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Category: Theological Reflection

Back to my Roots? The legacy of Brooke Foss Westcott

Back to my Roots? The legacy of Brooke Foss Westcott

I finished reading Isabel Hardman on turned to thoroughly researched life of Westcott. There were many resonances and connections. As the son of a miner the title was arresting. Ordained in Durham after theological studies at Westcott House Cambridge there were further connections. I have a copy of his commentaries on Hebrews and St Johns Gospel and am in awe of this great mans scholarship, though his style of prose makes its demand on the reader !   Graham Patricks attention to detail in this  carefully researched portrait did not disappoint.

Of course we live in a different age and as a new year beckons us the Church of England faces particular challenges and opportunities. It is always wrong to idealise the past but equally reprehensible not to learn from is and especially those whose lives have been grounded, faithful and prophetic.

In Westcott we are struck in this biography by his scholarship. His prodigious devotion ( with Hort) on their edition of the Greek New Testament took years of care and devotion. Westcott show us what reverence of Scripture looks like and how these words have the power to transform. Much is made in our day of our distracted busy lives but there is something here about attention, reflection and the wisdom that comes from listening to the tradition. Theology isn’t a luxury but a necessity for love and growth in the Way.

In Westcott this study was grounded and contextualised in a deep sense of community. From the incarnation he derived a belief in universal human connectivity. He cared about the poor and disposed within an urban context.in Birmingham and Durham.In 1892, he helped miners to a strike settlement.

Westcott House Jesus Lane Cambridge

Westcott House, the durable theological college at Cambridge that issued from his efforts to nature an educated clergy. It stands in a tradition of open, generous orthodoxy of forming men and women for ministry within a broad and liberal tradition. Unconcerned about his own comfort Westcott ( we are told ) treated people as human beings. He was a pastoral Bishop who bothered very much about people and their lives.

 

An enriching read with plenty of connections and challenges. An encouragement to see the value of theology, to relate faith into the context of peoples lives and above all to nurture the value of a pastoral heart.

Brooke Foss Westcott

The Moral Heart of Public Service

The Moral Heart of Public Service

The Moral Heart of Public Service – Edited by Claire Foster Gilbert Jessica Kingsley Publishers (2017) ISBN 9781785922558  £18.99

Westminster Abbey takes its location to serve our national life with utmost seriousness. As well as attracting visitors from across the world the Abbey also seeks to engage with a range of major institutions and public figures, not least the British Parliament.

The Westminster Abbey Institute was founded in 2013 to build and develop mutual concern about the world we live in and what values might shape policy and politics. This volume of essays, carefully organised offer insight into the shape of some of these conversations.

Claire Foster Gilbert is a reflective, engaged and creative public theologian. She sets the scene in the introduction by outlining the shape and content of the book:

‘The essays and dialogues can be read individually or as a collection. They will appeal in different ways. None is intended to moralise, rather to share the skill, the effort, the camaraderie and the humour involved in making robust moral decision, in everything that is involved in sailing the ship wards a good destination, which should, after all, be seen as a profound and defining human endeavour for us all’ (p23)

The first essay, by the former foreign secretary William Hague explores the role of Britain as a moral force on the world stage. He asks us to think about our political vocation has one of service to the international community. There is a refreshing questioning of dogma and a restless openness in his reflections.

Three essays follow, written by Foster Gilbert, with a practical focus offers a framework for moral decision-making with some measure of sophistication and subtlety as the text reminds us that almost all decisions cannot claim moral perfection or indeed understand the consequences of the decisions that we make. There is in the process both virtue and truth but an implicit call for a deeper reflectiveness on analysis, perception and practice. This section of the book asks us all to consider how we nurture moral character.

Mary McAleese, the former president of Ireland is in dialogue with John Hall the Dean of Westminster in a chapter which explores building communities (p93). This need for reconciliation and the absolute necessity for emotional intelligence as we engage with one another is failings offers a deeply attractive appeal to the nurture of shrewdness and humanity. These are so often qualities lacking in some of public life including within our religious organisations.

Vernon White, Canon theologian at Westminster Abbey, offers three pieces, in a section entitled idealism and compromise. How do we live up to our convictions and ideals in a way which understands human fallibility and limitedness? There is a subtlety and depth to White’s writing which demands careful attention.

One of the great public thinkers of our nation, Rowan Williams, offers a reflection on the relevance of Benedict and his example and teaching in the public space of Parliament Square. Benedictine values in public life are then explored by Vernon White (stability) Andrew Tremlett (community) and Claire Foster Gilbert (the conversion of manners). The flow of this text in narrative is carefully integrated across the social, political, cultural, theological and spiritual worlds within which we all move.

Finally, one of our great political historians, Peter Hennessy is featured in conversation with Claire foster Gilbert, which took place during the profoundly destabilising political events of 2016. Here we see the value of a wise and reflective historian infused with a quiet confidence in the abiding transformation of spiritual values.

In the light of this positive review it would seem churlish to pick at (perhaps) obvious limitations ? However there are fundamental questions to be asked about the traction and purchase of such dialogue and reflection. Whose voices matter? Who do we listen to ? Where does power lie? What are the dangers of class complacency as public service is a matter (literally) of life and death for some. How far does our context collude with our view of what might need changing in order to really recover a moral heart? In a nation so divided geographically what hope might there be for a greater diversity of colour, age, sex and experience and an attention to their narratives?

This is of course too much to ask for – but the book stimulated these questions about what needs to change and how it might change. Dialogue and reflection, are important but only one step in building a better future where there is justice, equality and freedom for all.

Jessica Kingsley has done us a great service in publishing this book. It is to be hoped that those of us taken by its quality and depth might find ways of helping individuals and communities access both its content and the quality of its reflectiveness.

Professor James Woodward

Principal of Sarum College

www.sarum.ac.uk

 

 

Longing for a deeper Church ?

Longing for a deeper Church ?

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Andrew Walker, Notes From A Wayward Son: A Miscellany, ed. by Andrew D. Kinsey (Cascade, 2015), 322pp. no price marked. ISBN 978 – 1– 62564 – 161 – 8.

 

This is an intriguing, stimulating and rewarding book that offers a space within which Andrew Walkers rather original and distinctive voice can be heard. Some will know Walker through his groundbreaking study of the 1970s and 80s house church movement Restoring the Kingdom (Guildford Eagle, 1998). Others will have been influenced by him through his teaching and oversight of the Centre for Theology, Religion and Culture at King’s College London.

For over 45 years, Walker has witnessed the church change, die, move and grow – and the central question for him (and for us) is this ‘what kind of church will survive and flourish in the twenty-first century?’ For Walker only a ‘deep church’ will suffice and one that is attuned to the impact of modernity and therefore appropriately and suitably able to resist it. You will find in these chapters astute observation and intelligent interpretation of both church and culture. These gifts and skills are very often absent in contemporary ecclesiological strategy.

The book is divided into five probing and chapters. Part I: “Journey into the Spirit: Pentecostalism, Charismatic, and Restorationist Christianity” offers history and sociology in an analysis of self-styled renewal Christianity. The piercing questions about such approaches to the gospel provide the reader and reviewer with endless opportunity for marking the text. Walker speaks as an insider and an outsider within such the particular Christian tribe.

Part II: “Mere Christianity and the Search for Orthodoxy” offers pieces on C.S. Lewis, potential affinities between Lewis and Orthodoxy. The pieces on Lewis are especially good and offer shape to the ambition and shape of what a deep church might be.

Part III: “Orthodox Perspectives”, takes us inside Walker’s own denomination and as an orthodox Walker argues for the prophetic contribution Orthodoxy can give to our culture. The highlight of this part is the interview with Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh.

Part IV: “Ecumenical Thoughts on Church and Culture” includes an interview with Bishop Leslie Newbigin. Walker is unafraid to distinguish between good and bad religion and points out the distortions of a faddish, privatised, pop church that simply distorts both religion and Christianity. Trendy and attractive but in the end failing to nurture a deep wisdom.

Part V: “Shorter Pieces” offers a number of articles that continue to demonstrate the thinness of much modern Christianity. Here we have a lifetime of study, prayer, theological adventure that shape Walker’s questions about has so much of modern religion masks the face of God.

Do not be deceived by this book – it is as radical and searching a narrative as my desk has seen for some time. It will demand a disciplined to pay attention and listen to its voices. We need more wayward sons and daughters to offer to both church and world a maturity of presence and engagement that can deconstruct our fetishisms and build a deeper well from which our thirst for the mystery and knowledge of God can be quenched.

 

James Woodward

Sarum College

 

The Priest

The Priest

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The priest picks his way

Through the parish. Eyes watch him

From windows, from the farms;

Hearts wanting him to come near.

The flesh rejects him.

 

Women, pouring from the black kettle,

Stir up the whirling tea-grounds

Of their thoughts; offer him a dark

Filling in their smiling sandwich.

 

Priests have a long way to go.

The people wait for them to come

To them over the broken glass

Of their vows, making them pay

With their sweat’s coinage for their correction.

 

He goes up a green lane

Through growing birches; lambs cushion

His vision. He comes slowly down

In the dark, feeling the cross warp

In his hands; hanging on it his thought’s icicles.

 

‘Crippled soul’ do you say? looking at him

From the mind’s height; ‘limping through life

On his prayers. There are other people

In the world, sitting at table

Contented, though the broken body

And the shed blood are not on the menu.’

 

‘Let it be so,’ I say. ‘Amen and amen.’

RS Thomas

Back to Basics (part one) : forget the trappings – what about language?

Back to Basics (part one) : forget the trappings – what about language?

Ordinary Christians are constantly being invited to forget their language. Clergy are also tempted to dilute  the force of the language we represent in an attempt to be relevant. Yet paradoxically the pluralist character of our society offers us, once again, the space to embody and articulate distinctive  Christian discourse without feeling the necessity to reduce this to a more limited secular speak. Indeed secular speak is itself less secure as a language game than many of its protagonists would  hope. Under the challenge of late or post-modernity it is increasingly being seen as a particular and relative dialect rather than a definitive and universally intelligible language.

The question which all this raises, therefore, is how ordinary Christian communities in this sort of society are going to recover their language and become confident, fluent speakers of this lan­guage. In some way the answer lies in the way languages emerge and are learned. If by language we mean the way we render intel­ligible the multiple signs which comprise creation and acknowledge that languages are intrinsically social, then lan­guages require communities in order to emerge and develop. Furthermore, if they are to remain part of that linguistic tradition, these communities need to be conscious of how their identity informs the way the language is spoken. Languages are dynamic rather than fixed, they develop in and across time and space and I are relational rather than idealistic. Conversation is where languages live, even as texts. 

 

Shalom and Pastoral Care

Shalom and Pastoral Care

The undergirding theme of pastoral care is characterized by the Hebrew word shalom. This is usually translated ‘peace’, but that is inadequate. Greek ideas domi­nate western thought. As a result ‘peace’ has come largely to mean ‘the absence of war’, a state which produces prosperity and well-being. But the Hebrew is more positive.

 God gives shalom: it is always something greater than human beings can conceive or achieve. Shalom is mainly discovered through relationships.

Shalom has little to do with our contemporary preoccupation with the individual’s inner peace. Jesus himself was reported (Matt. 5.9) as having said ‘Blessed are the peacemakers’, people who generate shalom. Such people do not just prevent conflict or resolve disputes. By their lives they actively encourage the sort of relationship that removes (or at least diminishes) the causes of such struggles. To do this, however, the indi­vidual needs his or her own sense of support. Thus the concept of inner peace, which arises from God’s sustaining, correspondingly increases. The point is made by St Paul in Phil. 4.7: ‘And the peace of God, which passes all under­standing, will keep your hearts and minds.’ The gift is greater than anything that we can devise ourselves.

Shalom is the foundation of the Christian ideal of pastoral care. The first recipients of this peace were fellow Christians. The felt tension between Israel and the nations is often expressed in the Old Testament. A similar feeling re-emerged as Christians began to explore the world that they inhabited. As a result they began to try to define who was in and who was out of fellowship. Much of the New Testament shows how they vacillated. The Fourth Gospel, for instance, is notable for the way in which it runs the theme of God’s universal love alongside the critical nature of the individual’s decision for or against Christ. But the universal dimension of shalom always lurked. Christians found that the definition of ‘neighbour’ could rarely, if ever, be restricted to their fellow believers alone.

Theology and Worship

Theology and Worship

  

Theology is positioned by God who is Trinity, and to speak or think about God,  is not merely human talk, ‘because it in­volves the reception of the mind of God and the participation in the life of God’.

 To do theology is to be taken up into the realm of worship and glory.

It is this patristic theology of participation, worship and glory that forms the basis for our understanding of practical theology.

Theology?

Theology?

Theology is the Greek word for thinking about God.

 According to H. R. Mackintosh, ‘’theology is simply a persistent and systematic effort to clarify the convictions by which Christians live.’’

Theology is thereby also the clarification of convictions by which Christians engage in ministry. Therefore, God is the principal subject matter of pastoral theology, though from a pastoral perspective or more generally, a theology concerned with action. If God were not the subject of pastoral theology, it would not be theology. To render pastoral theology intelligibly requires almost a complete outline of theology.

 This is our task

 

 
Theological Study

Theological Study

Serious theological work today is or ought to be rather like working in a quarry, and quite specifically the kind of quarry which one finds in India, where men and women, and quite young children too, in the heat of the day hack away at the rock-face with simple implements, exposing themselves to danger, and committing to the task all their reserves of energy, intelligence, determination and strength.

I am not thinking of the modern fully mechanized quarry, where everything is done at a safe distance, at the flick of a switch, or the pressing of a button, where danger and sweat are minimized, and people do not themselves engage directly with the rock-face. That might be an image of the modem academic assumption that we are most likely to encounter truth in detachment, that objectivity is all, that commitment is a distraction, or leads to distortion of the truth.

No, I am thinking of the kind of quarry that we find in India and elsewhere, where:

  • The work is hard, demanding, exhausting.
  • The work does not bring high status or tangible rewards, indeed the very opposite. You work because of an inner compulsion, vocation or constraint.
  • Most of the work is invisible, rarely noticed or applauded. People in their cars pass by the quarry with hardly a glance as they go about their business.
  • The work is sometimes dangerous, full of unexpected hazards.  Co-operation is essential. No one can work the quarry alone; one must work as a team with others.
  • The workers in the quarry seldom see the end-product. The stones they quarry are normally used and fashioned far away.

to be continued!

Theological Quarry (2)

Theological Quarry (2)

The cliff-face in our theological quarry is the Bible and the rich resources and insights into truth which are to be found in the Christian tradition, and the other world faiths and ideologies that have interacted with the Christian tradition If we are faithful in our quarry work in the heat and sweat of the day, we produce:

  • Rough blocks of stone, which others may fashion and shape and use for building strong and lasting edifices – homes and hospitals, schools and churches, places of welcome and of service, places of stability, constancy and love, built of living stones. ® And from our quarry we also produce the small rubble stones called road metal, used for making firm, straight paths on which God’s people may move forward.
  • Occasionally we find a gemstone in our quarry, which delights by its beauty, sparkling in the sun.
  • Sometimes we come across a crystal, acting like a lens, helping us to see more clearly into the depth of things, to glimpse another world, to fmd a vision that others may share.
  • And then, as in every quarry, there’s loads of grit and dust, apparently useless, untidy, pervasive, irritating the eyes and coating the nose and throat. But if perchance a piece of that grit might ultimately find its way into an oyster, it gathers around the irritant layer upon layer until the grit becomes the nucleus of a pearl. The grit stands for the awkward, probing, irritating questions that a lively theology should address to church, society and culture.

So, back to the quarry, to obtain the fragments that serve as road metal, the living stones that make our homes and churches, the grit that provokes the oyster to produce pearls, the crystals that concentrate light into visions, the fragments that generate Utopias, that build up jigsaws of meaning, and that nourish the activity of truthfulness, love and justice which is the practice of God’s Reign.

Is that kind of theology the true service of God and humankind today?

 

Embracing the diversity of the Bibles Impact

Embracing the diversity of the Bibles Impact

Let us imagine entering a museum and contemplating one of the exhibits. The exhibit could be said to offer us a type of revelation, for it stands before us and communicates a message. However, the message of a piece of art is not simple, singular or able to be mastered. This is evidenced in the fact that different people will take away different meanings from the same artefact, demonstrat­ing that the message is concealed, elusive and fluid. When we ask ourselves about the meaning of the artwork, we are immediately involved in an act of interpretation which is influenced by what we bring to the painting.

 Many Christian communities view the stories and parables of the Bible as raw material to be translated into a single, understandable meaning rather than experienced as infinitely rich treasures that can speak to us in a plurality of ways. Hence revelation ought not to be thought of either as that which makes God known or as that which leaves God unknown, but rather as the overpowering light that renders God known as unknown.

A Cacophony of Voices

A Cacophony of Voices

 

The Bible itself is a dynamic text full of poetry, prose, history, law and myth all clashing together in a cacophony of voices. We are presented with a warrior God and a peacemaker, a God of territorial allegiance and a God who transcends all territorial divides, an unchanging God and a God who can be redirected, a God of peace and a God of war, a God who is always watching the world and a God who fails to notice the oppression against Israel in Egypt.

 

 

In the Bible we find a vast array of competing stories concerning the character of God that are closely connected to the concrete circumstances of those who inhabit the narrative. Just as personality tests offer us an unrealistic image of ourselves as a single whole, overlooking the fact that we are not only many different things in many different situations but also changing over time, so Western theology has all too often reduced the beauti­fully varied and complex descriptions of God found in the Bible to a singular reading that does violence to its vibrant nature.

 

 

The result is not an account that is hopelessly ideological, but rather a text that shows the extent to which no one ideology or group of ideologies can lay hold of the divine. The text is not only full of fractures, tensions and contradictions but informs us that fractures, tensions and contradictions are I all we can hope for.

 

What is theology?

What is theology?

If theology comes to be understood as the place where God speaks, then we must seek, not to speak of God, but rather to be that place where God speaks. Through our words and actions we seek to be the site of revelation through which people encounter the life- giving Word of God.

For some, this change in the understanding of theology seems to undermine the legitimacy of various Christian traditions, and ultimately that of Christianity itself. However, this is not the case. While our religious traditions may not define God, they can be seen to arise in the aftermath of God, both as a means of pro­visionally understanding what has occurred in the life of the person or community that has been impacted, and as a response to God.

Our ‘theological’ musings can thus be called a/theological insomuch as they acknowledge that we must still speak of God (theology, as tra­ditionally understood) while also recognizing that this speech fails to define God (a/theology).

Theology and Ministry

Theology and Ministry

The Church’s structures and intellectual formula­tions may become obsolete but ‘the life of actual loving and caring, guided by tested knowledge, cannot get out of date’.

Such an observation invites assent. But the illegitimate conclusion may sometimes be drawn that there does not have to be a link between the practice of pastoral ministry and the theological understanding that undergirds it. Unless, however, the theology that informs the practice of ministry is recognizably congruent with the theoretical world which illuminates its pastoral practice, the Church will prove hypocritical —that is, as holding at its heart two incompatible ways of thinking.

Holding the Presence?

Holding the Presence?

The theological undergirding of his grasp of the mystery of God in a systematic exploration of the Christian faith:

It is said that souls are not saved nor the Kingdom advanced by academic rigour, intellectual openness or the need to ask the awkward question. True enough. But without the  infrastructure of rigorous theological exploration and intellectual openness, evangelism and mission are all too likely to run out into the sands of irrelevance or superstition, bigotry or fanaticism.

The pastor as local theologian has to embody this stance in himself as he holds the mystery of God present to the everyday lives of ordinary men and women, believer and unbeliever alike.

Do we really know?

Do we really know?

 

One day Socrates made a young slave the centrepiece of a dialogue. Contrasting the innocent and ignorant boy with the sophisticated citizens, Socrates argued that ‘a man who does not know, has in himself true opinions on a subject without having knowledge’ (Plato Meno 85c). Theologians are in a similar position, and none more so than the practising minister. He has constantly to admit to people that he does not know; but at the same time he claims to have true opinions on human life, the nature of God, and the significance of both.

Caught between relevance and identity?

Caught between relevance and identity?

But many sensitive pastors today feel at sea.

The familiar horizons seem to become more distant as assumptions about the Church and the contexts in which it works are challenged and adjusted.  At the same time the sands begin to shift under our feet. Turmoil in theology is not confined to universities and colleges. If it were, most Churches and Christians would probably, as always, be largely unperturbed. The dilemma is: more acute: in many ways we know more about our world and ourselves than our predecessors knew. But knowledge does not necessarily lead to competent living.

All are caught between relevance and identity; the pastor is bound to feel this, for his ministry must be relevant to people and their predicaments, and it is based upon whatever sense of identity as Christian minister he can develop and which others can discern.

Pastoral Theology

Pastoral Theology

The theological undergirding of his grasp of the mystery of God in a systematic exploration of the Christian faith:

It is said that souls are not saved nor the Kingdom advanced by academic rigour, intellectual openness or the need to ask the awkward question. True enough. But without the  infrastructure of rigorous theological exploration and intellectual openness, evangelism and mission are all too likely to run out into the sands of irrelevance or superstition, bigotry or fanaticism.

The pastor as local theologian has to embody this stance in himself as he holds the mystery of God present to the everyday lives of ordinary men and women, believer and unbeliever alike.

 

The tasks of theological reflection

The tasks of theological reflection

The tasks of theological reflection

  1. The induction and nurture of members What does it mean to be a Christian? Who am I as a Christian believer?
  2. Building and sustaining the community of  faith. What does it mean to be the ‘body of Christ’ in this place and time? How are we to live faithfully and authentically?
  3. Communicating the faith to a wider culture. How is God to be apprehended and proclaimed? What does it mean to preach ‘Good News’? In what ways are Christians called to be signs of God’s activity in the world? How are the demands of ‘Christ’ and ‘culture’to be reconciled in the way that faith is proclaimed and lived?

 

God Talk?

God Talk?

Actual human speech about God, thus, is not abstract logical talk about an ‘ultimate limit’ but rather talk about life and the world, about our deepest problems, about catastrophe and triumph, about human misery and human glory. It is about what is really important in life, how we are to live, how to comport ourselves, which styles of life are genuinely human and which dehumanizing. But it is and can be talk about these matters only because it claims to be about that ultimate point of orientation to which all else must be referred.