Remembrance Sunday: Laurence Binyon

They are such famous words, and just before 11am I will read them out as we stand beside the war memorial.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:

Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.

At the going down of the sun and in the morning

We will remember them.

The story behind those words is worth a brief telling. They were composed by Laurence Binyon, on a cliff in Cornwall, in September 1914.  They were written in response to the battle of Mons and the seeming victory by the allies as the Germans retreated at the battle of the Marne. It was a strange moment in time when the horrors of the Great War- of mud, barbed wire and bomb craters- had not yet come about, and there was still a strong, and not fanciful, hope of peace by Christmas.  That famous stanza popped into the poet’s head first and he built the rest of his poem ‘For the Fallen’ around those words which were its beating heart. Too often poems are filleted to extract the pithy quote. No such violence is done in this case.

Some of you, who will remember the old   Funeral Service, or know your Bibles  well, may be struck, as am I, by the echo in those words of a  some verses from The Wisdom of Solomon.

The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and no torment shall touch them.

In the sight of the unwise they seemed to die; their departure is accounted to be their hurt,

 And their journeying way from us to be their ruin. But they are in peace.

An internet site will tell you that Binyon was the son of a clergyman- he wasn’t- he was the son of devout Quakers- his grandfather, rather topically was the railway engineer responsible for the London to Birmingham line- but he would probably have been familiar with the Old Testament.

Later Binyon did get involved actively in the war, but not as a combatant. He was too old anyway to fight, but  his Quaker background too might have contributed to his decision to serve first as a hospital orderly, and later as a volunteer retrieving the wounded from the battlefield of Verdun.  He wasn’t a young man either recalling life expectancies of that time- he was 45 when the war broke out.

He wrote a handful of poems describing his experience.

Read a few extracts, because it takes us into another experience of war. He is not now a distant spectator, but a wondering, troubled and compassionate participant searching the battlefield at night for wounded French soldiers.

Blurred stars; whispering gusts; the hum of wires.
And swerving leftwards upon noiseless tires
We glide over the grass that smells of dew.
A wave of wonder bathes my body through!
For there in the headlamps’ gloom–surrounded beam
Tall flowers spring before us, like a dream,
Each luminous little green leaf intimate
And motionless, distinct and delicate
With powdery white bloom fresh upon the stem,
As if that clear beam had created them
Out of the darkness…

Is the immense night–stillness, the expanse
Of faint stars over all the wounds of France.

Now stale odour of blood mingles with keen
Pure smell of grass and dew. Now lantern–sheen
Falls on brown faces opening patient eyes
And lips of gentle answers, where each lies
Supine upon his stretcher, black of beard
Or with young cheeks; on caps and tunics smeared
And stained, white bandages round foot or head
Or arm, discoloured here and there with red.

Now strange the sound comes round them in the night
Of English voices. By the wavering light
Quickly we have borne them, one by one, to the air,
And sweating in the dark lift up with care,
Tense–sinewed, each to his place. The cars at last
Complete their burden: slowly, and then fast
We glide away.

When we remember war and its pity we need powerful words, and I don’t think it is accidental that it is poets and Scripture that give us some of the most powerful ones to draw on.

 That includes the ones we heard earlier, from Micah about beating swords into ploughshares, or from Jesus himself, when he declares the sorrowful, the peace makers and the strivers for justice blessed.


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Caring for those who suffer from mental illness. October 20th 2013

Tooting Bec Mental Hospital was demolished almost 20 years ago. Some of you will no doubt remember it. I do- even though I did not step inside it after 1990! Long Corridors and walk-ways. The Industrial Therapy Unit, where people undertook fairly simple but painstaking manual work. Clusters of men and women outside smoking, many prepared to ‘bum’ a fag from any passer- by. Many grey, crumpled faces with anxious eyes.

Some of those faces I got to know quite well over the years, because I was involved in the project of re-settling men from the hospital in Brixton and Stockwell in shared, supportive housing, as the hospital was coming to its end.

I was head-hunted by a  charity for a number of specific reasons. All the rest of the staff were women, so they wanted some gender balance.

They were also fairly posh, so they were looking for a staff member who was a little less well bred.

They were looking for someone who could arrange and participate in sport too.

  And they also had ‘ issues’ about food. By that I mean that they were dealing with men, who had either spent decades in institutions like Tooting Bec Hospital, or living as tramps, and whose background was usually working class, and were extremely aware that their preference for such food –stuffs as quiche and houmous created a bit of a culture clash with men who were more at home in  a world of beer, fags and meat-pies .

One of my first major jobs was to write a recipe book that our residents and staff could work with together to create healthy but non- alienating dishes.

I was also there to help generate some male camaraderie  and bonding by being able to endure the entire Great Escape on Christmas afternoons and respond with some degree of comprehension to male banter, and a preoccupation with football.

These recollections were brought about by the news on Wednesday about the national shortage of emergency hospital beds for people suffering from mental illness. The same problem existed way back in the late 1980’s. I can remember endless hours spent with various psychotic residents in the waiting room of the local hospital trying to convince the staff that they really did need to be admitted; in the face of the psychiatrist’s fear that if they surrendered one precious bed to me one might not be available if an even more needy person arrived.

These big policy issues though, however troubling, are not something we can probably do much about. But that does not mean that we are powerless to do anything.

When we discussed the notion of getting involved with West London Church’s Homeless concern, and opening up the church one night a week for homeless people during the winter, there was overwhelming support for the idea.

 I have only heard, this very week, that that will not be going ahead. Due to funding pressures the charity has decided not to expand into new areas, but make more space available at existing venues.

 They still would like our help. One of the Saturday night venues is fairly local, in Fulham, and only got going last year, so may- but that is only a may- turn to us for volunteer help, and we could help with fund-raising in the meantime- I have one suitable event lined up in December.

But while we are waiting to see what the future holds re that initiative you could help by transferring your enthusiasm to a different one.

It is one that is profoundly related to the night shelter project, and has been discussed within the church here for years. Some of you will remember that I have been in discussions with a couple of confusingly named organisations – the Community Empowerment Network and the Co-Production Practitioners Network. Let me translate that into English?

The modern extension of the idea that rather than being hidden away out of sight in asylums people with severe mental problems should be part of a genuinely caring community, is the one that even those with less serious conditions benefit if they find support where they are- in their own settings- in their neighbourhoods, in the their churches and in their mosques. So talking therapies are now being organised locally, in safer settings than hospital sites and clinics.

The NTA who meet here in the afternoon are a very small branch of a Pentecostal Church which is increasingly having a big impact on Christian life nationwide, and at their church , significantly perhaps, in Tooting,they have been, with others, pioneers of this new movement.

What is asked of churches  such as ours is quite simple. We provide a space for counsellors to meet with their clients, but also provide subtle and welcoming hospitality.

 So the scheme presupposes that whenever any counselling is happening we have people on the premises, hence all the stuff about Community Empowerment and Co-production. It is not about space being hired out on the cheap to the NHS , but about us providing a safe space and a welcome to people- who could indeed be any of us, or members of our families- so common is mental illness.

The project floundered in the past because of various misunderstandings about the reason for church members being required to be present and problems of timing and venue- a fixation with using the Upper Room for example. Now, thanks to Jenny and Claire and their office re-organisation programme we have another potential counselling space, within the church itself.

I have people who are already involved in the project ,ready and waiting, to come and talk to us about their experiences. I myself have a sense of urgency because we have been stalling the organisers for so long. What would be helpful at this stage to know if anyone is interested in giving up some time, which will probably be on a week day, simply to be about and able to make a cup of tea if needed.

 Joy and I are already committed and will make sure that we can cover some of the time involved- all conversations so far have indicated that we are talking about 4 hours maximum each week. So we probably will need about 10 volunteers in total.

Any of you who were here 2 weeks ago to hear Michael Barnes’ challenging talk about Christian Spirituality, will have heard him make the point that Christian Spirituality is deeply rooted in Jewish insights about God. Particularly the prophetic idea that God’s passionate concern for his people includes a yearning for justice. We have seen this year how that spills over forcefully into Luke’s Gospel, with all those great parables where God sets a pattern for us, by seeking out the lost, risking everything to help those who have fallen into the ditch, offering a welcome home.

The only time I can remember being rebuked by Rowan Williams was on an occasion when I was helping him with the washing up. I must have been holding a cup in my hand because I was led to  disparagingly refer to a remark by a spiritual writer , which was something like’ making a cup of tea well is the perfect spiritual act’. I was immediately on the end of a gentle/fierce glance.

I understand better now how idiotic I was. Whether someone is homeless or suffering from mental illness, or like the lady who told me on Monday that coming to the Monday Club and being rescued for a couple of hours from her isolation is the high-light of her week, company and kindness are potentially transforming. 

Why otherwise do we have a communion at the heart of our life together as Christians?






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Conflict in Syria

 A  quarrel in a far away country  between people of whom we know nothing. Neville Chamberlain’s words at the time of the Sudetenland crisis in 1938.

But in many ways more apt for the situation in Syria, and most of the other flash-points we have witnessed from afar over the last decade or so.

Are we really confident that we understand exactly what is going on there? And therefore feel adequate in the face of the questions which don’t directly affect many, if any of us, that can be summarised as ‘ what can be done?’

There are members of this church who have served in Afghanistan and Iraq, but the situation for most of us is one of guilty and impotent bystanders.

Anger, confusion, fear seem to unite us with the politicians who insist ‘something must be done’ even as they struggle to decide on what , and to what end.

These are just some of my musings on the subject, based on the little I know, in an attempt to get some bearings. I offer no solutions!

Firstly a fact which verges on the tragic

The Assad regime has been enthusiastically supported by the large minority Christian population- until the war started, about 10% of the population.

If Jesus was going to visit the world today Syria is one of the few remaining places he could probably make himself understood, for Syrian Christians still speak  a version of his native language Aramaic. They are probably the oldest Christian community in the world and have made Syria their home because first under the French and then under the Assad dynasty they have found one place in the Middle East where they have, until recently been safe and been able to thrive.

Many Syrian Christians now live in California where, mostly, they vocally oppose American Air Strikes, because since the civil war started they have become vulnerable. Bishops have been murdered and kidnapped and many of the refugees in Lebanon and Turkey are from that community. Those left in Syria are genuinely terrified of being the victims of jihadi attack. The Syrian Christian presence also partly explains Russia’s involvement and seemingly blind support for the country. Historically Russia has seen itself as the protector of Orthodox Christianity, although nowadays Russia’s role appears little more than cynical opportunism.

The Assad regime has been appalling and generated the kind of dark humour that only deeply oppressed peoples come up with. The travel writer William Dalrymple in his classic book about the state of the region that  used to be the Christian Empire of Byzantium, ‘From the Holy Mountain,’ Tells this story.

In the days of a President Assad senior a taxi driver working in Damascus, while stationary at a traffic light, was careered into from behind by  a limousine with clouded glass windows.

 Being hot tempered he leapt from his  car and started ranting at the occupants of the car behind, adding a few insults about their ancestry,  making allegations that it  was marked by the absence of fathers and the involvement of camels.

Suddenly a window was wound down, and a hand came out, holding a visiting card with nothing on it but a telephone number. The car then sped off.

The taxi driver’s car was wrecked, so deciding to extract some compensation from the perpetrator,, he went to a public telephone box and rung up the number. When the phone was picked up he started pleading for financial reparation, but was greeted only with silence. So he started getting angry again and let out another stream of insults.

 After about five minutes a very quiet voice asked’ Do you know who you are talking too?’

The taxi driver said, ‘no’.

You are speaking to  Hafez al-Asad, said the sinister voice on the end of the phone. I happen to be the President of the Syrian Arab Republic.

I know who you are , said the taxi driver, but do you have any idea who you are talking to?

No, said the voice, a bit taken aback.

Thank God for that, said the taxi driver, and slammed the phone down, and ran back to his car before the secret police could trace the call.

I am not one of those people who often sits down and reads Newspapers from cover to cover, and often miss in depth conversations on Newsnight, so one question I have had is who are the Alawites? We all know they important as the main ethnic  and religious group in the regime, although they are a small minority in the country as a whole, but who exactly are they?

  I did find it instructive to discover that they are, like our own Ahmaddiya community, regarded in the Islamic world as barely Islamic at all. Also like the Ahmadiyya, part of their unpopularity has come as a result of geo-politics. They were favoured by the French because they were less hostile to Western occupation and were  thus recruited into the army. But their current alliance with the other non Sunni Muslim  groups in Syria goes way back and accusations have been levelled at them regularly that they have adopted Christian and even pre- christian religious ideas.

 That they will drink alcohol and eat with non- Muslims is another reason that they are treated with suspicion. They have earned a triple dose of hatred from Islamists, being seen as secular, not really muslim as well as supporters of a tyrant.

Whatever the motivation of the Asad regime, it is clear that fear is a large motive for many of its  supporters.

And lastly a reminder of the concept of the Just War, which has long been the official Christian line to decide on the morality of military action. I must warn though that I am not  personally convinced that it is a perfect instrument for calculating a moral position.

 The First Crusade which had the genuine objective to rescue Jerusalem and its large Christian minority, at that time possibly a majority, from Saracen occupation and oppression, was at its launch a fairy good model for a just war doctrine, and included an achievable aim as required, which it duly accomplished, but the mess and horror that came in its wake proved that reality has the last word over theory.

Just War theory demands among other things, the protection of civilians, proportionality and the chance of success. Bombing attacks, however smart, tend to miss.

Maybe by the time I read this, there will be Western attacks on Syria; whatever the situation, we can, without fear of glibness, continue to pray. There is a saying, which originated in the terrible fighting between American and Japanese troops in World War 2- There are no atheists in fox holes- This notion that a threat to what we most value- our own lives- elicits prayer, can be applied to all that matters to us. The slaughter of innocents and all the terrible dilemmas of war demand prayer if we seriously believe that loving our neighbour is a divine command. It is not something which we can be not bothered about.

And we can act. What has been described as the greatest refugee crisis for 20 years, has led to other vulnerable countries such as Lebanon taking huge  numbers of fleeing people. We rightly worry about the domino effect of military action, but we should also be concerned about the consequences of mass displacements of people. That is something we can do something about.

Medicins Sans Frontier and The Red Cross.

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St Benedict and our Vision

St Benedict Sermon 21/8/2013

A dead sinner, revised and edited. That was the American satirist, Ambrose Bierce’s definition of a Saint.

And he was spot on. No one has ever claimed that saints were perfect, and revising and editing  perfectly summarises the process of hagiography. In which some anecdotes and apocryphal stories are embellished after death, and every few decades re-interpreted for a fresh audience.

 Possibly the best known example is St Francis, whose extraordinary character has allowed him to be celebrated with some justification by Eco- warriors, Italian Nationalists, Christian Radicals, and Pillars of the Roman Catholic establishment- the current Pope  noticeably leaning on him  to demonstrate that he is a conservative and reformer at the same time.

But other saints are different. Their personality is of little or no interest, and they are honoured more for their achievements- or  to use that fashionable word, legacy.

St Benedict of Nursia is one such. Details about his life and character can be found in a near contemporary work by one of his admirers, Pope Gregory the Great, but they don’t catch fire the way tales about St Francis do.

But what he left behind was probably far more influential.

Most people only have to hear the name Monte Cassino to recall the destruction of Benedict’s famous Abbey, during the allied onslaught on Italy  in 1944. I knew one of the British soldiers who was there and he lamented the destruction as a tragic case of necessary vandalism. But the fame ,or infamy, of that incident does serve to remind everyone that Benedict had something to do with monasticism. Actually he was to all intents and purposes, its founder and architect, as far as the Western church was concerned.

Everyone who visits a cathedral or ruined abbey will encounter a chapter room: So named because it was the room in which members of the monastic community met to hear a daily chapter of St Benedict’s Monastic Rule; first written down nearly 1500 years ago.

But surely this is, literally, just history?

And not only something from the remote past, but from the remote present too.

Nothing could be further from the lives we lead today than monasticism. Now a church is deemed to be thriving best when it is full of activity and noise. So what can be learned from such a quaint pattern of life?

Quite a lot I would suggest; without any need to romanticise monasticism or ignore the practical realities that we have to face today.

Last year we  collectively came up with a Vision, setting out priorities for the life of our church. You will recall that we based that Vision on ideas from a book by Robert Warren , called ‘ Developing Healthy Churches. Since then I have concluded that in truth this is simply St Benedict’s rule brought up to date .And while there is nothing wrong with Robert Warren’s ideas, we should not be embarrassed about drawing water from the well which sustains them.

Here are some echoes between the Benedictine tradition and our concerns today.

In order to hear God, we need stillness, silence and a place for prayer.

 And other people need that too; even if they are not overtly religious. Because we are so near to a main road we can’t provide absolute silence, but we can provide a different sort of space.

 We do have some really quiet rooms in the new hall, we do  have gardens, and a beautiful building- where worship happens and a sense of holiness can be found. And we are now much more actively encouraging people to come in. Notice-boards.

Benedict insisted that part of every day was set aside for study and reflection. With busy lives people find that tough, so our commitment to provide a place where people can come and reflect, or attend thought provoking talks, with more depth than the chatter of much of modern media, is invaluable.

Again internally within the Monastic community, between the members of the community, and through its face to the world- of hospitality to all those who come, a spirit of service to others was put at the heart of things. We are endeavouring to make sure that the homeless, the elderly and those who find life tough are not excluded from our thoughts or actions.

This summer we have been busily trying to find a professional person to help with our work with young people. One of the principles of the Benedictine tradition is that each generation has a responsibility to the next, to, along with love, provide guidance and enduring values.

How we get on together is important. I am aware that we are not as good as we used to be at events where members of the church community can get together and get to know each other. A planned Harvest lunch on September 29th might help. But deeper than that we would be a stronger community if we had stronger connections between each other- the words  about of a visitor still ring true for me, when they described St Barnabas  like this- ‘friendly, but not really a community’.

Two other Benedictine principles might help here. Because monasteries followed the church year assiduously, with all the feast days and fast days, they cherished festivals, when people could rejoice together. They also try to practice the principle of benedicere, which means listening to others and resisting harsh words. Making space for people to be who they are, and avoiding easy judgement.

Joy and I will come back to these themes again, but just one last word; actually it is a phrase that I find helpful.

I can start with this tomorrow.

There is so much that we could change, so much that potentially needs to be done, but this is a one small step at a time principle. Notice boards- more people are discovering that we are open, and dropping in.



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Whose Jesus?

Sermon Colossians 1;15 etc July 21st 2013 Luke 10:38-end.

The Life of Brian scandalised a lot of Christians. For religious offence try this for size.

It is about Christ.

‘ humbly he came,

 Veiling his horrible Godhead in the shape

Of man, scorned by the world, his name unheard,

 Save by the rabble of his native town,

Even as a parish demagogue. He led

The crowd; he taught them justice, truth and peace,

 In semblance; but he lit within their souls

The quenchless flames of zeal, and blest the sword

He brought on earth to satiate with the blood

Of truth and freedom his malignant soul.

Anyone recognise that? First major poem published by Shelley.

Didn’t have to get it all to notice it was hostile.

To very briefly explain Shelley was a fan of revolution.

 By the time he wrote the poem in 1813 the French Revolution had given birth to the Terror and led to the rise of Napoleon, so Shelley had become wary of violent change, but he still held to one of the most cherished ideas of radical thinkers of that time- that God was on the wrong side.

In this poem he portrays God as a brutal tyrant who wants to find a way to terrorise  humanity. To this end he hatches a plan to divide and rule the human race by creating a religion which will set living people one against another, and condemn most, after death, to eternal punishment.  So Christ becomes his stooge, to set the plan in motion. Hence in the poem references to Christ , veiling the horrible Godhead and to Christ’s malignant soul.

No wonder Shelley published it privately for a small circle of friends.

In today’s New Testament reading we came across another poem about Christ, but one saying something rather different. Because it was embedded in the text of 1 Colossians, I will read it aloud again,.

He is the image of  the invisible God, 

The firstborn of all creation.

For in him all things were created,

In the heavens and here on earth.

Things we can see and things we cannot,

-thrones and lordships and rulers and powers-

All were created both through him and for him.

He himself is before all things,

and in him all things hold together.

He is the head of the body, the church.

He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead

So that he might come to have first place in everything.

For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.

And though him God was pleased to reconcile himself to all things,

Whether on earth or in heaven,

 By making peace through the blood of his cross.

A far cry from Shelley’s trickster, this is an amazingly full and positive picture of Christ.

 You will have noticed echoes of the famous opening to St John’s Gospel, where Christ too is the agent of creation.

 You might have spotted too one of Paul’s favourite ideas, that Christ is the head of the church- a lesson which if it had been always followed would have meant that Shelley’s satire about the wickedness of Christianity would never have had any bite.

There are a number of similarly vital ideas in that passage from Colossians which could inform the way we approach our faith  today, and the way we confront those who , like Shelley, in his, are content with parodies of what we believe and stand for.

The most obvious point of the poem is that Christ is involved in creation, but you might not have noticed that it emphasises that this was not a once and for all act long ago.

It refers to Christ continuing to hold all things together. Which has long been the church’s considered position on the subject, which is why science, when it concerns itself with understanding the wonder of how the universe is configured, has usually been welcomed and why creationism will always be a minority hobby.

Being critical of particular applications of science or of the materialism that often accompanies it is another matter.

And many popular modern misconceptions about the Christian understanding of God seem to be direct descendents of Shelley’s view- God as tyrant, with Christ as his agent provocateur.

Colossians has Christ as having the fullness of God within him. Christ is the place to look and to encounter God- and the one who we meet there is about compassion, forgiveness, self-giving and sacrifice, not the abuse of power!

There is even some wise guidance about politics. When it says that even thrones, dominions, rulers and powers have been created by him, it is easy to see how those with a self-interest might interpret that as saying that God authorises their power and the way they exercise it, but no.

The poet borrows the phrase from the Jewish tradition, and there it means all manifestations of power, political and spiritual, but he also includes those categories within the all things which need reconciliation with God through Christ. God and Christ don’t rubber stamp them, but have ultimate authority over them.

Which means that when we ask questions about how our society should be run we should always refer back to the insights of the gospel. People have tried in the past to argue that their favoured political system or ethical viewpoint can be read off, quite simply, from biblical texts .But that does not really work !

What is probably more productive is to set the Biblical vision , particularly as illuminated by Christ, beside our own. What would that say to our contemporary cynicisms and obsessions with instrumentality and productiveness?

When Colossians says that everything, absolutely everything in the universe, was made through Christ and for him?

Or Jesus himself tells Martha not to judge Mary’s spiritual focus against her obsessive business?




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Sermon on Reading the Bible, preached at Bushey on 24 February 2013

Sermon  preached  in Bushey . 24th February 2013. By Ian Tattum

It was when I was here that I got into the dangerous habit of referring to the Archdeacon as the Arch-demon. It all went terribly wrong when I was in the church office one morning and Laura Hart answered the phone,  greeted the person on the end of the line and informed me quite loudly ‘ it’s the arch-demon.’

For parish clergy Arch-deacons can be figures of fun and fear because of the power they can exert over us- hence the appeal of the scene stealing one in Rev.

My current Arch-deacon, I must say is a charming and kind man, but the first time I met him he was something of a figure of fear; because he was interviewing me for my current job.

Most of you will have been in the same kind of situation yourselves when your ability to think straight, or even speak,  seems to be on the verge of disappearing. Having rambled eloquently about a book I had just read that’s title and author had just completely escaped me, I looked up, blushing, to see the Archdeacon formulating his next question.

‘What passage or story in the Bible best sums up your approach to faith?’

You know, those neuroscientists who insist that  the body acts before the conscious mind has a chance to tell it what to do, are quite right. While my brain was still whirling I heard my lips provide an answer.

‘None of them.’

The Archdeacon looked at me tolerantly but quizzically, and then tried again.

‘But most people have a biblical saying, or favourite text, which sums up their faith, like say ‘ love your neighbour’.’

I think I just sat there shaking my head for a moment, thinking that my chances of becoming the next Vicar of St Barnabas were rapidly receding .

I did recover!

And went on to say something along the lines of:

‘I don’t see the Bible that way.

 I see it as a whole, and although there are parts of it which speak to me more personally and directly than others, I try to let it speak above the buzz in my own mind.’

And I probably quoted a half remembered  comment made by Rowan Williams which hit me between the eyes when I encountered it decades ago- it went something like

Too much of the time when we read the Scriptures we seek to interrogate them, but we should let them interrogate us’

That thought made me reluctant to simply use the the bible to confirm my own point of view. Or to pay no heed to those bits which at any given time seem to have nothing relevant or helpful to tell me.

Letting God and the Holy Spirit get a word in edgeways seemed a more humble approach!

So have I found myself increasingly drawn to a text which is often used in the theological flame wars between those of us of a more liberal disposition and those who are conservative about biblical interpretation. Here it is-it is from the 2nd letter to Timothy chapter 3: v 16/17

‘All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient , equipped for every good work.’

This is often used as a proof text by those we might term Fundamentalists, who see the Bible as the inerrant word of God, and is therefore  one of the  roots of all creationism.

But if you consider it closely it appears to be saying something much more interesting and expansive than Fundamentalists assume.

It is not saying that all scripture is true and must be taken at face value- it is saying that all scripture is useful, and potentially life changing and life shaping. It is the sort of saying that if taken seriously doesn’t allow us to stop looking, but inspires us to keep on exploring.

I find it helpful because I don’t believe that the Bible should be treated like a kind of holy Wikipedia, providing immediate and simple access to information, but rather, as what it is , a library of different books; a storehouse of reflections on the encounter with God. Christian, and Jewish wisdom, forged out of centuries long human experience.

The reading we just heard from Luke, which is the one provided in the lectionary for this evening, is a good place to begin to consider this issue of how to let the Scriptures speak to us. It is one of Jesus’ notorious hard sayings and if it is to be taken at face value we might as well all abandon hope straight away.

Jesus says

‘None of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions’

That’s that then!

But, of course it isn’t.

For many individuals who have been exploring a vocation to the monastic life, these words have been heard as sanction and encouragement, and to the rest of us they issue a challenge to fashionable ways of thinking- such as the idea that your economic worth defines your moral worth or that modern twist to Descartes-‘ I shop therefore I am.’

There is that challenge to us, that interrogation of us, I was talking about earlier. So here are just a few handy hints about letting the Scriptures speak to us, which you might find helpful.

Firstly keep listening. I once had an interesting discussion with my atheist brother about the parables.

‘They are all really straightforward aren’t they’, he said, ‘take the Good Samaritan for example. It’s really clear what the message is.’

He had a point! But he also exemplified the tendency we have to define something, in a very limiting way, on the basis of our first impression of it! – we sometimes do that too, perilously ,when we first encounter people.

Just as there is a danger that a person we know will be perpetually judged by us on account of our reaction on first meeting them, there is a chance that throughout our lives we will approach the Scriptures through the eyes of our Sunday School self.

So when we come to church and hear the Gospel read to us, we always hear the same thing. But as we change and age, and have experience, we should be able to hear notes we couldn’t hear before.

On Ash Wednesday this year we had the very familiar  story of the woman taken before Jesus by the scribes and Pharisees, because she was an adulterer. But this time I registered something I had not really paid much attention too before. That the scribes and the Pharisees, who came with a double dose of malice in their hearts- seeking blood and wanting to trick Jesus into giving the wrong answer- might well have listened and learnt. When they leave one by one after Jesus has produced his devastating one liner-

Let  he who is without sin throw the first stone.’

St John doesn’t tell us why they left.

It could have been shame, but it could have been penitence. They who came with the most darkness in their hearts might have had it lifted. They too might have been the heroes, also taking away the message that they could be forgiven, and did not need to return to their sin.

So whether listening to well known Bible passages in Church or reading them at   home try to let them speak new things.

There is a famous Buddhist saying- ‘if you see the Buddha on the road kill him.’ I sometimes think there should be an alternative- ‘if you see a biblical commentator on the road kill him’, or perhaps, not quite as harshly. ‘If you see the Bible Reading Fellowship notes burn them.’  The way readings are chopped up for consumption on Sundays is not always helpful either.

My problem is with the habit of breaking down the bible into verses and short passages, and trying to distil the essence of the meaning from the tiny morsel you have left. A great Cambridge biblical scholar from the C19th, Fenton Hort, was accused of being just a bit too pre-occupied with minutiae- someone said he was the kind of man who when he should be looking through a telescope used a microscope instead.

That, in my opinion, is the curse of many a Bible Study. In the Jerusalem Bible the book of Jonah was translated by JRR Tolkien- how appropriate! A story rendered by a master storyteller. You start a story and you keep on going until you get tired, or bored!

St Paul wrote letters. Imagine getting a letter from a friend, or even from the bank manager, and reading it a paragraph at a time, and only once per week- and only during Lent?

Scholars now regularly compare the Book of Job to a Tragic Play. How would you make sense of Hamlet if you only ever heard the ‘To be or not to be’ soliloquy over and over again, and always torn from its moorings?

Because that is what happens in churches to this profound meditation on suffering and Divine Justice.

Strangely enough one of the few books in the Bible that is comprised almost entirely of short sayings, which should be pondered, one at a time’, the Book of Proverbs, is usually read in church, when it is read at all, in large chunks.

Like a bad tooth or a lame foot is trust in a faithless man in time of trouble.

Like a moth in clothing or a worm in wood, sorrow gnaws at the human heart.

So that is my second piece of advice. Read Scripture, not as a collection of verses, but as a collection of books and genres. This store-house, this library, describing the encounter with God.

And finally, a point which follows on from these reflections, and is a message that all of us who style ourselves liberal, particularly need to heed. Don’t write off the Old Testament.

The passage from 2 Timothy I quoted before, about the inspirational nature of Scripture was written  long before the canon of the New Testament  had come into existence so it is inappropriate to use it as proof text for  sanctity of the whole Bible, as it was originally just aimed at the Old Testament.

The novelist Marilynne Robinson has recently made a powerful and convincing case that many of the distinctive features  in the American political system, which we would term ‘ liberal’ are there because of the Puritan influence which drew heavily on the Old Testament, for its ideals of social order. Those we often consider to be harsh, but when compared to those to be found in the Europe the Puritans fled they can look positively enlightened.

Where we are now, in the light of the ages and the Gospels, we can still lean on 1 Timothy- not as a proof text, but as a profound insight, applicable to the whole of Scripture.

All Scripture is useful. Or as it is put more austerely and provocatively in the words of the grandest translation- the King James version.

‘All Scripture is given by inspiration of God and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly  furnished unto all good works.’


Sermon on Reading the Bible, preached at Bushey on 24 February 2013 Read More »

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