Advent Sermon 2021 from Ian Tattum

Nostalgia can be a dangerous thing.

When people drown in the sea off the Kent coast, there really are people who rejoice in the loss of life, because their sense of what England has been is threatened by desperate human beings who are different from themselves.

And at a much less serious level, nostalgia can cast a golden glow around the past, which can make us all overly uncomfortable with the present and fearful of the future. When I talk to my mother about the 1970’s, for example, we both have to work hard at reminding each other of what it was really like for both of us, and remembering the huge challenges as well as the flashes of good memories which often spontaneously come to the surface.

The run-up to Christmas is a naturally rich season for looking back with a golden glow. We were not a churchy family, so for me the season began with Blue Peter Advent wreath, and I inescapably came to see the weeks before Christmas as a type of countdown period to the great day itself: a day for family and familiar TV programmes on which we could all hope for a few precious parcels under the Christmas tree and, in those days, actual snow.

The church’s season of Advent lands with a crash into such cosiness, if we are paying any attention to it! The end of the world and the uncompromising teaching of John the Baptist overshadow most of it, for a start. One of the readings set for the First Sunday of Advent is from the prophet Isaiah, chapter 51, and is a classic of the good news/bad news genre.

First the bad news.

‘Lift up your eyes to the heavens, and look at the earth beneath;
For the heavens will vanish like smoke,
And the earth will wear out like a garment,
And those who live on it will die like gnats.’

Now the good news.

‘But God’s salvation will be everlasting, and his salvation will never cease.’

And, whereas in last week’s Gospel we heard John the Baptist announcing that Christ will be coming after him and will make the crooked straight, this week we hear John the Baptist preparing Christ’s way by doing exactly that himself – putting the crooked straight: greeting those who come to him with the words ‘You brood of vipers’ and then telling everyone that real repentance demands a serious shift in the heart. The very first thing that John the Baptist demands of everyone is that if they have two coats, they must give one away to someone who has none, and if they have food they should share it with those who have none.

It is tempting to let our minds skip over these words, especially at a time of year when we might be hoping for yet another coat for ourselves and planning lavish entertainment and consumption. But we can’t unhear them.

One of the traditions of this time of the year is that some clergy and preachers get very grumpy. They complain that no one realises that Advent begins on the First Sunday of Advent and not the first of December; that Advent calendars have been replaced by countdown calendars and are more about confectionary than the nativity; and that no one, especially other churches, or other clergy, or people in the pew, really appreciate or pay any attention to the message of Advent any more, or even know the symbolism of the Advent wreath. Often this culminates in the proclamation to people who have bothered to come to church at Christmas that most of what they cherish about Christmas is beside the point.

I am not sure that any of this carping is useful or wise

The season of Advent is, I would suggest – like the entire Christian Year – a time for a particularly rich kind of nostalgia. That is, if we take nostalgia to be, not just a looking back at an edited past to make sense of the present, or a means to bring comfort and enchantment into our lives – which we so often need — but a looking back to get inspiration and encouragement to brave the present and what is to come.

Our faith is rooted in constant acts of remembering and retelling, of the story of God’s love for the whole of creation and the impact of the gift of his Son, Jesus Christ – from the Beginning to the end of all familiar things. We are remembering and bringing these things to the forefront of our minds whenever we pray or read and think about the Bible, alone or together, and whenever we celebrate the Eucharist or recite the Creed.

The Church Year is an amazingly beautiful and enriching invention; but invention it is, because, in one sense, every day is Christmas, and Easter, and Lent and Advent.

The Church’s seasons provide moments when, in different ways and with various moods, we seek to approach that great mystery of God for the world, and at loose in the world, and present in our lives, on every single day of the year.

When those of us called to preach fail to use our pulpits for wagging fingers we are still sometimes expected to tie up all the loose ends in a neat theological bow, but perhaps our main job is to point to those hanging threads and invite you to follow the one which helps.

So here are three distinctive threads of Advent.

Firstly, that John the Baptist did not just announce Jesus’ coming, nor just baptize him in the river Jordan – which are both marvellous things in themselves and therefore should never be diminished by the word ‘just’ – John was more like the opening movement of a symphony, who in turn drew on a tradition much older. When he challenged the crowd to lives of radical generosity he was re-iterating not only the insights of the Old Testament prophets, but reaching beyond that to the original intentions of God.

The second thread is that, if we were all to take forward to Christmas and into our lives the assurance that all humans have been made for kindness and love, the effect could be astounding. This is how humans were meant to be.

And thirdly and finally, Advent helps us to recall that we, like all humans before us and who will come long after us, are part of a story which has not yet unfolded.

The big misunderstanding that Advent has sometimes led to is that the world is heading towards a brick wall, that everything will unravel tomorrow. But we are for now in the middle of things. There are many reasons to be afraid, but also many things to cherish and draw hope from. That light we celebrate particularly at Christmas – Christ, the Word – is still coming into the world, over and over again, in acts of kindness, words of truth and lives of integrity and courage…the world over.

‘Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!’ A Reflection for the First Sunday of Advent from Krista Ovist

The Christian year begins, not – as might arguably make more sense – with the Feast of the Incarnation, but with Advent, a season of repentance and preparation that looks forward to the End Times, to the hour when Christ will, as we profess in the Nicene creed ‘come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.’

This curious way of beginning at the end gives me pause, because I have to admit that anticipation of the Second Coming has never been a piece of my piety.  I am confident that ‘heaven and earth will pass away’, as Jesus says in the appointed Gospel text for today, but I have absolutely no expectation that this event will be punctuated by the appearance of a human-like figure coming in a cloud.  I’m simply too much of a modern rationalist for that, and there’s no help for it.

And yet I say the Nicene Creed in this place nearly every week.  I also proclaim the ‘Mystery of Faith’ – ‘Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again’ – at every Eucharist.  It’s one of my favourite parts of the liturgy, in fact.  I even have a tendency to say it too emphatically, precisely because it catches – because I know I’m struggling to know what I could possibly mean by it.

Strangely, those words – ‘Christ will come again’ – have become especially meaningful to me as words in need of new possible meanings for me.  They show me where Christianity has, in effect, died back for me – or where post-Enlightenment thinking has taken an axe to it – and where, consequently, there is need – and room – for new growth in new directions, new shoots branching from the old stock.

The part of the old stock that best helps me cultivate a new understanding of the Second Coming is, of course, the Lord’s Prayer.  Although often repeated, this prayer is never the same twice.  It is always a new prayer for a new day – for this day, in which we ask God as sovereign to come again, to feed and forgive us again, and to enable us again to withstand a time of trial.  Our failings of the day before have died; we have risen with a clean slate for this day, and God is with us.  There is everything to hope for, no matter how badly we did yesterday; the love of God returns to us this day.

There is a wonderful assertion attributed to Martin Luther that, sadly, he probably never made.  Attempts to locate it in his works have failed, and no one knows how the attribution got started.  This is what he supposedly said: ‘Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree.’

What does this mean?  I like it.  I find it inspiring.  But why?

Here are three things I would be happy for Luther to have meant by this statement, had he made it, which he probably didn’t.

First, I would be happy for Luther to have meant that he knew that all claims to know when the world will end according to the Bible turn out to be embarrassingly wrong, so he would just carry on and plant the apple tree he had in mind for his garden all along.

Second, I would be happy for Luther to have meant that he wanted to be found keeping faith with creation when Christ comes, so that he could ‘stand before the Son of Man’.

But, third, I would be happiest for Luther to have meant that he knew from all those Bible passages we now read for Advent – the ones about branches and shoots and vines – that the end of the world would not be total, that some young sapling growth from the old world would carry over to the next, and that his apple tree just might supply the necessary continuity.

‘Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away’, Jesus is made to say in today’s Gospel.  All written words will pass away with heaven and earth, so what words could we imagine that Jesus might mean?  I can make sense of this saying only by thinking of the creative divine Word itself as that which never passes away.

To that creative Word, that makes us capable, if only for a little while, of a few good things, I say, ‘Amen.  Come, Lord Jesus!’

Sermon for Remembrance Sunday 2021 from Revd Ian Tattum

Remembrance Day 2021

Just a few weeks ago there was a tragically quick withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, and now a horrific famine is looming. Whatever our perspective on the deployment of NATO in that country, we can’t ignore the role of the most recent American presidents in what is unfolding now. It has been argued that it was an earlier US president – an ailing Franklin D. Roosevelt – who encouraged Stalin to seize what became the Eastern bloc, not because he wanted a quick and populist political fix but because he trusted an ally not to take advantage of a desperate situation. The rights and wrongs of war are complicated and manifold. We can point to bad decisions and bad people. We can examine geopolitics and the failures of diplomacy. By such we can find satisfactory enough explanations and apportion blame. But such strategies are rarely enough.

We can ask, what do we do now?

You may not recall the name Eglantyne Jebb, but she was the main player in the formation of the Save the Children Fund back in 1919. Like climate activists today, she was regarded by many at the time as a public nuisance – handing out leaflets in Trafalgar Square with pictures of starving German children, with a headline: ‘Our blockade has done this – millions of children are starving to death.’ She was hated for sticking up for recent enemies. Like the best campaigners, she not only sought to change people’s minds, but was a doer – ensuring aid was delivered to wherever it was needed, and getting the first declaration of the rights of children accepted internationally.

Save the Children are at this moment very active bringing food to the people of Afghanistan.

But I doubt that on Remembrance Sunday itself our minds primarily focus on doing any more than they do on explaining. Feeling, honouring, mourning, praying and committing to heal and to do better are more of our concern. And in a church setting, appropriately, acknowledging the reality of sin – that we are all imperfect flesh and blood human beings who suffer, make mistakes, fail to understand and are capable of cruelties small and immense, but who are not totally responsible, nor absolutely free.

We carry with us an inescapable legacy of the past, which continues to affect how we think and act. The hatreds and terrors, the greed, cruelties and blunders all ripple down through time to affect us still.

No wonder at the heart of it is a solemn silence.

The neglected book from the Apocryphal section of the Bible, Ecclesiasticus, has some amazing descriptions of the human condition. The author contrasts the eternal and mighty nature of God with that of people.

‘When human beings have finished they are just beginning,
And when they stop they are still perplexed.
What are human beings, and of what use are they?
What is good in them, and what is evil?…
Like a drop of water from the sea and a grain of sand,
So are a few years among the days of eternity.
That is why the Lord is patient with them,
And pours out his mercy upon them.’

Today is a day for facing up to this through the prism of the tragedy and courage of war, which always draws us back to our need for forgiveness and the hope for restoration.

I chose the hymns today before I paid any attention to how they too share this perspective. They have the power to speak to the experience of most of us – those of us who are bystanders for whom war is a thing of history, or something that happens elsewhere, or else has touched our lives through the experiences of people we know or have known.

And yet they have also resonated with those who have had actual experience of conflict and its agonies.

We have just sung ‘Eternal Father, strong to save’, which for many people immediately brings to mind Atlantic convoys and war at sea but was written by a Quaker who was brought up in Clapham and might never have been on a ship. Another Quaker wrote ‘Dear Lord and Father of Mankind’, and there are few hymns that better conjure up a space for prayer and calm in the eye of a storm. Whittier knew those, as an anti-slavery campaigner who endured long years of mob hatred for his campaigning. But the words were written after the American Civil War and was, in part, a lament and a plea for mercy to God for its horrors.

‘Dear Lord and Father of mankind,
Forgive our foolish ways!
Re-clothe us in our rightful mind,
In purer lives thy service find,
In deeper reverence praise.’

Later we will hear the tune of ‘I vow to thee, my country’. That hymn manages to praise and honour those who have served their country in war at sacrificial cost and to look for another country, God’s Kingdom, where a

‘…fortress is a faithful heart…
And her ways are ways of gentleness, and all her paths are peace.’

Sermon on James 3.13-4.3 and Mark 9.30-37 for the Sixteenth Sunday after Trinity, 19 Sept 2021, from Rev’d Ian Tattum

There is a university department that studies emotions, and one of the ideas that it has generated is that emotions change. Not just that we feel different things at different moments in our lives – as I am sure we all experience – but that emotions change over time and according to place. One example is that there is an old Japanese word for the pleasure experienced when handing over responsibility for life decisions to someone else. In our society, where we are schooled that we are individuals who must direct our own lives and make our own decisions, such a handover of responsibility would usually be seen as a cause for a kind of sorrow.

The thought that emotions not only have different labels in different societies but are subjectively different from person to person goes against one of the assumptions of our times, which we have all soaked in to an extent – namely, that human beings are always the same, everywhere.

A crude version of this is that, apart from very minor variations, we are the same beings that evolved in the savannah in Africa four million years ago, so everything human can be reduced to the evolved needs of Australopithecus. A few decades ago, this belief was used as a justification by various thinkers – all men coincidentally – for aggressive male behaviour. The writer Elaine Morgan called this Tarzanism.

Jesus clearly did not subscribe to this view of human nature.

In the Gospel this morning we heard not only how the meaning of his life was to be realised through self-giving, but also of the male disciples arguing about which of them was going to be number one, and of Jesus’ gentle rejoinder.

In typically Marcan fashion we get a very economical account of the whole affair, but one which invites us to read between the lines. Jesus and his followers appear to be walking south towards Jerusalem where Jesus’ prediction about the manner of his death is going to be fulfilled. They are heading away from their home in Galilee into unfamiliar territory. Capernaum is the last mentioned haven before the next stage of the journey. The disciples’ argument about precedence is just one more example of how hard they found following Jesus to be. The inference from Mark is that he noticed their dispute but waited until the right moment and the right place to inquire about it.

When Jesus asks them what they were arguing about they are wonderfully shifty, responding with an embarrassed silence. He does not castigate them or tear a strip off them. He puts to them, very gently, an alternative.

‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.’

And then to reinforce the lesson he uses the example of welcoming a child. In that world children did not have the same status as they do in ours, and it is possible that Jesus was using a play on words, as the Aramaic word for child and servant (talya) can mean either. To welcome in my name, he says, is to welcome not just me, but the one who sent me. The message is not an instruction in what to do or not do, but to be this kind of person.

I have been paying a lot of attention in recent weeks to the letter of James, and the section we heard read this morning again is full of insights, some of which echo this wisdom of Jesus.

James 3.13-15 at the very beginning of our reading this morning:

‘Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts do not be boastful and false to the truth.’

When I started this sermon I mentioned the research about the mutability of emotions and mentioned the oddness of the Japanese word for the good feeling that comes from surrendering personal autonomy, from the point of view of a society like ours that has almost enthroned personal autonomy as a necessary virtue in itself. But if we are to take Jesus’ teaching and life seriously, we do have to give the ideas of sacrifice and the giving up of power due regard.

I was talking to someone the other day who had a relative who was an enclosed nun, and they were saying that the older they get the more they are able to understand the value of a life given to simplicity and prayer, one aspect of which is that element the great spiritual writer Thomas Merton used to cherish. By not being bombarded by so much data and information, opinion and propaganda, it is possible to take a clearer view of the world.

I suspect that in our hearts most of us know that the world can not sustain levels of constantly increasing consumption – despite Jeff Bezos’ fantasies – and we might wish to be delivered from the psychological assaults of modern consumerism. The contagious hatreds that led to 9/11 and generated a spiral of vengeance since have not weakened W. H. Auden’s case at all.

‘We must love one another or die.’

That teaching of Jesus, not to prioritise our personal desires but to give our attention to others, especially those who are less noticed and deemed less valuable, might be best understood, not as an ethical rule to follow, but as wisdom about what is really good for us.

It is possibly another version of the beatitudes found in the Sermon on the Mount.

Blessed, or happy, or fulfilled, or flourishing are those who are aware of their own frailty and needs and rather than striving to boss the world or knock down all those who threaten them, keep a lookout for the wellbeing of others.

Sermon on James 3.1-12 for the Fifteenth Sunday after Trinity, 12 Sept 2021 from Rev’d Ian Tattum

Verse 8 of the letter of James is rendered into these words in David Bentley Hart’s translation:

‘But from among human beings there is no one able to tame the tongue: a restless evil full of venom.’

Twitter at its worst, the excesses of the tabloid press, fake news, the sort of toxic gossip that can destroy families and friendships: all examples of the truth of that statement.

Those words about the danger of words can’t help but bring to mind for me a particular incident from my teenage years. My mother returned home from a church Bible study one evening in a very perplexed mood, because the person leading it had abandoned the book of the Bible they were meant to be studying and made everyone look at this bit of James instead, so he could talk about the evils of gossip. Only later did I discover that one of his primary targets was me. He believed, entirely wrongly, that I had been the original source of the rumours then flying about. And from then onwards he cut my family dead.

That story is not a happy one but it does exemplify what a practical book the letter of James is, even if so wrongly applied. James is one of the New Testament books that can be very easily read today for its wisdom and insights about the joys and challenges of life, without confronting the reader with a forest of baffling questions that might send them rushing to the experts for help – which isn’t to say that it is delightfully simple, and that the other books are unnecessarily complicated, and that therefore it should be viewed more favourably. It is just different.

There are those who take it as saying that acting charitably is the core of religion and dangerously conclude that being a Christian is just a way to be a good person. Martin Luther, on the other hand, branded James, notoriously, as the ‘letter of straw’ and didn’t think it should ever have made its way into the New Testament, because it appeared to contradict his conviction that the heart of everything was the faithful response to God’s salvation through Christ. For Luther, the letter of James puts too much emphasis on what you do and not enough on what you believe.
Both of these responses fail to do it justice.

The letter of James seems originally to have been written for a church community which didn’t have the kind of mixed membership that many of the recipients of St Paul’s letters had, with people from Jewish, Greek and Roman backgrounds, etc., all struggling with issues of identity. Rather, it seems to have been aimed at a more settled community, a bit more at peace with itself and feeling less at odds with the outside world. And the writer seems to have known his people well, whereas St Paul was often responding, from a great distance, to groups with an agenda. Letters came to Paul which were of the he-said, she-said, he-did, she-did variety, which he then replied to.

The letter of James can seem merely pragmatic, but I would say it is visionary. It does not present a logical argument, constructed from premises to consequences, but seeks to share, using powerful imagery, wisdom about corporate and individual Christian living. And it teems with punchy challenges to lazy assumptions and has insights which are psychologically astute enough to show that we should be cautious about disrespecting old ideas. Just one example from chapter 1, which illustrates both of these points:

‘No one when tempted, should say, I am being tempted by God; for God cannot be tempted by evil and he himself tempts no one. But one is tempted by one’s own desires.’

And looking more closely at the short passage set for today: James plunges us immediately into familiar dilemmas surrounding leadership and the need for humility.

‘Not many of you should become teachers… for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For all of us make mistakes.’

It is at this point in the letter that the severe warnings about the danger of words take off. All of us with any kind of authority know that what we say can uplift, encourage, harm or deceive! This attention given to the tongue was not unique in the ancient world, but the letter writer uses that piece of cultural wisdom afresh in the context of the church.

‘With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the image of God.’

To me, that is one of those explosive phrases that, as in art influenced by Zen, a few simple strokes paint a sophisticated and illuminating picture. Whenever we attend church or pray in private, we bless God and yet we never cease to have to struggle with our blanket condemnation of other individuals, groups, or peoples. Our patience is tested and we value our time as precious. We want to shut strangers and their needs away.

As I keep on saying, the continuities between the concerns of the prophets in the Hebrew Scriptures, the teaching of the New Testament inspired by Jesus, and our own urgent questions, are profound. It is in Isaiah chapter 58 that the prophet insists that feeding the hungry and not hiding from your own relatives are where real piety are manifested. And in James, and in the entire New Testament, the best in people – us and others – is there because God has made us all in his image.

I will finish with another beautiful passage from chapter 1 that helps to put our struggles in context.

‘Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow of change.’

All you need is love (to do contextual theology): A Reflection on Mark 7.1-23 for the Thirteenth Sunday after Trinity (29 August 2021) from Krista Ovist

Good morning.  Thank you all for gathering together today for this somewhat experimental lay–led Service of the Word.  And thank you, Helen, for getting me involved by asking me to do the Reflection.  My theme for this lay Reflection is lay theology.

I’d like to suggest that each one of you is what is known as a ‘contextual theologian’.

When you find yourself unable to pray, because a beardy guy in the sky keeps popping into your mind, and that’s not how you want to picture God anymore, but you don’t know how else to visualize the entity you want to address – that’s it; that’s when you’re doing contextual theology.  Or when you’re not even sure what it’s proper to want from that entity, what it might make sense to say to it, or pray for – that’s contextual theology too.  Contextual theology is when you’re struggling to decide which parts of the Christian tradition are still viable and valuable, here and now, for the context you’re in, and for the context you are.  When you hesitate over certain liturgical phrases, like ‘He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary’, or ‘We look for the resurrection of the dead’, or when the question, ‘Do you reject the devil?’ makes you smile ironically (or when it doesn’t, for that matter) – that’s when you’re doing contextual theology.  When you take it for granted that all living things have been evolving for millions of years but you still read Genesis in search of moral or poetic insights about the place of humanity in the cosmos – again, that’s contextual theology.  And when a child puts you on the spot, asking, ‘Why did God create viruses?’ that’s some more contextual theology you’re doing.  Even if you’re a quiet atheist, attached to the Church of England as a beautiful cultural heritage to be preserved, or as a useful existing network for promoting social justice, I would suggest that you are still doing contextual theology.

We are all contextual theologians – especially when we encounter something in the Bible that doesn’t seem right, or that doesn’t seem right for our times, and most especially, when that something seems to come from Jesus.

Take today’s Gospel reading from Mark, for example.

At first glance, it seems pretty obvious what Mark is up to here.  The church for which he’s writing – a church that’s clearly full of Gentiles who need to be told about the Jewish purification rites – has been doing some contextual theology.  A new context – the mission to the Gentiles – has raised difficult questions for Jewish theology.  It has forced the Jesus movement to ask, how much, if any, of the Jewish law applies to Gentiles when they undergo the new purification ritual – the new baptism into Christ?  (N.B.: This passage probably isn’t about the vanity of ‘external’ rituals.)  In response to these questions, leaders in the early church – most notably St Paul – have theologized something previously unthinkable for Jews, namely, that God has erased the ancient distinction between clean and unclean foods, and indeed, between Jew and Gentile altogether.  But Mark doesn’t seem to want anyone to see ordinary people doing this contextual theology, as if they were just accommodating the gentile world.  He’s worried that, to some people at least, annulling these boundaries will look like abandoning the commandment of God and replacing it with mere human innovation.  So, very ingeniously, he traces the innovation back to Jesus and to what looks, if we’re honest, like a bit of toilet humour Jesus indulged in while sparring with the Pharisees and scribes.  ‘Yes!’ Mark is admitting in this passage, ‘a really big change is taking place here.  But, look!  It’s not an abomination; it’s Good News.  It came from the Lord himself, not from us poor, error-prone mortals.’

But that’s not the end of Mark’s contextual theology by stealth, dressed up as a divine declaration.  He seems to want to make sure it will be really hard for anyone else to come along and do the same thing, after he’s done doing it himself.  Strategically, and rather ironically, therefore, just before Mark tells us how Jesus did away with the need to purify clean from unclean substances, he tells us how Jesus reprimanded the Pharisees and scribes for failing to purify the divine from the human in Jewish law: ‘You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition’, he told them.

Well, I wonder how that makes you feel?  I can tell you how it makes me feel: it makes me feel silenced.  It feels like Mark has fashioned a very big stick with which to beat down anyone else who tries to do a bit of contextual theology.  What Mark seems to be saying is that, if a contextual theologian can’t show that her innovations are not really innovations at all but go back to Jesus, she is likely to be told, ‘You abandon the commandments of God and hold to your own merely human notions.’  Most people, under threat of such an attack, are likely to keep their contextual theologies safely to themselves, never attempt to share them with anyone else, and certainly never dare to show up for any kind of theological discussion.  I definitely wouldn’t want to!

But wait; maybe there’s another way of reading this passage – one that invites, even calls us to theologize, freely and with confidence, rather than hide our ideas for fear of such reprisals.  What if, with Christ in mind, and with the God-man mind of Christ that Paul tells us we have (see 1 Cor 2.16), we simply shift our focus away from those two seemingly mutually exclusive terms – God and humanity – and attend instead to the relationship between them, the relationship that is revealed in Christ to be an eternal relationship of love?  When doing contextual theology, maybe the question we should be asking ourselves is not, is this of God, or is this of humanity?  Perhaps, instead, we should be asking ourselves, is this of the love between them in which both participate, ‘neither separate nor confused’, as the old Christological phrase goes?  Is this of the Holy Spirit, in other words – the mutually begetting love between the Father and the Son, or even more expansively, between Creator and all Creation?

All you need is love to do contextual theology, that love.

Maybe it would be in the Spirit of that love if we were to paraphrase Jesus’ admonition to the Pharisees and scribes this way: ‘You abandon the relationship of love that is the covenant between God and God’s people by holding it for yourselves and excluding others.’  The problem was that some of the Pharisees and scribes thought only they themselves were holy, and treated most of their fellow Jews – the people of the land whose work precluded scrupulous attention to purity – as if they were unclean and outside the covenant of love.  Whenever contextual theology makes us nervous about the purity of apostolic Christianity, we would do well to remember that, if the early church had not, in the Spirit of the love between God and humanity, dared to declare the Gentiles clean, we wouldn’t be gathered here today.

All you need is love to do contextual theology.

With that thought in view, I arrive, finally, at my main objective: what I’m really up here for is to draw your attention to two upcoming opportunities for you to participate in some collective contextual theologizing.

If you would open your pewsheets, please, under the heading ‘Notices’, you will see what I’m talking about.  Coming up first is our Deanery-wide implementation of the national church’s 5-part Living in Love and Faith Course.  This course will run for five consecutive Monday evenings, alternating venues between St Michael’s in Southfields and St Paul’s, Wimbledon Parkside.  In the words of its authors, this course is an invitation to ‘learn and pray together’ as part of a process of ‘discerning a way forward in relation to matters of identity, sexuality, relationships, and marriage.’  I can’t think of a more important or more challenging call to collaborate in contextual theologizing.  I’ve tried to make it easy for everyone to get hold of the course materials: there’s a slim course booklet, which is the main text, and an optional companion book.  You can download both for free from the St Barnabas website.  If you prefer hard copies, like these, or you don’t have access to the Internet, let me know, and I can help you place an order.  The course booklet costs £4.99; the heftier companion book has the heftier price of £19.99.

Coming up second on the calendar is our first meeting with Dr Ben Wood, our new Theological Consultant.  This will happen online, via Zoom, on the 22nd of September and take, as its provocative opening thought: what if George Orwell and St Augustine had a chat about baptism?  Ben promises to be a lively and unconventional interlocutor.  He is a Quaker and a disestablishmentarian, so I suppose that means he wants to get rid of us – or at least of our status as followers of a state religion.  He describes himself as a contextual theologian interested in making theology both public and political.  What will it mean to have him as our Consultant Theologian?  Nobody knows; it’s all for us to invent.  Please do consider being part of that collective invention process.

You are a contextual theologian.  You’ve been theologizing on your own for a long while now; maybe it’s time to join in some collaborative contextual theologizing.  You don’t need a degree in theology.  You don’t need any special training, affirming, or commissioning.  All you need is love.

Hall Bookings

Our halls are open for hire.

We are delighted to be welcoming back regular group activities, both for children and for adults.

As of April 23, 2022, we will have limited availability for party hire.  For the time being, we are prioritizing users who live in the parish of St Barnabas or are church members, as we want to support our local community as we come out of Covid restrictions.  Click here for details.

We run the halls as part of our commitment to the community.  Although they raise revenue for us, they are not profit making, so we ask all hirers to respect them and look after them so that they can be enjoyed by local residents for many years to come.

NB: all hall names are merely working titles, and all prices are open to revision!

Find Out More
Patio Room