Arguing it out with God

One of our most distinctive inheritances from the Jewish faith, though an often undervalued one, is the assumption that finding salvation in God does not mean “checking our brains in at the door” as one writer put it, and may even involve a robust argument with God. Think Abraham and Sodom; think Job; think some of the Psalms. And think this iconic passage from the beginning of Isaiah set as an Ash Wednesday reading:

Come now, let us argue it out,
says the Lord:
though your sins are like scarlet,
they shall be like snow;
though they are red like crimson,
they shall become like wool.

You might think it’s a bit unfair and one-sided of God to invite us into an argument. But I take it as empowering, and affirming (following my hero Grosseteste) that our intellect is not so corrupt that it can’t be both redeemed and a redeeming power for the rest of our being. A touch of Pelagianism? Perhaps. But as the great R W Southern saw it, his was a distinctively English mind.

So during Lent, don’t – I suggest – think it’s all about turning off your head and getting all soulful: use your God-given intellect to be honest with God and even argue out the challenges of life and faith with him.

A church on every corner?

Richard Morris, Churches in the Landscape

I’m much enjoying Richard Morris’s classic book Churches in the Landscape and have just reached this fascinating table. There’s quite a bit of speculation built into it, but the point is to explore the idea that a few “super-towns” (London, Winchester, Norwich, Lincoln, York) grew large enough pre-Conquest to develop an urban version of the church building boom in the eleventh century and before the firming up of the parochial system made such multiplication much more difficult. Towns which were smaller or grew later had fewer churches.

We have a little evidence of church building following attendance demands, but I wonder if we are seeing here an urban expression of the church as status symbol on a thegn-ly estate, so some of them could have quite small and almost private chapels.

But still, what a contrast with the “standard” 1:6000 ratio for urban parishes when I started out, let alone the much higher figures now emerging.

And of course it highlights the question of what the ministry and mission of the church will look like if it loses its population base and physical footprint (and to some extent therefore its stipendiary ministers).

The same question and challenge applies whether you consider social service or evangelistic conversion as the priority. It’s still very different if we are rather suddenly rather small.

Good Cheer at Christmas. Really? Really.

I probably count as a pretty sincere believer. But how hard it is (for me anyway) not to give into the gloom when I look into the mirror and see myself falling short time and again, and look out into the world and see the same there too. And so much pain, so much suffering, so little hope. It really messes with my mind and opens the door to a dark and nasty downward spiral. Perhaps I’m alone in that. Perhaps not.

This is the point where so many of us drink to forget. But today we went to church to drink to remember. To drink the wine of the sacrifice of Jesus that changed everything.

Christmas is God serving notice in person that in the end all shall be well, there will be a homecoming, forgiveness and a celebration in which even we prodigals will be welcome and all will be one.

That’s deep good news for me, a rock to cling to in the storms of life without me and within, and why by the skin of my teeth, against the grain, by no gift of mine but grace alone, I can truly wish you and me alike good cheer this Christmas.

When Bishops Wept (even in Hereford)

Yesterday I stumbled across an article by Katherine Harvey in Historical Research, about the times when mediaeval bishops lost it, and broke out into spiritual tears. She writes:
“Bishops shed pious tears in everyday circumstances.Virtually every twelfth- or thirteenth-century English bishop with a reputation for sanctity (whether canonized or not) is recorded to have wept as he celebrated mass. Two successive bishops of Hereford were credited with this gift: Reinhelm (d. 1131‘would dissolve into tears everywhere, especially during the celebration of mass’, while Robert de Béthune (1131-48) showed ‘no moderation in his sobs, nor in his tears’ in the same circumstances.”
As well as the historical interest, this intrigued me spiritually. I don’t see such crying just as the eruption of ordinary feelings, which can bring tears to any of our eyes, for eaxmple when a hymn is sung that reminds us of a loved one or own mortality, or we are experiencing affirmation or relief. Rather – as the link to the celebration of mass suggests –  I suggest that we think of these particular tears as a gift of the Spirit, given as a revelation of the presence of our Lord – here in the eucharist, but it could also be in the bible or in prayer.
I am aware that it is not listed as such in Scripture (though the lists are surely exemplary rather than exhaustive). It does, however, occur often enough in Christian experience, to be taken seriously, as long as we don’t promote purely human emotions as it or take it as a mark of sanctity or deep spirituality (the Spirit blows where it wills).
John Bartunek offers what seem sone wise words in a blog at, and I see that Daviud Runcorn has a recent book  “The Language of Tears – their gift, mystery and meaning” (CHP 2018, introduced at
Sobbing away while celebrating or praying isn’t very English, is it? But I wonder whether – at a time when there is both much to celebrate and much to lament – whether it would not be good to be open to a rather wider range of God-given emotion than the Stiff Upper Lip.
Katherine Harvey, ‘Episcopal emotions: tears in the life of the medieval bishop’, Historical Research, [87 (2014), 591-6109]. For a summary see Katherine’s blog-post at

Equipping Christian Leadership in an Age of Science: new posts available

·       Project Co-ordinator based in Durham

·       Deputy Project Co-ordinator based in Durham

·       Post-doctoral Research Assistant based in Durham

·       Post-doctoral Research Assistant based in London

·       Communications Officer based in Durham

Five new three year posts are available as part of a Templeton Religion Trust funded project ‘Equipping Christians Leadership in an Age of Science’ (ECLAS) which involves a partnership between Durham University, York University and the Mission and Public Affairs Division of the Church of England.   These are appointments at St John’s College in Durham University.

The ECLAS project seeks to transform the quality and increase levels of serious engagement with science amongst Christians in England, by focusing attention on the role of senior church leaders in shaping church leadership in an age of science.   It involves academic research, conferences, projects such as Scientists in Congregations and Science for Seminaries and work on the role of science-engaged theology in mission and public affairs.

For further details of these posts and a full description of the project visit St John’s College website:

To whom shall we turn?

The beauty of this morning’s bible reading (the feeding of the 4000) is that its message of hope is the same whether we believe the healings were by cure or compassionate inclusion and whether we believe the hungry were fed by a miracle of multiplication or mutual sharing. Here is someone to whom we can turn when there seems nowhere and no one else to go to.

Matthew 15.29-end

After Jesus had left that place, he passed along the Sea of Galilee, and he went up the mountain, where he sat down.Great crowds came to him, bringing with them the lame, the maimed, the blind, the mute, and many others. They put them at his feet, and he cured them, so that the crowd was amazed when they saw the mute speaking, the maimed whole, the lame walking, and the blind seeing. And they praised the God of Israel.

Then Jesus called his disciples to him and said, ‘I have compassion for the crowd, because they have been with me now for three days and have nothing to eat; and I do not want to send them away hungry, for they might faint on the way.’ The disciples said to him, ‘Where are we to get enough bread in the desert to feed so great a crowd?’ Jesus asked them, ‘How many loaves have you?’ They said, ‘Seven, and a few small fish.’ Then ordering the crowd to sit down on the ground, he took the seven loaves and the fish; and after giving thanks he broke them and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And all of them ate and were filled; and they took up the broken pieces left over, seven baskets full. Those who had eaten were four thousand men, besides women and children.After sending away the crowds, he got into the boat and went to the region of Magadan.

Inspired to Follow: Advent Course

from St Martins in the Fields, London
We have now added a third Advent Course to our resource Inspired to Follow: Art and the Bible Story, which takes us through Advent in terms of the candles on ‘The Advent Wreath,’ so exploring the Patriarchs, the Prophets, John the Baptist and Mary.
As part of our updating of the Inspired to Follow resource we added two Advent Courses to the site in 2018. These Advent Courses explore ‘The Four Last Things’ – Death, Judgement, Heaven and Hell – and ‘Advent Characters’ – Elizabeth & Mary, Joseph, Zechariah & Elizabeth, Herod.
As part of our Advent preparations this year at St Martin-in-the-Fields, we will be running the Inspired to Follow course exploring ‘Advent Characters’ on the following Sundays between 12 noon and 1.00pm:
• 24 November: Elizabeth & Mary – Luke 1:35-49, ‘The Visitation of the Virgin to Saint Elizabeth,’ Workshop of Goossen van der Weyden, about 1516
• 1 December: Joseph – Matthew 1:18-25 & 2:13-15, ‘The Dream of Saint Joseph,’ Philippe de Champaigne, 1642-3
• 15 December: Zechariah & Elizabeth – Luke 1:57-71, ‘The Naming of Saint John the Baptist,’ Barent Fabritius, probably 1650-5
• 22 December: Herod – Matthew 2:1-12 & 16-17, ‘The Massacre of the Innocents with Herod,’ Gerolamo Mocetto, about 1500-25
All are most welcome.
We are also preparing a Lent Course to add to the site later in 2019. This will be entitled ‘Who is my Neighbour?’ and will be written by Ayla Lepine and Jonathan Evens. We will send information about this new course later in the year.
If you have any feedback after using the resource, please do get in touch at We would be glad to hear what your experience has been.
Access the course