29 April 2008

Theology - What is it Good For?

It's not uncommon to hear Christians claiming that theology is irrelevant and that they just want to be ordinary Christians who don't have anything to do with theology.

I remember some years ago an advert on television with Maureen Lipmann exclaiming to her grandson - who was preparing to graduate from university - that he was getting and 'ology' degree. It went something like 'Oooohhh! An
ology! My grandson is getting an ology!!!'

But 'theology' simply means 'talk about God'. And we all have a theology and we all talk about theology.

Here are some 'theologies' that I disagree with:

* God wants to bless you. Send $100 to my ministry now and God will bless you.
* If a snake bites a true believer, they will not be harmed; it says so in the bible.
* If your terminal cancer is not cured by prayer, it's because you don't have enough faith.

I hope and expect that most people reading this post will whole-heartedly disagree with these theologies. This is my short argument for 'studying theology'. Do we want ideas like the above passed on to people in church or passed from Christian parents to their children? No, of course not.

I do agree that sometimes theology feels like arguing about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin and, when it gets to that stage, we've probably lost any kind of plot that is going to help us be Christian disciples. Nonetheless, I think there is a strong argument for studying theology, not the least because we'd want to be able to explain why we don't agree with the above theologies.


I'm getting old.  
I was taught in both school and university that debate between people of different ideas is a good thing because it sharpens one's thinking.
I was also taught that, if you are going to engage in a debate, that you should address the ideas with which you disagree and not ridicule the person holding them or attack his/her character.  For example, calling a New Testament scholar 'a clown' or 'a comedian' and otherwise ridiculing him is not a proper process for debating theology.
But some time during the last 50 years, this process of discourse has become outmoded.  Apparently, it is now acceptable to launch a character-attack on someone if you don't like their ideas.  
The Church Universal has degraded into a place where the communication tactics used by Rush Limbaugh in the US and The Mail and The Sun tabloid newspapers in the UK are legitimate ways of discussing theology.  Don't like someone's theology?  Ridicule him or her.  Attack his or her character.  Start your argument with 'This person is a clown, so you shouldn't listen to a word s/he has to say';  address some of the ideas if you must, but continue to sprinkle your argument with character-assassination to let your readers know that your oponent's ideas are as worthless as s/he is.
The Church has discarded the commandment to not bear false witness against one's neighbour.  I'm assuming that it must now be outmoded in the 21st century.
[Addendum:  Whilst this post is addressing a particular incident, I'm generalising it because I do believe that this process of 'debate' is being used on a regular basis within the Church.]

28 April 2008

Offensive to Vegetarians!

I came across a book entitled Hitler was a Vegetarian by Ron Ferguson

I am a vegetarian. I am deeply offended. I reckon that Mr. Ferguson wrote this book in order to compare me and all other vegetarians to Adolf Hitler. Never mind about all other vegetarians, even. I'm pretty certain he has it in for me.

I plan to ridicule him and his book tomorrow morning. I reckon he's fair game.

[To those who are tempted to take me seriously: Tongue in Cheek alert!]

26 April 2008

Day of Prayer for Zimbabwe

I have just received this from a Zimbabwean friend:

ON SUNDAY 27TH April, 2008.

A desperate cry from the hearts of Zimbabwe screams across the world.

It calls upon all Christians of every denomination in every nation to focus their prayers, in churches, halls, homes or elsewhere, on Sunday 27th April, 2008 on the critical situation in Zimbabwe, a nation in dire distress and teetering on the brink of human disaster.

Let the cry for help touch your heart and mind. Let it move you to do what you can immediately to ensure this DAY OF PRAYER takes place in your country and neighbourhood.

Please pass on this message right now to all the churches and Christian organisations known to you and to the media as well as to everyone anxious to rescue Zimbabwe from violence, the concealing and juggling of election results, deceit, oppression and corruption, and to bring about righteousness, joy, peace, compassion, honesty, justice, democracy and freedom from fear and want.

May a continual strong stream of prayer and supplication flow up to the Lord on behalf of all the people on this DAY OF PRAYER, exhorting His divine intervention throughout the nation.

"It is by making the truth publicly known that we recommend ourselves to the honest judgment of mankind in the sight of God." ( 2 Corinthians 4:2)

"Who so putteth his trust in the Lord shall be safe." (Proverbs 29:25)
"Stand fast, and do not let yourselves be caught again in the yoke of slavery." (Galatians 5:1)
"Make no mistake, you cannot cheat God." (Galatians 6:7)
"Do not be overcome by evil but overcame evil with good" (Romans 12:21)

Bob Stumbles. Chancellor, Anglican Diocese of Harare. 19.04.2008.

Good for a Laugh

With apologies to all my many friends in London.

Hat tip to Richard at Connexions

25 April 2008


From the Church Times blog:  Archbishops issue Zimbabwe Statement

I recently read a letter from someone serving as a missionary in Zimbabwe who claims that houses in their area are being razed to the ground and food is extremely scarce.

24 April 2008

Good News

This is a bit of a repetition of a previous post, but I was asked to write 'A Thought for the Month' for one of the church newsletters and I'm posting it here in the spirit of 'don't let a good piece of writing go to waste'.


A few weeks ago, 'The Church Times' carried an interview with the American Christian author Philip Yancey who will be appearing at The Greenbelt Festival this year. Yancey is one of my favourite Christian authors because he often seems to provide one important thought that leaves a person thinking for a long time afterwards, even if it was something that you knew already!

In this interview, Yancey said:
'Jesus said the truth shall set you free, and he came to give life in all its fullness. If it doesn't sound like good news, it's not the gospel. If it's not setting you free and enlarging life, then it's not Jesus's message.'

I think that this is an important nugget of wisdom because it gives us two 'touchstones' of what our Christian lives can look like if we are faithful to the gospel: freedom and an enlarged life. But this idea seems to make some people nervous. Indeed, I think that there will always be individuals in all cultures and faiths who will be made nervous by any teaching that tries to set human beings free rather than to control them.

Scripture makes it clear that Christian freedom is not about the pursuit of private pleasure, but rather that it about the pursuit of justice and goodness and righteousness. The simplest illustration of this is that warm feeling we get when we help another person out or when we contribute our time or money to a worthwhile cause. Indeed, psychology understands that looking outside of our own welfare to the welfare of others is fundamental to mental health and to a life well-lived.

There are many voices in our culture that will try to tell us that the message of Jesus is not a good news story. Some will tell us that Jesus' message is bad news because they wish to discredit Christianity. Others behave as if they believe that God's love for humanity depends on our good behaviour, so their message to us is that we'd better strive for perfection rather than rest in the assurance that we're forgiven sinners.

But Yancey's idea is a good touchstone. Ask yourself 'Does this action, thought, or message point people to the love of God or to the love of others? Will it result in freedom and an enlarged life for everyone and not just for those who already have power?' If it does, then it is good news and it is God-honouring.

May the blessing of God be with us all as we endeavour to demonstrate his good news in our lives!

The Realities of Being a Small Fellowship

The realities of being a small fellowship:

Christian Aid week is coming up and our small fellowship has been allocated about 12 roads to distribute Christian Aid envelopes to.

- Mrs. A distributed last year but is 88 years old and suffering from arthritis and understandably doesn't feel she can do any more.
- Mrs. B distributed last year but is taking a holiday 'down under' with some extended family.
- Mr. C and Mrs. D (not related) distributed last year but are both attending a circuit-sponsored retreat during Christian Aid week.
- Miss E tried distributing last year for the first time, but finds it intimidating and doesn't feel that she can do it again.
- Miss F (aged 80) is the organizer for the fellowship and is in a total panic about how to distribute and collect hundreds and hundreds of envelopes.

Basically, Miss F and 'the minister' (i.e. me, and remember I have 3 other churches) are the only people who are both able and willing to collect and distribute envelopes. We told our neighbourhood organiser that we couldn't distribute too many envelopes this year and we were told 'good luck finding distributors'.

That is the reality of the situation. At some point, we simply have to cut our suit to fit our cloth.

21 April 2008

Churches concern at Zimbabwe violence

21 April 2008
Churches Concern at Zimbabwe Violence

The Methodist and United Reformed Churches have together voiced their concern about increasing levels of violence and political intimidation, linked to the delay in announcing the result of Zimbabwe’s presidential election.

Commenting on the precarious situation, the Revd Dr Stephen Orchard, Moderator of the General Assembly of the United Reformed Church said: ‘The Zimbabwe Election Commission owes it to the long-suffering people of Zimbabwe to announce the presidential result without further delay, to enable people to begin the urgent task of rebuilding their shattered lives and economy. We condemn the campaign of violence and intimidation that has been embarked upon by members of the ruling party, following the announcement of the parliamentary election results. We also believe that people who hold power in any country have a first duty to care for the poor and vulnerable rather than for themselves’.

Reflecting on the escalating humanitarian crisis, the General Secretary of the Methodist Church, the Revd David Deeks, said ‘The impact on the lives of ordinary Zimbabweans has been immense. The people of Zimbabwe appear to have voted for change and the leaders of Southern African states bear a huge responsibility to ensure that the will of the people is respected. If that doesn’t happen, the crisis in Zimbabwe could have an increasingly devastating impact on the entire region’.

The two churches expressed their solidarity and support in prayer and action with their partner churches and agencies in Zimbabwe and pledged to continue working together to achieve peace, justice and prosperity there. They illustrated the plight of Zimbabweans with statistics, including:

In 1987 inflation averaged 11.9 percent. It surged to an official record of 100,586 percent in January 2008, but economic experts say the real rate is much higher.

Average life expectancy dropped from 63 years in 1990 to 37.3 years in 2005, according to World Bank and U.N. figures.

Estimated at about 80% of the working population.

20 April 2008

Local Elections - May 2008

The Black Country Churches Engaged have issued some useful election guidelines for Christians ahead of the local elections in May. In some areas, candidates are standing from the British National Party.

The Guidelines are as follows:
  • Do you and does the candidate, recognize the innate dignity and equal value of all human persons?
  • Can you be confident that the person you vote for is able to represent, and make judgements on behalf of, all the local community, regardless of their race, colour or faith?
  • Will the person elected work for the common good of all, not just one section of like-minded individuals?
  • Will his/her policies promote harmony, justice and social cohesion, so that no individual or group or faith is marginalized, demonised or treated unjustly?
  • Do his/her policies feed on the fear of one group over another?
  • How will his/her policies promote the rich diversity of cultures living within the community?
  • Do his/her policies serve to promote good race relations, respecting the culture, language and faith of all?
What strikes me, in writing these out is the question: 'How many of our churches would be unelectable if they were a political candidate' on this basis? Do we always 'work for the common good of all, not just one section of like-minded individuals'? Do we always 'promote harmony, justice and social cohesion, so that no individual or group or faith is marginalized, demonised or treated unjustly'? If we were being honest, I think we'd have to say 'no' to both questions.

17 April 2008

Kathy on Grace

Another fantastic post from Kathy on the subject of Grace as a Spiritual Discipline.

16 April 2008

Thoughts on 'The Priesthood of All Believers'

'The priesthood of all believers' has been a term that has been used a number of times in our little UK Methodist blogosphere.

I'd like to offer a few thoughts on this term. I say 'offer a few thoughts' because I'm not purporting to offer a rigorous academic definition of the term, simply my own personal thoughts.

1) A priest is normally understood as being a human being who has a 'mediating' role between God and humanity. The term 'priesthood of all believers' indicates that it is through 'the Church'[2] that this mediation takes place.

2) 'The Church' is a fraught term over which generations of Christians have disagreed. I take a fairly Protestant view of 'the Church' regarding it as a mystical communion of believers (although I leave it to God to judge who is in and who is out).

3) 'The Priesthood of all believers' therefore indicates that the communion of believers plays some kind of 'mediating' role in the life of the faithful. For me as a Methodist, the concept of 'fellowship' is important to my understanding of that mediating role. For me, there is something important about the Christian community and our mutual encouragement and oversight of each other as well as about our commitment to self-giving love, to forgiveness and to reconciliation.

However, there are also a few things that 'the priesthood of all believers' is not.

a) It is not a theory that implies that every individual member is called to all the functions of the ordained ministry and that each member might as well do all or any of them instead of a minister. Normally speaking, one would assume that any individual called to most of the functions of an ordained minister might have a calling to such a ministry. It might very well be the case that, in any given congregation, there are some individuals with this calling. The Church historically has asked them to step forward, offer themselves and be recognised by the Church if they want to exercise them. This was Wesley's concern about 'order' in the church.

b) It is not 'rule by the loudest members.' It does not mean that when any member of the congregation says 'Jump!' that other members or the minister say 'Yes sir! How high?' In any other group or institution, individuals demanding that all their desires be met would be called anarchy. Of course, the prescription against autocracy goes for the minister as well as for members.

c) It is not unique to Protestantism and it doesn't imply congregational church governance. The Roman Catholic church would also claim to believe in 'the priesthood of all believers'. It does, however, have a very different view of 'church' and of what I would call 'the institutional church', of the meaning of ordination and of the role of an ordained priest.


Michael at Internet Monk asks an interesting question on his blog: Are American Christians Persecuted?.

Some of the commentators seem to think that they are but I'm much more in agreement with the original blog post.

13 April 2008

And the sheep know his car...

Today's Gospel reading included the well-known verse from John: 'and the sheep follow him because they know his voice.'

It's risky being a 'city-girl' and preaching to a bunch of farmers on 'the good shepherd' and I've learnt a bit about sheep and shepherding today!

The best story was from a woman who told me that her husband's sheep recognised the sound of his car and when they heard his car coming, they would all run toward it and then follow it, bleating, until it stopped. Food, you see.

We agreed that a modern farming version of the Johannine verse would be 'and the sheep follow his car because they know the sound of its engine.'. Wonderful stuff! :-)

Keeping a Time Sheet

I used to work in a line of work where we were required to keep a time sheet. We had to record in fifteen-minute increments everything that we did during the day. Especially because of the fifteen-minute increments, this felt obsessive-compulsive to me and I vowed that I would never keep a time-sheet again.

It was just about a year ago that I started to keep a time-sheet. I was told about it on a Christian forum. I noticed, as a new minister, that it's possible to just keep working and working and that I often do. Also, it's possible to feel guilty about all the people you have yet to visit; there is always someone who needs visiting.

I was told. 'Keep a timesheet. I use Keep it Collared'. This is a piece of 'freeware' that is specifically designed for clergy and that can be readily downloaded from the linked site.

I promptly downloaded 'Keep it Collared' and I realised that I'd already worked 64 hours that week. No wonder I was tired! That gave me permission to relax and not work. At the moment, I've had several weeks where it has just not been possible to have a day off, but just recording my working time helps me to take a bit of rest when I have a bit of a window.

European users need to be aware that, in order for the spreadsheet functions to work, you will need to set your entire operating system to the American date standard (where 13 April 2008 is 4/13/08 instead of 13/4/08). This is a slight drawback, but I personally think it's worth it.

I'm not yet using the new Beta version of the spreadsheet so I don't know how different it is from the 'old' version, but my version not only counts my weekly hours, but it allows me to set my 'vacation' days, my reading days, how many Sunday's off I'm allowed and minimum and maximum weekly working hours. It will also accrue 'comp time' if you want it to.

For me, I've found that it's main use is actually to stop me feeling guilty and to allow me to slow down when I need to. I'm sure it could probably also work for other professions although the features are specifically geared for clergy.

10 April 2008


Kathy over at Beyond Words has written a stunning and expressive post on the subject of Doubt as a Spiritual Discipline.

09 April 2008

Death Threats to Gay Christian Leaders

I have just learned via the website Thinking Anglicans about violence and threats against leaders of the group Changing Attitude.

The story of the violence against the Nigerian Director of Changing Attitude and the death threats against him and against the Director of Changing Attitude England can be found here.

The sad and ironic thing is that the underlying ethos of Changing Attitude is an ethos of peaceful resistance and non-violence. This is not the first time that the Nigerian Director of Changing Attitude has received a death threat and I believe (though I'm not certain) that it's not the first time he has been physically attacked.

Changing Attitude have written a letter to the members of GAFCON and I think that their ethos of peaceful resistance is well-reflected in the language of that letter:
We recognise the integrity of those who hold this position at the same time as we disagree with it. We are not resistant to engaging in the debate with those who hold radically different views.We recognise that it is extremely difficult to conduct this debate in language that does not polarise opinions or inflame tensions.
Physically harming gay Christians and threatening them with death is another example of the use of violence for the sake of a 'holy cause'. The traditional view of homosexuality has a long history in the Christian tradition and is rooted in an approach to biblical interpretation that is well respected, but it's utter anathema to harm people and threaten them with death. This violence must stop!

08 April 2008

I Think I Might be 'Emerging'

I never understood what 'Emergent Christianity' was or even 'Emerging Church'.

But I've just finished reading Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary by Marcus Borg.


Everyone stop to scream 'Marcus Borg! Heretic!!!!. Thank you. Now we can continue with our regularly scheduled programme...


This book is not actually about 'emerging Christianity' at all but at the end of the book, in the Epilogue, he describes 'emerging Christianity' as have two main tenets: 1) The idea that being a Christian requires action against injustice in the world contra the idea that Christianity is just a private, 'spiritual' affair and; 2) The idea that it's OK to have honest doubts and to express them to God.

Well, heck. I think I'm 'emergent' after all. That seems like standard Christianity to me. OK, I accept that lots of Christian communities still don't make it very easy for people to express honest doubts.

But I'm now suffering from that kind of time-warp where I've apparently become too old to think. I crossed - or am crossing - some sort of barrier where I no longer want to think any more but just accept my faith blindly. Argh! I've been waiting all my life for what's apparently 'the emerging church community' and now I'm too old.

Guess I'll just have to stick to blogging. (Yeah, I know that Bebo and Myspace and Facebook are where it's at but I find Facebook rather unwieldy.)

Christians and Violence

Our circuit supports a mission project in Western Kenya which was heavily affected by the violence that rocked the country after the Kenyan elections. Among other things, the mission project cares for orphans - both children and young people - by providing them with education in basic literacy skills (children) and education in a trade (young people). It's probably worth saying that a number of children and young people went missing during the violence but, thanks be to God, were all found safe and well.

We have recently received an annual report from the project co-ordinator: a Kenyan woman. In the report, she reflects on the violence engendered by the aftermath of the Kenyan elections and writes:
For Kenyans who marvel at the fact that professed Christians killed their neighbors and destroyed their livelihoods, now is the appropriate time for us to meditate on the place of violence in Christianity and the tendency of many believers to project an understanding of salvation separated from ethics. As Christians we have failed to make a definite stand on violence mainly because classic formulations of central doctrines accommodate and support it by claiming that God saved the world through the violence of the cross. Hence since it can do good, it is not to be tabooed as intrinsically evil.

One of Jesus’ main messages was that we must love our enemies, forgive people who injure us and overcome evil with good. We should forgive one another and foster peaceful coexistence with our neighbors. We need to start a new life all together and we cannot leave out our displaced brothers and sisters in the camps.

06 April 2008

Thinking Faith

The British Provence of The Society of Jesus (Jesuits) has launched a new website entitled Thinking Faith.

Those who know me in person know that I originally studied theology at a Jesuit university in the States during the 1970s. I'm indebted to my university experience for showing me that it is possible to be both a Christian and a thinking person.

I'm particularly indebted to Jesuits at my university for introducing me to Ignatian prayer. I belong to the Christian Life Community which is a community dedicated to praying and sharing prayer in an Ignatian format.

The Society of Jesus is dedicated to 'thinking' as well as to prayer, hence a 'Thinking Faith' website is well within their tradition (although I think they might need someone who knows just a little bit more about formatting web-space). Historically, Jesuits have been committed to prayer, to social justice and to education.

Church Burnout?

There is a very interesting conversation going on over at Ship of Fools on the subject of Church Burnout.

A number of interesting points are being made from the perspective of members, clergy and clergy spouses.

02 April 2008

Methodist Ministers' Pension Scheme

This post is a bit of a 'specialist subject' but it's just to let any British Methodist Ministers know that I have been voted on to the Trustee Board of the Methodist Ministers' Pension Scheme as of 1 September 2008. A few people have asked me in person and in email, so anyone reading my blog: now you know.