Tuesday, 27 September 2016

Photos from a walk across Grantchester Meadows and then on to Byron's Pool and Trumpington Meadows

This morning I went for a walk across Grantchester Meadows and then on to Byron's Pool and Trumpington Meadows (the latter, though pretty enough, is horribly blighted by the overwhelming roar of the M11 and way too many black discarded dog-poo bags. Sad).

As with yesterday's post I chose to use the lovely, painterly combination of Hipstamatic lens and film made by Ger van den Elzen that I've used a couple of times before (HERE and HERE). All the photos were taken with an iPhone 6+ and the Hipstamatic App. Just click on a photo to enlarge it.

Monday, 26 September 2016

Early autum colour at Fen Ditton

This morning Susanna and I took a nice slow and relaxing walk to Fen Ditton by way of Midsummer Common and Stourbridge Common. It was bit overcast and grey but touches of autumn added subtle and pleasing hints of colour throughout. The general mood and colours of the walk seemed to suit well the lovely, painterly combination of Hipstamatic lens and film made by Ger van den Elzen that I've used a couple of times before (HERE and HERE) and so here, for your pleasure, a just a few photos from the walk. All taken with an iPhone 6+ and the Hipstamatic App. Just click on a photo to enlarge it.

Sunday, 25 September 2016

"The best of all is God is with us"? — etsi deus non daretur—truly living in the world as if there were no God

Reading: From the Gospel of Mark’s account of the crucifixion of Jesus (Mark 15:33-37, Scholars Version):

And when noon came, darkness blanketed the whole land until mid-afternoon. And at three o'clock in the afternoon Jesus shouted at the top of his voice, Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani (which means “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”).

And when some of those standing nearby heard, they were saying, “Listen, he’s calling Elijah!” And someone ran and filled a sponge with sour wine, stuck it on a stick, and offered him a drink saying, “Let’s see if Elijah comes to rescue him!”

But Jesus let out a great shout and breathed his last.



On the occasion of the centenary of their church building in 2013 our good neighbours, the congregation of Wesley Methodist Church, carved into the wall of their building, “The best of all is God is with us”, words uttered by the founding figure of Methodism John Wesley (1703-1791) as he lay dying amongst friends in 1791.

Words carved on the wall of Wesley Methodist Church, Cambridge
I confess to being very impressed that our brothers and sisters down the road were able to summon both the energy and the faith to do this, not least of all because for someone like me it is impossible to say, and really believe — in any simple fashion anyway — that “The best of all is God is with us?” When it comes to God the matter is, for me, far more complex and conflicted. I know of no better summation of my general feeling about this than in these words by James W. Woelfel:

I hasten to add that I am not so naïve as to think that the demise of the transcendent God within my own interpreted experience entails the universalized conclusion that he does not exist. I have become increasingly impressed by the inescapably contextual character of all our ‘ultimate concerns.’ I can appreciate the fact that all sorts of people deal with existence in terms of faith in the sovereign God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. On questions of ultimate meaning, none of us knows for sure who is closer to the mark. But in my own ongoing struggle to make sense of the Christian context of life- and world-interpretation, I find basic elements of that context which I simply cannot render coherent any longer, and I earnestly wonder how other persons manage to (The Death of God: A Belated Personal Postscript).

And there you have it, every time I pass Wesley Church I earnestly wonder how our neighbours managed still to believe Wesley’s words, or at least I wonder how they can still believe them in any straightforward way (if indeed they do). But, despite my earnest wonder, Wesley's words continue to goad to me to keep turning over the question of God in my heart and mind.

A key influence upon my thinking, as it was upon many people of my generation, were the prison letters of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945), the German Lutheran pastor, theologian, anti-Nazi dissident who was executed in Flossenbürg concentration camp during April 1945 for his involvement in the plot to assassinate Hitler.

All the things he saw during that dark, dark period of human history caused him to write on 30th April 1944 to his friend Eberhard Bethge (1909-2000) some words that, when they were published in English translation in 1953, triggered all kinds of radical theological searching: 

You would be surprised, and perhaps even worried, by my theological thoughts and the conclusions that they lead to . . . What keeps bothering [or gnawing at] me incessantly is the question what Christianity really is, or indeed who is Christ really, for us today? The time when people could be told everything by means of words, whether theological or pious, is over, and so is the time of inwardness and of conscience — and that means the time of religion in general. We are moving towards a completely religionless time; people as they are now  simply cannot be religious anymore. Even those who honestly describe themselves as ‘religious’ do not in the least act up to it, and so they presumably mean something quite different by ‘religious’ (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Letters and Papers from Prison”, SCM, London 1971, p. 279).

Given this, Bonhoeffer went on to ask if there could be such a thing as “religionless Christianity” and whether Christ could be something, someone, important for the religionless? Questions that still press powerfully up me and which help inform everything I try to do as your minister living and working in what remains, at least in this country and much of Europe, a religionless time.

And then, in a letter dated July 16, 1944, there come the words that have had the most profound influence upon me personally. I still feel a powerful tingle in my spine when I recall first reading them whilst on a walking holiday in the Lake District in my twentieth summer.

God as a working hypothesis in morals, politics, or science, has been surmounted and abolished, and the same thing has happened in philosophy and religion (Feuerbach!). For the sake of intellectual honesty, that working hypothesis should be dropped, or as far as possible eliminated. . . . And we cannot be honest unless we recognise that we have to live in the world etsi deus non daretur [as if there were no God]. And this is just what we do recognise — before God! God himself compels us to recognise it. So our coming of age leads us to a true recognition of our situation before God. God would have us know that we must live as men who manage our lives without Him. The God who is with us is the God who forsakes us (Mark 15:34). The God who lets us live in the world without the working hypothesis of God is the God before whom we stand continually. Before God and with God we live without God. God lets himself be pushed out of the world on to the cross. He is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which he is with us and helps us. Matthew 8:17 [He took our infirmities and bore our diseases] makes it quite clear that Christ helps us, not by virtue of his omnipotence, but by virtue of his weakness and suffering (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Letters and Papers from Prison”, SCM, London 1971, p. 360-361): 

The combination of Bonhoeffer’s words and the act of daily walking through such a beautiful and awe-inspiring landscape was a truly life-changing experience. Following that summer there was for me no way I could ever return to any kind of conventional Christian belief.

Shortly after reading Bonhoeffer I began avidly to read the work of the theologian Paul Tillich (1886-1965) who, in his highly influential book, “Theology of Culture” wrote some words that significantly helped me on with my theological reflections. He said:

God is no object for us as subjects. He is always that which precedes this [subject-object] division. But, on the other hand, we speak about him and we act upon him, and we cannot avoid it, because everything which becomes real to us enters the subject-object correlation. Out of this paradoxical situation the half-blasphemous and mythological concept of the ‘existence of God’ has arisen. And so have the abortive attempts to prove the existence of this ‘object.’ To such a concept and to such attempts atheism is the right religious and theological reply. This was well known to the most intensive piety of all times. The atheistic terminology of mysticism is striking. It leads beyond God to the Unconditioned, transcending any fixation of the divine of the divine as an object. But we have the same feeling of inadequacy of all limiting names of God in non-mystical religion. Genuine religion without an element of atheism cannot be imagined. It is not by chance that not only Socrates, but also the Jews and the early Christians were persecuted as atheists. For those who adhered to the powers, they were atheists (Paul Tillich, “Theology of Culture”, OUP, 1959, p. 25).

Tillich and Bonhoeffer together persuaded me that I had no choice but to reject “the half-blasphemous and mythological concept” of an existent, strong, supreme, transcendent all-present, all-powerful, all-knowing being and that the only kind of God I could ever have any faith in would be one who compels us truly “to live in the world etsi deus non daretur [as if there were no God]” — the kind of God that would have us know that we must always and forever live as people who manage our lives without God and therefore, odd though it may seem, as a special kind of a-theist.

Today, I find I can only have faith in the kind of God who, as Bonhoeffer movingly puts it, is utterly “weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which he is with us and helps us.” As a skeptic with a naturally religious mind and as a kind of open-minded, reverent humanist or, perhaps better, as a kind of ultra-liberal Christian heretic (to borrow some self-descriptions from James W. Woelfel), the paradigm case that helps me to see this profound and wonderful weakness at work again and again is, of course Jesus, that extraordinary human being “who helps us, not by virtue of his omnipotence, but by virtue of his weakness and suffering.”

This, almost paradoxical, seeming God is the only kind of God I could ever have faith in, a God who could empty themselves out into the world to be seen only and for ever more in the radical human call to show love and justice to our neighbours and enemies and also, of course, to be open to its return. It is important to see that this emptying out of God is, to my mind, total, to the point of completely forsaking or abandoning us as God and, therefore, as does every good and wise parent, giving us genuine freedom to come of age.

There are, of course, no guarantees we will succeed in coming of age well but a precondition of this possibility is the genuine freedom always to try. (At best it's going to be a process somewhat like that described by Samuel Beckett (1906-1989) said in "Worstward Ho" (1983): "Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.")

(In passing, but importantly, in this regard I almost certainly go further than would have Bonhoeffer and Tillich themselves. To see the full implications of this going further I highly recommend readers to seek out John D. Caputo's recent “The Folly of God”, Westar Institute, 2015.)

In short, for me, the God who is with us is the God who completely forsakes us and, as harsh and difficult as it may sound to some ears, I need to proclaim as gently but yet loudly as I can:

“The best of all is that God is not with us.”

Having said this only now can I conclude by saying that it is only about this God-who-is-not-with-us that, along with our friends at Wesley Church, I can say, and mean (although I add the qualification in square brackets for “clarity” and honesty's sake): 

“The best of all is God [-who-is-not-with-us] is with us.”

It seems to me that this God-who-is-not-with-us is with us in every tiny act of human love and justice and whether they are done by atheists or theists, Muslims, Jews, Christians or Buddhists. It is in these countless, this-worldly acts, that I find something akin to Bonhoeffer's “religionless Christianity” alive in the world and in them I also find answered daily his question “who is Christ for us today?”

I have no doubt that to many of my Methodist friends and neighbours, and perhaps to many of you too, this simply sounds like atheism by another, perhaps painfully convoluted route. About that, I cannot help because, for good or ill, it is my own mature, considered expression of faith. But what I can help you to do is to ask yourself, every time you pass by Wesley Methodist Church and see Wesley's words, how might you be able to say, and honestly mean, “The best of all is God is with us”?

It may well turn out to be one of the hardest, but also one of the most provocatively rewarding theological questions you'll ever ask yourself.

Friday, 23 September 2016

Early autumn sun on Parker's Piece, Cambridge

This afternoon I wandered across Parker's Piece in Cambridge to help our excellent new Student Ministry Worker, Susanna Hartland on the Anglia Ruskin University Chaplaincy stall at the Fresher's Fair. A very worthwhile event it turned out to be. Autumn was in the air but there was still a touch of summer present and I think I managed to capture something of that in the following photograph I took on the way. It was taken with my iPhone 6+ using the Hipstamatic app. Just click on the photo to enlarge it.

Sunday, 18 September 2016

Cambridge City of Sanctuary: With just a wooden sword, the folly and the power of the “as if”

Readings: 1 Corinthians 1:18-25

An brief introduction to the Cities of Sanctuary project: Last week an initial, exploratory meeting of this group was held in our church (attended by thirty people from a variety of faith communities) to see how we can take the project forward in Cambridge.

A prayer by George Kimmich Beach was read before the address:

God of justice and love, may your spirit be strong among as this day. The human needs we see about as are so many, so diverse, so weighty, so complex — leaving us to wonder: am I, or are we, strong enough to face all this? No, we are not ... and yet, how can we not not be? God, may your spirit be our strength. 

When weariness overtakes us, we need your spirit to rekindle our hearts with compassion. When confusion besets us, we need your spirit to renew our minds. When strife and self-defeat stop us, we need your spirit to help as find a way to reconciliation, confidence, and peace. 

We know. As people of faith we have seen and felt these self-recognitions of heart and mind. We come together to be reminded that, together. we can accomplish wonders. We join together this day to celebrate the strength we have found in this dedicated voluntary association that is our community, to remember the people whom we serve, to thank those who have given generously, that our community may be large-hearted in its caring, and to thank those volunteers among us who, most of all, have helped make good things happen time and time again.

God of justice and love, for all this and more, we thank thee, each of as in the understanding of our faith. Amen.



Last week I brought before you the thought that a certain kind of symbolic non-doing can be a very effective way of persuading people to change their minds and behaviour on important matters of religious, political and social justice. Remember this was not to advocate doing nothing at all but it was to advocate seriously considering the thought that we might get some important things done by engaging in highly visible and powerfully symbolic non-doings (—things that seem to people held in the thrall of the current status quo ways of viewing the world to be pointless, meaningless and futile, such as doodling in the sand, sitting quietly behind one’s desk smiling and thinking and apparently doing no work at all, and of pushing TVs around the streets in prams or wheelbarrows).

Today I’d like to remind you of something connected with this way of proceeding that lies at the birth of our own liberal religious movement in Poland some four hundred years ago and which, to my mind, helps show that a concern to help the refugee and asylum seekers fleeing violence, war and oppression is, or should be, central in our institutional memory.

This address is an attempt to jog to that memory and to do that I want to start in what may seem to be an unusual way . . . 

Like many people I have very fond memories of playing with a wooden sword when my friends and I would fight imaginary battles against each other and imaginary dragons in the back gardens of our respective homes. That was jolly good fun but the most fun I ever had with a wooden sword was being allowed to play with it in a ruined castle, Caernarvon I seem to remember, whilst on a long summer holiday in Wales, a veritable wonderland of filled with dragons.

In the late 1960s and early 70s I had to bring with me my own homemade sword or, failing that, I needed to find the least knobbly stick to hand and work hard, very hard, at imagining it was in fact a slender and shining sword. However, as many of you will know, these days at many castle ruins you will today find well-stocked shops full of sexy gifts ranging from the more-or-less pointless to the highly educative and, occasionally, even genuinely useful. Somewhere in between there are, yes, you've guessed it, wooden swords. Really good ones too, along with shields, bows and arrows and even costumes and plastic armour. In many, many ways I regret the way the heritage industry has begun to sanitize and commercialise our ancient history but I must admit that I never pass through a shop in one of the new gleaming visitor centres without looking longingly at those wooden swords.

Some of you may remember that three years ago I finally succumbed to temptation and bought one, not at a castle, but from the toy shop here in town; a bargain at four quid. I bought it on impulse, ostensibly for my wife Susanna’s grandson Harrison but, since I still haven't given it to him I clearly bought it for myself.

Now, what has all this to do with our religious community and it’s relationship to refugees and asylum seekers? Well, as many of you will know, our church's chief forebears were the sixteenth-century Polish Brethren, often called Socinians after their leading theologian Faustus Socinus (1539-1604). Socinus and his uncle were religious and intellectual refugees from Italy who, driven out by a fear of persecution and even death by the Catholic Counter Reformation who feared their liberal and critical ideas they eventually found sanctuary in a community of Polish mystical, pacifist, anabaptists. We are, therefore, rooted in a strange and wonderful mix of Renaissance Christian humanism and mystical anabaptism that might be described as being a community of “free-thinking mystics”.
This community was formally founded on June 10, 1565 in the Polish town of Brzeziny following what became known as the first synod of the "Minor Reformed Church of Poland". It was convened after Peter Gonesius (Piotr of Goniądz) had spoken out against the doctrine of the Trinity during the general synod of the Reformed (Calvinist) churches of Poland held in Secemin in January of the same year.

In addition to their well-known affirmation of Jesus' humanity and the unity of God (which is why, of course, we needed up with the name of “Unitarians”) they affirmed a number of important things which, today, we still affirm. Namely, the complete separation of church and state, the equality of all people, an opposition to social privileges based on religious affiliation and last, but not least, a passionate commitment to non-violent means of protest and political action. In the case of our forebears this latter belief primarily played out in connection with their opposition to military conscription and it was here that that they made a wonderful symbolic intervention.

At that time it was obligatory for every male in Poland to wear a szabla, a distinctive kind of Polish sabre, in order to show their readiness to intervene violently on behalf of the state. Naturally, this presented a huge stumbling block for the Brethren. Their stroke of genius was to agree to wearing swords publicly to fulfil the law but, as you may already have guessed, the swords they then chose to wear were made, not of sharpened steel, but of wood — in effect, they began to wear toy swords.

Though it may have been a stroke of genius it is important to realise that, in their own immediate local context, it was a symbolic intervention which failed. The Polish Brethren were always very small group in Poland and as the Counter-Reformation made advances in Poland their radical, liberalising critical theology and non-violent and tolerant stance towards those who thought differently to them ensured that they were further marginalised by what was becoming an increasingly intolerant and violent society. They did not survive this shift in attitude and their church community was eventually dissolved on July 20 1658 when the Polish parliament (the Sejm) expelled them from Poland. Now stateless they were forced to flee westwards and, as refugees, to seek asylum and sanctuary particularly in Holland, England and later the New World. It was within these communities that many important ideas associated with the Enlightenment and modern democracies were fostered and slowly allowed to develop and mature.

Surely a memory of this traumatic flight from violence and oppression and also its beautiful, liberalising intellectual, religious and political fruit should be predispose us to be one of those communities who, when we are asked in a couple of weeks, will choose publicly to pledge our support to the nascent City of Sanctuary project here in Cambridge?

But I realise I need to acknowledge one common, deeply felt reason for choosing not to get involved in such a project, namely that the resources available to us (material and spiritual) can seem to be too insignificant to make any real difference to such a monumental ongoing situation that, in various ways, has recently begun to  trigger some dark events in the UK and across Europe. The temptation is simply, therefore to do nothing.

But our forbear’s symbolic intervention with the wooden sword has a lesson to teach us on this matter too. Although for our forbears in their own life times there was in Poland no final, decisive victory of peaceful over violent action, they nonetheless remained committed to wearing their wooden swords “as if” this act had already finally overcome the darkness of violence. It is this “as if” attitude that continues to inspire me to try to follow in their footsteps and to behave “as if” it were already true that not only non-violence was the norm but so to was the welcome amongst us of refugees and asylum seekers.

The subtle point I want to make is that many of the political and religious acts we regularly engage in, though valuable and helpful in many ways, often do nothing more than re-enforce already existing status quos — in such acts nothing transformationally important is ever really addressed nor begun. On the other hand "as if" events, those small scale symbolic, gentle, non-violent but nevertheless challenging tries or grasps at creating a better world may not look at all impressive, and may even seem to have failed in their moment of articulation, but, in truth, they often carry within them a truly revolutionary, insurrectionary and visionary power that is capable of bringing to birth the sense that there can be a real radical overturning of our old and violent ways which are real, concrete expressions of the kingdom of God itself. Jesus own life, and the lives of our Polish ancestors, bears eloquent witness to the truth of this.

This kind remembrance always reminds me of a verse in the Bhagavad-gītā:

You have a right to perform your prescribed duty, but you are not entitled to the fruits of action. Never consider yourself the cause of the results of your activities, and never be attached to not doing your duty (2.47).

And nearly everyday of my life, in one way or another, I ask myself the question posed by George Kimmich Beach in his prayer we heard earlier:

"The human needs we see about us are so many, so diverse, so weighty, so complex – leaving us to wonder: am I, or are we, strong enough to face all this?"

And everyday I answer, as does Beach: "No we are not" and, on my worst day,s I admit that this recognition leaves me feeling utterly depressed and enervated. But, as Beach continues, we are also always forced to ask: "and yet, how can we not be [strong enough]?"

As the Bhagavad-gītā says, and Jesus and the Polish Brethren showed, it is our duty only to try and so I find that, on my good days and the bad, I can only pray "God, may your spirit be our strength” and then, figuratively speaking, strap on my wooden sword and do my best to support and participate in visionary projects like Cities of Sanctuary.

As do so many other vitally important projects concerned with issues of social justice, when viewed in a certain way this project can sometimes look futile; there are few volunteers, few places where refugees and asylum seekers can be housed, it is to push against a resurgent populist nationalism that is beginning successfully to demonise all kinds of “incomers” and, lastly but not leastly, the number of people we might be able to help is so small beside the vanishingly large number of displaced people who exist today in our world. 

Faced with these facts, and others, none of us can live with the certain expectation that the good WILL come to pass and that we WILL overcome — not even Jesus could do that, as his cry on the cross revealed, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.” But, nevertheless, his followers (then as now) continued as if God had not forsaken him, or them. In this tradition we, too, stand.

You may say that living in this "as if" fashion is a folly but did not St Paul point out that trying to create the peaceable kingdom of God on earth by following Jesus in the way of the cross will always seem to many in the world to be a utter folly. However, St Paul also reminds us that this “folly of God is wiser than humans are and the weakness of God is stronger than humans are.” And it seems to me that the real power for real change never lies in the sharp, sword-like certainty of belief, nor in traditional strong and often violent political or religious interventions, but always and only in the folly of gentle, non-violent, weak wooden sword-like uncertain interventions of the “as if” — interventions in which people are inspired to live here and now ”as if” the good WILL has come to pass and “as if” we HAVE overcome.


The service concluded by singing together the song "We shall overcome"

Monday, 12 September 2016

An early autumn spin into Essex to see the splendid Anglo-Saxon chancel arch at Strethall

This morning I set off on the Pashley Guv'nor to visit the church of St Mary the Virgin in Strethall, Essex. It's a delightful place to visit for many, many reasons. The first is that the approach to the church takes you on a wonderful road up and over Coploe Hill. The first four photos below show something of that; my bike by Copeloe Hill Chalk Pit; wild flowers by the wayside; the winding road descending towards Strethall; and my bike leaning against a finger post at the junction just before Strethall. Oooh, the joy of riding this open road is beyond description! The second delight is, of course the church itself and its setting, and the next eight photos show something of that. As a visit to the church website will reveal the chief highlight in the church is the chancel arch which has been described as "one of the finest examples of Anglo-Saxon workmanship in smaller parish churches". Beautiful, quite beautiful. In the solitude and peace of the church I knelt and said the variation on the Lord's Prayer by Jacob Trapp that I have recently taken to using:

 O Thou, whose kingdom is within, may all thy names be hallowed. May no one of them be turned against the others to divide those who address thee.

May thy presence be made known to us in mercy, beauty, love and justice. May thy kingdom come to be in the life of all humankind. May it come with peace, with sharing, and in a near time.

Give us this day our daily bread, free from all envy and alienation, broken and blessed in the sharing.

Keep us from trespass against others, and from the feeling that others are trespassing against us. Forgive us more than we have forgiven.

Deliver us from being tempted by lesser things to be heedless of the one great thing: the gift of thyself in us. 


It formed an important counterpoint to the text from Job that was open on the lectern: "Man that is born of woman is of few days, and full of trouble" (Job 14:1) [see below].

Leaving the church I took some time to enjoy a ham and cheese sandwich, a flask of tea and a crisp apple and then wended my way back via Duxford. The last three photos give some impression of that part of the ride. 

All the photos except the final one were taken with my Ricoh GR. The last photo was taken with my iPhone 6+ and the Blackie App. As always, just click on a photo to enlarge it. Enjoy.