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Category: Theological Musings

Repentance, Forgiveness and Public Life

There has been a lot of ink spent on Dominic Cummings in the last few days. One curious aspect of the debate is for his right leaning apologists to silence the voice of Christians by citing “forgiveness”. “You are a Christian. That’s not very forgiving”.

At the heart of the Christian Faith is repentance, or in Greek, metanoia. Turning your life around. Giving up the old ways and pledging to take a new, better path in the future. This is where forgiveness is transformative.

So what has this all got to do with Cummingsgate? Here we have someone who broke the social contract that we share with one another. We keep it because we are protecting not ourselves but others. And Cummings has highlighted that there are an elite among us for whom the rules do not apply. Their social contract is different. It is a contract that applies to others but not themselves. In this case, it is a social contract shaped by Cummings that was applied to the rest of us. And this is the rub. Rules created by the elite but not for the elite. And when exposed and challenged, this disingenuous cabal of the ruling classes close ranks to protect one of their own.

In tonight’s Yorkshire Evening Post there is a moving letter from a bereaved woman who has lost her brother. Her story is one of betrayal. A betrayal by the ruling classes who who have the brass balls to flat out lie through press briefings rather than hold their hands up and admit to making an error.

“All I wanted and needed from the government was an acknowledgement and apology that this trip was made with poor judgement.”

So yes, this is a point at which we need to examine the Christian values of forgiveness and repentance. We need to regard how they provide us with a lens through which we can examine the actions of those who govern us. For repentance, that life changing metanoia holds us all to account and shapes the future we walk into.

Please read Josette Ward’s letter in full at the YEP. It is a moving read.

Mary’s Lullaby (Away in a Manger) – Lyrics Adapted by Ruth and Robb

Since the late 19th century, The Church has been held hostage to one of the most theologically facile songs that has ever been sung during a service. All of the accusations of “pie in the sky when you die” and a “bearded man in the sky” can be found in this universal favourite.  When combined in a service filled with “baby” Jesus and the Christmas “Story” references, The Church has been inoculating people to the revolutionary faith we have in Christ.

Away in a Manger has become such a large part of our wider cultural memory that planning a service without it can cause disagreements both inside the church community and outside of it. Ruth and I have talked about this problem for many years.  A couple of years ago we wondered what it would be like if Away in a Manger was as revolutionary as the Magnificat. Using those words as our inspiration we decided to rewrite Away in a Manger from the perspective of Mary looking at her newborn child.

We have used it for the last couple of years in a variety of different contexts and it goes down really well.  We reworked it for Metanoia and the Rock Mass but we’re only half way through recording it so here is a simple arrangement to show how it could be used on organ or guitar.

Let’s take back Christmas!  Please use it freely in worship and schools.  If you want to credit us as “Ruth and Robb Sutherland” you’d make our day.

Mary’s Lullaby (Away in a Manger)

“Away in a manger, asleep on the hay,
I will watch over you at the end of the day,
The stars in the bright sky shine down where you lie,
As angels sing ‘Glory be to God on high’.”

“My spirit rejoices, for news of your birth
Like wildfire will spread over all of the earth;
A light in our darkness, a hope for the poor,
God’s gift to all people of life evermore.”

“Your name shall be Jesus, for this holy night
Is fulfilment of promise through God’s saving might;
But now sleep in peace, as I sing lullaby,
I will stay by your side til your dawning is nigh.”

– Lyrics adapted by Ruth and Robb Sutherland

Personal Identity 5: Christian Identity

As we’ve progressed through this series on ‘identity’, we’ve turned increasingly towards the concept of ‘Christian identity’. How do we view ourselves as ‘Christians’ within a Christian community?

As Christians, the world is viewed in light of our relationship with God. This naturally affects the relationship people have with other people who also have a relationship with God. Relationship is at the heart of Christian identity. Our identity is formed through the way we relate to God through Christ. When the first Christians described themselves as ‘followers of the way’ their identity was firmly routed in their ongoing journey with Christ. That was the way in which they identified themselves. It was others from outside who originally called those first followers ‘Christians’. I use this to illustrate the deeply personal nature of the Christian faith. It is centred around a relationship with God and an ongoing task; take up your cross and follow me.

Over the past few days I’ve mentioned the existential crisis for every ‘goth’: what if I’m not goth enough? It is also at the heart of many followers of the way. What if I’m not a very good Christian? If I am honest, I have those doubts most days. I’m still awaiting the day when the diocese send someone round to my house. They will knock on my door, come into my office, go to the filing cabinet, take my holy orders and inform me that a mistake was made four years ago. “Sorry mate, you’re just not a very good Christian”. I think this is at the heart of Doctor Ruth’s post on Saturday about imitating Christ: we are called to be Christlike, we are not called to be Christ.

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Experience is a key component of our Christian identity. When someone is certain of their faith, it can be a benchmark that others will be unconsciously compared to. When someone’s experience of God bears little relation to our experience of God we can either question our experience or theirs. As the diagram illustrates, the way we relate to others often leads to tribalism.

This kind of tribalism leads to the familiar conflict between followers of the way that can often take precedence over the journey. “They are not real Christians…”

Sitting at the Table: A Sermon on Acts 11:1-18

When I was younger there was a church I used to walk past every day in the center of town.  It was called St Thomas’ Church.  And as a small boy what an impressive place it was.  There were huge vertical lines that were accentuated by the spacing of ornately carved pillars.  Each window consisted of intricately cut coloured glass creating beautifully illustrated scenes from the bible.  In one window there was ‘The Good Samaritan’ placing the beaten and robbed man upon the back of his donkey.  He was then shown taking the man to be looked after.  Then little gold coins were depicted as little yellow discs of glass being handed over to the innkeeper for his trouble.  In another window there was the last supper.  A simple shared meal between friends that symbolized the relationship God has with the world.  There was this huge table at which people were invited to come and share the Passover.  Jesus sat with his disciples as he welcomed them to come and eat with the God-man.  St Thomas’ was an impressive place.  It was a spectacular place.  When the summer sun shone through the windows and the incense was wafting between the pillars it created a dazzling sight as streaks of reds and blues and greens danced through the air.

Anybody who was anybody would be found there on a Sunday morning.  The Mayor would be there two rows from the front.  Behind him would sit the headmaster in the next pew.  Everyone was highly polished and neatly trimmed.  Partings were always worn and suits were neatly pressed.  Sunday best was the order of the day.  All of the people from the town we lived in who had any kind of status could be found there.  Everyone was ‘just so’.  As you looked around the congregation each Sunday morning you could see lots of white faces and nuclear families.  Mum and dad would bring the two point four children through the big oak doors each week.  In this congregation everyone was the “right type of person”.  There was no one in this place who could really be called “poor”.  Over the years plenty of people had come in and quickly gone back out because they soon realized that they weren’t the “right type of person”.  Here at St Thomas’, people in need were out of the question.  People with the wrong kind of accent need not apply.  If you are going to grace a pew, make sure your surname isn’t Unpronounceableovic.  Heaven forbid you would have a different coloured skin!

There was one family who attended for many years.  Mum and dad and 2.4 children happily coming to church each Sunday.  Dad had a good job and a company car.  Mum stayed at home and looked after the children.  The cracks started to appear when dad was made redundant.  Gone was the company car. Then one thing led to another and their marriage broke down.  It is hard work going to church when you find out that after ten years you are no longer the “right kind of people”.  Suddenly mum was taking the 2.4 children to St Thomas’ by herself.  No one said anything directly to her but she could tell.  There were conversations that would suddenly stop whenever she approached.  There were cups of tea passed to her with a knowing smile.  After a couple of weeks the energy it required to get the kids out of bed, dressed and ready for church was just not there.  The small nuclear family stopped being the “right sort of people” each Sunday morning.  As you might imagine, St Thomas’ did not receive many new members.  Its members simply grew older.

Years later as an adult I learned that St Thomas’ Church had closed.  There just weren’t enough of the “right type” of people.  They just didn’t exist, I guess.  One time I went back to that town and there I was passing beside the familiar gothic architecture and the ornately carved pillars.  St Thomas’ church building was still standing only now it was a restaurant.  Oddly given the history of the previous occupants of the building it was a curry house called the Indian Cottage.  I walked in through those massive gothic doors and where there had once been pews, now there were tables, waiters, and people eating dinner.  Candles were lit at each table and people were eagerly tearing naan breads and pouring fresh glasses of wine.  The familiar hubbub of community meals was all around as the sound of glass upon glass clanking together and laughter filled the building.  As I looked down the nave of the ancient gothic church to where the altar had once sat underneath the image of the last supper, now there were tables. 

A young waiter came over to us and asked if we’d like a table for two.  My wife and I exchanged a glance as I responded to his question with a simple “yes please”.  We were escorted to a table at the back of the restaurant where the sanctuary had once been.  The young man took our coats and pulled out a chair for my wife to sit at.  He asked if we would like to order drinks and I asked for a bottle of the house white.  As he went to get our drinks I began to unfold my serviette and turned to my wife.  As I pulled myself closer to her over the table with said with a hushed tone “Now, I guess everybody is finally welcome to eat at this table”.