The human need for embodied virtue

“As humans, we have to see the ways of God through others. We can’t really comprehend virtues like forgiveness or love or compassion in the abstract; we have to have experienced them through other human beings.”

from “St. Benedict’s Rule: An Inclusive Translation and Daily Commentary” by Judith Sutera

The quote above may well remind you of

Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,

St Theresa Avila (Attributed)

But I want to make a different couple of points, the second following from the first.

Firstly the fact is that at its core language has analogy. When we say that something is a dog we mean that in some sense it is like other being that we know to be dogs. So the meaning comes to language from the use we put it too and that we learn it from the use other people put it to. It also means with abstract ideas such as virtues we understand them as we see them performed. If someone says “they love you” then the way they treat you alters your understanding of love. It is one of the big problems of talking about God in language at all. The analogies are far more tenuous than when applied to other creatures either human or animals. God in this sense does not exist within human parameters and to talk of God is to mislead as much as it is to make clear. However, we need some manner of talking about God, so we use human words. As Christians we are therefore faced with a duty that when we want people to know about God’s attributes that we should share, e.g. loving, forgiving, wise then we need to try to bring our human attribute in line with God’s. To seek to be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect, is not to get everything right but to seek to reflect out to the world the characteristics of God. That is to make them flesh.

The second is that we need to take seriously the fact that the Bible is a material book. There is no language that is not human language. We thus see in the Bible is not a pure output of the divine brain but the struggle of the divine to communicate through human experience. It is not that through reading the Bible we can get a perfect transplant of the knowledge God intend to leave to humans. There is if you like a treble embodiement of the Word in the Bible. The first is the embodiement that comes through the experience of the divine. There is the the second embodiement which is that of those who are inspired by the divine to record the priors engagement. They are not necessarily the same people. The third is the fact that the person reading the Bible is a body and part of human society. In all situation we have to take seriously the humanity of all three groups of people engaged. Divine inspiration is therefore not simply a matter of divine dictation but a matter of living in contact with the divine. We therefore need to struggle with those texts where others have found the divine until they yield their light. That light will take time and effort.


A friend posted that she did not have much hope but somehow had to get through the night next Tuesday which is the date of the Presidential election in the United States of America. It has to be seen what will happen and this is not about politics but about hope.

It seems to me that there are two meanings of the word ‘hope’ the first is as defined in the Merriam Webster dictionary

to cherish a desire with anticipation: to want something to happen or be true

Merriam Webster

Which is all very well but I am not good at it. I am not whether it was my father’s cultivated cynicism, my lousy experience in my first high school or the fact that I am drawn to Urban Mission but somewhere along the way I stopped building up for events. I look forward to things in the sense I am not looking back at them. Yes somethings are good and something are bad but they all need meeting.

If you can meet with Triumph or Disaster
and treat those two imposters just the same

If by Rudyard Kipling

In other words, my attitude is what happens on Tuesday will happen and some how I need to get out of bed the next morning and get on with life whether the outcome is the one I would like or the other. Now that brings me to a second type of hope.

Hope can also be a discipline. Regardless of the outcome I will get out of bed and I will need to act to make the world a better place. I believe that humanity can make the world a better place and the more who work towards it, the better the world will be. Sounds idealistic, but I also acknowledge that I cannot make anyone do this except myself. Mother Theresa is right when she says:

However, my reasoning is not about me being accountable to God, I am but that is not the short term reason for doing them. Rather that my positive choices help others to make positive choices and that God’s intention is in the end for Dame Julian is right.

All shall be well and all manner of things shall be well

Julian of Norwich 1342-1416

So about making positive choices for myself and others and aligning with God’s will. With that in view, hope is that me trying to help build a better world for everyone. Hope is not a feeling but an active discipline.

There are some codicils, my attempts to build a better world rarely work out but somewhere on the way things do happen, quite often by completely other agencies than I would expect that make good things happen. If you had told me or anyone else in 1985 that by 1995 both the Berlin Wall would have fallen and Apartheid been confined to the history books, we would not have believed you. I did not bring that about

Then there is the long view. There is not a single tyrant in history who has not passed on eventually. I am not sure how the present crop will fall but fall they will. The Transatlantic Slave no longer exists. There are many inequalities that result from it but it no longer exists. Far more children are in education than a century ago and the average person on the planet has a longer life span. Yes, we have challenges including finding ways to level the playing field in international trade, sorting out wealth distribution more fairly and tackling climate change. Yes, the poor will be with us always not least because being poor is often a relative calculation. That does not diminish the gains that have been made.

In this sense Hope is what drives Puddleglum when he says:

One word. All you’ve been saying is quite right, I shouldn’t wonder. I’m a chap who always liked to know the worst and then put the best face I can on it. So I won’t deny any of what you said. But there’s one thing more to be said, even so. Suppose we have only dreamed or made up, all those things – trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that’s a funny thing when you come to think of it. We’re just babies playing a game, if you’re right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world that licks your world hollow

C.S. Lewis The Silver Chair

He is choosing to hang onto the greater story of life in the face of the bleakness of the present.

The forgotten triad of Effectual Calling or why Justification ain’t complete on its own

I mean how many sermons have you heard on Justification by Faith? I am not really seeking an answer; after all on 500th anniversary of the Reformation this is what the communique released by the Lutherans and the Roman Catholics talked about. It is not just them but Methodist, Reformed and Anglicans. However I want to go back to the Shorter Westminster Catechism. In that I read:

Q. 30. How doth the Spirit apply to us the redemption purchased
by Christ?
A. The Spirit applieth to us the redemption purchased by Christ, by working faith in us, and thereby uniting us to Christ in our effectual calling.
Q. 31. What is effectual calling?
A. Effectual calling is the work of God’s Spirit, whereby, convincing us of our sin and misery, enlightening our minds in the knowledge of Christ, and renewing our wills, he doth persuade and enable us to embrace Jesus Christ, freely offered to us in the gospel.
Q. 32. What benefits do they that are effectually called partake of in this life?
A. They that are effectually called do in this life partake of justification, adoption, and sanctification, and the several benefits which in this life do either accompany or flow from them.
Q. 33. What is justification?
A. Justification is an act of God’s free grace, wherein he pardoneth all our sins, and accepteth us as righteous in his sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone,
Q. 34. What is adoption?
A. Adoption is an act of God’s free grace, whereby we are received into the number and have a right to all the privileges of the sons of God.
Q. 35. What is sanctification?
A.Sanctification is the work of God’s free grace,whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God,and are enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness.
Q. 36. What are the benefits which in this life do accompany or flow from justification, adoption, and sanctification?
A. The benefits which in this life do accompany or flow from justification, adoption, and sanctification, are, assurance of God’s love, peace of conscience, joy in the Holy Ghost, increase of grace, and perseverance therein to the end.

Note that there are three different elements to the process of effectual calling of which justification is just one. When last did you here much talk on Sanctification or Adoption? Yet together they make up together the  Reformed understanding of our Redemption by God. God did not just justify us, nor are we simply justified by faith even if that faith is the faith of God. Let me leave however Justification too one side and look at the other two.

Picture of Rublev's icon of the Trinity
Rublev’s Icon of the Trinity

If justification is the formal declaration of freedom from sin, then adoption is giving us a place within the community of God. If you have ever been told that the fourth side of the Rublev’s icon is open as we are invited to participate in the community of the God head, then here is the statement of that same idea within Reformed Doctrine. The call to be sons and daughters of God is not a call simply to acknowledge God as our parent but to understand ourselves as members of the household of God and part of that community.  Alright we can only fully realise at the parousia but at least in expectation it is partly that there will be a foretaste in our current lives. In this sense adoption is a state we exist is not an event.

So onto sanctification which is perhaps the most forgotten part of the whole process.  I can remember a Reformed theologian going on about how many day to day Reformed Christians had fallen for works and I asked him whether what he saw as works were in fact ‘signs of sanctification’ . Firstly sanctification is God working in to “fit us for Heaven”. It is thus not something we do to earn redemption but something we receive because we are redeemed. What is more is it is not something that happens instantly but something that goes on working through out our lives. Traditionally Reformed Christians wishing to discover whether they have been saved or not have looked into their lives to see if they could discern the process of sanctification.  The shunning of evil, production of good works and acts of piety are symptoms of the sanctification. Therefore reason for thanksgiving. Thus Sanctification is a process not unlike what the Orthodox call theosis. It is therefore a process.

Thus in the doctrine of redemption we have three important parts

  •  Justification – event
  • Adoption -state
  • Sanctification – process.

The focus on Justification makes people think that this is a simple act of stepping through a door but it is a door to another country and we have a journey to make there.

Trinitarian Meditation

Trinity symbol
Trinity Symbol – links to Patheos on Trinity debate

I compiled the prayer during my morning devotions as I felt the need to focus my mind on the Trinity and the interaction within it. It is closer to poetry than prose, this is deliberate it wants to have a sense of dance behind it. It references various Bible references, theological ideas and other Christian texts. You cannot read straight off my theology from these, they are pebbles that grind against each other in by mind creating different patterns and shapes and I frequently adapt them when using. I am taking out a license not because I think my name is important, if I could assure it would stay anonymous then I would be happy with that, but because it should not have anyone else’s name attached.

Praise to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit
Glorious Trinity, one God, perfect in unity
Praise be to the Father
the source, foundation and end of all creation
Praise be to the Son
through him, all things were made,
and without him, nothing in creation was formed
Praise be to the Spirit
who broods over the waters of chaos
rejoices in creation and brings all things to their true form
Lord God Creator of All
have mercy on me
one of your creatures

Praise to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit
Glorious Trinity, one God, perfect in unity
Praise be to the Father
who in the fullness of time lifted the horn of salvation
joined the battle for our souls
and drank deeply from the cup of suffering for our deliverance
Praise be to the son
who incarnate of the Virgin Mary
was born, lived, taught among us until we crucified him
and then on the third day having arisen returned to us
Praise be to the Spirit
who pours divine compassion into our hearts
kindling our faith through hope to obedient love
and leads us into all truth
Lord God Saviour of All
have mercy on me
a child of yours.

Praise to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit
Glorious Trinity, one God, perfect in unity
Praise be to the Father
who being truly righteous and
who knowing the deeds, hearts and minds of all
judges all with  compassion, integrity and mercy
Praise be to the son
who having descended into the loneliness of our suffering
ascended to the father taking human flesh and frailty into the Godhead
and from thence shall come again to judge the living and the dead
Praise to the Spirit
who shows the world is wrong about righteousness
and therefore about sin, judgement and mercy
and pleads from our hearts for us
Lord God Judge of all
have mercy on me
a sinner.

Creative Commons License
Trinity Meditation by Jean M Russell is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at

Ethnographic Reflection on Praying the Rosary


I have been attending St Matthews Carver Street at the evening (6 pm) Mass. I suspect it is done partly as it gives a time the priest can be quite contemplative while praying the Mass and partly so members of St Matthew’s Carver Street who cannot make the morning Mass have another opportunity. Whatever the congregational reasoning is, importantly for me, it is a service of worship that does not depend on my attendance to happen. It does have a small core congregation. I think we might be reaching 3 to 5 and has a group perhaps five times that who attend irregularly as well as the congregational members who do it as a one-off. A good attendance is when we reach double figures. On the other hand, it is a growing congregation and includes recent converts. It is also an extremely prayerful situated service. It feels natural to turn up early and spend time in personal prayer and to continue personal after the service.  I go because I am able to pray with other Christians there and that in itself is a joy.

In the run up to Easter, between the 5 pm Evensong and the 6 pm Mass they each week had communal Stations of the Cross.  I did not participate but found that sitting in the church doing my own devotions meant that my mind formed a complex pattern where the devotions wove in and out of my own prayers without tying me particularly to them.

The final thing is to know that St Matthew’s decided to host an evening of prayer as part of Thy Kingdom Come and I was asked to put together an Iona style devotions for the evening. That would be a midnight so not many attending. They were starting with Evensong and Benediction, then the Rosary followed by devotion to the Sacred Heart, then personal prayer, then Charismatic style worship and Benediction aimed at the younger members of the congregation, finally personal prayer until closing. I felt that if I was to take closing worship I should at least turn up for something else. However, the Charismatic worship and Benediction clashed with the time I normally phone my parents and I also felt there was a good chance that it would make my mood lower. So I chose to attend the first part, then go home to ring my parents and pick up the last hour and a half again. With the rosary, my intention was basically to be in the church building and do as I had done with the Stations of the Cross.

What happened

Evensong and Benediction had been in the choir but with the rosary, the congregation moved to the main part of the church. I went halfway back in the church and knelt down to pray. I probably was not far enough back. The vicar came and sat on the same row. Maybe the rosary prayers spotted this. Anyway, one person put a rosary and the relative sheets beside me on the pew. Then they asked the vicar which set of mysteries to say as they had prayed the glorious ones earlier in the day. He said to stick with the glorious ones. These are:

  • The Glorious Resurrection of Our Lord (John 20: 1-29)
  • The Ascension of Our Lord (Luke 24: 36-53)
  • The Descent of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2: 1-41)
  • The Assumption of Mary into Heaven (Revelation 12:1)
  • The Coronation of Mary as Queen of Heaven and Earth (Psalm 45: 14-15)

Alright, I need to check the last two but I know the fourth reading was from Revelation.

They also asked me whether I would like to announce. I said very clearly “no”. I had no clue how the decades were announced and although I accepted they wanted me to participate, leading at all on a first time through just seemed to me a BAD idea. I needed to get the feel.

Most of the time it flustered me.  While the repetition of the “Hail Mary” was uncomfortable it is prayer I have heard regularly and semi-know. Other parts of the words used were completely new to me e.g. “O my Jesus”

O my Jesus
forgive us our sins
save us from the fires of Hell
lead our souls to Heaven
especially those in most need of Thy mercy

In the end, I gave up trying to use the beads and just tried to keep up with the prayers others were saying.

However when the final two decades happened my brain heard an elision happening. The passages that were used to refer to Mary were in more Protestant traditions understood as referring to the Church. If I took Mary, not as Saint but as a metonym for the Church then the Rosary became a profound prayer for the Church.

At then when I tried to return the rosary beads but asked to keep the instructions the lady who had placed them on the pew insisted I kept the beads as well. There is a strange part of me that thinks these beads are a proper rosary because I received them as a gift to be used in prayer whereas a bought rosary beads would not be.


Firstly, what I am not saying. I am not saying that all devotion to Mary is devotion to Church. Without a doubt, much of the devotion to Mary is straightforwardly aimed at the Virgin and is to me as a Protestant over the top. There is good reason to critique of the way it has fostered a poor idea of saintliness for a woman, where sexual purity seems to be the end all. Much of the later Marian tradition seems to me to be counter to the holiness I see as manifest in Christ and I would, therefore, deal with it as a suspect.

That said this elision is important. John Calvin makes the distinction between the visible and the invisible church. I tend to be generous where I see the visible church and view it as present anywhere where:

“Wherever we see the word of God purely preached and heard, and the sacraments administered according to Christ’s institution, there, it is not to be doubted, a church of God exists.”

Although I do not fuss too much about purely, it is enough that an attempt is made to speak the Word with integrity, to ask for purity is to ask for it to preached by angels and not humans. With this low understanding of the visible church, with what I have experienced of it, seen done in its name and heard of by report, it would be sensible to leave except there remains the Church Invisible.

” Sometimes when they mention ’the Church’ they intend that which is really such in the sight of God (quae revera est coram Deo), into which none are received but those who by adoption and grace are the children of God, and by the sanctification of the Spirit are the true members of Christ. And then it comprehends not only the saints at any one time resident on earth, but all the elect who have lived from the beginning of the world.”

  Inst. Bk. IV. ch. I. § 7.

It is this act of God that is referred to by Calvin as ‘our mother’ where salvation lies. Thus, because, there is still a connection between the Church and the Church invisible that I stay in the visible church however hard it is. In the end, I take Calvin’s interesting interpretation of Jesus’ teaching on divorce

…I shall start, then, with the Church, into whose bosom God is pleased to gather his children, not only that they may be nourished by her help and ministry so long as they are infants and children, but also that they may be guided by her motherly care until they mature and at last reach to the goal of faith. For what God has joined together, it is not lawful to put asunder [Mark 10: 9], so that, for those to whom he is Father the Church may also be Mother.

Inst. IV. 1.1

Not as simply applying to the Church and Christ, thus using the marriage synonym for that relationship as does Paul in Ephesians 5:21-26 but take it to imply a connection made by God between the Visible Church and the Invisible Church. The Glorious Church as seen by God can not simply be separated out from the dishevelled reality fo Church as experienced by many Christians.

What interests me is that the elision to Mary from Church as I experienced in praying the rosary maybe a bridge over the gulf that has grown up in Protestant theology between the Invisible and Visible Church.

Church as Mother, Bride of Christ and New Jerusalem

I am going to explore slightly. The actual clear New Testament references to the Church as our mother are few. You can take  Galatians 4:21-31 and see that Paul clearly refers to the Church as our mother. However, it should also be clear in doing so that he is picking up on already existent Jewish thought about the nature of Israel and the Jewish people. We get in Revelations the Woman who is giving birth and though that might be seen as Christ, hence the elision to Mary, when it talks of her other children (Revelation 12:17) that would imply the Church. We also get the New Jerusalem (Revelation 21) which is described as a bride of Christ (Revelation 19:7-9). There are more verses particularly those that liken the relationship between God and the Church to that of marriage.

The problem is that when it is dealt with in the New Testament the imagery always looks at the positive side of the story. The Church is seen as a virgin princess on her wedding day, the obedient spouse and the good mother who brings up righteous children. However, I think it is important to note that this is picking up a well-developed imagery for Israel from the Old Testament and that is not restricted in the same way.

First, it does have its fair share of such images and the Visible Church has readily appropriated them even when they are not in the text obviously about Israel. Thus the royal marriage Psalm ( Psalm 45 ) is seen as applying to the Christ and the Church. This includes also the positive imagery in Isaiah 62 which is a great poem to the future relationship between God and Israel.

However, we need to note that even here there is a different note. This is not about a virgin marriage but about a reconciled marriage. Israel is not purely pictured as the positive. Perhaps most noticeably in Hosea 2: 2-13

Plead with your mother, plead—
    for she is not my wife,
    and I am not her husband—
that she put away her whoring from her face,
    and her adultery from between her breasts,
 or I will strip her naked
    and expose her as in the day she was born,
and make her like a wilderness,
    and turn her into a parched land,
    and kill her with thirst.
 Upon her children also I will have no pity,
    because they are children of whoredom.
 For their mother has played the whore;
    she who conceived them has acted shamefully.
For she said, ‘I will go after my lovers;
    they give me my bread and my water,
    my wool and my flax, my oil and my drink.’
 Therefore I will hedge her way with thorns;
    and I will build a wall against her,
    so that she cannot find her paths.
She shall pursue her lovers,
    but not overtake them;
and she shall seek them,
    but shall not find them.
Then she shall say, ‘I will go
    and return to my first husband,
    for it was better with me then than now.’
She did not know
    that it was I who gave her
    the grain, the wine, and the oil,
and who lavished upon her silver
    and gold that they used for Baal.
Therefore I will take back
    my grain in its time,
    and my wine in its season;
and I will take away my wool and my flax,
    which were to cover her nakedness.
Now I will uncover her shame
    in the sight of her lovers,
    and no one shall rescue her out of my hand.
I will put an end to all her mirth,
    her festivals, her new moons, her sabbaths,
    and all her appointed festivals.
I will lay waste her vines and her fig trees,
    of which she said,
‘These are my pay,
    which my lovers have given me.’
I will make them a forest,
    and the wild animals shall devour them.
I will punish her for the festival days of the Baals,
    when she offered incense to them
and decked herself with her ring and jewellery,
    and went after her lovers,
    and forgot me, says the Lord.

This is not easy reading and the Church has too often seen this as only applying to Israel. We want Israel’s place without Israel’s judgement. If we are, to be honest about the Visible Church we too have gone after Baals. They may not be human idols, but the courting of power, those in power and the maintenance of face have led to a lot of betrayals by the Visible Church. One element that really annoys me is the tendency of Christians to be well aware of this happening in the parts of the Visible Church where they are uncomfortable and their willingness to turn a blind eye or deny it in the parts of the Church they are comfortable with.  The failing runs through the Visible Church like the raspberry ripple running through ice-cream. To uproot it would take vigilance of all Christians all the time.  What is worse is the very positive side of the imagery has been used to shut up people who would voice elements that indicate the dark side is present in the Visible Church. To be open about this is seen as failing to believe in the glorious nature of the Invisible Church.

The result of this denial of the dark side of this imagery, when applied to the Church, has led at least in me in a paucity of ability to pray for the Church. The continual struggle to keep the glorious and the dishevelled together overwhelms the attempt at prayer. I can pray for specific parts of the Church in specific situations. It can be easy for instance to pray for the persecuted part of the Church and those Christians who are persecuted but just for the Church.

A Protestant Mary

It is a glib remark that Protestants don’t do Mary. Like most glib remarks it is only partially true. There is a much more stripped-down theology of Mary within Protestantism which focuses on her ‘fiat’ and her nature as Christ-bearer.  With this, we tend not to deify but to concentrate on the humanity of Mary. She is not an idealised woman but a real woman. As seen in the Bible:

  • a young woman, unmarried who finds herself with child
  • a young woman who says dramatically yes to God
  • the mother of a runaway son (Luke 2:41-52)
  • the mother who provokes a son into doing a miracle (John 2:1-5 )
  • who is denied as his mother by her son (Matthew 12:46-50)
  • who see her son die (John 19:25)

From these fragments, Mary is neither a virgin saint nor a whore but a complex woman dealing with a potent and incalculable divine experience. There is no road map for this experience. She reacts sometimes with acceptance, sometimes with incomprehension, sometimes out of bewilderment and sometimes out of love. She is capable of provoking the divine to action and yet also has to accept the divine will is always beyond her control.

If I use this image for the Invisible Church two things happen. Firstly I can see why the Invisible Church needs prayer. Secondly, the divide between the Invisible and Visible Church is not so far. I can see the exasperated outworkings of a very human institution struggling to be faithful to a potent and incalculable experience of the divine in the visible church.

Returning to the Rosary

I have come a long way from my initial experience in writing this. I suspect that this goes back to my question “What does it mean to pray with St Cuthbert?” and particularly the first part of the answer which was to pray that the Church in the North of England may be close to its people.  Intrinsic in this is a need to pray for the Church. I am not talking the concrete forms here. Increasingly my intercessory prayer has become a holding imaginatively before God of those I am praying for. I struggle to do this for the Church for reasons given above. What I am finding is that while the Protestant in my still jibs at the language used, the holding the image of Mary as a metamyn for the Church while trying to focus on the salvation story (and yes I equally do not always think the passages chosen are the best) is actually quite a good way of trying to enter into this prayer.



and ends with a city of Gold

That title comes from a hymn whose first verse goes

God has given us a book full of stories,
Which was made for His people of old,
It begins with the tale of a garden,
And ends with the city of gold.

The verse captures rather succinctly the breadth of the Bible from creation to Revelation. The rest of the hymn focuses on the gospel but I want to look at the beginning and then end and relate them to politics.  What I want to take is narratively we are between the Garden and the City. Politically we have a spectrum which I will characterize as conservative to liberal. What I think is that it is quite useful to see the two as trying to direct our attention to one of the ends.

Let me take the easy one first. The conservative end of the spectrum the aim is to return to the Garden of Eden. It will be only in the case of a few religious nutters that that is taken literally. Rather what the Garden of Eden stands for is an imagined perfect past which they want society to return to. They want to put the genie back in the lamp and the apple back on the tree for then we can live happily for they think then the lion will lie down with the lamb and we will live in a good society. The ideal for that society is built of images of the past and the aim is to return there.

If that is the conservative one, then the liberal one must be looking forward to the City of Gold. We are here talking revelation, judgment day and the new Jerusalem.  In other words, liberals should have a well-developed eschatology. The problem is that on the whole they do not. I do not mean a cohesive single format, I am not really talking about Utopia here but a bricolage of the images, ideals, and principles that create a rich and desirable portrayal of a future reality. These ideas do not need to be compatible. I am not asking Liberals to be any more reasonable about their golden age than I think conservatives are. If you like we need stories of the city of Gold.

Unfortunately, my feeling at the moment is the entire eschatology is a combination of the formalism of human rights, a notion of equality and being nice or framed with if we campaign hard enough we will achieve it. We need to do better our stories need to grow.

My suggestions for getting there by liberal Christians

  1.  Drop the idea that we can bring about the Kingdom of God. This does two things. Firstly it leads to burnout with people carrying doing the same campaigning  long after it has ceased to be effective. Secondly, it has watered down our vision to what may be possible. Though we should work towards the establishment of the Kingdom the ultimate responsibility for heralding its coming lies with God.
  2. We need to rethink our theology. A theology that is anthropocentric tends to work in times of ease but leaves little to  inspire in times of need. We need humility to acknowledge that while God has gifted us greatly, he has not handed the world over to us. It is time to become more theocentric again.
  3. We need to visit the past. In WWII there were theologians who made sense of resistance even in dire circumstances. The Churches resistance to Hitler was not led by Dietrich Bonhoeffer but by Karl Barth. The isolationist USA was given a theology of engagement by Reinhold Niebuhr, not his brother Richard. I say this as a contextual Reformed theologian who believes that the faith needs restating for every age. However, we can only restate if we know our past and find the resources in it to re-imagine the future.
  4. We need to think again of the nature of the Kingdom of God. We have made it too much in the image of Western civilization. with hard boundaries of territory and clear distinction drawn between them and us. God is Other, and those who are other uniquely challenge us to see the image of God in them. We do not have to like them; we do have to see the divine in them. If a real alternative to the current capitalist system is going to come about it is not going to be the work of wealthy white males (Sorry Marx and Lenin).  They have too much opportunity under the present system. Crucially such a group will have a new anthropology (understanding of what it meant to be human) that empowers them.
  5. We need to rethink our place in the World. If our theology is too anthropocentric then so is our views on creation. Indeed they tend to be highly egocentric as we view the world first through our concerns, then through the concerns of those close to us, and so on until the rest of creation comes way down the list. If we are called to be stewards of Creation (a reading of Genesis 1:26) then we are bad stewards (Matthew 24:48-51). I am not really happy with that, this planet is more than somewhere to look after while its true Master is away. We need to start telling the story when we are not the hero.
  6. We need to take sin seriously in all its guises. I do not subscribe to the Garden of Eden story and I believe good is more firmly ingrained in the human psyche than evil. However, I find the narrative of the fall as the pervasive taint of evil in all human activity a good metaphor. That means we need to look for our own failings, we need to be aware of our partial sightedness (we still see but not clearly). The converse is also true, we need a theology that takes God’s judgment seriously. I believe is more interested in our humanity towards each other than in much that the church and society spout. That does not let us have a God where everything goes, it is just different things that are banned.
  7. We need to start small, big prizes are all very well but it is the small scale that is going to make the difference. I do not really care who is in the Whitehouse as long as it is thinkable that someone who has spouted the views Trump has can be. I am not talking legislation or censorship; I am talking cultural change and that happens in hundreds of small incidences that occur every day.  In a sense, I do not want to beat the conservative but to be such a way that they come alongside us. There is space for this, the small scale institution has been significantly undermined in recent decades.

Many will be calling for action and I can see the attraction in that. What I want to suggest is that at the moment we have work to do that needs doing before we can take that action. My concern is if we rush into action we will only gain a pyrrhic victory where the price is paid by the very people liberals are supposed to be seeking advancement for. That unless we are deliberate about imagining and re-imaging  the Kingdom of God then in striving for our aims we will end up losing that which we count as central.

God will protect

I am struggling with something and I am well aware that if I were to post my response by the posts that are there people will think it uncaring. However today a second source got me thinking more widely and I think I need to put this down before I forget.

I follow the devotions from Peachtree Presbyterian Church largely because the pastor Mark Crumpler seems to be on a similar wavelength to me and his thoughts are often enough worth hearing. Today he began with

And we know . . . all things work together for good (Romans 8:28)

Now the simple reading of this is nothing bad will happen to Christians, and if you ask for God’s protection he will give it. It is of  course from Chapter 8 a chapter with more than its fair share of Paul’s purple prose (excuse the alliteration). Between that an assuring us that nothing can separate us from the love of God you’d think it was a rosy picture but…

this is also the chapter where Paul says

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. (vs 18)


As it is written,
“For your sake we are being killed all the day long;
we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.” (vs 36)

Even the nice verses sometimes have a sting in them:
and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.(v17)
The bold is mine but I think it is getting to the core thing. I am not really sure how effect praying for protection from life’s ills is going to be when you are dealing with a god who got himself crucified! Somehow I do not think the protection from life’s ills are exactly a high priority with God. So although I will happily pray “Lead us not into the time of trial” I am not at all sure that life is going to work out, or even that “time of trial” means times when bad things happen. I have my strong suspicion he meant something else when he told us to pray that, that the troubles of this life although unpleasant weren’t exactly the trials he thought we should be asking to avoid. I think in some ways God is interested more in the bigger picture and how we fit within that.

Let me be clear the bringing out of wider purpose out of personal ill has been part of my life. Over fifteen years ago I was betrayed by someone I was in an intimate relationship with. I am not going into details, partly because I do not wish to but also because there is a sense in which I can ever only partly tell the story as big chunks are missing and I have to ability to find discover what should be in those chunks and none of the surmises really work. It left me in a state where I felt insecure in my own home and I could count on the fingers of one hand the people I actually trusted. It has left me with scars, most do not appear on the surface but scratch deeper and you will find that nothing is quite as it appears.

However it always resulted in me doing two things: firstly I needed to find a way to be able to cope with a world that I knew was largely socially created and that I could never be certain it was as I assumed it was; secondly I had spare time, did not want to invest in new relationships so went on a church study course instead. The study course eventually led to me taking first a masters and then my doctorate; the need to find new ways of understanding led me to an openness to Postmodernist theorists that I would not have had otherwise. Both of these have shaped my thinking for my thesis in many ways. If the betrayal had not happened I would not be writing the thesis I now am, I might well not even be doing a thesis.

So that I have seen but these are endings which tell of the bigger picture. Let me go back to todays devotion, it centres around Naomi, and her return to Canaan. She returns having lost her husband and both sons with Ruth. This is disaster and yet she is returning to family. Of course the story ends happily with Ruth marrying Boaz and becoming the grandmother of King David but let us not forget almost certainly Naomi never saw David, when she died she only knew of the security Boaz gave her and Ruth. She never experienced the bigger picture, the story God was involved with in all its glory.

So I am not going to be nice and pretend that if we accept God’s will we will personally see the reason for the hurt and suffering. I will say God can and does work through them but how or why I am not sure. Remember Christ’s prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane is not just that the cup of suffering would pass him by, but that in the end his father’s will will be done and that meant that it did not pass him by.  Thus the prayer to take up our cross and follow Christ is a prayer to accept the suffering that will come and to still follow God. It is not easy, I suspect in part that is why so many of the psalms are angry with God but it does seem to be God’s way.

Standards, we have got to have Standards

All right the title is jokey, the thing is the Reformed tradition has subordinate standards. Now don’t go looking in the Westminster Confession, or Belgic or the Statement of Nature, Faith and Order of the United Reformed Church for statements about Subordinate Standards, you won’t find any. The simple reason is this is self referential these are the subordinate standards. That means for all URCs that the principle Subordinate Standard for us is the Statement of Nature, Faith and Order of the United Reformed Church. So saying we don’t have standards is a bit stupid!

There is one thing every one should spot I have so far and will continue to do so, use the term Subordinate Standards. They are Subordinate to scripture. The Protestant shout of “Sola Scriptura” means that practically they never ever have been the final statement on the faith. Doctrine can and is Reformed in order to bring it better in line with Scripture. This is alive and kicking in Reformed Churches. I can remember being asked how a hymn of Kathy Galloways could get into Church of Scotland hymn book where it would struggle with its feminist images into an Anglican one. The answer was simple, the images Kathy used were Biblical, therefore the question was not “Are these images feminist?” but “Are these images Biblical?” and if they are then they trump all questions about whether things were feminist or not. Many Subordinate Statements say exactly that.

Secondly Subordinate Standards are about where the faith has been. Have a look at Reformed Presbytery of North America’s list and really go down them. You will find an odd bunch of documents. There are the standards such as: the Apostles Creed and the Westminster Confession, but then look what else is there like: Metrical Psalms and the Acts of General Assembly of the Church of Scotland betweeh specific dates! This does not look to me like a group trying to specify Doctrine it looks far more like a list of documents they tell where the group has come from. To ask who we are is nearly always to ask who we have been.

The picture I tend to come back to is of cairns, they normally come from places where the originating group for some reasons feels that it is a good idea to make a statement about how they see the faith. The reasons can be various; I am almost certain that the Congregationalists insisted on one when the URC was formed. They did not want any pesky Unitarians getting their hands on any property of the new united church and therefore having a statement was essential (the Unitarians won’t have a statement because that might meanthose troublesome Congregationalist getting their hands on the property). I think it is instructive that the requirement in the United Church of Canada to become a member is that you assent to belief in the Trinity (not the incarnation or ressurection) and this was insisted on by Congregationalists. The memories of fights in church history die hard. However it has to be said that fresh statements at the creation of a merged denomination are common. They equally occur at times of crisis, points of turmoil and not always theological, quite a few of them are political. However most of the time we plod along with those we have got and don’t pay much heed to getting new ones.

URC approach to “Substantial Agreement”

A while ago I drew two pictures of what we would mean if we required a ministers faith to be in substantial agreement with the subordinate standards. I suggested the URC’s approach was like the diagram shown here. I would suspect quite a overlap with the Basis of Union, maybe with quite a bit of agnosticism about parts of it, with other bits being inconcurrence with other Subordinate Standards which we accept. In other words the tradition is defined by having a broad scope with many overlapping subordinate standards and the requirement is that the faith falls mainly within those parameters. It does not mean that all ministers sign up to the same things exactly. Indeed although I have shown three here, there are at least another six named subordinate standards. I defy anyone to know them well enough that they can recall them at an instance and say what they agree and disagree with them let alone accept them all. Then there are the ones we don’t name but are included as “of the tradition” e.g. the Scots Confession. However what status is John Robinsons address to the Pilgrim Fathers at Plymouth.  You won’t find it on the internet, I might put it up at some stage if I get hold of it, but the paraphrase in the form of We limit not the Truth of God (ignore the tune) is widely sung in the URC and I have heard quoted in theological debate. There is thus a deliberate ambiguity.

Yes I use the subordinate standards, they have been an important vehicle of my initiation into Reformed Theology, but I do not use them in a sort of lets try to believe twenty impossible things before breakfast style. I usually read them through quite quickly the first time, to try to get a feel of them, what is important and how they stand. Then and this is an ongoing process I turn to bits I see as significant and try and work out why. It maybe I disagree with them, in which case I need to work out why, or it might be a phrase gives me cause for reflection, time to look deeper at other understandings. So Subordinate standards are there to say where we have been, not to determine who we are. Remember “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” (George Sanayana) so we need methods of remembering where we have been and knowing why we have travelled to where we are.

After Virtue and the Elephant in the Room

I am reading Alisdair McIntyre’s After Virtue for my PhD. I have no idea what its connection is with Congregational Studies but as quite a few papers cite it, I am reading it to find out. I am not at all sure that I will agree with the conclusion and if I do I will argue that it has come about in a very different way. This is because he is using a tradition I was brought up in as his starting off point and I disagree with his reading. In fact in my view his reading is far too kind what happened.

Lets start at a point where I can agree, that is with the Nicomachean Ethics and the idea that ethics is made up of a threefold scheme of “man as he happens to be” is discordant with his true nature with discordant ethics and needs to be instructed to realises what man could be. Thus there is natural state, ethical training and ends ([i]telos[/i]).

He goes on to posit that during the enlightenment what happened is with the idea of science that it could only deal with means not ends and turning ethics into a science (legitimate form of knowledge) then the telos was got rid of. That is there was no end to which ethics were directed.

To discredit this I only have to state the end and the very argument that he makes turns around. The ideal of instruction was to become the “purely rational man”. In other words there is a telos, but it appears to be a telos that at first glance fits our own world. In actual fact it is one of the most potent myths to inhabit the nineteenth, twentieth and twenty first centuries. I can trace it back that far.

Firstly when I did my early theological trainng or that first beyond the home to be exact, I did it in St Andrews, where David Hume is still a celebrated former member of the academy. However it was theology not philosophy I am talking about which is still Presbyterian. We were introduced to Kierkegaard but also to Schleiermacher. There you start to get the idea of the aethete, who has mastered rationally various arts, who becomes the new man.

Turn wider to a Sociologist Emile Durkhiem and read how he builds a picture of religion as starting off in superstition, through monotheist Judaism, Christianity and laterly Protestant Christianity man is slow able to gain a purer and purer religion until it becomes so pure there is no need for God, and the enlightened man is an atheist.

Darwinian evolution has been interpreted in this way then you get eugenics. No that is not accidental, I said my criticism of what happened was harder. The idea of a super-race that is purely rational and so on also haunts this form of ethics.

So to me the threefold scheme is not broken, but the telos is changed and in changing it becomes a monster that eventually leads to the holocaust. It is humanity faced with an ethics based on the “superman” myth driven to its natural conclusion that is repelled by what it has created.

To me, indeed to my theology teachers at University the ethics triad is not broken by the Enlightenment (perhaps that is one of the reasons my father does not believe in the Enlightenment) but rather it is broken by the carnage of the early twentieth century when it is obvious that even if man has developed rationally he has not developed ethically and no amount of rational training secures better moral outcomes.

Nor are we clear of it. The militant atheist are often so busy promulgating this myth at least indirectly. The idea all religion is about control and that a rational person must dispense with it and that the purely rational must triumph is yet this in another guise.