Mark’s Messenger – The Parish Magazine of St Mark’s Church, Broomhill and Broomhall, Sheffield
THOUGH WE ARE MANY WE ARE ONE BODY
In April last year I found myself totally at sea. I didn’t know what it meant to be your Vicar any more. The Archbishops said that church buildings needed to be shut up and clergy were not allowed into them, not even to pray; I did go into church, however, and sang the Lord’s Prayer in defiance! An unlikely protest!
In the very early days we offered services which each of us could access separately from home. The move to Zoom meant that we could interact with each other. For me, having the congregation present is an essential part of what it means to worship. Many of us are very happy to access services which have been recorded or are being livestreamed but I came to realise the importance of being together, even though we are apart. I know that I can worship God when I am out on a walk on my own but there is something quite different happening when the priest and the congregation come together.
At first we all experienced the awkwardness of trying to pray through a screen. As I sat at my dining room table, I wondered what on earth I thought I was doing: the existential crisis continued. Was it right to offer worship in this way, especially Communion? But gradually I began to make space for the sacred. I stopped analysing what was happening and started experiencing the numinous. As I shared worship with those of you who were present at any service, whether it was two or three or a hundred, I was with you in a truly profound way and – more important – I felt the presence of God-with-us. This is the Eucharist and it takes place between us.
When I preside, I have a very real sense that I am doing exactly what I do at the altar in church; the separation between us is now the screen of our device rather than the sanctuary step but in other ways we are so much closer – I can see your face you can see mine. When I am part of the congregation on Zoom I bring with me the elements of bread and wine and I receive Communion with all of you around me. During the service, through music and silence, prayers and readings, the sermon and the Eucharistic Prayer, I feel deeply connected with the faith of our community. I learned many years ago that it is not how we feel when we pray that matters but that we are faithful in prayer. Sometimes prayer or worship touches me deeply and sometimes it leaves me cold – but I know that on the days when I am moved, that experience upholds those for whom it has felt empty and when I am left cold there are others who are holding the numinous experience for me. This is Communion.
One couple has found the celebration of the Eucharist a more intense experience at home than at church and their own preparations help them to feel more involved in the service:
A white ‘church candle’; a small napkin; wine (from whatever bottle we happen to have open) in a precious, ex-wedding present, rarely used these days – a cut-glass sherry glass; and bread (home-made or from the local baker, usually spelt, never sourdough) on a small plain white china plate.
During the service the ‘deacon’ lights the candle when the Singing Bowl is sounded and at the Offertory brings forward the wine and bread so that during the Celebration our bread and wine are, visually, between us and the President (as with the bread and wine on the altar) and appear to be within their outstretched arms. After the invitation we then communicate each other with the words ‘bread a token of Christ’s body broken for you’ and ‘wine a token of Christ’s blood shed for you’. We have settled on these words as encompassing what we think is happening in our participation in this Zoom celebration of the Eucharist.
When I celebrated the first Eucharist of Christmas at Midnight on Christmas Eve/morning this year I was profoundly moved. Although it was partly the way we had prepared the church, with candles and incense and the way David W, Zulf and David R sang so beautifully, it was also my new understanding that, though we are many we are one body because we really do share the one bread. This is the Lord’s Supper.
Thank you for helping me to learn how to be your Vicar in these extra-ordinary times.
WHERE I AM NOW: A reflection on my faith journey
Some of you will know and many will have deduced that, for some years, I have been a ‘Christian atheist’. Although I see much evidence of some people’s belief in the existence of ‘God’ (however defined), I now personally see no evidence for such existence and have lost that belief, yet I still very much value my membership of St Mark’s, and the editor has asked me to write about my journey to that position.
I did not come from a religious background; my Australian mother was a lapsed Catholic, my Scots father a non-practising Presbyterian. As a child I was always curious about things, wanted to find out and understand how things worked. Indeed, apparently, I was reluctant to comply with injunctions unless the reason was explained. When living in Sydney as a boy of about 7 my mother started sending me and my younger sister to a Catholic Sunday school where I was being instructed in the catechism. Arriving late one morning, after the singing had started, I turned round and returned home, telling my mother I no longer wanted to go because it was ‘silly’.
In 1953, aged 12, we moved from Australia to England where I was sent, as a day boy, to a Church of England public school. This was a horrible culture shock which, compounded by it being a very old-fashioned establishment with lots of traditions and strict rules for whose flouting you would be caned, severely damaged my education and my teenage years; despite an IQ of 148 I emerged with just two science A levels at grade E. However the experience made me despise the arbitrary use of power and strengthened my resistance to all forms of coercion. Every Friday we would be marched to the local cathedral for a sung Matins, all quite meaningless to me. Aged 14, the entire class was expected to be prepared together for confirmation, but, because I did not believe in it, I, alone of the class, opted out. Subservient compliance is not in my nature; I have never been reluctant to ‘be different’.
Later, after a year at an FE college gaining good passes in two different A levels, I arrived aged 23 at Keele University where the four year course involved studying a cross disciplinary range of subjects. This broad base of knowledge suited me well as I have always had wide-ranging intellectual interests. I worked for SPCK and in an Industrial Rehabilitation Unit, acquiring a Diploma in Bookselling, a Certificate with Distinction in Industrial Archaeology, and chartered status within the British Psychological Society – an eclectic jumble. Consequently my current reading encompasses a wide spread of subject areas, although I have now given up on theology; much of it seems like futile speculation about the unknowable based on the unquestioning assumption that God exists, akin to debating how many angels can dance on a pinhead.
Meanwhile, at Keele, I made friends with many Christian students – including Pauline! – became editor of the campus Christian newspaper, Icthus, and ‘got religion’ so was confirmed. Our early married life was spent near Exeter whose cathedral had a lovely, friendly Sunday communion; we were regular attenders. But later moves to near Bristol, then to Leicester, the arrival of two sons, and dreary churches led to non-observance. In 1979 I came to Sheffield to work at the University. Although I enjoyed, and was good at my job as a careers adviser (according to student surveys), the circumstances were uncongenial as I was not willing to be a ‘yes-man’. The mismatch led to a spell off work suffering from depression and a mid-life re-evaluation. It is not unusual for people to develop a religious belief during such a personal churning, and indeed it was then that I had a religious experience and visited St Mark’s for the first time during John Giles’ time.
At first I was a fervent believer (and indeed the belief in a protecting God helped me survive another decade at work before taking early retirement to become self-employed). However belief and faith are not a matter of rigid dogma; as St Mark’s proclaims, it is a ‘living, thinking, loving faith’. Exploration, discovery, doubt and reappraisal are what our human brains have evolved for – if you want to keep on growing as a person; as Voltaire said, ‘Doubt is an uncomfortable condition, but certainty is absurd.’ The beauty of St Mark’s is that it is a vibrant community where questioning and discussion are encouraged and that we respect divergences of opinion. Our excellent library and the stimulating early CRC conferences (e.g. Borg and Spong) – let alone all life’s other experiences – have led me to a gradual loss of belief in the existence of ‘God’ or of a ‘spiritual domain’ in any form. Unlike for some people, this has not felt at all uncomfortable or painful; I no longer feel the need of ‘a big daddy in the sky’, to put it crudely. But of course I can still experience awe when I contemplate the cosmos, and transcendence when I listen to music. However, although now a ‘doubting Thomas’, whose beliefs diverge from others, my being is infused with the same Christian ethical values which are immensely important to me. Thus I very much value my membership of the wonderful St Mark’s community which strives, collectively and individually, to spread ‘goodness’. As Terry Pratchett said in Snuff, ‘Goodness is about what you do, not who you pray to.’
My current position is a combined result of personality and experience, learning and reflection. And it’s not over yet; as Solon said, ‘I age, always learning many new things.’
WHATEVER HAPPENED TO ROBERT…?
I left Sheffield in June 2018 and moseyed off into the wide blue yonder – more specifically, to the parental home south of Cambridge in order to share with my younger sister, who lives nearby, the privilege of caring for our mother. Three days after I moved in, Mum died peacefully in her sleep, coincidentally on the tenth anniversary of my elder sister’s death. Once the accumulation of 54 years’ residence had been cleared, her affairs settled and the house put on the market, I acted on long-gestated plans to go and spend time with my Sheffield-born honorary granddaughter in Thailand; I arrived in Chiang Mai at the beginning of March 2019. The ‘Land of Smiles’ is indeed just that, and what followed was an experiential mélange of fun and frolic, exotically fragranced food, temples ancient and modern, the coronation and deification of Phrabat Somdet Phra Vajira Klao Chao Yu Hua (also known as King Rama X) and general cultural immersion – quite literally when I went swimming with elephants. I also took the opportunity to spend five days in Vietnam, visiting #2 son Joe who teaches English in Ho Chi Minh City.
All this time I was looking for work as an English tutor, but apart from a couple of one-off opportunities which I jumped at, my applications were usually met with a dispiriting refrain of ‘We don’t hire anyone over 40’, which served only to ram home the importance of anti-discrimination laws. In my fourth month there, the warmth (in every sense) of Thai life began to be overshadowed by recurrent bouts of depression, and in the last week of June I contracted stress-related gout (yes, it does exist). The three-month lease on my condominium was due for renewal, and I was spending my inheritance without earning any income. So I decided to pack up and return to Brexit Britain.
After recovering my mental and physical health, I bought a flat in Peterborough, into which I moved after the first Covid-19 lockdown ended in June 2020. I have sporadic proofreading commissions, contribute occasionally to the Roots on the Web resources and sometimes write Bible studies, but I’m still seeking regular work and longing to travel again.
JAMES OLIVER – OUR NEW CHURCHWARDEN
Thank you for the opportunity to hold this responsible position at St Mark’s Church, which is a unique, welcoming and interesting place to praise and worship God. I hope to serve to the best of my ability and look forward to getting to know you better during 2021.
I was born in April 1967 to fun-loving and aspirational parents, Margaret and Brian Oliver, who grew up around Sheffield Lane Top and set up home in Dronfield next to Hallowes Golf Club, where I learnt to play golf and have enjoyed many times with people that remain lifelong friends.
Joanne Drury, my elder sister, lives in Chrishall near to Royston in Hertfordshire with her husband Paul and their daughter Eve. Jo has a son, Thomas, who lives and works in Lincoln.
Whilst living in Dronfield I went to Birkdale School in Broomhill, Sheffield from the age of five to sixteen and then did A-levels at Henry Fanshaw in Dronfield. I was very fortunate and grew up in different circumstances to that of my parents and thank them for all their love.
My A-levels were not my finest hour and I thought that I had failed when I had no choice but to do HND Building Studies at Sheffield Polytechnic; how wrong I was. I worked much harder whilst studying a variety of subjects that set me on a road to understanding the various parts of the industry. Afterwards I continued to study a Quantity Surveying degree at Nottingham Trent Polytechnic whilst working at Balfour Beatty Building and then qualified with the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors.
My work has remained in the commercial contracting industry and has involved many types of building projects as an employee, freelance worker and business owner.
Some local religious building projects that I have worked on are St Mary’s, Bramall Lane, the United Reformed Church on Chapel Walk and Madina Mosque, Wolseley Road. I would have really enjoyed meeting the radical architect, George Pace, and being involved with the rebuilding of St Mark’s.
During my school years we received religious education in the classroom, during assemblies and at Easter and Christmas services. During my early teens I sang with the Sheffield Cathedral Choir, attending at least three services each week for several years. Despite all these opportunities, I didn’t believe in God.
After a gap of several years, I next attended Church after meeting Maria when we went to Mosborough Methodist Church. Maria and I married in April 1995 at this church (built by her Great Grandfather) and have been blessed with three great sons, Sam (23), Ben (21) and Leo (13) who were baptised at this church.
Eventually the two older boys wanted to do their own thing. Living nearby we decided to attend Christ Church Fulwood with Leo. At this point my faith and belief grew as I received a stronger message and started to read much more of the Bible and I am very grateful for this time and experience. However, Maria and I did not agree with all parts of the evangelical teaching and at times it didn’t feel like God’s love. We started attending St Mark’s following an opportune meeting between Maria and the dearly missed Kim Willis.
From the start we have felt welcomed at St Mark’s and have enjoyed getting to know a very interesting congregation. We are very blessed to be able to receive God’s news and love within this church and I look forward to developing my faith further with your support.
Outside of work I enjoy singing as a tenor with groups of people and with the church choir, Sheffield Philharmonic Chorus and Chris Wren Singers, where we are privileged to be the stand-in choir at some amazing cathedrals. Some of our performances give the singers a great opportunity to join in with very talented musicians – what a treat!
Alfie, a miniature Schnauzer dog, is a great addition to our family and has really changed my working day for the good, taking regular walks in amazing Sheffield spaces.
At the moment, I play golf infrequently but have enjoyed the game for over 40 years. More recently, I have particularly enjoyed playing with Leo at Lees Hall Golf Club.
With the benefit of hindsight, family holidays have been a particular favourite time of ours, creating wonderful memories whether this has been touring the UK in a caravan, relaxing on the Costa Brava or taking more strenuous skiing holidays.
What one age calls scandalous may seem normal, or just mildly eccentric, in another. Edward Carpenter certainly appeared to be highly eccentric during his lifetime (1844-1929) and at one point only narrowly escaped prosecution for publishing a book some deemed immoral, but many of the ideas he espoused would seem much less odd in today’s world. In fact he might have fitted in quite well at St Mark’s, as he espoused recycling, prison reform and animal rights! He is not now well-known, but in his day he was highly influential and had an amazing circle of friends including Rabindranath Tagore, Walt Whitman, Oscar Wilde, Annie Besant, Havelock Ellis, Roger Fry (whose portrait of him can be seen in the National Portrait Gallery), Mahatma Gandhi, Keir Hardie, John Ruskin, William Morris and Olive Schreiner (and the list could go on.) Even Tolstoy had heard of him, and pronounced him to be ‘a worthy heir of Carlyle and Ruskin’! It amazes me that someone whose life overlapped with William Morris and John Ruskin lived on into the 20th century and in turn overlapped with my own parents.
Carpenter was born in Hove, and educated at Brighton College and Trinity Hall, Cambridge. He started out as an Anglican priest (though he said himself that this was ‘from convention, not conviction’). He was invited to become tutor to the royal princes (George Frederick, later to be George V, and Albert Victor, Duke of Clarence.) However he declined the post, and it went instead to a college friend of his. He rapidly became disillusioned with what he saw as the hypocrisy of Victorian society, and the life he was leading in church and college, finding instead inspiration in the poetry of Walt Whitman, and in 1874 he left the church.
He moved north to Leeds, and began work as a tutor in the WEA there, but to his disappointment his lectures did not attract working men, but a rather middle-class and not very interested audience. He moved to Chesterfield, which he described as ‘boring’, and then based himself in Sheffield where he was finally able to make links with manual workers. He inherited a considerable sum of money on his father’s death, so could afford to give up lecturing and establish a modest market garden at Millthorpe in Derbyshire, where he built his own house. Around this time he was sent a pair of simple leather sandals by a friend in India, and using these as a pattern he began to make and sell them. From this he began to develop his ideas about ‘the simple life’, and his thinking became increasingly radical, leading him to join the Socialist Workers’ Federation, and attempt to set up a branch in Sheffield with a principal focus on remedying the terrible living conditions of working people in the city. In 1884, he left the SDF (together with William Morris) and they founded the Socialist League. Perhaps influenced by Morris, Carpenter wrote a long poem called Towards Democracy in which he tried to express his desire for a freer and more equitable society.
Carpenter lived as an openly gay man, a very courageous stance in the time when many others, including, famously, Oscar Wilde, were being imprisoned because of their sexual orientation. Over the course of his life he had a number of partners, with one of whom, Cecil Reddie, Carpenter founded Abbotsholme School, in Derbyshire. After a visit to India in 1890 Carpenter met George Merrill and they became partners until Merrill’s death in 1928. Carpenter lived on into 1929, and died near Guildford where they had settled in later years. Despite what must have appeared a very irregular lifestyle for that time and milieu he and Merrill seem to have been accepted in Guildford, and made many friends in the area.
Carpenter was a prolific writer, and left a considerable body of work including poetry, essays, and political philosophy and alongside his radical social ideas he was also an early campaigner for animal rights. Among the many eminent 20th century writers influenced by his work were Robert Graves, D H Lawrence, EM Forster (who was a close friend) and Aldous Huxley.
Plans are being developed for a memorial to Carpenter, to be sited in Sheffield, and the sculptor Maggi Hambling has agreed to create a work to capture his memory.
A SUMMARY OF THE INCLUSIVITY REPORT UNDERTAKEN AT ST MARK’S
As an ordinand in training at Ridley Hall Cambridge, I had the delightful privilege to come to St Mark’s on summer placement as part of my training. I am so grateful for the opportunity I had to spend time chatting to some of the congregation via Zoom, about ‘inclusivity’. Five questions were asked in order to explore how inclusivity is understood from the perspective of the congregation of St Mark’s:
- What does inclusivity mean to you?
- How do you feel included in St Mark’s?
- What would you say you struggle with the most at St Mark’s: Language, Liturgy, Music, Activities etc?
- What would your perfect church look like?
- How has Covid-19 affected your experience at St Mark’s?
I found that all the people I spoke to were enthusiastically honest about their experiences and their understanding of inclusivity at St Mark’s. Essentially everyone agreed that inclusivity means ‘including everyone’. I discovered that there is a deep awareness among the people of St Mark’s that ‘everyone is welcome’ and this was continually reflected in their comments. The majority of those I asked said that they felt either ‘welcomed’, ‘valued’ and/or ‘listened to’. Many spoke of their own experience of their first visit to St Mark’s, their immediate sense of the genuine friendliness of the people, and others spoke of learning to trust over time through a growing sense of acceptance and support for who they are. Those who identify as LGBTQ stated that they felt positively welcomed and free to be themselves at St Mark’s. Some people spoke of their everyday challenges with disability and how they were grateful to the Curate for raising the profile of disability at St Mark’s, and how they felt valued and respected as people. There was an overriding sense that respect and value of each person was not limited to personal and individual preferences, rather, every effort is made to give gracious and compassionate space for others to have a voice in the church community even if a person is diverse in their lifestyle or has different opinions.
Grace and willingness to understand and make room for each other is clearly evident in all the responses. What came across was the heart felt desire of those at St Mark’s, to be a discrimination-free community. Many spoke of the awareness and efforts of the leadership team and of the congregation’s desire to welcome and to connect to those from ethnic minority backgrounds, those less highly educated and those who are economically challenged. Many spoke of their appreciation of the BLM reflection that was written from a congregant’s personal experience of racial profiling and discrimination. In response, St Mark’s is in the process of practically and prayerfully seeking new ways to further embrace those from ethnic backgrounds and cultures, and those from economically disadvantaged backgrounds. This current gap in the demographic also came up in the responses of what a ‘perfect church’ looks like; many expressed the view that the inclusion of those from other cultural or economic backgrounds would help to make St Mark’s a more perfect church.
The devastating effects of Covid-19 has brought an unprecedented challenge in how churches connect to their congregations and wider society. It was evident at the time of the summer restrictions, that the efforts of St Mark’s leadership team and the willingness of the congregation was focused on making the best of the situation. It is to the credit of St Mark’s that the strong sense of inclusion and care for one another was reflected in the comments of feeling just as connected to St Mark’s as before. For some, the efforts of connection via Zoom was appreciated because they felt even more included, especially for those who were not physically able to attend church services in pre-Covid times. For others, Zoom services were a struggle, juggling work and worship in the same space is confusing and can be hard work, but nonetheless, this had not effected their overall sense of connection with St Mark’s. Overall, those who participated in the discussions showed a great heart for inclusivity and this is actively being reflected in both the leadership and the congregation of St Mark’s.
ALL MIGHT NOT BE QUITE WHAT IT SEEMS!
One evening, my daughter asked me if I would mind her taking my old school report to school as an artifact for a history lesson. I agreed and the following day her teacher went through each of the ‘artifacts’ brought in, until he came to mine. He hesitated, then commented, ‘This is terrible.’ Then read phrases such as: ‘Wastes far too much valuable time. He must learn to concentrate on the subject in hand.’ followed by the statement ‘Work is deteriorating.’ In astonishment he said, ‘We would not be allowed to write such comments now.’
It is true that my stay at the Grammar School did not reveal the most outstanding of my achievements in life, because the onset of epilepsy had created problems. However, one does learn to live with it and in many cases (as with far more complex illness) it can never really be overcome.
I was initially successful in just one subject at O-level which was English Language; I liked the teacher and showed him great respect probably because he gave me a lot of encouragement. In fact, several of the most positive comments in my report came from him, such as ‘Although I have heard a lot of complaints, I find him quite well behaved’ and in my final term for conduct he stated ‘Excellent in every way. Very dependable.’
Towards the end of my daughter’s lesson at school, the teacher turned to her and said quietly, ‘By the way, what is your dad doing now?’ “Well actually, sir, he’s a teacher!’ As one might imagine, my daughter’s comment prompted several remarks, particularly from boys in the class, one of which was ‘Oh I see, sir, you don’t really have to work hard in school if you want to become a teacher!’
It was during the latter stages of my stay in printing which I entered as an apprentice after leaving the Grammar School that I reached the conclusion that maybe my academic ability was not quite as bad as I had first thought. By then my self-image had improved considerably since mixing with other apprentices at the School of Printing where I successfully passed several trade examinations. However, the use of new technology was changing the industry quite dramatically, so I could not see a great future for the printing skills I had learnt.
Fortunately, I was able to retake the O-level exams I had failed and train as a teacher at a college in Retford that had a policy of encouraging people with experience of industry to enter teaching. Even so, the Department of Education was very wary of allowing people with epilepsy to enter teaching; the college principal was incredibly supportive, but he did advise me not to be too open about the epilepsy. Thankfully, with legislation such as the Equality Act (formerly the Disability Discrimination Act) there is far less discrimination now.
In 1986 I completed an Open University degree focusing on Curriculum Studies and Special Educational Needs which led to me taking on responsibility for children with Special Needs in a large junior school in Stockport. I was later promoted to Senior Teacher. Strangely only once in nearly 30 years that I spent teaching did the condition interrupt class teaching, and on another occasion when selling a raffle ticket to a colleague for, of all things, Epilepsy Action. ‘I thought it was some sort of weird marketing technique he was using,’ the young lady said to another teacher. Does God have a sense of humour, I thought!
There were occasions when I would get mild absences on my way home and I recall collapsing in the street on two occasions, which can happen occasionally particularly when exposed to stressful situations; these resulted in hospital admission. On most occasions being admitted to hospital can be unnecessary as the average doctor has little experience of the many forms of epilepsy. Like other medical conditions it is unique to the person concerned and can change during life.
The main thing I have always felt is having the ability to see the funny side of things. Interestingly it was the English teacher in the Grammar School who first told me that being able to laugh at oneself is the true test of a sense of humour. You never forget a good teacher!
BOOK REVIEW: ORWELL – ENEMY OF POPULISM
In the January Messenger, Bruce Edmonds wrote about populism. He pointed out that populism is not new. It is like a disease that afflicts democracies when things are going wrong. It can undermine democracy and lead to totalitarianism. For this reason, I would see George Orwell’s two extraordinary books of the mid-20th Century – Animal Farm and 1984 – as passionate warnings against populism.
I have long been curious as to what kind of man Orwell was and so recently read DJ Taylor’s excellent and revealing biography1. The truth is that he was a strange, gauche mixed-up sort of man, but outstanding both in his literary skill and his insight into world events. Born in 1903 as Eric Blair, he later adopted the pseudonym George Orwell in order to save his parents the embarrassment of having the family identified with the seedy contents of Down and Out in Paris and London. He started out as a pillar of the British Empire. His father was an opium officer in India, helping to manage the lucrative production of opium for export to China. Young Eric was sent to Eton, after which he joined the Burma police.
In 1927 he reinvented himself and became a writer, investigating life in the lower reaches of society. I am reminded of Edward Carpenter’s transformation from respectable Cambridge don to lecturer and instigator of working-class socialism in Sheffield. Orwell’s investigations led to two fascinating books – Down and Out in Paris and London and The Road to Wigan Pier. In the latter, he commented among other things that Sheffield ‘could justly claim to be the ugliest town in the Old World’, though at night it had a ‘sinister magnificence’.
In the mid-1930s, he got married and they much later adopted a son. He also became a socialist. He went to Spain to fight in the Spanish Civil War and joined POUM, a Trotskyite militia. He endured many hardships and some fighting and a bullet went through his neck. Amazingly he largely recovered from this, but it contributed to his poor health. As described vividly in Homage to Catalonia, he was horrified by the suppression of POUM in Barcelona by the Republican Government which was desperate to placate Stalin, on whom it depended for armaments. Among other things, Orwell was shocked by the lies with which this was justified.
After working for the BBC and then for the left-wing journal Tribune during the War, he produced Animal Farm. At the time, Britain’s alliance with the Soviet Union was so close that many publishers turned the book down, but eventually it was published and rapidly became a best seller. It was interpreted as anti-Soviet, but, although Orwell detested Stalinist Communism, he maintained that his target was totalitarianism more generally. Orwell’s last years were sad as he was gradually dying of TB. He moved to the remote Scottish island of Jura. Fortunately, before he died in 1950, he finished 1984.
Taylor describes Orwell as ‘a moral force, a light glinting in the darkness’. Orwell believed that the biggest single crisis of the 20th Century was the decline in mass religious belief and its corollary, personal immortality. For him, as for Nietzsche, God was dead. The secular substitutes put in its place, whether totalitarianism or western consumer capitalism, merely travestied human ideals and aspirations. In 1940, he wrote about ‘the smelly little orthodoxies which are now contending for our souls’. Modern man had to take control of the immense reservoir of spiritual feeling and use it to irrigate lives. The atrocities of Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany could only have been designed by the godless, because they presupposed the lack of any moral reckoning.
Orwell was also deeply concerned with truth and honesty. Taylor writes: ‘At the heart of 1984 lies a connection between language and morality’. He quotes Orwell as writing in 1946: ‘to write in plain and vigorous language, one has to think fearlessly and, if one thinks fearlessly, one cannot be politically orthodox.’ Orwell could never quite reconcile himself to the compromises inevitable in democratic party politics. But his warnings of what can go wrong in a democracy are relevant to our situation today.
1DJ Taylor: Orwell: The Life, Vintage, 2004.
BOOK REVIEW: YOU NEED TO GET OUT A BIT MORE! The Black Church in the Twenty-first Century, edited byJoe Aldred & Keno Ogbo
After the Second World War, immigration into Britain, first from the Caribbean and a decade or so later from sub-Saharan, mainly West Africa, led to the founding and growth of the black church, or rather because of their diversity, the black churches would be more accurate. Many of these grew from house groups, which provided mutual support for the new arrivals. Moreover, all the mainstream churches, including white Pentecostals, were unashamedly racist and unwelcoming to the point of hostility. The personal testimony confirming their experiences is grievous to hear since such rejection came from both clerics and congregations purporting to be following the example of Christ. Most white churches also lacked the emotional style of worship they had left behind: a literal reading of scripture, open expressions of the Holy Spirit, gospel music and exuberant preaching. These new black churches, whose members had different histories and cultures, tended to be predominantly either Caribbean or African. Until today these churches are expanding, diversifying and becoming richer so that their refurbished disused buildings are being replaced with purpose-built new community centres. More recently the founding elders are gradually being replaced by younger, British-born pastors and elders.
What is a black church? The following definitions are proposed:
- A church which belongs to one of the larger denominations identified as originating in the black community, eg New Testament Church of God – an independent church originating in the black community and with a leadership and membership or congregation largely of black people.
- Any church which has a leadership largely or completely of black people.
- Any church in which the majority of the members or congregation is black including Anglican, Roman Catholic, Methodist, Baptist, United Reformed Church, etc.
In addition the black churches in the UK represent shades of identity defined by nationality and colonial history.
Some of the principal black churches are the New Testament Church of God, Redeemed Christian Church of God, Calvary Charismatic Baptist, Glory House, and Kingsway International Christian Centre among many others.
The Black Church in the Twenty-first Century consists of 13 essays describing the development and contribution of black churches in the 20th century and addresses the challenges for them in the 21st century. The 13 topics are: theology; ecumenism; the work of the Holy Spirit; gospel music; conflict resolution; politics; social issues; elders; youth; education; health; economics; and climate change. Finally in the light of the state of the churches described in the essays the challenges facing black church leadership are radical and ambitious in their scope. Although some social justice work is already being undertaken, eg the Pentecostal Credit Union and networks of street pastors, on the whole black churches tend to look inwards. Briefly the pressing need is to agree to disagree on contentious differences of doctrine and co-operate much more closely with each other, Churches Together, other faiths, secular charities, local councils and central government departments to combine resources and meet urgent social needs outside their walls.
The strength of this analysis is that all contributors are self-confessed ‘insiders’ thus bringing their knowledge and wide experience on the one hand, but on the other hand it is liable to weaken their objectivity somewhat. There is no criticism of prosperity gospels and the lifestyle of some church leaders, and, in a small minority of cases, fake miracle healing and brutal exorcism of those with mental illness.
The copious references at the end of each essay will be useful to those who wish to find out more. For white congregations wishing to accept these challenges and link with the work of black churches this book is required reading.
1The Black Church in the Twenty-first Century, Joe Aldred & Keno Ogbo (eds) Darton, Longman and Todd. 2010. ISBN 938-0-232-52792-6
BOOK REVIEW: COMING HOME: A THEOLOGY OF HOUSING1
If St Matthew’s gospel had the only account of the Nativity, it would be the natural starting point for Christian reflection on housing: Jesus, the carpenter’s son, was born in the house of his parents in Bethlehem, later settling in Nazareth. He was not born with ‘nowhere to lay his head’. That came later and was freely chosen. In turn, we might be ‘resident aliens’ whose true home is to come, but we should be in no doubt about the need for roots and a roof over our heads.
This collection of essays acknowledges the importance of rootedness and security, having its origins in a symposium convened by the Archbishop of Canterbury to reflect on the contemporary housing crisis. That crisis is partly captured by statistics – one million families on waiting lists and 320,000 classed as homeless. But the reflections go wider, asking what insights the Christian faith has that can help us understand better how the built environment contributes towards or thwarts human flourishing.
The authors are an eclectic mix of academics (some associated with St Mellitus College), clergy, practitioners and activists from the Pentecostal, Roman Catholic, Methodist and Anglican traditions.
It is unfortunate timing that the book was largely written before the pandemic for that has fundamentally changed the relationship between work and home for so many. As people house-hunt in future they will not only research local schools, they will also ensure that one room can become ‘the office’, at least for part of the week. Lockdown and working from home has made us re-think home and work life, and also realise how much we value good neighbours and supportive communities.
Despite the subtitle, the book is not ‘a theology of housing’, though there are helpful chapters which point us towards what such a theology (or theologies) might look like. Some draw on Roman Catholic social teaching, but Malcolm Brown writes about the possibility of a specifically Anglican theology of housing. Such a theology would be grounded in the sense of place that the tradition of the parish and the parish church gives. Those structures – for the moment – remain, and mean that the Church of England is the only denomination that has a Christian presence in almost every community.
When my part of the world was endangered by widespread flooding in 2019, it was a local parish church in Fishlake that became a focus for mutual aid, using its nave as a general store for all the community. In so doing it was being true to the Anglican tradition and resisting those forces that lead to a destructive individualism and reminding everyone that we feel most at home where we are also prepared to live as good neighbours.
1Coming Home: A Theology of Housing, edited by Malcolm Brown and Graham Tomlin, Church House Publishing. ISBN 978-1-78140-188-0.
2The Revd Dr Alan Billings is the Police and Crime Commissioner for South Yorkshire and the author of Lost Church: Why We Must Find It Again (SPCK).
A PRAYER FOR OUR TIMES
the fabric of our society has been patched many times,
and yet still there are holes,
the places where the poor and the vulnerable struggle to exist.
As we face a future in which virus, climate and politics
threaten deeper gashes in the web of community,
we pray that you will guide us to create a new garment of justice,
so that those who suffer now may join with all in drinking
the new wine of your love in the fresh wineskins of a changed world.
We ask this in your name.
BOOK REVIEW: MONOTHEISM AND FAITH IN GOD by IAN WALLIS1
In 64 pages Ian takes us on a whirlwind tour. Twice he refers to particular people as polymaths; after reading this, I am inclined to ascribe that title to Ian himself. The range of disciplines which he authoritatively calls on – biblical studies, philosophy, sociology, anthropology, cosmology, to name a few – and authors (only a few of whom are mentioned in this review!) is immense. And though he doesn’t fight shy of using technical language, he does so in a way which carries the reader with him rather than obscures or obfuscates. But I have to say, short as it is, it is not a read for the faint hearted!
To quote the concluding summary as a way of understanding this book, it is ‘about monotheistic belief [as] an embodiment of human being, one that not only gives expression to faith’s inclination towards self-transcendence, but also, through participating in a sponsoring belief system, relates the believer to faith’s source of fulfilment through learning to live in God’s light.’ Monotheism may be a ‘hypothesis only verifiable through personal experience’, but with a rigour and a depth of erudition, Ian shows how this is a sustainable basis for personal living and flourishing.
In the first section we are given an overview of faith within the origins of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, starting with a discussion of what faith is, how faith can be identified and, indeed, whether it lends itself to precise or even meaningful definition, and a reminder of the distinction between faith as orthodoxy and/or as orthopraxy.
Abraham is, as you would expect, a key figure, though Ian is clear that the context of Genesis 15.6 (‘and the LORD reckoned it to him as righteousness’) is that of right relating rather than the forensic meaning prominent in later interpretations. Then the development of monotheism in Israelite understanding is discussed, as well whether in Islam ‘a trusting faith in Allah constituted of itself a sufficient Islamic response or whether believing aright was necessary’. This tension is a consistent thread throughout the monograph.
Section two looks at faith and belief, introducing the idea of faith as self-transcendence and distinguishing between ‘faith as an inherently human impulse or potentiality towards transcendence and belief as the interpretative framework or semiotic system’. The helpful identification of belief systems (as distinct from beliefs) throws some light on what is going on in some arguments in the contemporary Church. As often elsewhere, there are useful analogies drawn from the contemporary world.
The third section concentrates on the status of religious beliefs, starting with an outline of George Lindbeck’s categorization of four possible dimensions to doctrine and religious beliefs more broadly: the referential, the expressive, the interpretative and the formative. This is brought into dialogue with the critique of Alister McGrath and the insights of Ian McGilchrist.
This section includes some important statements:
‘this conviction that the truthfulness of religious beliefs resides in their capacity to offer a satisfactory account of human experience, including its relationality, supplies a promising route for being able to claim anything about God beyond that experience’
‘if the word ‘God’ did not resonate with a common pool of human experience, it could never have become a source of cohesion and community formation.’
‘believing is learning to live “as if” God is in the fullest sense … thereby engendering the existential orientation within which God enters human consciousness – not as a construct or derivation, but as the ‘thou’ summoning forth our personhood, animating our being-in-relation.’
Section four brings what has gone before together to focus on monotheistic belief, stressing the importance of relationality: ‘we are relationally constituted integrities for whom relating to the beyond-self, to the other, is constitutive, not simply derivative, of our human being.’ This is given precedence over a Cartesian understanding. It is then related to expressive, interpretive and formative belief in discussions which are much illuminated by the writings of the Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart. While recognising that ‘there is no access to God apart from human experience (shaped by belief systems)’, Ian also points to ‘the danger of the deployment of personal language, leading to conceiving of God as being in some sense a substantive person’.
In a short section of concluding remarks, Ian opens up a few questions. One is about special revelation, where he challenges us to consider whether the suggestion inherent in special revelation that ‘God is not equally immanent in all times and places but invests certain persons or moments with additional donations of divine being’ is or is not compatible with monotheistic belief; and whether the concept of ‘sacramental amplifications’ in time, where extraordinary persons or events intensify divine presence, serves us better by embodying divine presence ‘in such a way that it becomes more perceivable.’
This is a thought-provoking and encouraging journey into the subject area.
1Monotheism and Faith in God, Ian G. Wallis, Cambridge Elements: Elements in Religion and Monotheism, CUP 2020.
BOOK REVIEW: ON THE SIDE OF THE POOR by Gustavo Gutiérrez and Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Müller1
Liberation theology, according to Gerhard Müller, until 2017 Prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in the Roman Catholic Church, ‘is one of the most significant currents of Catholic theology in the 20th century.’ With its emphasis on the ‘preferential option for the poor’, a theological perspective developed by Gustavo Gutiérrez in his ground-breaking work of 1971: A Theology of Liberation, that examined the context in which the poor resided in Latin America and considered them to have a special place in God’s people, it chimed perfectly with the analysis put forward by Pope Francis in his first apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, where he stated God shows the poor ‘his first mercy’. In this book, Gutiérrez contends that liberation theology is concerned with material (political, financial, environmental, technological) aspects of poverty on the lives of the poor, their causes, and the need to remedy them, and with the spiritual wellbeing of the poor. This is a key difference, of course, between liberation theology (with its foundations firmly rooted in a theological anthropology) and Marxism (with its historical materialism being devoid of any spiritual dimension).
And drawing distinctions between the two, whilst also acknowledging what they share, is a key theme of the book, partly to lay to rest any anxieties some in the Roman Catholic hierarchy still harbour about liberation theology and its Marxist influences. With this purpose no doubt in mind, Müller is also keen to re-emphasise that liberation theology is a Catholic theology of grace and salvation ‘now applied to history and society’; something Gutiérrez’s classic text of 1971 also makes clear, stating: ‘The salvific action of God underlies all human existence’, and: ‘To work, to transform this world, is to become a man [sic] and to build the human community; it is also to save. Likewise, to struggle against misery and exploitation and to build a just society is already part of the saving action.’ Good works and grace thus go hand in hand, as, from a Catholic perspective, they must, to attain redemptive liberation via salvation.
The book’s chief weakness is that it does not attempt to address the limitations that have been cited by several theologians about the extent to which Catholic liberation theology, as a lens through which to examine and strategise a response to the plight of the poor in post-industrial contexts, for example, can be seen to have much value. A case in point was its now infamous (and unfortunate) inclusion in the Church of England’s report on the social impact Mrs Thatcher’s policies were having on the less well-off in the UK in the 1980s called Faith in the City, published in 1985. As Malcolm Brown, currently Director of Mission and Public Affairs for the Church of England, has since pointed out: ‘Faith in the City was theologically deficient, flirting, as many of us did, with Liberation theology with insufficient appreciation that urban England and its people were more than a little different from El Salvadorian base communities [of the kind that Gutiérrez’s study had focused on].’ In hindsight, many would now agree that a far better theological anthropology to have adduced in Faith in the City would have been the one that Archbishop William Temple had embodied; namely, the reformist strand of Anglican Socialist tradition out of which his concept of the welfare state had emerged, and to which Thatcher’s polices were – at least to some degree – antithetical.
Nevertheless, On the side of the poor is a welcome reappraisal of Catholic liberation theology, written from a Roman Catholic perspective, and one wonders whether such a book would have been produced had it not been for the esteem with which Pope Francis holds Gutiérrez and his theological legacy. I doubt it, frankly, but welcome this book as an important contribution to our understanding of the influence that liberation theology has undoubtedly had on shaping some aspects of Catholic Social Teaching over the last fifty years. It is also written in a fairly accessible style (as is the classic text of 1971 by Gutiérrez), and so will be of interest to lay Christians who share a concern for the plight of the poor, and who are interested in exploring ways of approaching that aspect of Christian discipleship from a Catholic perspective.
A copy of the book is in the Church library.
1ON THE SIDE OF THE POOR: The Theology of Liberation
by Gustavo Gutiérrez and Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Müller, Orbis Books, 2016.
A CLOSING PRAYER
Lord Jesus, you say that
when someone gives food to the hungry,
when someone gives a drink to the thirsty,
when someone welcomes a stranger,
when someone clothes the poor,
when someone cares for the sick
and when someone visits a prisoner,
they are really doing it for you.
Enable us, with the wealth of our society, to do these things,
but help us first to listen to the voices of those we desire to assist
and to welcome those who are on the margins,
because, in their strength and love and endurance,
they are your voice, your words for us today.
Lord Jesus, we pray in your name.