Don’t miss the Theology Slam Live Final


“All of us are theologians. The minute we say something about God, we are speaking theology. Young voices, unheard voices, need to be nurtured in the practice of reflecting on faith and the wider world, and this event will do just that.
Archbishop Justin Welby

In September we launched Theology Slam, a new competition to find engaging young theologians organised by SCM Press along with Church Times, LICC and the Community of St Anselm, at Lambeth Palace. We were inundated with entries skilfully connecting theological thinking with the preoccupations of our society. We’ve now selected 3 finalists for the Theology Slam Final, which will be held on 7th March at St John’s Hoxton at 7pm. The finalists are:

Sara Prats, 23, from Spain, a Master’s student at the University of Birmingham. She will speak on Theology and Mental Health

Hannah Barr, 27, a first-year ordinand and Ph.D. student at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford. She’ll be speaking on Theology and #MeToo.

Hannah Malcolm, 26, project co-ordinator at God and the Big Bang, an organisation that runs workshops for young people on science and religion. She’ll be speaking on Theology and the Environment.

Each finalist will speak for 7-10 minutes on their chosen topic. There will also be an opportunity to hear short TED talks from two top UK theologians Professor John Swinton (Chair in Divinity and Religious Studies), and Dr Eve Poole (Third Church Estates Commissioner). Alongside them on the judging panel will be Mark Greene, Executive Director of the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity (LICC) and Isabelle Hamley, Old Testament scholar and chaplain to the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Then at the culmination of the night one of our finalists will be crowned Theology Slam Champion, 2019.

If you’d like to join us for what will be an inspiring and fascinating evening, you can buy tickets here.

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Could a rural Tanzanian diocese hold the key to Church renewal in the UK?

Visiting a rural diocese in Tanzania, Stephen Spencer was intrigued to discover that the church was full of freshness, vibrancy, and growth.

The road from the town descends through some rocky hills on to the plain. Fresh green vegetation, that has sprung up after first rains, soon disappears behind us. The land here is bone dry, the earth parched and cracked. Gusts of wind whip up sand into small whirlwinds. Bedraggled herds of cattle with protruding ribs are cajoled by their young herdsmen. It is not clear where they are going as there is no green grass in sight and the herdsmen are not allowed to move their cattle out of the immediate area.

Once we are in the village, an extended series of homesteads spread over a wide area, shapes can be seen lying on the ground in the distance. As we draw near the dreadful reality of the situation becomes clear: these are the bodies of dead cattle, lying in the sun and beginning to decompose. Further on the number of bodies multiplies, some now  mauled by local dogs. There are too many for the villagers to bury. The stench of death hangs around the homesteads. My companion, from the local diocese, says that he has never seen this before in this region. The drought that began three years ago is now taking its toll. If it continues, how will the people themselves survive?

The scene is very depressing. It is my third visit to this village; I already knew that it was a drought-prone area and that help was needed from outside. Over the previous couple of years I had encouraged fundraising at home for the drilling of a borehole, so that the villagers would not need to walk 5km to the shores of Lake Victoria for water. The fundraising had gone well, with a number of people giving sacrificially. Thousands of pounds was sent and a drilling company paid to do a survey and sink the borehole. The first attempt, down to 122 metres, failed to yield water. So a second attempt was made, a little further away, down to a similar depth. The devastating news was that this had also failed to yield enough water, and now the drought was taking hold with a vengeance.

Why could not something more be done? Why would the Tanzanian government not come and save the cattle, or at least bury them? Why did the people have to lose the animals in which their livelihoods were invested? Why did those who have so little have to lose even the little they have? Questions and frustration mounted up.

But then we arrive at the small mud-brick, tin-roof church. As we get out of the car we can hear singing and when we go inside the church we find a crowd of people caught up in dance and song, led by a choir of young people smartly dressed in matching brightly coloured batik material and filling the place with life and movement. It is enthralling and humbling. Then, during the service, it becomes clear that some of the older people are caught up in the intercessions, adding their own affirmations, raising their hands, being transported by the worship. Even if desperation brings them to church they are not dwelling on their misfortunes but lifting their minds and hearts to something greater than the hard land they live on.

They are caught up in a grace and joy that somehow transforms this little church into a kind of gateway to something greater. The contrast with what is outside is stark. It stops my dejection and frustration in its tracks. It does not remove the need for drought relief but places the whole situation within a bigger and more hopeful context. This bears fruit after the service when the congregation has a community meeting to discuss the drought and decide on what should be done next. Through the discussion a consensus emerges on the need to work with the local government in seeking resources to find a different solution. It is clear that both the worship and the meeting have helped to energize and inspire the people to work together to try to overcome the effects of the drought.

This is not an isolated example. Over the seven years I visited Mara I found a number of other churches where there was a similar combination of acute need and irrepressible Christian life. On top of this were the simple facts of church growth in this region. Over 25 years Mara Diocese had grown by over a hundredfold. At its creation in 1985, as already mentioned, the diocese had 12 parishes plus a large section of the Serengeti national park (including one million wildebeest on their annual migration!). Following the division of the diocese into three in 2010, growth continued, with four or five new parishes established most years. And this church growth has not just been about congregational enlargement: it has gone hand in hand with a range of development projects at parish and diocesan level, from weekday children’s nurseries to digging wells for drinking water to pastoral and medical support for victims of HIV/AIDS. Church schools have been started and extended, agricultural development work has taken place and theological education enhanced.

If such growth was possible in Tanzania then maybe it could happen in Britain? It has certainly happened here in the past, through the Evangelical revival of the eighteenth century, the Catholic revival of the nineteenth century and the growth of ecumenism in the twentieth. Why not a fresh revival in our own century? Given the lack of overall progress in renewing and  growing churches in Britain in the last decade, Tanzania could provide an example that offers clues to a promising way forward.

To find out if this might be the case I needed to explore the causes and development of this flourishing expression of church life. I decided I would turn to church growth in Mara and explore its dynamics. I would begin with the personal reasons why people had become Christians and joined their local church, because ultimately church growth is about actual people deciding to commit to Christ and become his disciples. Beginning at the local level, then, with the experience of new Christians, the question would be this: what was drawing these people into an active Christian faith? Only after answering this would I then explore the steps the church leadership had taken to enable this to happen and look at how the new Christians were being supported by clergy and lay ministers. Finally, Mwita Akiri, as one of the bishops of the region, would add his thoughts on the causes and dynamics of this growth at different points in the narrative, so helping to identify the key themes of this remarkable story.

This is an extract from Growing and Flourishing: The Ecology of Church Growth, which is published later this month. You can order a copy of the book at a special pre-publication price, via our website.

Stephen Spencer is Director for Theological Education in the Anglican Communion.

New year, new books

Over the next few months, we’ll be publishing new titles on everything from black preaching to catholic social teaching, and church growth to Matthew’s gospel. Here’s a run-down of what’s in the pipeline.


January

“This book is like the very best kind of guidebook to a great city you’ve not visited before – or perhaps have visited and largely forgotten.  It takes little for granted, it clearly and vividly maps the territory, and it whets the appetite to spend time looking, learning and absorbing the riches around you.  A really first class introduction to the ‘new city’ of classical Christian faith and practice.” – Rowan Williams

Love Makes No Sense is an introduction to a theology that refuses the abstract, and sees no distinction between theology and practice. 

Aimed at people looking to explore Christian theology more deeply, be they life-long Christians who want a deeper understanding of their faith, new Christians, or those  looking for a way in to more serious theological study, the book is by Peter Groves, Jarred Mercer, Jennifer Strawbridge who together form a part of the St Mary Magdalene School of Theology, which 
exists to provide people—lay and ordained—with the theological resources for an active Christian life. 


Mara is one of the most marginalised regions in Tanzania, which in turn is a country in the most marginalised continent on the planet, and yet, Stephen Spencer argues, the church in the region has exhibited remarkable growth. In Growing and Flourishing: The Ecology of Church Growth , Spencer looks beyond the usual dimensions of church growth discourse, and weaves in his own experience in Tanzania, finding in that wholly different context an approach to church growth which entirely changes the discourse in the global north. 

Nick Baines, Bishop of Leeds says of the book: “Careful and encouraging, provocative and challenging, this book is much needed. Spencer shows effectively how the Church in the West can learn from distant cultures, and bears the fruit of strong international partnership links.” 


February

Theological Reflection: Methods (by Elaine Graham, Heather Walton and Frances Ward) has been a go-to textbook for generations of students developing their skills in theological reflection. In February, we will publish the first new edition of the book, since it was published over ten years ago. 

The book offers a comprehensive collection of models of theological reflection. By bringing this diverse collection together in one place, the editors create a unique reference work that allows a clear and visible contrast and comparison as each model is treated formally and in a standard format. Throughout each chapter the distinguishing features of the model are examined, the geneology and origins are discussed, worked examples of the model applied to contemporary theology are provided, and critical commentary, future trends and exercises and questions are provided.

Now firmly established as an essential text on theological reflection, this new edition has been revised and updated with a new introduction, updated examples, and refreshed bibliographies


Studies of preaching and preaching style have up to this point often focus almost exclusively on a western eurocentric understanding of good preaching. In Preach It: Understanding African-Caribbean PreachingCarol Tomlin encourages students, both vocational and scholarly, to look beyond these approaches and to learn from traditions with which they are less familiar.

The distinctive style and techniques that African Caribbean Pentecostal preachers have inherited has been shaped by historical, political and socio-economic factors impacting on black Caribbean people (including clergy).

Using a variety of socio-linguistic and theological approaches, Preach It reflects on these techniques, and outlines how preachers across church traditions might learn from them and use them in their own contexts.

David Muir at the University of Roehampton says of the book “Tomlin’s excellent book throws light on the morphology of this performative practice in a critical and authentic way that will be appreciated by scholars, practitioners and students of this sacred art”


Described as ‘the Catholic church’s best kept secret’ Catholic Social Teaching provides a rich body of thought, and finds a particular resonance as all denominations in the church seek to engage with the needs of contemporary society. Yet beyond the immediate context of the Catholic church, it is all too readily ignored. Resolutely aimed at those who come from traditions beyond the movement’s traditional catholic heartlands but who seek to view their ministry through the lens of generous orthodoxy, Love in Action: Catholic Social Teaching for Every Church offers a deeply scriptural but accessible introduction to this vital approach to the church’s ministry in the world.

The author, Fr Simon Cuff, is a Tutor and Lecturer in Theology at St Mellitus College, and Coordinating Fellow of the Centre for Theology and Community.


March

Continuing our efforts to bring out new editions of some of our best loved and most used SCM Studyguides, the 2nd edition of the SCM Studyguide to Theological Reflection, like its predecessor offers newcomers a step by step introduction to understanding what theological reflection is and helps them to explore which of the methods introduced best suits them and their particular situation. It is practical in emphasis, providing students with a wide variety of worked examples and opportunities to carry out their own exercises.

The new edition brings the content up to date, offering a revised and improved bibliography and updated and refreshed examples and exercises, including new sections on scriptural reasoning and contemplative theology.


Finally two books with a similar aim – to engage with the ordinary experience and ordinary theology of Christian disciples as they work to develop and deepen their discipleship learning. The first 
Everyday Matthew , by John Holdsworth, brings the situations of ordinary readers into conversation with the scholarship to help make Matthew’s gospel accessible and  pastorally useful. 

How might a young student be inspired by the sermon on the Mount? 
How can environmentalists, anxious for the future of the world, connect with Matthew’s concerns about the End? The book is predicated on a belief that such connections are possible; that there are ways of seeing the pastoral or practical usefulness of the text, and, ultimately that there is some point in reading, preaching and teaching from Matthew’s gospel.

John Pritchard, former Bishop of Oxford, says ‘The Bible has been well described as a conversation betweenearth and heaven. John Holdsworth demonstrates the value of this metaphor inthis immensely readable volume. Because he inhabits the text so fully he canopen it up with clarity and style, taking us through scholarly debate with asure, light touch, and allowing familiar passages to communicate afresh. Theresult is a lively approach that makes Matthew available to thoughtful,twenty-first century readers who are open to contemporary wisdom from anancient source, a true conversation between earth and heaven.’

Similarly, Everyday Public Worship (by the Reverend Susan Jones) links the reader’s everyday experience with the key influences that have shaped the Church’s understanding of public worship, with the Scriptures, with Christian doctrine, with Church history, and with the landmarks in Christian liturgy. The book explores the themes raised by a serious and thoughtful consideration of public worship by engaging in conversation with three Christian disciples who came from very different backgrounds and who have very different experiences of and expectations for public worship.

2018 in 9 Reviews

We’ve had a busy year at SCM Press, and we’ve been thrilled to receive so much positive feedback in journals and magazines, from individuals and via our website. Here’s just a few of our favourite comments.

To Gain at Harvest: Portraits from the English Reformation (Jonathan Dean)

“Jonathan Dean’s eloquent and enlightening portraits of ten ‘icons of faithfulness’ from the Reformation –  clerical and lay, male and female, Protestant and Catholic –  are intended to facilitate a dialogue between modern Christians and their forebears from a fractured and traumatized age. This is ecumenism of a robust and courageous kind, not looking to erase or minimize past differences, but holding out the hope that sincere efforts to understand Christian integrity in an era of conflict can help illuminate our own difficult path to unity.”


Professor Peter Marshall, Department of History, University of Warwick

The Abiding Presence: A Theological Commentary on Exodus (Mark Scarlata)

“The writer, a vicar and a lecturer at a London theological college, has written this commentary ‘to understand not how Exodus came to be but what Exodus means.’ Having reviewed other commentaries so  suffused in theological terminology that they unintentionally conceal the message of the book concerned, Scarlata instead actively reveals Exodus’s message in the contexts of the reality of God’s abiding presence with His chosen people and of His revelation to Moses at the burning bush, on Sinai and within the tabernacle. Much too is devoted to ‘the revealed God who remains hidden’, echoing the very definition of faith (Heb. 11:1) and emphasising the centrality of Exodus to the entire Old Testament (and to the New). Aside from the final, each chapter finishes with a concise summary from a New Testament perspective on the
material covered. These summaries provide not only accessible application, but also a sermon source and study guide. 

If more commentaries were written like this, more Christians would read them.

Andrew Carr in The Reader, 18.4

Undoing Theology: Life Stories from Non-Normative Christians(Chris Greenough)

“The aim of this engaging and thoughtful volume in the SCM Research Series is “to explore the content of the spiritual and religious journeys” of three non-normative Christians, in order to explore “the cumulative impact of traditional theological discourse regarding sexuality” on their lives.

… Greenough subtly defends experience as a source of theology by conceding its limitations (for instance, its shifting character and the limitations of the language by which it is articulated). Queer theory and queer theology, like experience, also require undoing. They help us “to deconstruct previously traditional dominant theologies”, but they don’t figure in the lives of people, and they don’t recognise the need to preserve what is good within master narratives.

Christians of the more “normative” kind will learn much from the book as well. Simply listening to the stories told (and thousands of others like them) is a simple act of neighbour-love and plain human respect. We need to learn the pain that we cause. This is a bold, truthful book…”

Adrian Thatcher, Church Times

Seeking the God Beyond: A Beginner’s Guide to Christian Apophatic Spirituality (JP Williams)

“The sub-title is ‘A Beginner’s Guide to Christian Apophatic Spirituality,’
and it is exactly that, an overview of the via negativa, a way to reach God by discovering what he is not rather than what he is. I found it a theological page-turner, leading on from the biblical roots starting with
Moses, the Song of Songs and John the Baptist to Jesus; these texts are revisited in succeeding chapters: an explanation of the ‘negative way’; exponents such as St John of the Cross and Meister Eckhart; a fascinating
description of related topics, Paul in Athens, Keats’ Negative Capability, the books of Narnia and Zen Buddhism; finally apophatic content in practices such as pilgrimage, liturgy and prayer. There are useful addenda such as the need for spiritual emptying and humility in the Afterword, and also further reading. You will gather that it is very wide-ranging, indeed breath-taking in its compass, but it is in direct language
and easy to read. I would say it is essential for those engaged in spiritual direction and otherwise highly recommended for all.”

John Foxlee in The Reader, 18.4

A Preacher’s Tale: 
Explorations in Narrative Preaching
  (Jon Russell)

“Russell has practised what he preaches here on training courses where preaching is taken very seriously as a theological and practical discipline. His sermons are easy to read and, one must assume, engaging to hear, offering space for dialogue and a more emotional and transformative response to the word of God which is being proclaimed. His short reflections combine practical wisdom and helpful insights from superstars of the preaching world: Barbara Brown Taylor, Thomas G. Long, Henri H. Mitchell, and Eugene Lowry, revealing the influence of the New Homiletic movement.
It would be a danger to underestimate the challenge in a book like this, but Russell gently provokes preachers to re-cast their preaching in a new light — letting their scriptural imagination run free, and reigniting their vocation.
Given the growing interest in preaching, there is a need to hear from those voices who have honed their skills on the ground. The real test of those who write, teach, and lecture about preaching is whether they are any good in the pulpit. A Preacher’s Tale suggests that Russell is, and is someone worth listening to.”

Victoria Johnson, Church Times

Broken Bodies:
The Eucharist, Mary and the Body in Trauma Theology (Karen O’Donnell)

“This extraordinarily powerful book does not retreat from the blood, loss and deathliness sewn into Christian theologies across the ages. Nonetheless, it also insists on their transformative potential and capacity to bring new light to experiences of trauma and its aftermath today. O’Donnell’s is a bold new voice in constructive theology.”

Susannah Cornwall, Exeter University, UK

Buying God: Consumerism and Theology (Eve Poole)

“Dr Poole’s work is a magnificent contribution to the church. Written by a gifted theologian and practitioner, this book is for all those wishing to gain both a richer theological understanding of capitalism and modern consumerism, and practical insights on how we can simplify our lives. This is vital work, not only for our own spiritual benefit, but also for the good of society and for the wellbeing of our planet.”

Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury

Theology for Changing Times: John Atherton and the Future of Public Theology (edited by Christopher R. Baker and Elaine Graham)

“This all-star collection of essays strikes sparks off the valuable legacy of the late John Atherton’s social theology. It will hugely enrich our understanding of the impressive trajectory of Anglican social thought that runs from William Temple to the present. It will spur us to a more incarnational engagement with the empirical, material world and stimulate a deeper wrestling with the the unresolved theological problem of the meaning of ‘the secular’ in our contemporary pluralistic society.” 

Paul Avis, honorary professor, University of Durham.  

The Hardest Part: A Centenary Critical Edition (GA Studdert Kennedy, edited by Thomas O’Loughlin and Stuart Bell)

“A dialogue across the years since World War One about the age-old problem of how to reconcile horror and fear with the Christian message. This is a reprint of a deeply thoughtful book with modern reflections, critical comments and very exciting notes by Tom O’Loughlin and Stuart Bell. An inspiring project”

Customer review on the SCM Press website

Sharing the experience of advent

In this extract from The Preacher’s Tale: Explorations in Narrative PreachingJon Russell shares an advent sermon and discusses how to preach in a way which invites a congregation to share common experience. 

Advent Stars: A Sermon

Does it feel strange, coming to church in the dark? It means that winter is definitely here. We moan about the cold and the dark nights, especially when it’s wet. But on the other hand, isn’t there something enormously comforting, as you pull your collar around you, and snuggle your hat down around your ears, to be making your way home, where there will be warmth and welcome, a hot drink, and the curtains drawn tight shut against the gloom?

And isn’t there something wonderful, on a clear, frosty night,about simply lifting our eyes and gazing up at the stars? You can see them much more clearly at this time of the year, and you don’t have to stay up so late.There can be nights in winter when you can almost read by them, the light of the stars is so bright.

We are very lucky, living here in the Allen Valleys. Photographs of the British Isles taken from satellites by NASA show the whole country-almost- brightly lit up by street lights and motorway lights, and the lights glaring out from millions of shops and houses. The North Pennines are among the very few dark areas on these photographs. What this means is that if you live in Newcastle, for instance, you come out of your house at night, and the streetlamps douse everything in a harsh, orange glow. It means that you can see where you are walking or driving, of course; but there is a price to be paid. It is as if a great plastic dome has been placed above the city. The sky is a thick, clogged, dulled orange-black, and only the few brightest, bravest stars twinkle weakly through.

Out here, we enjoy a night sky that’s worth going out to gaze at! Sometimes you can see Mars glowing red for months at a  time. Jupiter and Saturn are clearly discs,not mere points of light. On some nights you can spot four different satellites whizzing overhead in the space of ten minutes. But even in Allendale earth-light obscures much of what we might otherwise see above us. You can’t make out the dimmest stars because of house lights and Christmas decorations and the orange glow from street lamps.

But travel west with me for a moment, and spend a night camped out by Small Water, a little tarn high up in the Lakeland fells. We’ve climbed a couple of miles from the last road, up into the very heart of the hills. If you are very lucky, you will be shaken awake at midnight, and as you are pulled from your sleeping bag, a small voice will say to you something like, ‘Daddy, you must come and look! Look at the stars!’

Up here, when the air is clear, no man-made light from anywhere pollutes the night sky. It takes a while, but your eyes adjust to the velvet darkness. Now you can make out the outline of the hills all around: black,cardboard shapes bathed only by starlight. And for the first time you can seethe Milky Way blazing down in allits glory. Multi-coloured diamonds spangle the sky: swirls and eddies of all the millions of stars. Some of this starlight began its journey 12 billion years ago. It is as though you can see into eternity.

The story of Advent, Christmas and Epiphany is shot through with starlight. If the magi, astronomers from the east, are to arrive in time to bring their gifts to the baby Jesus, they will have set off weeks ago. In terms of the age of the universe, of course, a couple of thousand years is but the blink of an eye: so as they journey they gaze up at essentially the same star-thronged sky that we behold. But they see it more clearly than we can, because as the magi make their journey the night sky is dimmed only by the flicker of the occasional camp fire. How will they know which way to go? According to the story Matthew tells us, they are guided by a star.

Does anyone remember the comet Hale-Bopp that blazed so brightly for us a few years ago? In England the weather is so often poor when you try to observe an astronomical event. Clouds regularly obscure the showers of meteors that pass, so that  we see nothing. But Hale-Bopp blazed for weeks: an awesome, beautiful arrow of light, pointing unwaveringly over the northern horizon. It was a rare privilege to live to see it. Perhaps that star of Bethlehem that led the magi to the infant Jesus was a comet like our own Hale-Bopp 2,000 years later.

Interestingly, St John in his Gospel doesn’t mention the star of Bethlehem. John speaks of Jesus himself as the light who has come into the world, a light that darkness can never overcome.

But we are impatient of heavenly light! To see stars properly, you have to move far away from all artificial illumination, and wait while your eyes adjust. We haven’t the time to hang around like this! So we make our own light. And just as the sodium glow from street lamps obscures the light of stars, so the light we produce by which to see our lives obscures the light of Christ.

We know what we want to see at Christmas: good food, lots of presents, time with the family, something entertaining on television! But in trying to illuminate all this, Christmas can easily become a morass of worry and debt and excess and rancour; so that the last thing we feel like doing is waiting for our eyes to adjust to the birth of a baby! Instead of watching the skies, we watch the television; and the glory of the Christmas story is outshone by the EastEnders omnibus. Why do we do this? So that the flickering screen in the corner of our living rooms might shield us from looking at our Christmas, and at our lives, and at who we are, and at what we have become? But, like street lights, it will cheat us out of seeing ourselves in the light of Christ.

The thing is, this light of Christ is not harsh and judgemental, like the orange glare of our towns and cities, and the car headlights that blind and dazzle. The light of Christ is as gentle as starlight, inviting us to glimpse eternity. God, who creates the heavens and flings galaxies into space, comes among us in Jesus. He risks everything as a helpless, vulnerable baby, whose gaze simply invites us to love him.

It seems almost that we can’t believe our eyes. Is that because we never give them time to adjust to his light?


A number of homileticians lament the fact that present-day congregations are much less familiar with the Bible than were earlier generations. How much less those who come only irregularly to church? This sermon was written for a carol service, which would attract many occasional visitors: parishioners who perhaps come to church only two or three times a year. They have not read the Bible, nor become knowledgeable about its interpretation. But they come, knowing that the familiar elements of the Christmas story will be rehearsed once again: the wise men, the star, the birth of the baby Jesus at Bethlehem.

The sermon starts, therefore, from an experience that everyone has just shared: that of coming to church on a winter’s evening. The sermon is essentially an argument, but one that develops around the multi-faceted image of starlight. Though alluding both to Matthew’s version of the nativity and to the prologue of John’s Gospel, both of which have been read during the service, there is no detailed exegesis or exposition.These would, I judged, have fallen very flat at the point where the Christmas gospel ought to soar. Instead, after exploring a number of differing experiences of starlight, we conclude that most people miss out on something wonderful. By analogy, the congregation is invited to reflect now on common experiences of Christmas, and led to ask whether here, too, we might be missing out on something wonderful.

The stories are all either commonplace or personal experience: they are not‘merely’ imaginary (although the phrase ‘outshone by the EastEnders omnibus’is unashamed alliteration!). The star of Bethlehem is an historical and scientific mystery. That does not make it complete fiction, but a carol service sermon was not the place to argue for its historicity or otherwise. The reference to the Hale-Bopp comet suggests that we have experienced something almost as extraordinary in our own lifetimes. As a boy, growing up in a sodium-lit town, I could never understand when astronomers on television spoke of the colours of different stars: to me there weren’t very many stars anyway, and all of them were orange. But living and working on the Isle of Wight, and  later in the North Pennines, has allowed me to see the sky much more clearly. I have indeed camped at Small Water in the Lake District, and awoken to be overawed by the night sky; but it was my sister who was awoken by my nephew, desperate to share his wonder at seeing the Milky Way properly for the first time.

I had a curate in training once who wrote two versions of the sermon she was proposing to preach. The text was the baptism of Jesus by John. In the first version, she told us about her recent pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and in particular her visit to the River Jordan. How hot it was, how amazing to standby the very river in which Jesus received his baptism, and so on. In the second version, she instructed us to ‘step down from the cool of the air-conditioned coach into heat that hits you like a bus. Feel the glare of the sun as it narrows your eyes, while the soles of your feet heat up through your sandals.’ Come Sunday, she preached the second version. Instead of telling us what the experience had been like for her, she used her experience to help the congregation to have an experience: to feel for themselves something of what it is like to arrive at the River Jordan. Her sermon was so very much better for recreating experience, rather than leaving the congregation envious, or bored by someone else’s holiday snaps.

Such stories as that in ‘Advent Stars’ would be dull if delivered as reports. Rather, the task in writing the sermon was to enable the congregation to share the experience, and perhaps catch the excitement, and open themselves anew to the wonder of the Christmas story. David Schlafer puts it succinctly: “Don’t hand out scripts with stage directions. Produce scenes.” (David J. Schlafer, 2004, Playing with Fire: Preaching Work as Kindling Art)


Jon Russell is a parish priest in Northumberland. For the past ten years he has taught narrative preaching, firstly as part of Reader Training in the Diocese of Newcastle; then, since its inception, as part of the Lindisfarne Regional Training Partnership, training readers and ordinands in the dioceses of Newcastle and Durham. He is the author of The Preacher’s Tale

Advent Calendar of Virtue

If you follow us on Twitter, you’ll know we’ve started posting an ‘Advent Calendar of Virtue’, a question each day as an antidote to the consumerism of the season. Eve Poole, author of Buying God, introduced the idea in a past blog post. On this page, we’ll periodically add the questions we’ve posted so far, so you can catch up. 

Don’t forget to check our twitter feed @scm_press each day for more questions to ponder through Advent.

Take a virtue work-out this Advent…

This Advent, Eve Poole, author of Buying God will be leading us through an ‘Advent Calendar of Virtue’ – 24 simple questions to ask ourselves through the Christmas season. Each day, we’ll tweet a new question via the SCM Press twitter feed. Here’s Eve Poole to explain more. 

Advent used to be about preparing for the Christ-child. Now it’s a relentless fight against time to get the presents bought for Christmas. It’s easy to feel that consumerism has taken over Christmas, and to spend so much time and money on everyone else that you end up feeling impoverished both financially and spiritually. So as well as all that, this year why not do something for yourself. It’s not a ghastly diet, neither is it a gin advent calendar. It’s an invitation to take up a virtue work-out this December.

Virtues are really just habits of the heart, established over the years though education, experience and effort. But like all habits we take them for granted. And some we may use more than others, so they’re easier to switch on day-to-day than their less-used friends. This workout asks you to focus on one a day, to see what flexing each virtue muscle feels like. If one of them feels a bit flabby, perhaps you might try to find more opportunities to hone it, so that in the end you have ready access to a whole range of supple virtues to exercise in your everyday life.

It was Aristotle who first popularised the idea of virtue ethics. It’s now being rediscovered in the context of how to develop character. Character matters more than ever these days, because we’re wholly overwhelmed with options and information. This means we have to be really good at choosing. In order to make wise choices, we need to be grounded in a deep sense of values and purpose, so that we don’t lose our bearings. Virtue ethics contrasts with systems of morality based on rules or consequences, on the basis that it’s less about obeying laws or playing the odds, and more about durable habits and character traits. It’s about developing ethical instincts by practising virtue for virtue’s sake. It’s actually a hugely sophisticated notion, seen retrospectively through the eyes of modern neurobiology. As Aristotle himself puts it in Book 2 of his Nicomachean Ethics: ‘we become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing brave acts.’ And we now know that this is neuro-biologically true: if you change your behaviour, you will rewire your brain.

December is a challenging month for character. So our ‘Advent Calendar of Virtue’ asks a series of questions to invite you to practise virtue. Serendipity may synchronise them with your situation, or you may need to improvise. The suggested discipline, though, is to zoom in on one virtue a day, and put it through its paces to see what you can learn. Even if you can’t manage all 24, even asking yourself the question may help you to re-frame your day. Building up your virtue armoury will also help you to resist the wiles of consumerism except on your own terms, so that you can face Christmas with equanimity.

Follow @SCM_Press to see each day’s challenge from 1st December to 24th December. And why not tell us how its going, what difference its making, or what decisions in your day you made differently? Use the hashtag #AdventCalendarofVirtue

And if you’re curious to hear more about what light theology might shed on consumerism, why not buy a copy of Eve’s book Buying God: Consumerism and Theology

Dr Eve Poole is the Third Church Estates Commissioner, and Chairman of the Board of Governors at Gordonstoun. She has a BA from Durham, an MBA from Edinburgh, and a PhD in Theology and Capitalism from Cambridge. She is the author of “Capitalism’s Toxic Assumptions (Featherstone 2015) ” and “Leadersmithing (Bloomsbury 2017)”