A Restless People

Firstly I have reached a bit of an impasse. I seem to be totally confused about what has been put into my local congregations Newsletter. So what I am going to do is keep posting them to the editor when finished and putting up Monthly one here, but the order will not be the same as in the Magazine. Now onto this month’s piece

It is one of the oft forgotten things that John Calvin was a refugee in Geneva to the day he died, he never took Genevan citizenship. In fact Geneva at the time had a large émigré population of Protestants from France, as well as attracting others from as far away as Scotland.  It was also a faction ridden city, not really a comfortable place to settle. John Calvin is therefore unique amongst the Reformers in not serving within his own homeland but always as an alien.

This odd coincidence has become a repeated pattern of travel and dislocation within the Reformed tradition.  There are the Pilgrim Fathers, who travelled from North East Lincolnshire to Holland, then back to the UK and onto found Plymouth Colony in what is now the United States. Gainsborough URC claims direct descent from the congregation that they belonged to. The Waldensians travelled from their valleys in Northern Italy to Geneva to escape persecution in the seventeenth century. The five mile act making people walk five miles from their homes to worship. John Bunyan’s work, Pilgrim’s Progress was very much a creation of those days. More recently, the continual moving across the Scottish border of more fervent Presbyterians, which supported the former Presbyterian churches in what is now Northern Synod and then the Industrial revolution pulling Scots south into England to provide the management for the factories. The burning bush is the start of the story of the Exodus. Reformed Christians seem to be on the move whether voluntarily, force  or in the imagination.

This seems to have entered our psyche in the URC we even imagine our buildings as connected with travel. Some think of the church building as a meeting tent that moves with the congregation; if the congregation moves, then you need a new building where they now are. Or perhaps it is a caravanserai, a place where people who are travelling, could come together from their wanderings, a place of relative safety and companionship with other travellers.  It is hardly surprising we often struggle with being a local church, somehow we are never quite at home rather we echo the writer to the Hebrews:

For here we have no lasting city, but we are looking for the city that is to come. 
(Hebrews 13:14)

Responding through the tradition

The coupling of powerful ideas
with each able to stir the imagination
that pull against the other
falling into no easy rest
a turbulent route that
has dangerous falls on one side
a whirlpool that will suck us in
there is no quiet water between
the only way to move forward
is to use the force of one
to balance the other.

Is it surprising that
those who will navigate
these waters
speak in measured tone
the risk of a missed balanced
is not the slight wobble
but an infatuation
that sends you spiralling
into the whirlpool of
a God so loving that
we can not conceive him
of him judging anyone
is beyond him
or head towards the falls
of a God who is so holy
that we are so base material
that we are destroyed
by the temerity even to approach.

However there is a third monster
that travels with the careful
tried and tested navigator
that captures the unwary sailors heart
by saying there are no monsters glories
and with careful line of thought
final safety may be assured
thus giving us deadly words
that do not speak to the heart
which sucked many careful people
dry of the blood of passion
for we have lost more to it
than too the others.

Struggling with Easter

I long ago fell out with the liberal Christian group or atheist who want to ask questions about how the resurrection really happened. Whether the talk is of “conjuring tricks with bones”, questions of the physicality of the resurrection, body snatching or the idea that some how Christ was in a coma. It is not that I want to argue with them, it just is not a question that I see as answerable or being really of interest. My God is certainly capable of doing it, whether he did or not is lost in the midst of times. What I am struggling with is why he did whatever he did.

First let me be honest where I am coming from. I do not want eternal life, thank you! The idea that my life might end and there be nothing more seems desirable. Indeed so desirable that if I had genuinely believed that was an option I would have been dead over twenty years ago. To me and I suspect some others with mental health problems, the simple act of existing feels wearisome. Do not get me wrong, I can feel joy, can participate in events, join in celebration and enjoy a quiet read. But I know I will come back to reality of me and how tired I am of it. When I am down this tends to sap the energy to do anything. When I am moderate I find silence and low activity levels totally absorbing. When I am up as at present, it acts more as a fantasy.

Now I struggle with Easter in two ways. Firstly the tendency to view it as the “happy ever after” end to the story. In most atonement theories it looks as if Christ’s action on Good Friday was enough. The Easter Sunday is an add on that seems to be the implausible ending to make a happy ending. There is one exception and that is the exemplar of God’s love theory. The argument would go that Christ went through the worst of human experience, was given the option to not come back and did. When I meet that one, the resurrection to me becomes mind blowing, its just not something I can imagine myself doing. I am not sure that I love anyone enough to be given an out and still come back. It makes no sense and yet in some ways it shows me something I can only just grasp.

However having got that far, I then run into the talk of eternal life. You think this is good news, well to this individual it is not. My personal idea of Hell I suspect is pretty close to a continuation of this life with the daily task of existing. Yet on Easter day I am supposed to get excited about that. Well I am not and no amount of jumping up and down will make it so. Yes I have lost people I care about to death, but I also did not want to hold onto them, keep them here. My Grandparents on my father’s side were really quite cross with God for letting them live so long. People walk out of my life for a whole host of reasons and death is only one of them. I have learnt to accept that though they will not be replaced yet I will find new friendships and different ways of living without them.

Here are some things that might just appeal. If the resurrection means that there will be a final reckoning when we will face the total of our lives, when the injustice, cruelty and such will finally be called to account, I can actually see something worthwhile in that. I need to face the hurt and pain I have caused to others, to not do so is to be deluded about who I am. I do not expect it to be pleasant but I do expect the integrity that goes with it to be a good worth savouring.

However there is another thing that I feel that if I could glimpse more than just mentally stretch towards might somehow make it and that is the experience of living a life shaped absolutely by the worship of God. Do not get me wrong I do not mean one where all day every day is a praise service. Our worship of God is wider and deeper than that. I mean one where for a while I am simply caught up in living so as to honour God. To focus not on existing but on the creator. I occasionally get moments of wonder, but the wonder is fleeting and I move on, as if nothing has happened. I want the tensions that seem part of living to be resolved for a short while and somehow they never are. Therefore if somehow I can imagine that eternal life is to be the briefest of flickers in the molten love of God and caught up in the heavenly praise then I begin to find images of eternal life that promise me not the endless dull tiredness but a relief from having to exist.


DSCF0001As I write this I am about to go on holiday (yes it was written well in advance) and amongst my plans are to do a few walks, not particularly difficult walks, maybe one out to take photos of a lighthouse, a walk around a RSPB site I have not visited before, a couple of afternoons Geocaching with my Goddaughters, that sort of thing, dry weather would be nice.

This has got me back pondering the restless nature of the Reformed, but particularly our attraction to walking. St Andrew’s has its own walking group. In that it is not unusual for a URC, the majority of those I have been in do. Indeed up until fairly recently I just assumed that having a walking group was something churches tended to do. Then for some reason I checked it out. Other traditions just don’t do it in the same way.

However by the mid-nineteenth Century many Non-Conformist churches had walking groups. These were aimed a people in the towns to provide an alternative to more hedonistic attractions for their spare time. The idea was closely linked in with the work of Wordsworth and Ruskin and seeing in nature a more spiritual connectedness than there was pleasure attractions. One Sunday in 1891 T A Leonard at the time a Congregational Minister in Colne in Lancashire got up preach a sermon extolling the advantages of a walking holiday when compared with more commercial pleasures of Blackpool. It was a sermon that was to change a life and that life was his.

The church meeting took him at his word, and he ended up leading a holiday for young men. It got heard about by a prominent Congregationalist minister and Social Reformer, John Brown Paton, who was looking for a way to keep the Book Clubs he’d set up going over the summer. The result was he approached T A Leonard about running holidays connected with the book clubs and thus the Cooperative Holiday Association (1894). T A Leonard went on to form the Holiday Fellowship (1913) and Glasgow HF Outdoor Club (1917, while serving as a minister in Glasgow) among other things. He is also credited with being one of the founders of the Ramblers Association and influential on the Youth Hostelling Association. Walking was chosen not simply because it washealthy exercise, but because the pace of it allowed a person to connect more deeply with the countryside around. It was therefore not simply a physical exercise but a spiritual one as well, and I pretty sure that the fact that they were walking together meant an emphasis on the communal and the enjoyment of being with each other. Indeed now I can say why the chores on Iona are so reminiscent of Youth Hostelling holidays in my youth, the same Reformed piety of all sharing in the work and keeping down the cost was behind both.

Two types of Doctorate

I am coming to the conclusion that there are two types of PhD in existence. Let me start with the prompts for this thought. There is Pat Thomas’ blog on enjoying academic work and also a post on LinkedIn that suggested that we should no longer have part time PhDs.

I am going to consider two doctoral students. There is on the one hand Bob. Bob is young bright and wants to be an academic, he is interested in his nanotechnology and has got a fully funded PhD in one of the major research teams in the world. As this is a research team, his supervisor has chosen the topic, he works with other researchers and team meetings are an important part of his research. He has presented a couple of papers at conference and has been first author on one and a third author on another paper. He sees research as collaborative but knows that he will have to write up his research though he can expect his supervisor to vet it closely. He works long hours but also is a long distance runner and takes his training quite seriously

Then there is Bill, he is bright, but as he has spent most of his life teaching in variety of schools he is no longer young.  Having taken early retirement and come into a legacy, he has decided to follow through on his interest in the establishment of the local schools prior to the education act. Wanting to turn what had been an interest for a number of years into something more formal, he had approached a lecturer at a nearby university who had an interest in the history of education, who had agreed to take him on in a part time basis, having seen some of the writing he had already done for a local history society. Bill is grateful for the access to the library, his supervisors supervision and the occassional chance to meet other people in the area at the occasional seminar. He has paid his own way to one or two conferences and presented a paper there. However he has several articles published of which he is sole author. Bob puts what time he can find into his thesis between looking after his wife who confined to a wheel chair with arthritus.

These are of course fictional and deliberately drawn to be polar opposites. Bob is your quintessential career academic. He is enthused with the ideas of nanotechnology and is happy to be doing research into an area of it. That his supervisor actually decided what his thesis is about, does not really matter too much, he just is excited about studying it. He expects that at least at some stage to work with other resesearch teams and to have to work up the system to become lead researchers. For him the doctorate it just part of his involvement with nanotechnology. He would be unhappy if he did not get a job that allowed him to continue in this area of study. For Bill the opposite is true. If his supervisor started to try to direct him away from the investigation of origins of local schools to something the supervisor was more interested in, then Bill is likely to just walk away. Bill is not wanting the job that comes from having a Doctorate he is wanting the ability to indulge his interest in a topic that enthuses him and is paying for it. Bill is not going to be upset if he does not get a job from his research, partly because he is not at that age and partly because he is acknowledges that that is not why he did this.

The result is that Bob and Bill look at working in academia very differently. For Bob this is his equivalent of a being an elite sportman, it is what he is working for and he darn well hopes to get there. For Bill it would a surprise and a delight that enables him to continue exploring what he is interested in.

Now what I am going to suggest is that Bill will be far more aware of his enjoyment of academia then Bob. Not because Bob is a worse academic, he isn’t, indeed the stats show Bob has a much greater potential to be a leader in his field then Bill, but simply because where as for Bob being in academia is something he has striven and worked for; for Bill what has driven him is the curiousity and he finds himself in academia because that is where his curiosity has led him and therefore he receives the environment of academia as gift where as Bob sees it as a goal.


This month I am doing something different as no article appeared in my congregations magazine. Back in the summer I attended a conference on Reformed Spirituality. Two meditative pieces of writing came out of the conference. I have chosen the one that picks up journey as there is something very restless about Reformed spirituality. However there is another reason for this, in writing this I started to find ways of speaking from the tradition that seemed to capture the multiplicity of its threads. These meditations look as if they flow tidily through and yet with careful reading of this one you will find that in actual fact there are jumps and incongruities that slightly jar with each other:

“O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you;
my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you,
as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.
So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary,
beholding your power and glory”*

Its a long way back
along the river where perch rise
beside the trolley from last week’s shopping
past the barges named Jerusalem and Salome
the path-dirt dusts our feet
as we step between the thin bank grass
we pass youths gathered under
the generous shade of a horse chestnut
to share the dregs in a lager can
their dog barks at our imprudent approach
but is distracted by a passing cox’s yell
Still there is far to go
Past the fun fair stalls on the edge of town
selling bows for babies and lurid coloured clothes
our feet twist on the bicycle rutted path
until they hit unyielding concrete of slabs
bordered by a high walls
a heavy church door clunks closed
and coffee drinkers stare out of cafe window
while their iphones recharge in front of them
a bible carrying nun greets us
as she mounts her bicycle and rides away.
Still there is farther to go
the bridge rises to another road
that leads us by garden fence and hedges
until they are replaced by stone topped walls
a gate opens leading to a rising path which leads
across bog cotton where dark earth crumbles
as our too heavy feet make uncertain progress
and sheep drinking from peat-orange stream
are all who observe our progress.
Still we must go on.

*Psalm 63:1-2 English Standard Version

The debate over the colour of church padlocks

This is a story I have told before and no doubt will tell again elsewhere but it shows the way something trivial can have layers of meaning.

Many, moons ago, I was sitting in a classroom in Westminster college when the tutor (not a member of Westminster staff) opinined that the reason we got heated debates over the colour of church padlocks is that people felt that they were qualified to have an opinion about that.

I came back and happened to recount the story to my minister. She then recalled a heated church meeting of several years ago where one senior member got up to complain that the guttering was not painted Presbyterian Blue any more. In other words the choice of colour of padlock on the church gate might well be a sign of identity.

However what colour was Presbyterian blue, well as far as I can tell it is a light shade of Royal Blue. Well it is a highly political statement

The blue and buff of the whigs of the present day probably derive their origin from the Presbtyerian blue and orange favours, which were worn at the time of the Revolution to commemorate the deliverance by the wisdom and valour of the Prince of Orange

This is a foot note from Hudibras: a poem, Volume 2 By Samuel Butler, Zachary Grey, John Heaviside Clar.

Now lets start un picking that. Presbyterian blue symbolises both loyalty to the Protestant monarchy or maybe both monarchist and protestant.If we take the Whig reference, where they seem to have stuck with the orange or buff with their golden bird (hang on is that background Presbyterian Blue?) yet non-conformity particularly Presbyterianism and Congregationalism have stuck with the blue.

In a very short while I have taken you a long way from the debate over padlocks. Does the colour matter? If so what level of symbolism matters?

The misplaced symbol and liturgical practice

I in said “I it use a word tone what a scornful, when Humpty just less choose means neither more nor Dumpty”

That does not make much sense does it.You might just realise that it is the quote from Alice through the looking glass

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in a rather a scornful tone,”it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”

but it hardly says that because the words are deliberately put in the wrong order. You see Humpty Dumpty is wrong, words are symbols and symbols get their meaning through use and relationship. That is how people use words and the various connections, rules and associations that we apply to the use of the word. Syntax and grammar are just two of these relationships.

If words are taken out of their relationship their meanings change:

A-‘s a giggle now
bit on it Osiris, Ra.
An अ an er.. a cough
once spoking your valleys with light.
On it St Pancras station,
the Indian and African railways.
That’s why you learn it today.

Get back to your language

According to Homi Bhabha this is taken from Adil Jussawalla‘s poem Missing Person. What Bhabha points out is the use of “अ” which is the first letter of the Hindi alphabet and takes the sound “er”. It ‘misplacement’ make the monoglot English speaker, such as me, stumble as we do not have the skills for interpreting the symbol. Yet oddly in that stumbling might make the intended sound, showing his poetic skill. The symbol used where it is not expected causes a tension within the poem. It carries meaning but takes it at the cost of being unintelligible.

If you have travelled with me so far, you may at least be persuaded that symbols at least in part take their meaning from their use and relationships, if they are placed elsewhere they change their meaning but that change comes at a price and that price can well be incomprehension.

Let me now turn to liturgical practice. It is accepted that all acts of worship include the handling of symbols. At the most basic level because all human culture involves the handling of symbols. That meanst that within the worship setting there is a system developed of handling symbols and in doing this the symbols gain specific meanings. Quite often the meanings are left unspoken or explained and it is assumed an initiate can read them.

Now in the current ecumenical age it is often assumed that symbols may be lifted from one rite and placed into another without altered meaning or even with an alternative meaning.

It should be clear from what I have written above that actually such behaviour is an act of colonialism. That is the persons so doing it, are trying to appropriate that which belongs to a symbolic system not their own and to incorporate it into their own. To a certain extent this has always gone on and the CofE as the most powerful colonizer in the UK is a past master at it. However just because the URC is a bit player does not excuse it when it does similar. I am not going to say never but the use of a symbol from another symbolic tradition needs to be done with care. There are dangers.

Firstly the transplants tend to act rather as the अ above. That is they take on a similtude of their intension rather than the actuality. Sometimes they can even mislead. My colleague at work, someone who as far as I know is a thorough going secularist and most of the time is not bothered by religion, for a few weeks in his late twenties took to wearing a cross. He wore it upside down. I decided this could not go uncommented on so I asked him what his devotion to St Peter was.  So you need to be careful about the relationship between what the symbol means in its original symbolic system and what you intend it to mean.

Secondly the introduction of a new symbol into an already existent system has knock on effects. That is they have a tendency to smuggle in more than the smuggler intends. The result is a rearrangement in the meanings associated with the other symbols within the original system. The liturgical year is only brought into non-Conformist worship at the expense of the careful exegetical preaching through entire books that formed one of the planks that made us whole Bible people. That was not the intention of the innovators, they wanted to get away from preaching on a passage of your choice but now huge chunks of the Bible are rarely preached on.

Therefore I would suggest that care was taken when you move a symbol from one symbolic system to another. The movement should not be in such a way that it denigrates the integrity of the original symbolic system; the movement should be careful that the symbol works in an effective way within the system into which it is placed.

 We are humans, we live within a culture and are bounded by that culture. Humpty Dumpty is wrong, because our use of symbols can never solely be what we intend them to be, they will always Janus like look back towards the previous uses and on towards the future uses. The meaning never fully resolved within the instance they are performed.

Is anybody out there?

When you talk to people about the Reformed tradition they often say that it is strong on the Sovereignty of God. God is the one in control and calling the shots. It seems to come with the territory; God is the one whose will is supreme over all of creation. We like to stress how because God is all-powerful, he is not like another human being.  God is omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent ; God is not just a super human; God is different; God is other.

Hang on a tick, what was that last word “other”. As a sociologist “other” is a potent word. It is used in two distinct ways. The first meaning of “other” is that which is lost between the conceptual and the real; the intangible something that disappears when an act is said or done. If you want a concrete example think  how once a choice is made the other options are no longer available. It is essentially something we only know through loss but it is everywhere around us. Actually it is quite a good image for God, something so close it haunts every word you speak and yet so intangible that in the act of speaking it disappears.

The second definition is less comfortable; “other” also refers to that which is outside the core, the negative image of a concept. Therefore the term “other” is sometimes seen as being female instead of male, being black rather than white and being gay rather than straight. The person without a home, those who are disabled and the immigrant seeking work are all examples of the other. In which case the bible verse “He ensures that orphans and widows receive justice. He shows love to the foreigners living among you and gives them food and clothing.” (Deuteronomy 10:18 New Living Translation) has a specific potency. These are not just the people God defends because he is just but by their very outside nature they are of God, in a way that those more powerful among the chosen people were not; reflecting back at the insiders something of God’s otherness.

If that is the case, then I have been making God too small and I suspect I always will do.  The challenge (if you like the act of repentance for this) is for me to see God in the places where I am uncomfortable and by so doing to extend my image of what God is like. Maybe by so doing I will open up new possibilities and find God is there within new situations, speaking in the unlooked for opportunities.

Show it me in the Bible

 “My Uncle Dr. Duncanson,” said MacPhee “whose name may be familiar to you – he was Moderator of General Assembly over the water, in Scotland – used to say ‘show it me in the word of God’. And then slap the big Bible on the table” (C.S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength)

If you are like me, this pen portrait in three lines rings rather too true for comfort. C.S.Lewis has picked up something about the Reformed character and portrayed it perhaps a bit too accurately. This negative way of silencing arguments with “It says in the Bible” and then glaring at anyone who dares to argue ready to declare them a heretic or worse.

Don’t get me wrong there are times when it can be used to advantage as well. I can remember an Episcopalian priest (American) on Iona commenting shortly after Church Hymnary 4 had come out about the fact that several of Kathy Galloway’s hymns were included with their strong feminist imagery. I then pointed out that they got through because the imagery was not just feminist but also Biblical and therefore fine. It was in the Bible therefore it was fine to use.

Then there is the security blanket approach. When I did TLS Pastoral Care, one of the questions was, would the course involve lots of Biblical material? The answer given was positive, as I would have expected from a Church of Scotland dominated course. But that reassurance was sought and given makes me feel that just by using bits of the Bible made the course safe.

Now I know it is the first of the five Protestant Solas (by scripture alone, by faith alone, by grace alone, through Christ alone and to the glory of God alone), that for the Reformed the Bible is held to be the final standard for faith. I don’t want to change that, but I wonder if using the Bible as a club to hit people with, as a cover to get things through or as a safety device to make sure nothing dangerous is happening is actually using it with integrity. I want however to suggest another picture that of a magic looking glass. That is the Bible mainly tells us about humans and how they relate to God, but through that we catch an image of the reality of the divine. It is as George Herbert wrote:

‘A man that looks on glass,
On it may stay his eye;
Or if he pleaseth, through it pass,
And then the heaven espy.”