Why this blog?

Thank you for visiting this site.

Most of my blogging takes place on the website of our local church: https://stbarnacles3.wordpress.com/

The purpose of this blog is to make connections between the local and the wider church, and to reflect occasionally on wider social issues.

Your comments are welcome!


A tale of the ordinary

Avenue (2 Book Series) by  R. F. Delderfield

It’s very rare that I read fiction more than once, but I have always loved these books since reading them twenty years ago. The Avenue tells the story of a number of families growing up in suburban Surrey from the aftermath of World War One until the demolition of part of the avenue in 1947. It is full of small details, using the lens of apparently ordinary people to cast light on world events.

Delderfield’s thesis is that history is not made in the lives of the famous, but through the attitudes and decisions of those far away from the news headlines. In a sense, his attitude to history is quite resonant to modern approaches today. The success of the series Who do you think are and Going back in time for dinner shows the appeal of the micro-narrative to understand the signs of the times.

These books were written nearly fifty years ago, and while some of the dialogue may appear a little dated, they are beautifully written, and show a great understanding of how people mature and develop. There is a warmth and empathy with the characters that draws us in. My only quibble is – what happened to the Avenue, after the houses and the surrounding woodland were demolished? Maybe that’s a narrative that falls to someone else to write.

Click on this!

If you are reading this, the chances you are already browsing through the Internet or flicking through Facebook looking for stories. I have less than 20 seconds to grab your attention, so here’s a cute picture of my cat, taken a few years ago:DSCF9076

But seriously, how we engage with social media is not something we tend to think about that much. Yet the more I work and live online, the more I see that actually we all need to stop and think about how this brave new world of communication impacts upon the way we practise our faith. So take a few minutes to scroll down this article, and let me know if you agree with what I’m saying.

‘Cos it seems to me there are three important issues we all need to think and pray about:

Mastery Psychological studies have shown that social media can be as addictive as gambling or alcohol. We have to keep checking on Facebook to see if anyone has liked our post. We want to see if our friends have responded to our latest Tweet. We find ourselves compelled to click onto the latest cute cat or dog video.

All this seem very harmless, but actually it can become a habit that we find harder and harder to break. Yes, we need our down time, but our compulsion to be online can so easy interfere with our working lives, or our time with our family, or indeed resting properly. And anything that becomes a strong habit will inevitably interfere with our devotion to the Lord.

Now I’m not saying that social media is necessarily evil. At the best it is a great communication tool to share prayer requests, to learn what the Lord is doing around the world, to support friends in need. But we need to have the spirit of self-discipline so that social media is our servant not our master. What we find online is virtual reality, not the ultimate reality who is God Himself. It is in our relationship with God that we find our meaning and our fulfilment, and we must not let anything get in the way of that, not even the apparently harmless habit of spending hours, say, on Facebook or Snapchat.

Manipulation More and more we are learning that what we read online is not neutral or unbiased. We talk about the great “information revolution” that happened at the end of the 20th century but now in 2018 we are more aware than ever that not all news is real news. We can be tricked and deceived in all kinds of ways, and we need Spirit-filled wisdom to discern what is good and right and true.

As we are bombarded with more and more news, we also need to be aware of the overwhelming pressure that is put upon us as believers to conform to the world’s point of view. If you’re not clear what I am saying, try posting on a public platform that you believe in the traditional, Biblical understanding of marriage. The downside of such free flow of “information” is that anyone can comment in an instant, and if you are out of step with the times, you can expect all kinds of abuse and vitriol to rain down on you. Paul says in Romans 12:2: Do not conform to the pattern of this world but it is hard when your views put you at odds with what the majority believe. Just look at the example of Tim Farronand how his view on marriage caused his downfall as Liberal Democrat leader.

This is yet one more reason why we need as Christians to support and encourage one another to stand firm on the gospel of Jesus Christ, not just by meeting on Sundays but also by supporting and encouraging each other online. Yet sad to say I find many church members are reluctant to engage with this vitally important area of online ministry. I get far more response to these kinds of articles from those who are not part of St Barnacles. Yet if our voice is to be heard and sustained, and if we are to help our young people avoid being manipulated by the world of social media, this online ministry is not an optional extra, but a vital part of our discipleship.

Meditation To me the biggest challenge of social media to the Christian faith is that it crowds out our space to reflect, to think, to meditate. The church has always grown and flourished when men and women, young and old, have created space and time to pray, to be with the Lord, and to listen to what He is saying. Paul urged the church in Colosse: Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly and I believe that is an urgent command also for our day.

Yet social media is causing our attention span to shorten. Once we have read something, we might pause for a moment to share it. But then we go onto another story. We search for the next thing that grabs our attention. If what we find doesn’t grab our attention within about 20 seconds, we discard it, and move on. And I am concerned, really concerned, that we are not creating the space to allow the word of the Lord to get into our lives, indeed that we are losing the discipline entirely of simply reading our Bibles, being still and allowing the Holy Spirit to minister to us.

So here’s a challenge. Before you click off this post, take time to read Psalm 119:97-104 

If you no longer possess an actual Bible, click on the link and ask yourself:

What does it mean in today’s digital age to meditate on God’s law all day long? How far is Scripture my source of wisdom when I browse the net?
Do I let social media or the word of God be the ultimate authority over my life?

For the sake of the gospel, let’s get this conversation going.

Living as Advent people


It’s that time of year again. No, I’m not talking about Christmas. I am, as every year, trying to make the point that as a church we are still in the season of Advent. The only trouble is, by this stage of the season, we are already singing Christmas carols and watching nativity plays and I can understand why. We are looking forward with eager anticipation to the day when we celebrate our Saviour’s birth and we want to rehearse the story through song and word and worship.

But it is also really important we still remember the significance of Advent. To the wider world, Advent has simply become the yearly countdown, an excuse (depending on your age) to eat chocolate and/or drink gin each day, as you tear open the flap of a calendar. And as a church, we can all too easily follow the world’s lead. Advent and its themes of waiting and preparation sit uneasily with the festivities all around us, and it is tempting sometimes to ditch Advent altogether.

Yet we need to bear in mind that throughout the year we are called to live as Advent people. What do I mean by this? Well, the carol is surely right to declare that “the hopes and fears of all the years are met in Him tonight.” Through the first coming of Jesus we are born into a living hope. We find relief for our fears through a new relationship with God our Heavenly Father. And through the work of the Holy Spirit we are adopted as His children into the body of Christ, the church.

However even as we tell this Christmas story, we have to remind ourselves that the birth of Jesus Christ is not the end of the story. We can’t simply walk away from the nativity scene as if the visit of the wise men somehow finishes off the tale. Rather the birth of Jesus Christ should point us forward to the time when Jesus will come again, not as a weak and tiny baby, but as King of Kings and Lord of Lords, when every eye will see Him and every tongue confess.

And our role as believers is to watch and wait for that time. Time after time Jesus warns His followers to be ready. He tells parables about kings returning to servants unprepared, about virgins running out of oil, about banquets and those excluded about the feast. These aren’t seasonal stories. They are descriptions of how we are meant to live at any time of the year, always being ready to give an account to the one who is judge of the living and the dead.

How we actually live is a different matter, unfortunately. We can so easily get distracted by the things of this world, or become tired of waiting for the Lord. The Israelites of old who received the promises about the first coming of Christ all too often turned away to other gods, instead of persevering in faithful expectation. Their example is surely a warning and a lesson to us, not to get diverted, but to anchor our daily lives in a routine of prayer, of Bible reading and daily worship.

So even as we sing along to the old familiar carols and watch all those lovely nativity plays, let’s not get seduced into thinking Christmas is the end of the story. Rather, in the words of the apostle Peter, let’s live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed His coming. (2 Pet 3:11-12). Let’s remain Advent people throughout the year, and let’s keep watch and pray, no matter what the season.

Book review: Martin Luther, Renegade and Prophet

I found this book by chance in Waterstones a few weeks ago and was immediately gripped by it, as someone who knew something of Martin Luther already. As an undergraduate I had studied some of his writings and his influence on the German language. I was also aware of his hymn writing and the musical legacy that still shapes our choral work today. And I knew a little too about the Lutheran church and its declining influence across Northern Europe.

This book however puts the pieces of Luther’s extraordinary life together in a way that makes the whole very accessible. It is a scholarly work with over a hundred pages of footnotes and references, yet never does the book feel dry and technical. It tells of Luther’s background and sees much of Luther’s theology and struggles as being shaped by his relationship with his father – a psychological approach that is difficult to evaluate. It explains in accessible language how a monk came to understand justification by faith and why the reforms followed at such a rapid pace. Almost overnight Luther challenged at the deepest level many of the assumptions of medieval Christendom – the selling of indulgences, the monastic vows of poverty and celibacy, the celebration of private masses, and above all the Aristotelian schools of theology  that sought to interpret the Bible through the philosophy of the ancient Greeks.

And yet the book also highlights some of the intrinsic contradictions in Luther’s personality. Luther could write so powerfully about his faith, but at the same time also attacked his opponents in the crudest way possible, and the chapter on his hatreds makes for very uncomfortable reading. He attacked the foundations of Roman Catholicism yet himself retained some kind of belief in the real presence in the bread and the wine, leading to some of the schisms that have bedevilled Christendom ever since. He sought to overthrow the established order yet devised a theology of two kingdoms that made the church subordinate to the state. This may have ensured the survival of the Reformation but led to an uneasy relationship that is still problematic even today, as the book makes clear. And although he empowered the laity, he ended up very much as part of a clerical dynasty overseeing the birth of a new denomination.

The portrait Lyndal Roper paints of Martin Luther deserves to be studied. She has also a way of making the issues that he faced real and relevant to us today. There are, however, some points which I would have loved to explored further. There is relatively little in this book about his musical output, for example. At another point I was intrigued by Luther’s fairly underdeveloped eschatology and I am not sure that the reason for this was fully explained. But these are relatively minor quibbles, and I would thoroughly recommend buying this book for yourself or as a present. The celebration of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation reminds us that what happened in Wittenberg all those years still matters, and it is important for all of us to be clear why.

Good news to the poor

Bishop Philip North’s address to New Wine and his passionate advocacy for ministry among the poor has attracted a lot of discussion. Many responses have been written, and like many prophetic words, Bishop Philip’s arguments can be challenged at various points. But certainly what he wrote resonated with me in many ways.

Admittedly I am not a vicar on a Northern housing estate. But I have been an inner-city vicar in Plymouth for nearly 15 years, and, as the Church Urban Fund pointed out several years ago, in every part of the country there are significant pockets of deprivation only a few miles from the most affluent areas. The issues surrounding estate or inner-city ministry are too important to be reduced to a simple north/south argument, and really are relevant everywhere.

Let me identify a few of them:

Leadership training.  I think it is very easy to criticise theological training as failing to equip ordinands for future ministry. But I think the arguments are more complex than that. I trained full time at a theological college in Oxford, in a very nice part of the city, and I received an excellent academic education. And over the years I have become more and more grateful for the foundations that were laid. I am a firm believer in the principle that to present something simply you have to know it deeply, and we must never make the mistake of reducing the content of training in order to focus more on the context.

But having said all that, it has been a hard struggle learning how to apply my theological education to my current ministry. I believe white middle-class graduates such as myself can minister effectively in these situations, but it took me years to realise I was as much involved in the process of Bible translation as a missionary on a foreign field. So I had to look hard at the way I communicated. Having an Oxbridge education meant I tended to focus on abstract concepts and presume a level of academic education among my hearers. I had to learn to inhabit the world of those I was serving, and to be willing to really listen and learn from their experiences. I also had to look afresh at Scripture and relate the good news of Jesus in new ways to the culture around me. All this has been a long, hard process where I am sure I made many mistakes along the way, and I am still learning. But just as when a Bible translation is finally complete, there does come a time when you realise that through you people are by God’s grace hearing and responding to the good news, and when that happens, it is real affirmation of your calling.

Buildings. Bishop Philip is surely right to draw attention to the state of many churches in less affluent areas. Nothing drains a church more than an unusable building. When I arrived, the heating and electricity at St Michael’s had been condemned and there was mould growing over all the wars. The original church had been destroyed like so much in Devonport in the raids of 1941 and it had been hastily rebuilt after the war with little concern for quality.

Fortunately Exeter diocese approached the whole question of buildings in an imaginative way, by partnering with a local housing association who would lease the whole site, redevelop it for social housing and provide a new place of worship as part of the deal. All this was done on a cost neutral basis for the church concerned, and although the process of redevelopment could be long and arduous, the results have been of immense benefits to the churches in question.

Clearly here there is a model other dioceses could follow, although I realise that the economic situation is now very different from when the process in Exeter diocese started in 2002, with the other church in my parish, St Barnabas. The one issue in Plymouth, however, arose from the fact every parish received a new building, whether there was a viable congregation or not, regardless of the size of the parish. So there are a number of tiny congregations worshipping in new buildings in small parishes, and from my own experience the size of these buildings do not allow for substantial growth. We are still in the process of deciding whether it is possible or realistic to extend St Michael’s.

Diocesan expectations. It is always dangerous to talk about numbers but very roughly the size of our congregation here is about the same as it was 15 years ago. However about three quarters of the original congregation have moved on or passed away, so even though numerically there may seem to be little growth, plenty of folk have come to faith. Ministry in the inner-city or outer estate often feels very unstable and there is a constant turnover of people.

Here in the diocese of Exeter there is an expectation that all churches have to be part of a mission community of a certain size and income. Even with new people continuing to come to faith, we are not likely to reach that size and income. So over the past 15 years I have faced the constant prospect of pastoral reorganisation. The benefice was suspended from 2000 to 2015, and there is still no clear way ahead. The favoured solution is to merge with a neighbouring benefice, even smaller than ourselves, with a very different understanding of theology and mission. I struggle to see however how such pastoral reorganisations can advance the gospel, and concerned that a scheme like this will only lead to further decline.

Church culture.  I already touched on this when talking about leadership training, but I am talking here about an even more pervasive issue. If the church ever connected with folk in the inner-city, it was several generations ago. It is generally seen as a middle-class institution speaking a foreign language, expecting those who attend to have a certain level of literacy and to know how to participate in its ceremonies. There is an automatic cultural barrier which prevents folk from connecting with the church, and indeed several times I have spoken to people on the streets who have been surprised they are allowed to go to church.

Ours is a liturgical church with Biblical preaching, and I am keen to affirm a distinctive Anglican identity. However it has also been necessary to remove so many of the barriers that cause the culture of the church to become more an obstacle than an aid to a personal relationship with Jesus. So on a Sunday morning, I make it clear that if you can’t read, that’s fine. If you have mental health problems or learning difficulties, you are still loved and accepted as a member of Christ’s body. Indeed, I believe that the primary way the church will reconnect in the sort of area I serve is simply by being a community that reflects the love of Christ. That does not mean, however, we simply affirm without providing challenge. Our aim to say to whoever comes in through our doors, “Neither do I condemn you.. Go now and leave your life of sin” and to pray that we might show to each individual both the appropriate level of acceptance and the transforming power of the Holy Spirit.

However, despite all this, I still find at St Michael’s the perception of the church in general or the “diocese” very negative. This is hardly something to wonder at, because so often the issues that preoccupy the national church have very little relevance to life on the street, and the discussion are couched in language and procedures that are only accessible to a few. Even the eighty page minutes of a diocesan synod are hardly something anyone round here is likely to read, mark and inwardly digest, and discussion of a carbon Eco-fast for Lent, for example, doesn’t really mean that much when folk are struggling to pay their electricity bill all year round.

Leadership. What keeps the church going in tough areas are a number of willing volunteers who give so sacrificially in so many ways of their time, their money and their energy. I am so grateful to all those at St Michael’s and St Barnabas who have served in so many ways and I hope they know how thankful I am to them. But despite all their hard work, what inner-city estates often lack are those with gifts of leadership. I have often heard calls for mission communities to raise up lay leadership, and discover vocations in the congregation. The blunt reality is, that there aren’t that many with such gifts around. Ours is not an area where folk will come forward for ordination or reader training, nor are there going to be many retired or self-supporting ministers able to help out. So while I long for more labourers in the harvest field, so often I find myself working with limited resources. This inevitably affects how much work the church can do in the local area.

Focus of ministry. When I arrived at St Michael’s there was the remnant of a social project in the one useable area of the church. It had been set up a few years earlier when funding for a community development worker had been forthcoming. But the funding had dried up and it was being run by some very dedicated volunteers who were doing what they could to keep it going. In addition, it had been set up with the model that the project was a gift to the local community and it was inappropriate for me to come in and share my faith there.

There can be a huge expectation that an inner-city minister will devote his or her time to social projects. But my experience reveals two flaws with this expectation. First of all, it is possible to spend all your life chasing funding which may only last for a few years, and then run out. Secondly, there can often be an unhelpful and artificial divide between social action and proclamation of the gospel so that one takes place to the detriment to the others.

Unless the church remembers its primary calling, there is a danger it becomes just another voluntary organisation seeking to do good, but without the resources or expertise of other organisations. So from day one the focus on my ministry has been on preaching the word of God, recognising that the ultimate need for each person in the parish is for a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. This doesn’t mean that I have ignored the very practical needs of those to whom I minister. I have become very involved in ministry amongst adults with learning difficulties and in seeking to address issues of mental health, for example. But the preaching and teaching of the Word has to be the primary focus, with the expectation that when it goes forth, it does not return empty. Of course, in such an unchurched area, this rarely means there is an immediate or visible response. You need a strong belief in the grace of God to keep persevering at times, yet gradually you do start to see God’s word beginning to take root and real transformation to take place.

Clearly there are no simple or easy solutions to any of these issues. If there is any kind of answer, it must be that there is greater communication and openness between churches in more affluent areas and those in less affluent areas. I can well identify with Bishop Philip North’s story about the poor being subsidised by the wealthier areas. It would be a start, at least, if real, effective links could be developed so that those who give the most understand where their money is going, and develop a heart for urban mission. It would also help if parishes in poorer areas better explained the work they were doing and why it was so important. To this end I hope that Bishop Philip’s words are not seen as isolated prophetic word but the start of a conversation that ultimately will benefit and strengthen the life of the whole Anglican church in this nation, and good news is preached to the poor.

Here I stand

I have always loved the Anglican church. I love the confessional basis of the denomination, the Biblical foundations to so much of its liturgy, and above all the fact it is meant to there for every person in the country, no matter where they live.

I first sensed a call to Anglican ministry nearly thirty years ago, and have been ordained for eighteen years. For the past fifteen years I have buried myself in the inner-city, working in one of the most deprived areas in the country. I have by God’s grace endeavoured to preach the Bible faithfully as the word of God, to care for and build up the church as a living, growing community of God’s people, and to share the gospel of Jesus Christ in every possible way.

The church I serve has not grown significantly in terms of numbers, because there is such a high turnover in the local area. But I have seen people from all ages and backgrounds come to faith. The message that Jesus died in their place for their sins is not a difficult and abstract doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement – it is life-changing good news. The fact God speaks to us through His inspired word has brought consolation and challenge to many, and few, if any, have doubted the authority of Scripture to speak to their own particular circumstances. Even in spite of my many failings, I have seen how the gospel really is good news to the poor and I have always seen my responsibility as pastor and teacher of the flock to hand on the faith entrusted once for all to the saints.

But now I find that the denomination I love and serve is leaving me. It is not simply that it is changing its core doctrines. It is that it is doing so without serious theological reflection or any sense of humility before a holy God. I am by background a linguist. I know the importance of studying the origin, use and application of words within their contexts, and my ministry is so enriched through the study of Biblical languages. But all this seems to count for very little in the discussions at General Synod. Instead key words are used in a way that anyone who has studied postmodernism will tell you represents a bid for power, with those who resist those words demonised and categorised as “-phobic.”

The church I serve has a remarkably high proportion of people with mental health problems, learning difficulties and a whole variety of other issues. We incorporate such a range of backgrounds and ages, and it is thrilling to see how people often written off by society find a home here. Yet by the wisdom of this age apparently ours is not an inclusive church. I am not an accepting evangelical. That I find peculiarly offensive. But then again, I look at the agenda and concerns of General Synod and wonder how much of the discussion of any relevance at all to the streets of Devonport or whether their discussions are in a language that is accessible to the very special folk who live in these parts.

In many ways, what happens at General Synod really has very little to do with ministry at the coalface, except that it is the principal instrument of government for the Anglican church. And here’s the rub. What gets decided far away in London or York will one way or another impact on all those who are seeking to faithfully and lovingly pass on the good news of Jesus Christ.

Of course I believe in a God who can do immeasurably more than we can ask or imagine. In every age God has preserved a faithful remnant, and it may yet be that the Church of England will once again come in repentance before the cross of Christ. So I support those who are determined to remain and are still working so hard to preserve the gospel witness by whatever means, because there is, I believe, still hope. But we must not allow ourselves to end up in a situation where orthodoxy becomes an eccentric alternative to mainstream heterodoxy, and what is good is spoken of as something evil.

In the meanwhile all I can do is remain faithful to my original calling, and keep on preaching and teaching the good news of the kingdom. Who knows? Perhaps it is as the good news changes the hearts and minds of those who hear, the Lord might yet revive and restore His church – whether or not General Synod approves.

Jesus and the Eyewitnesses


Many years ago yours truly did a piece of part-time research into the original Hebrew text of Zephaniah. My thesis was based on the premise that the canonical form of the book represents the original words of the prophet at the end of the seventh century BC. This might not sound original, but the prevailing assumption of most scholarship based on historical and form criticism is that the text represents a composite of different material compiled over a number of centuries. My very amateur research aimed to provide the evidence that such assumptions could and should be robustly challenged.

By contrast, this book is a masterly piece of scholarly research by Richard Bauckham which overturns many of the assumptions behind most critical approaches to the gospels and is worth reading thoroughly and slowly. I note that by now there is a second edition which is even longer and seeks to answer some of the challenges made to Bauckham’s groundbreaking study.

In essence it is often assumed that the gospels were written by a process of oral transmission and that the content of each gospel was determined by the needs of the particular church community to which it was written. Scholarship has therefore focused on three things: first, to detect the differing layers of tradition and so try and work out which parts of the gospel represent the oldest and most authentic sayings of Jesus; secondly, to recreate the church community to which gospel was written, and thirdly, to search for the historical Jesus behind the text.

If Richard Bauckham’s analysis is correct – and he makes for a very persuasive case – then so much of this scholarship is rendered null and void. He points out that in the ancient world the most reliable source of history was considered to be eyewitness testimony written down within living memory and that this eyewitness testimony was carefully preserved and passed on. He backs up his contention with the writings of the earliest church fathers who recognised the gospels precisely as this kind of testimony.

Bauckham supports his testimony by looking carefully at the structure of each gospel. He argues that Mark’s gospel is an inclusio of Petrine testimony and John’s gospel is an inclusio of an otherwise unknown disciple called John the Elder. He highlights the importance of the Twelve as the guarantors of the story that is being told, and also makes the telling suggestion that the personal names of the characters in the gospels represent the names of believers who also authenticated the narratives being recorded. These narratives were then passed on within local Christian communities by recognised teachers who had received their traditions either directly or through a handful of authorised intermediaries.

To those who claim the gospels represent a later development of original traditions, Richard Bauckham makes other significant observations. He demonstrates the gospel writers were able to distinguish the past of Jesus from their own time, so, for example, there is a consistency in the titles applied to Jesus before the crucifixion which are different from those applied after his resurrection and ascension. He uses the distribution of names in the gospels to show they reflect an authentic spread of Jewish Palestinian names in Jesus’ era and so do not reflect later invention. He shows that so much scholarship relies on anachronistic models of oral transmission from other cultures which bears little relation to the way the gospels were recorded.

All in all, this work is an important contribution in helping to appreciate the gospels for what they are. In the final sentence of his work (at least the first edition!) Richard Bauckham writes:

It is in the Jesus of testimony that history and theology meet.

In other words, whenever we read or hear the gospels, we can say with confidence, “This is the word of the Lord”, preserved and written down as the disclosure of God to us. To have that confidence, it seems to me, is of vital importance as we ourselves witness to the world around us, and that is why this work, I believe, is quite so valuable.

For further reviews of the work, check out the following links: