamental mistake.

ImageI recently posted to a URC Facebook group in response to evidence that the decline of the denomination (which has been pretty steady at a 3% fall in membership per year since it was founded in 1972) may be accelerating (to something closer to 4% per year). The membership, which was around 200,000 in ’72 has now fallen below 60,000. Over the last 20 years (at least) there have been a succession of attempts by the denominational leadership to respond to this decline, either by adapting to it (e.g. by abolishing the District layer of our structure or by reducing the number of training institutions to which we send our ordinands) or by launching initatives to reverse the decline (e.g. Vision for Life, Zero Intolerance, Vision 2020, various Synod level campaigns).

My suggestion in my post was that, while any attempt to encourage growth is to welcomed and applauded, we need to begin thinking about what we will do if the decline continues and even accelerates further (which many argue it is bound to do, given the age-structure of our membership and the inevitable passage of time). In particular I think that we need to think together about what will happen to those parts of what we are and what we have that will be left when we can no longer credibly pretend to be a national alternative to the Church of England, can no longer pretend that we are The Church (as far too many of our internal conversations seem to believe).

I can immediately think of three “things” that will be left: there will be some local churches that have a vigorous and continuing life as fellowships as the denomination dwindles around them; at least one of our training institutions (Westminster College in Cambridge) seems to be being prepared to stand alone, given the massive investment in its infrastructure and its developing local partnerships; the 13 Synod Trusts are very likely to be left holding substantial amounts of money and property as congregations close and their buildings are left empty (no-one really knows how much money this is going to be but I would be very surprised indeed if it weren’t some hundreds of millions of pounds).

If no significant changes are made in the short to medium term the default position would seem to be that the denomination shrinks until a smallish constellation of more-or-less independent larger churches (perhaps a couple of hundred on an optimistic estimate) is surrounded by a dwindling number of very small congregations which gradually close, handing their assets over to Trusts presumably dominated by representatives of those larger churches which can be bothered to send representatives to the bodies which elect the Trustees (I’m not familiar with how the Trustees are appointed but I presume it to be from Synods).

Given the opacity (to me) of the way in which decisions are actually made in our denomination (the meetings of the two Synods of which I have been a member were in no way at all like effective decision making bodies) I feel I have no notion of how large-scale choices about the centrally held financial resources or the quasi-independent Colleges will be arrived at. The most credible body for this is probably Mission Council, the body stands in for General Assembly in the periods between its coming together every other year. However I am not filled with optimism by what one can glean from reports of its discussions. It seems not to be filled with a bold determination to find an answer to the existential questions raised by our long-term drift towards irrelevance but rather with a grim determination to prolong our life as close to its current form as can be managed for as long as possible.

What surprised me about the response to my Facebook post (on which 9 people over a total of over 80 comments) was that it quickly came to focus on questions of polity, specifically about the relative merits of Congregational and Presbyterian ecclesial practice (almost nothing was offered about the ecclesiological foundations of these two polities which is disappointing but unsurprising).

Some (one suspects from larger churches) argued that the best course of action was to free the most vigorous of our fellowships from the denomination by a move towards either a Congregationalist polity like that of the Baptists or towards full independency for these churches (presumably by adopting a more permissive attitude towards congregations that wish to secede fully or partially from the denomination, a proposal I have heard made before).

Others vigorously rejected any weakening of our, effectively, Presbyterian polity, and indeed voiced the desire to strengthen our Presbyterian identity, which is currently very much diminished by the lack of Presbyteries. Synods stand in place of a Presbyterial structure but they are totally ineffective in this role (in my view) because they are too big and don’t meet often enough to allow the development of the mutual knowledge and accountability Presbyterianism is intended to embody.

This debate reflects a deep incoherence in our denomination that is, as so many things are, at once a strength and a weakness. It has allowed us to manage and live with deep differences on a range of matters without dividing (infant baptism and attitudes to human sexuality are two obvious lines of division but there are many more) and that is, in my view, a good thing. The price we pay, though, is that we have no way to explore and decide anything that is at all difficult. Our decision making structures can’t really build true consensus in the way that is required for any genuine process of conciliar discernment of the Spirit’s leading. We describe ourselves as a conciliar church but I would suggest that we are, in point of fact, a bureaucratic denomination in which all real decisions are taken by committees which are largely self-selecting. These decisions in turn can’t lead to any real change in the denomination as a whole because they command insufficient support and legitimacy across it. They are either ignored are overturned (as all recent central initiatives demonstrate).

Thus we both need to take some really fundamental decisions at denominational level and are structurally incapable of doing so, That’s why we need to talk about polity, not as a dry and abstract discussion of organisational structure, but a living and deeply theological and theocentric conversation about how we communally are to seek God’s will for us. Is God’s will found, as Congregationalists have always believed, in a local, gathered covenant community, or is it rather found, as Presbyterians have always believed, in the Church as an expression of some larger community? (Where the legitimacy of that corporate Church derives from in dissenting Presbyterianism is a problem, although one that can be solved through Confessional loyalty.)

At any rate I am afraid that the contradiction between Congregational and Presbyterian ecclesiologies may have to faced squarely if we are do anything other than grimly delay the inevitable.

If we think about God as creator we are often tempted to think of his action as a single event, perhaps as causing something like the Big Bang, which brings into being a Universe that goes its own way from then on. The Universe and God then relate to one another in a completely different way, they are separate from one another and God tries, perhaps, to steer it but cannot completely control it, as he could when he was deciding whether to bring it into being, a bit like a parent who can decide whether to have a child but who has to accept that the child will live, ultimately, as they will.


Hearing the story of creation, as we have this morning, should prevent us from accepting this view. In it God shapes creation gradually, with each step building on previous steps. Light and water are there from the beginning, land is separated and vegetation brought forth from it, water and land are populated with living creatures. At each stage God sees that what has come into being is good and goes on to do more. It is a process, a series of actions and reactions and at its climax comes the final act of creation: God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them, male and female he created them.


We aren’t told anything about what God might be like separated from creation, nor about any reason there might be for creation. What we hear is about God’s activity and about God’s judgement, that it was very good.


It is natural and right for us to ask about the purpose of creation, since the purposes of our own lives can’t be found apart from it and it is obvious that, for those of us who have faith in God, the purpose of creation must be related to God’s purposes. So to understand what our lives are all about we have to ask what God was, or perhaps is, up to in bringing us and everything else into being.


And that, of course, is where things get really difficult. If there’s one thing we can deduce about God from the Bible it is that while we may be made in his image he is definitely very different from us. He is not simply a bigger, better, more powerful version of a human being, however tempting it may be for us to think of him like that. God is mysterious and other than us, of a different kind altogether.


Yet God also made us for relationship with him and as, somehow, like him, in his image. We are to represent him in creation and he, we say, has revealed himself through his relationship with Israel and through his incarnation in Jesus, both recorded and reflected upon in the Bible, and through this revelation we are given some insight into his nature and his purposes.


So what do we gather, from all of this, about what God means to do in creation, and about our own part in it?


First that it is made good, harmonious, and peaceful. It is not often enough remarked upon that in the creation story all the animals, including human beings, have a vegetarian diet. The ideal that this story presents is one in which nature is not “red in tooth and claw”. The animals all live on “every green plant” as verse 30 says. This completely non-violent state of being is referred to again in Isaiah’s famous image of the kingdom to come being one where the lamb will lie down with the lion. So God’s purpose is for peace and harmony.


Secondly, and related to that, God’s purpose is that creation should be in contact with him, that he and the creatures should be connected, above all through human beings. This is what it means to say that we are God’s image. Human beings are to “rule over” all the creatures on behalf of God. This does not mean we are to exploit or to kill, after all God says to the people he has created: “I give you every seed-bearing plant … every tree that has fruit … They will be yours for food”. The kind of rule God has in mind is one that will be in the service of the ones ruled, not those ruling. As Jesus says: “whoever wants to be great among you must be your servant” a lesson he illustrated by washing the feet of the disciples at the last supper. In God’s purpose the one with power uses it for the good of others, not for him or herself.


Which brings us to the heart of God’s revelation to us of his will and purpose, the great dual commandment of love which Jesus takes from the Old Testament and restates as the centre of what we receive from Israel and from him. Love of God and love of neighbour are what is demanded of us, love itself is the goal and purpose of our lives as the core of the relationship between God and creation. Love is God’s motive and God’s purpose, in fact, as the apostle John writes: “Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love”.


To get at what God’s purposes are in creation we need to look both at the Genesis account to see that this purpose is to be in a loving relationship with a good world and at the promises given to the prophets and in Jesus that despite all the difficulties and complexities of the lives we live that purpose is being and will be fulfilled.


The story that the Bible tells describes how God has repeatedly been disappointed by the way that violence and sin enters in, when we seek purposes and identities separate and distinct from that of being God’s image, serving as stewards of creation and expressing love. When we seek after knowledge and power of our own, prioritise our own purposes and our own desires then, the Biblical faith warns us, conflict and disaster loom. From Cain’s murder of Abel, through the wickedness that led God to visit the great flood, to the repeated departures of Israel from the Law it had been given the Bible repeats the pattern of attempts to restore the relationship between God and creation through humanity which ultimately fail, only for God to find another way.


This struggle, to complete the work begun in the six days of the creation story, is the core of the Biblical narrative. What that tells us, however we interpret it, is that God’s involvement with us is ongoing, the process of forming us to be the image that is needed is not complete. God is still at work, bringing his good creation to fruition and we are called to be part of that work, through the love we feel and the love we express.  

bethatselfI have once before written a personal testimony here. On that occasion I focused on my philosophical journey to faith. I am now moved to write this story again with an emphasis on its no less important psychological aspects.

From my early teens I struggled with anxiety and depression, a struggle that culminated in a collapse into a disabling depressive state in my mid twenties. Throughout this period I sought solutions to my chronic despair in political activity and philosophical reflection. The endpoint of this was a nihilism that made me unable to function.

I had for a number of years been mortally afraid that my frequent bouts of anxiety would escalate into a panic that would result in disintegration into psychotic illness. Over the years I had observed this kind of disaster happen to a number of people to whom I was close and I was plagued by the worry that this would happen to me.

A response to this fear was to seek shelter in an intimate relationship with a woman who would protect and nurture me so that there was a place for me that was so safe the anxiety would abate. In my confusion and terror I hoped that this hiding place would simultaneously provide an opening into the world from which I was trying to escape. This set up a pattern that was destructive in the extreme, both for me and for the women who joined me in this absurd project.

Thus my life revolved around three centres: the quest for a political project that would transform the world into one in which there was nothing to be afraid of (various forms of revolutionary Marxism); a philosophical search for an understanding of the human condition that would reveal the truth and ground of that political project, giving a secure and unassailable foundation to my life; the search the a love that would create the ideal world in miniature. between two people.

By my mid-twenties this linked set of responses to my dislocation from the world, fear of it, and failure to discern meaning and value in anything I could see or be had failed completely and absolutely.

Six years of intensive study of my favoured variant of Marxism (the Hegelian Marxism derived from the Hungarian philosopher Gyorgy Lukacs and developed differently by both more or less orthodox Communists and by unorthodox Marxists in the Frankfurt School) convinced me that there was little or nothing to be said for it. Its account of the fundamental nature of historical development was wrong, as was its theory of the workings of capitalism. It was wrong about the relationship between human beings and the rest of nature, about the structure of human society, about economics and about everything else I had thought about with any seriousness, Marxism was simply and totally wrong about everything. Furthermore its political programmes and strategies were such as either to guarantee failure and futility for those who followed them or, worse, to lead to appallingly negative results if successful.

Unsurprisingly for someone whose melancholy was profound and integral the philosophical conclusions I came to were bleak and unhelpful. At the point at which I concluded that the neo-Marxism of Theodor Adorno (the last stop in my journey through Western Marxism) was as hopeless as all the others I discovered the work of Friedrich Nietzsche, Whatever he may or may not really have thought or written what I took from him was the idea that Western culture was collapsing into nihilism. The values of that culture had for many centuries been set by a Christianity that was being destroyed by science.

Christianity was a slave ideology that rested on submission to a master whose reality could no longer be credible. The slave mentality it had created meant that out of its wreckage no new values could arise. An empty and desolate cultural landscape was emerging and the only possible response was for those strong enough to discard everything it had left, morality, aesthetics, philosophy, politics, and to create their own autonomous and foundationless set of values.

His diagnosis convinced me completely (it accorded all too well with my experience of all that was, including my self, as without worth) but could not believe in his solution. I could neither believe in the possibility of legislating my own table of values nor be attracted by an outlook that rejected any moral order that included compassion as one of its characteristics.

Finally I came to see the series of my relationships as one of repetition of a failure that had come to be increasingly empty and hopeless. I saw in myself a set of needs and responses that were harmful both to me and to others and to offer no hope of a lasting or fulfilling partnership. Any new venture in this domain felt like it was both a betrayal of the past and an irresponsible risking of someone else.

My life seemed to have reached a point where all ways forward were blocked and I had nowhere left to go. Politics, philosophy and love, the three projects that I had thought would lead me out of my melancholia into some sunlit world of ease and happiness had all turned out to lead nowhere. I could see no way to believe in a transformation of the world that would make it inherently valuable and hospitable, nor in a comprehension of it that would prove it to have value, nor in the creation within it of a haven that would be a home I could live in.

I was incapable of useful work on my PhD or of social interaction with my fellow students. It was time to leave. After discussion with my supervisor I suspended my registration for a year and with it the British Academy Studentship that was paying for my studies and my upkeep. I went to London and got a job in a library, I felt liberated from the life I left behind and had no clear idea of what I would do next.

It was at this point I discovered the work of Kierkegaard and more particularly “Either/Or”. Kierkegaard is one of the great thinkers of depression. His starting point is that of the melancholic who, while depressed is convinced that the depressive position is the only true one and that those who do not recognise this are achieving (in many ways admirable) feats of self-deception. The true melancholic knows that the world is meaningless and empty, however little he or she likes it. There is even a kind of pride in bearing and acknowledging the inner truth of life’s valuelessness.

In the first part of Either/Or Kierkegaard (or some of his pseudonyms) experience this in respect of a way of life that values the interesting and the pleasurable, the intense instant in which experience is heightened, the way of life of the aesthete. To me, at the time, that this was futile and self-defeating was obvious and trivial but I could admire the imagination and skill he brought to demonstrating it.

What hit me like a thunderbolt was the Or to this Either, Part 2 of the book in which he (or his pseudonym Judge William) argued for a solution at once rather like and completely different from Nietzsche’s. He too argued that in the face of the meaninglessness of the world and of life in it the answer was to be found within, in the will, which creates a self and a set of values out of nothing. The astonishing difference was in the attitude to the world that is to be overcome. Rather than rejecting and replacing it Judge William embraces and affirms it. The self and the values to be created by the will are the ones that already exist, the ones found, the same ones that were found to be without value.

The will can’t simply invent a new set of values, a new self, this is not possible. What it can do is choose to be who it (we) already is. The great task is to be who you already are, but to be this person consciously and as a matter of decision. Accept what you have been given, as a task and as a gift, anything else is futile and doomed to lead to despair and catastrophe. So says the Judge (or so I thought, it’s so long since I read him that I’d be quite ready to believe that my 26 year old self got him completely wrong).

Furthermore there was another stage in this path. The grounding of the value of the world in the decision of the self was unstable and impossible to maintain. It demanded, in order to be sustainable, that another movement be made, the leap of faith. This was the acceptance that the given, the self and the world, had value inherently, although this was impossible to show or to know. This acceptance relied on an act (or moment) of faith, which itself came as a gift and had to be accepted as such. The world had to be taken on faith.

Simultaneously with this discovery of a philosophical path to acceptance of the world I met a woman quite different from those with whom I had set up my patterns of failure (the woman who is now my wife). I saw that with her a different kind of relationship would be possible, a relationship that would enable and demand the kind of reconciliation with the world and with myself that I took Either/Or to be demanding.

I went next to Kierkegaard’s two great “psychological” works. First  “The concept of anxiety” in which he diagnoses anxiety as integral to the condition of being human. Our freedom is such that we are constantly faced with the possibility that at any moment we reject everything we are. Our continuity through time cannot be guaranteed and thus we have constantly to battle with the thought that everything might be swept away (by us) at any moment. He links this anxious freedom to original sin, saying that in the moment of awareness of freedom sin, evil, comes into being. He shows, however, that this is also the moment of salvation, where the possibility of faith is also born.

In the Sickness Unto Death he explores and analyses “despair” which he equates with sin and counterposes to faith, while also making it the precondition of faith. He argues that until one has known the despair that gives up completely the possibility of goodness or happiness it is impossible really to know the faith that depends utterly on the unknown origin of all that has value and worth.

The wonderful thing for me, at that moment, was the acuteness with which Kierkegaard knew, described and explored my true feelings about existence, the anxiety and the despair, and instead of trying to persuade me that I was wrong about how terrifying and bleak it all was told me that I was right but that this was not the end of the matter, There was a way out and that was to accept that while all that was had no inherent worth it could be given worth through faith.

This remains my basic conviction. I struggle with those varieties of Christian theology that insist that the world we know is good, that it has been redeemed. It doesn’t look or feel that way to me. To me the world seems profoundly broken and desolate, still. Only faith enables us to acknowledge the reality of human existence without collapse, it seems to me. I retain the melancholic’s unshakable conviction that those who deny the misery of life are either deluded or are trying to delude others.

My recent intensive exposure to the reality of the Holocaust, brilliantly conveyed and evoked by Yad Vashem and its staff, reminded me forcefully of this. Retaining a living faith is always a struggle but perhaps it’s useful to be confronted so directly by just how hard it is. The alternative to faith, for me, remains despair.