Is the Church perfect?

A guest post from Helen D. Morris

“Is the Church essentially a perfect or an imperfect entity?”

This is a question I like to ask the MA students that I teach. The answer seems obvious. We only have to glance into church history, around the Church today, or, for those of us who are part of the Church, into our own lives and hearts to see myriad examples of the Church’s imperfection.

The world outside the Church, understandably, calls this imperfection out. One recent example of such critique comes through the character of the priest in the critically-acclaimed series Fleabag. This priest, rather than leading the atheist main character, Fleabag, towards God, stands in the way of any attempt she might have made to reach out to him. Whether an intentional or subconscious depiction of the Church on the part of the writer, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, the message conveyed is sobering. Rather than a group of people who inspire and encourage others to find life and hope in the good news of the grace poured out in Jesus, the Church, as portrayed in Fleabag at least, blocks the path towards God that others might take if only the Church weren’t in the way.

Many would testify that such a picture of the Church does not match their experience. Many lives have been turned around by meeting Christians who have demonstrated love, compassion, and goodness, encouraging others to know God for themselves. However, even if a picture like the one we see in Fleabag were only a tiny bit true, and most Christians would recognise that it’s sadly more than that, this would be a tragedy worthy of much grief and sombre self-assessment on the Church’s part. The Church is imperfect. Christians see this. The wider world sees this. God sees this.

So why ask the question? At this point in the lecture, after my students have voiced their own examples of the Church’s shortcomings, I bring in the work of Paul Minear and his Images of the Church in the New Testament. In the New Testament, there are descriptions of the Church in practice, in Acts and Paul’s letters, for example, where we see that imperfection in the Church is not new. There are also prescriptions given as to the character and behaviour that the Church should exhibit. However, the primary way that the Church is depicted, Minear argues, is through images, or metaphors. The Church is Christ’s body, the temple of the Holy Spirit, the people of God, the bride of Christ, the aroma of Christ, a family, salt, light, and a city on a hill, to name the most prominent metaphors used. Despite the variety, Minear contends, these images shed light on the one reality of the Church that they all point to. Different images emphasise different aspects of this one reality, but the reality itself is the same. It is the redeeming and reconciling activity of God the Father in the Son and through the Spirit in drawing people to himself. Moreover, this reconciliation of people to God is a foretaste and sign of the redemption of creation that God will accomplish on Christ’s return.

Therefore, Minear maintains, rather than the overly human-centred definitions and understandings of the Church that Christians today so easily adopt, in the New Testament, the Church’s identity and calling is firmly rooted, not in itself, but in the Triune God, whose being and acts are perfect. Not only is the Church founded on the works of a perfect God, but it is, itself, heading towards perfection. The bride of Christ image is particularly striking in this regard. Ephesians 5 looks forward to the time when Christ’s bride is without spot or blemish; Revelation 21 describes this future reality in glorious detail.

But that is then, and this is now — we might counter. Not so for Paul, who, like the other New Testament authors, sees a more complex relationship between the present and the future than binary opposition. For Paul, the future reality of the perfection of God’s kingdom has broken powerfully into the here and now through the coming of Christ. The Church, though awaiting final perfection, is now the body and bride of Christ and the temple of God’s Spirit.

The Church, then, is located in a tension between the perfect entity that it is in Christ, and will become on Christ’s return, and its current imperfection. The danger with any tension is that only one side is maintained. In this instance, imbalance leads to either an unhealthy triumphalism that fails to prepare and account for the current reality of sin, or an eeyorish pessimism that loses sight of the power of Christ’s work in and through the present lives of believers. The challenge is to hold both ends firmly. Paul does just this when, in Ephesians for example, he instructs his readers that the Church is Christ’s body and must grow up into the full stature of Christ, or that Christians are new creations and must put off their old selves, or that the Church is Christ’s fullness and then prays that the believers will be filled with the fullness of God.

Maintaining tensions can be challenging, but it also stabilises. The stabilising effect of tensions has prompted me to promote a new metaphor for the Church, based on Paul’s body of Christ texts: the image of the Church as a suspension bridge. Just as the tensions in the supporting cables uphold a suspension bridge, so, I argue in my book Flexible Church, maintaining the tensions conveyed through Scripture upholds the Church. The tension between the perfection and imperfection of the Church’s current calling and identity is one that I explore. I also examine dialectical tensions between: God’s transcendence and immanence; believers’ calling to be spiritual and religious; the Church’s existence as a network and an institution; the Church’s nature as inherited and innovative; and the Church’s relationship with the wider world as both inculturated and countercultural.

My hope is that the image of a suspension bridge encourages the contemporary church to maintain the flexibility and stability needed to faithfully communicate and demonstrate the good news of Jesus in a range of different contexts. My aim is to provide a diagnostic tool by which churches can evaluate their strengths and weaknesses and identify imbalances that may have arisen. My prayer is that those of us involved in Church would keep seeking God’s wisdom, infilling and strength to be people who inspire others to know Jesus too, and never a barrier that blocks their path.

Rev Dr Helen D. Morris is a BA Course Leader and Lecturer in Applied Theology at Moorlands College, Christchurch, UK.

Flexible Church: Being the Church in the Contemporary World is published this month. Click here to preorder with a special prepublication discount.


Why “Christianity Rediscovered” deserves a fresh reading

A guest post from Chris Lane, taken from his foreword to the new edition of Christianity Rediscovered

In May 1966, the Catholic missionary Vincent Donovan wrote a letter to his Bishop, a year into his work in Loliondo, Tanzania. He had joined a long-term mission which was having a strong influence in the locality through excellent work involving schools and a hospital. But Donovan was frustrated.

Crucially for the future of the work, he carried the godly frustration of a true pioneer, which ultimately leads to courageous and clear-sighted action.

This story, about a Catholic man communicating the gospel to tribes of mostly illiterate cattle herders on the plains of Tanzania, informed and challenged my own missional practice in planting a church in the Langworthy estate in Salford, England – a place renowned at the time for high levels of crime and deprivation.

Donovan’s work, separated from my own by 7000 miles and 40 years, gave a beautiful theological language to what we were experiencing as we pioneered a new expression of church in an estate where a tiny percentage of people attended any church or had any concept of the gospel.

The first thing we learned from Donovan was the importance of humble listening. A group of us had moved into Langworthy in 1999: young, shiny, happy Christians arriving with answers to every question and a clear idea of how to help people improve their lives and find Jesus. We didn’t realise at the time that we had much more to learn than we had to give. This was a painful lesson for us. When Donovan is asked by a Masai tribe whether his ‘tribe’ has found the most High God, he thinks deeply before answering ‘no…I have come a long, long distance to invite you to search for him with me. Let us search for him together’. He invites them on a journey of discovery. He will listen and they will listen and they will seek God together. Unlike his missionary colleagues, he doesn’t go with medical help or education, but simply to sow the seeds of the gospel and see what grows up.

There is a humility here that has echoes of St Aidan’s mission to the tribes of northern England. Not imposing the gospel from a position of power, but offering it with openness and a willingness to listen and learn. Aidan went to a place and a people written off by his peers as impossible to reach, too barbaric and wild. Donovan was told it might take one hundred years before the Masai were ready to discuss the Christian faith, that ‘it is impossible to preach the gospel directly to the Masai’.

Like Aidan and all true pioneers, it was this apparent impossibility that drove him to abandon the theories and discussions, and ‘simply go to these people and do the work among them for which I came to Africa’ (13). When he did this, the question he received was ‘why did you wait so long to tell us about this?’.

As Donovan and the Masai began this journey together they began to realise that the Most High God, the God of the whole world, had been with them before the missionaries came. When we began our work in Langworthy there was almost a sense that we were taking the light of Jesus with us into this dark, godless place. It was quite a revelation when we realised that Jesus was already there!

Donovan helped us to understand the Missio Dei – that God is on a mission everywhere and in every person. It is our job to join that mission. For every person I meet, my task is to find out what God has been doing in their life, and help them to join the dots and recognise that those moments of awe and wonder are signs that (to use Donovan’s analogy) the Lion has been pursuing them.

This is a reflection of the whole biblical story. Creation begins in the tohu wabohu – formless, void, wilderness. The story of the people of God starts with an elderly couple who can’t have children. The news of the Messiah comes to the shepherds. The impossible places, the unreachable people. Yet God is at work there.

Another issue that emerges in pioneering mission, or ‘first evangelisation’ , is we can often come with our quick answers and theological assumptions, and then they don’t work anymore outside the safety of our church bubble. Jonny Baker talks about a ‘theological homelessness’ (see Jonny’s chapter in The End of Theology) often experienced by pioneers as they leave the comforts of what they know and relearn the gospel for the culture or group they are reaching. It is fascinating to see how Donovan wrestles with this, ‘every single thing I prepared to teach them had to be revised or discarded once I had presented it to them. Just what was the essential message of Christianity?’ There is a thrilling freshness to the message that emerges as a result of this process, as there is all over the world as the seeds of the gospel are sown, including in a little forgotten estate in the north west of England.

We searched in vain for a proven model that we could use for our mission in Langworthy. Donovan taught us to discard the models and listen to the whisper of the Spirit. He taught us the importance of proximity – of friendship, and of living and working among the people you are reaching. Proximity is not only significant missionally but also theologically, as you observe at first hand the traces of the Missio Dei in people’s day to day lives and in their culture and the stories they tell.

Donovan gives a stunning example of this in the Masai custom of bringing peace between feuding families. The two families prepare endaa sinyati, or holy food, and bring it to the centre of the village accompanied by the whole community, and in the exchanging of food, forgiveness comes and a new covenant is established between the families. In Donovan’s words ‘a new testament of forgiveness is brought about by the exchange of holy food. What more can one say?’ (49) Evidence of the work of God in a supposedly ‘godless’ culture.

“It is both beautiful and unsettling, and speaks to the Christian church today with great relevance and power.”

What is the gospel? What is church? Every missionary pioneer will have grappled with these questions, and Donovan grounds them in this real and remarkable story. It is both beautiful and unsettling, and speaks to the Christian church today with great relevance and power. It reminds us of the importance of mission for the church – ‘a church that turns in on itself is no longer a church’ (85) – and challenges Western concepts of individualism and organisation. When decisions are made as a whole tribe, what about those who don’t fully understand the gospel? How are leaders raised up and recognised by the wider church when most of the Masai leaders are illiterate and the usual ordination processes simply don’t work for them? What is the future for such a mission?

There are many big questions raised here; some are answered eloquently within the book and others are left for the reader to wrestle with. It is an incomplete and imperfect story, yet beautiful and breathtaking, and this is fitting because this is the very nature of Christian mission. Our story in Langworthy is also incomplete and imperfect, yet at times beautiful and breathtaking, as is your story and that of your community. Read this book and be challenged and inspired, be frustrated, be equipped, but most of all, wrestle with the ideas here and sow the seeds of the gospel into your context and see what emerges!

Our new edition of Christianity Rediscovered is published later this month. Visit our website to pre-order a copy at a special launch price.

What has Pentecostalism ever done for Christianity?

A guest post by Bishop Dr Joe Aldred

The eve of the publication of my next book, an edited work, Pentecostals and Charismatics in Britain: An Anthology, seems a good moment to reflect on the contribution of Pentecostalism to Christianity.  As readers of the anthology will discover, Pentecostalism, which burst on the scene at the start of the 20th Century, is viewed by some as a kind of Second Reformation, this time awaking the Christian church to the missing ingredient of an immanent God expressed as transformative power. This eruptive awakening is not without its challenges, For example, as one commentator observes, ‘Pentecostalism has succeeded in creating more schisms in a century than it took the rest of Christianity in two thousand years’ (see Allan Anderson’s chapter in the book, p. 139).

Whether as renewal energy within mainstream Christianity or as a reforming movement in its own right, Pentecostalism and its offshoot Charismaticism, has tended to divide cell-like to grow.  This can be viewed as healthy diversification or unhealthy fragmentation.  However one views it, the last one hundred-plus years have seen Pentecostal and Charismatic expressions of Christianity surge around the world challenging downward trends in so-called developed western countries.  Pentecostalism brings a certain certitude and confidence to the Christian faith worldwide. As my church sing, ‘if God is dead, tell me who is this living in my soul?’

Pentecostalism demonstrates that God still works through base people, those on the underside of our rich world.  We see this in the recorded happenings at the Azusa Street mission in Los Angeles (circa 1906-1909), recognised as part of a simultaneous combustion of Pentecostalism in various parts of the world including Britain. At Azusa Street people began to rediscover ‘signs and wonders’ such as healings and glossolalia previously abandoned or unknown in a modern church that had become weakened and ineffectual as a result.  From Azusa Street and other places around the world the supernatural has become near normal in today’s church and this is owed to the rise of Pentecostalism in the modern church.

A feature of Azusa Street, is that it was located among the poorest areas of Los Angeles (see Andrew Davies’ chapter, p. 7).  This was where God chose to pour out his Spirit.  The mission was led by a one-eyed black man William Seymour, son of enslaved parents living under Jim Crow laws, with little by way of formal education or status to commend him. Seymour is totemic of how Pentecostalism raises up the disfranchised, poor and marginalised. As Mark Sturge (p. 180) reminds us, God has never been uninterested in the plight of the poor. We recall too that the first century disciples of Jesus turned apostles were drawn from among the common people. The ‘fringe churches’ that resulted represent a grassroots movement challenging the status quo.  Pentecostalism therefore empowers even illiterates, who moved by the Holy Spirit build and lead churches without the approval of ecclesial hierarchy. 

However it is instructive to note that what became the litmus test of classical Pentecostalism, namely glossolalia, was the construction of a white man who obeyed Jim Crow laws that required the exclusion of William Seymour from being in the same classroom as white students.  Charles Parham, ‘the theological father’ of the movement was principal of a bible school in Topeka, Kansas and it is his brainchild of ‘initial evidence’ that remains central in much of Pentecostalism today. While rightly understood as empowering the poor and the laity by making participation in leadership more reachable than in ‘established’ or ‘mainstream’ churches, the privileged, better educated and trained still play pivotal roles even as the phenomenon continues to spread in the poorer global south more than in the wealthier global north.

Pentecostals tend to see Acts 2 as a key point of reference for the belief that the Holy Spirit has come among the church and operates miraculous power. Making the powerless powerful is a key performative trait and pneumatological experience is understood as transformative (Forster p. 35).  This exercise of divine power challenges cessationist ideology and promotes a church of power capable of engaging with and overcoming the principalities and powers that seek to hinder the work of God in the world.  Pentecostals contrast nominal (William Kay’s chapter, p. 53) Christian practice with those filled with the Holy Spirit and committed to affecting their community and world for good by the transformative power of God. Pentecostals live their lives in expectation that God is immanent and personal. 

For Pentecostals it is Scripture that stands undisputedly and supremely at the hegemonic pinnacle of belief as a theological and doctrinal source.  ‘Bibleology’ or a reliance on the Bible embraces the Reformers’ sola scriptura mantra (Anderson p.138) and holds fast the inerrancy and infallibility of the bible.  Some critics of Pentecostalism view these as simplistic and fundamentalist approaches to scriptural understanding. However, Pentecostals continue to remind the Christian church of the significance of Holy Writ and its centrality to the faith of the church.  Even as some Pentecostal pastors tell their congregations ‘the only book you need to read is the Bible’ (Davies p. 12), it is apparent that from the beginning Pentecostalism has promoted engagement with wider publication genres.  Yet there is little doubt that while other sources are embraced for knowledge, the bible stands as supreme authority in Pentecostalism.

Finally, if you have never visited a Pentecostal church, particularly a Caribbean or African-led one, you really should. Probably the first thing that will impact you is the sheer joy of the worshippers. You may even find this in Pentecostals outside of church too! Pentecostal ecstatic communal worship marked by spontaneity and creativity (Daniel Akhazemea p. 73) is a trademark everywhere, an essential ingredient of a people filled with the Holy Spirit for whom joy is one of the gifts freely given. The use of polyrhythmic handclapping, tambourines, drums, percussions, bass, guitar, keyboards, choirs, soloists have transformed the mode of worship across almost all churches. Dancing and jumping in worship in church is now common place, this was not so in the UK fifty years ago (Akhazemea p. 80). This infectious joy, along with much besides, represent a flavour of how Pentecostalism has impacted the whole church, proving as some sang, ‘this joy that I have, the world didn’t give it to me; the world didn’t give it and the world cant take it away’.

Bishop Dr Joe Aldred is a broadcaster and ecumenist. He is responsible for Pentecostal and Multicultural Relations at Churches Together in England and Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Roehampton.

Pentecostals and Charismatics in Britain is published later this month, but you can pre-order the book now at a special pre-publication discount.

7 Reasons why I’m involved in interfaith work

We asked Tom Wilson, author of Hospitality, Service, Proclamation: Interfaith engagement as Christian Discipleship, why he takes interfaith engagement so seriously.

Nesvizh / Nyasvizh, Minsk Voblast, Belarus: cross and crescent – carving – photo by A.Dnieprowsky

1 – It is a normal part of my Christian life. Christians celebrate Holy Communion, albeit in different ways, and with different understandings of what is going on, because Jesus told us “do this in remembrance of me.” Christians baptise, again at different times and with different understandings of what is going on, because Jesus told us to go and baptise. Christians build friendships and talk about their faith with those of all faiths and none because Jesus told us to love our neighbours, and he defined “neighbour” to mean anyone, friend, foe or somewhere inbetween. For me, interfaith engagement is just part of being a Christian.

2 – It helps me grow as a Christian. I have been asked all kinds of challenging questions that have deepened my faith. A Hindu once asked me, “How can you expect to make spiritual progress when you participate in killing?” He was talking about eating meat, and his point was that if you are prepared to kill living beings in order to satisfy your physical hunger, what does that say about your spiritual attitude to living beings? Now, I don’t think Christians have to be vegetarian, but I do think Christians have to think carefully about what God’s charge of stewardship of the earth actually means, and this question was a prompt for me to reflect further. Another time, a Muslim asked me why I celebrated Christmas, noting that Jesus had not told us to do so. This was a helpful reminder of the need to separate commercial, customary Christmas, from celebrating the birth of the Messiah.

3 – It forces me to be clear about exactly what is unique about Christian faith. It makes me come back, time and again, to Jesus, who he is, what he said, what he has done. I do not just mean a trite ‘the answer’s always Jesus’ approach borrowed from Sunday School, but rather a mature, considered, continual reflection on how it is that God can take human flesh, live among us, experience human life and yet be without fault or blemish. I talk more about Jesus in interfaith conversations that I do in most other places.

4 – It is imitating Jesus’ love for the world. God so loved the world John 3:16 begins, and interfaith engagement is one way of me demonstrating that love. When I support my Muslim friend as she tries to run a community event, or help my Hindu colleague develop skills in project management or explain safeguarding to a group of Buddhists who do not know where to start in developing a policy, my motivation is that God loves these people and he calls me to love them sacrificially. Ours are divisive times, and Christians ought to be leading the way in providing prophetic challenge to the spirit of our age. Of course, this is never simple, and there are all kinds of geopolitical issues that make it much more complicated. But fundamentally if we say we love our enemies then we have to live that out, or else our faith is just as resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. I think it is important to be motivated solely by love, with no ulterior motive or expectation of conversion as any kind of ‘payment’ for our loving service of the world.

5 – It enables me to think through clearly the ethics of evangelism. There are good ways and bad ways of sharing the good news of Jesus. Bad ways include material inducement, emotional manipulation, only speaking of the gift without the cost and many more. Christians who have dedicated their lives to working with those of other faiths have to develop a keen ethical sense of what is appropriate and what is not. The guidelines produced by the Christian Muslim Forum are a great place to begin to think about this.

6 – I see it in the Bible. Jesus is forever crossing boundaries of faith, whether it is in his healing of the Centurion’s servant or his time in Samaria. The Prophets likewise did not just speak to God’s people, even if they did so reluctantly, Jonah being the obvious example. Other Prophets, such as Elijah or Elisha, were sent beyond the boundaries of ethnic Israel, reminding us that the Spirit blows where he wills, and our duty is to follow his lead, not to try and contain him.

7 – Its good fun. I have learnt all sorts of things about myself, about the world, about other people through interfaith engagement. I have tried all kinds of interesting food, visited lots of fascinating places within the UK, and overseas, and grown in my understanding of myself, my faith and the world in which I live. I know Jesus better because I see him at work in the lives of people of all faiths and none, and that draws me in to follow where he leads.

Tom Wilson is the Director of the St Philip’s Centre, based in Leicester.

Hospitality, Service, Proclamation is published this month. Visit our website for an exclusive pre-publication offer.

Let’s face it, we need a rest…

A guest post from Mark Scarlata, author of Sabbath Rest: The Beauty of God’s Rhythm for a Digital World

I’m sitting in a café writing this post and watching people stream in and out. It’s a normal day in Cambridge where students, tourists and locals fill the streets and shops. As I look around almost everyone has some sort of digital device they’re staring into—phones, laptops, tablets. Very few are actually speaking to anyone face-to-face. I’m sure many are caught up in the constant stream of Brexit news, or the latest on Donald Trump. We are physically present in the same place, but do we have any sense of those around us? (And yes, I note the irony that I too am writing this whilst staring into a screen!)

This is not an uncommon scene in our modern society. The speed and self-absorption we experience in the digital world leaves us disconnected from our surroundings and often from one another. It is a pace of life that is without rhythm, cadence or a sense of connection to the physical world. We are constantly distracted by our notifications, social media or email. This constant stream of interruption creates anxiety and a stress that is almost palpable around us. But rather than engaging with others, so often we simply slip on our headphones and yet again block out the other.

The digital world has offered many benefits but like any new technology it has also offered significant challenges. Many of us have simply accepted the technological wave of the past century and can barely remember what life was like without social media, email, or even mobile phones! For others who have grown up as ‘digital natives’ the life of constant connection has been their companion. But in all our connectivity we are in danger of losing our humanity and our ability to find rest.

We don’t have to go far in the Bible to discover that the God of all creation, the God who spoke into existence the whole of the universe, is also a God who rests. The rhythm he establishes from the beginning of time is one that celebrates our work in the material world. For six days we bless the tools of our trade, we engage with the natural world, and we rejoice in the divine creativity we have been given as children made in God’s image. But on the seventh day, we follow the creator into the hallowed space of time and rest.

‘And on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all his work that he had done in creation’ (Gen. 2.2-3).

In the creation story God blesses the material world and commands it to ‘be fruitful and multiply’. The result of blessing on earth is multiplication, fertility and fruitfulness. But what happens when time is blessed? How does the holiness of time produce the same fruitfulness and abundance? The account of creation is a movement from chaos to order, from discord to rhythm, from being incomplete to being made whole. God’s rest and consecration of the Sabbath day is the completeness of creation. Without rest all things will spiral out of control, which is why the biblical authors were bold enough to say that God ‘rested’ as if the eternal God of the universe could get tired! God does not get exhausted, but he does set an example for us so that we might imitate his pattern and follow him each week into the holiness of Sabbath time.

Holiness is always a difficult concept to wrestle with. In the ancient Hebrew it essentially means to set something apart to God which usually includes a ritual washing or preparation as something is committed to him. Things can be set apart as holy, people can be set apart as holy, but time can also be set apart as holy. The point is that when something is holy, it becomes different. It is an offering to God who will infuse it with his holiness. Sabbath time is something that has been made holy in the beginning but God later commands us to consecrate holy time in our own lives and communities each week. ‘Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it Holy’ (Exod. 20.9). The commandment was not meant to spoil our Sunday afternoon fun! Instead, rest and holy time restore and refresh us and bring life and wholeness to the community of faith and to the world.  This is the rhythm of creation moving towards God’s wholeness and it is the rhythm that God invites us to participate in.

The Sabbath day has been critically important for Jews over the centuries but especially after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 587 BCE. Sabbath offered a time to gather as families and in synagogues to study the scriptures and celebrate a day of rest. Jesus and the disciples practiced this same pattern throughout their lives. Jesus often confronted the Jewish leaders of his day on their stringent interpretations of the Sabbath because he understood it as a blessing and gift for humanity to find God’s intended rest and wholeness. This gift does not cease once Christ is resurrected and ascended but, rather, we discover even greater depths of Sabbath rest through the Holy Spirit.

If we understand the Sabbath as a movement towards wholeness and the experience of God’s rest and refreshment for the whole community, then in Christ we experience the first-fruits of that wholeness in the Spirit. But that does not mean we are no longer an embodied people also in need of physical rest. In the hectic, non-stop pace of our daily lives we find ourselves desperately in need of God’s rhythm and peace. This is a rhythm which includes six days of healthy work and creativity in the world balanced by a day of rest where we can disengage from the digital world and reconnect face-to-face with family and friends. The Christian Sabbath is day to remember the wholeness ushered in by Christ through the resurrection. It is a day to celebrate the beauty of creation, justice and rest for the oppressed, and to join with the whole communion of saints to celebrate the wholeness of God’s kingdom breaking into this world. 

Revd Dr Mark W. Scarlata is Tutor and Lecturer in Old Testament Studies at St Mellitus College, London. Sabbath Rest is published later this month. Click here for more information or to preorder a copy.

SCM Press announce major sponsorship deal

SCM Press are announcing this morning that they have been chosen as the winning bid for a major new sponsorship deal. The United Kingdom United, the new international football squad launched in a bid to restore a lost sense of national pride across the whole UK,  announced the competition to find a sponsor last year. The deal, said to be worth around £300m, will see the SCM Press logo emblazoned on the team kit, and the Olympic Stadium in Stratford will be renamed the SCM Press Stadium. The club will now be known as SCM Press United Kingdom United.

An artist’s impression of the team’s new kit

Speaking after the announcement, the Dutch-born manager Rilap von Loof said she was ‘delighted to be working with one of the leading theology publishers in the UK’, and added ‘do you mind if I now get back to restoring the stricken pride of a nation?’

Expecting a backlash for participating in a rival national squad, and sensing a further opportunity to drum up interest in academic theology amongst football fans, SCM Press have confirmed that they will be renaming players after Early Church Fathers to protect their identity. Players have already been instructed to mention SCM Press backlist titles at every opportunity during interviews.

Following their first match away against New Zealand, striker Irenaeus of Lyons commented “we were a little disappointed at the turnout from UK fans. We appreciate it’s a long way to travel, but that’s the cost of discipleship”.

Looking forward to next Sunday when they will play a friendly against the Czech Republic, the 18-year-old super signing Polycarp of Smyrna remarked “They are a formidable squad. We have nicknamed them the ‘Czechs of Terror’”.

SCM Press’s Senior Commissioning Editor, David Shervington admitted ‘I know very little about football, but I gather there are a few people who watch it, and it occurred to me that they might also like books about theology, they just don’t know it yet. We’re hoping to open an outlet at the newly rebranded SCM Press Stadium, which will, for example, give the crowd the exciting opportunity to pick up a copy of an SCM Studyguide to read during the interval, or whatever it’s called.”

SCM Press Marketing Executive Nicola Prince was unavailable for comment, but was reported to be in hiding.

Beyond the Dome of Whiteness

This is the first in an occasional series of reflections on race and the church by Azariah France-Williams.

Why do you look at me like that?
With all that hate and fear in your heart?
But you are wrong.
You were thinking the thoughts of generations before you.
You are unaware of this.
And we suffer for it.

‘Superiority’ by Julie Monica Plenty from Paul McGilchrist, ed., Black Voices: An Anthology of ACER’s Black Young Writers Competition, Acerbic Centre, 1987, p 28

I am often pinned by the white gaze. I am held as an object of enquiry, not empathy. Do you know the film The Truman Show? For the uninitiated, Truman Burbank has been living his life as an unsuspecting subject of a popular T.V reality show. From birth hidden cameras have monitored his every move. What Truman thinks of as the beautiful town of Seahaven is actually a huge constructed dome. A film set staffed with actors, all except for Truman, who is a prisoner in his own life, or rather his ‘owned’ life. Everyone has a script designed to keep Truman happy with his lot and unaspiring to travel beyond the borders. There is a director who is the unseen mastermind influencing all the moving parts.

What is whiteness? It is the pervasive panorama around which no one can see or climb. A complete dome under which a person of colour lives and moves and has their being. As a black man in a white world I have lived beneath the whiteness dome dissatisfied but docile, mystified, caught in a spell, and unaware of the obscured exits. However there is a tiny voice beyond the film set drawing my attention, and I must follow, it might just be Jesus.

In John 9 there is a man who is born blind. The disciples ask ‘who sinned him or his parents?.’ The stigma of negative blackness courses back through generations my own family tree, which includes west African slaves and white British rapists. Whose fault is my blackness? Whose decision was it to so tarnish the black version of humanity so effectively, systematically and comprehensively that the black human is globally reviled, restricted, and removed? The disciples saw the man, without seeing themselves, and how their own tradition and  conditioning had shaped their response to his nature. We don’t believe the world we see, we see the world we believe.[2] Sometimes the eyes on me, look through me. Other times I am simply not seen.

Jesus healed the man born blind by spitting into dirt making a paste rubbing it on his eyes. It reminds me of the playful God gleefully moulding clay in the story of humanity’s first day, there is a new beginning, beginning. Jesus sends the man to go and wash in a local pool. The man presumably has a guide take him to the pool. What must that initial moment of vision have felt like? The first person the man sees is himself, for the first time. I wonder what is was like to compare his actual image with the version of himself others depicted? The moment of revelation, is immediately challenged as those around him seek to plunge him back into the darkness of the pool, and undo the miracle. Firstly his neighbours question if he is in fact himself.

‘Is it really he who was blind?’ They begin to talk about him, without him, amongst themselves, they are visible to him, he is invisible to them. He is a curiosity, a puzzle to be solved, maybe he is a conman, an imposter. He has had his identity stolen since birth, and they accuse him of being the thief. He has to butt in saying:

‘I am the man.’

His joy is met with skepticism. As I have been learning to see, I am met with skepticism.

‘Is there really racism? Really? Can you prove it’ The feeling is, ‘let us be the judges of that’.

But once you know the film set is a film set, you begin to go off-script. You begin to strain to hear the still, small voice coming from beyond the dome, if such a thing were possible. It is tough however to feel the burden of representation. The man’s neighbours were saying he was the wrong guy. He remained an outsider but now at least he could see the source of the voices in his head.

The man is then taken to the authorities who need to offer legitimacy to grant him access into the community. Whereas the first group say he is not the person he thinks he is, but rather he is the person they think him to be, the authorities’ approach is to challenge the timing. Their bugbear is that it is the Sabbath – healing is all well and good, but on the Sabbath?

As I have been beginning to ask my questions and seek a truth to set all free, I get the sense it is an inconvenient time for the church to be looking at this. ‘Come back on Tuesday week at 11am’.’

The authorities then play the card of doubting his experience. They did not believe that he was blind and had received his sight. As I dig deeper, people point out: “it’s never been that bad for you has it? You haven’t suffered, you’re just attention seeking, and come on now it’s the Sabbath!”

The authorities begin to talk about him, without him, again he is rendered invisible, and a problem. He is outside the huddle sticking his hand up saying “I can hear you, and now I can see you too”. Hashtag “worst reception of a miracle ever!” His parents are brought into this now, and they are afraid they will be cut off if they side with their own son and are seen to be supporters of Jesus. The authorities cannot dare countenance Jesus as Messiah. Anyone who does so is kicked out of the club, losing all the benefits.

There is a cost to seeing, not just for the healed but for the whole community. The healed one finds a voice and questions the criteria and the basis upon which the community is formed, who decides who is in, and who is out. Whiteness co-opts Jesus and disguises him to appear like itself. It pours scorn over a Jesus who repeatedly and furiously shreds and sheds the costumes imposed on him. Jesus operates beyond its authority, beyond the dome. He is off script, calling the actors to act. I have been told ‘do not bite the hand that feeds.’ But I haven’t time to bite the hand, or eat the food, I need my teeth to gnaw through the leash the other hand is holding.

Azariah-France Williams is an Associate Priest based in Teddington, South-West London. His book, which focuses on black leadership in white historic churches, will be published by SCM Press next year.