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InFormation

JAMES' BLOG

inFormation 4

What do we hope for, for our children? I was taken by surprise by this question when it arose at a Food Poverty Forum run by OCVA last week. It is a question that we can legitimately ask even if we don’t have children of our own, because it prompts us to reflect on what we value, not just on our own behalf, but on behalf of the next generation. What is important to us that is worth passing on?

Part of the surprise of this question was the context in which it arose. In attending this Forum on behalf of Community Cupboard – the foodbank run jointly by St Mary’s Iffley and Rose Hill Methodist Church – I had expected discussions about resources, policies and the practicalities of reaching people who are hungry. But what emerged strongly from presentations given by Good Food Oxford, O’Hanlon House and Incredible Edible, was that food poverty is a spiritual issue.

Food is spiritual because eating involves making choices. We choose the priority we give to food among the various demands on our budget. We choose the quality and type of food that we eat. We choose where to source our food – whether to grow it or where to buy it. Choice involves value: we select between fresh food, cheap food, locally-grown food, filling food, tasty food and many other categories of food depending on what we hold to be good food. But we can only choose from the range possibilities that we think is available to us. Food poverty can be spiritual poverty when it feels as if we have no choice.

Food is also spiritual because food brings people together. Not only do meals provide an opportunity for sharing experiences, but the food supply chain creates relationships of power, dependency and cultural enrichment between peoples across the world. Yet the social dimension of food can be as much a threat as a benefit. One presenter described how pizza day was popular among homeless people, because the absence of crockery meant that they could take their food and eat alone. They did not have to cope with the social demands of eating together.

Food is also spiritual because it is symbolic. Bread doesn’t just fill us up, it represents our capacity to earn a living (as a breadwinner); to define what is normal (our bread and butter); to live spiritually as well as materially (fed by the bread of heaven). Food poverty becomes spiritual poverty too when hunger drives us to recognise only the physical element in keeping body and soul together.

What do we hope for, for our children? Maybe we hope for health, wealth and happiness. Or maybe we hope to nurture good people. But what I was reminded of, unexpectedly, by this Food Poverty Forum, is that our children are shaped as the people they become by means of spiritual food as well as material food. Likewise, they can suffer from spiritual poverty alongside food poverty. ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’ (Matthew 4:4, NRSV)

inFormation 3

Tuesday 31 October was the 500th anniversary of Luther publishing his 95 theses; and by a strange coincidence, that was the day on which I found myself studying Luther and his role in the reformations of the 16th Century. Of particular interest was the extent to which religion and politics were inextricably mixed. Luther was making a theological point about justification by faith. But this was intimately bound up with his objection to the Archbishop of Mainz selling indulgences, and the desire of Frederick the Wise (Luther’s patron) to strengthen the hand of the German princes in their power struggle with both the Pope and the (Spanish) Holy Roman Emperor.

Our tendency now to separate religion from politics no doubt has many advantages. For example, it is easier (at least in theory) to tolerate religious difference for the sake of political harmony. However, a by-product of the separation of these two spheres of life is the separation of the richly symbolic language of religion (such as language about the resurrection of Jesus) from the experiences of life to which they refer (such as our experiences of transformation and renewal). Cut loose from questions of governance, the language of faith has also lost its connection with our every-day lives.

I was struck by the absence of this separation when visiting Rwanda last July with two fellow students from the Queens Foundation. The Free Methodist Church of Rwanda has a holistic vision of faith that integrates evangelism with education, health care, development and social care. Against a backdrop of reconciliation following the genocide of 1994, material wellbeing and spiritual wellbeing go hand-in-hand. People share cows to feed their bodies and their souls; people save together and make loans to one another so that what little money they have enriches the quality of their lives together; people heal their anger with families and neighbours in order to make physical healing possible. In this context, the gospel of love and forgiveness brings life in its fullness; the biblical narrative of salvation is one which underpins every aspect of life as it is lived.

The separation of the language of religion from the experience of life is a real issue when talking with people at Community Cupboard in Rose Hill. (For more thoughts on this, see my sermon at St Mary’s Iffley on 29 October: http://iffleychurch.org.uk/sermons/sermon-talking-about-faith/.) Luther would, no doubt, have spoken eloquently of God’s love to those suffering from poverty, bereavement, isolation and despair, as would my friends in Rwanda. More importantly, in speaking of God’s love they would be understood. However, where the language of God’s kingdom has become distinct from the language of the body politic, as it has for us in 21st-century Britain, we cannot take this for granted. People’s lives need transformation, healing, feeding, enriching, justice now just as much as they did in the time of Luther and the time of Jesus. It is up to us to translate our understanding of the gospel into the vernacular of today, just as Luther did 500 years ago.

 InFormation 2

The academic year has now started! And it has begun with a module on church history. History has never been my strong point. I wasn’t enthusiastic about it at school, and as a musician, I have always been more interested in theory and analysis than history as a way of explaining why music sounds like it does. However, it is perhaps not a coincidence that as I have grown older (and so have acquired more history myself) I have come to appreciate that knowledge of how something came to be formed is often needed in order to understand it.

Take Community Cupboard, for example (the food bank that Rose Hill Methodist Church runs jointly with St Mary’s, Iffley, on a Wednesday afternoon). This started at the old Advice Centre in Rose Hill in 2013, but moved to the church the following year because there was not enough storage space for food. The kitchen and seating area at the church have enabled Community Cupboard to offer refreshments and fellowship while people wait for their turn to collect food. These circumstances, accompanied and guided by prayer, have enabled a ministry to develop that was not initially planned. Community Cupboard, as it exists today, reflects the step-by-step history of its formation. (If you are interested in helping at Community Cupboard, or know of someone who is in need of food, please contact This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

The same can be said of Rose Hill Church generally. Although its site appears to have been well-chosen to serve the surrounding neighbourhood and to be accessible from the main road, this does not reflect the history. Few of the surrounding houses existed when the chapel was built in 1835. It was intended to serve the people of Iffley, but the landowner was unwilling to sell land in the village (maybe Methodists weren’t approved of). It wasn’t until the 1930s, following the influx of steel workers to Oxford, that what had been built as a rural chapel began to serve an urban population. (For a brief history of Rose Hill Methodist Church, see http://rosehillmethodists.org.uk/RHMCHist.html.)

One reason given for studying history is that the Christian faith is profoundly rooted in history. We do not have a founding set of dogmas, a moral code or a carefully-documented worldview. We have the Bible, containing often-contradictory stories from which each generation is called to discern anew its response to God. And we have the lives and witness of generations of Christians who have preceded us. Central to all those stories is the death and resurrection of Jesus. (This point is made by Mark Noll in his book, Turning Points: Decisive moments in the history of Christianity, 2012, p.5.)

Yet, as Jürgen Moltmann observes in Jesus Christ for Today’s World (1994), the story of the resurrection is precisely about the limitations of history. Whilst it can be comforting to reduce the uncertainty of tomorrow by assuming life will be a continuation of what happened yesterday, this extrapolation of the past into the future can also be profoundly disturbing. Witness the escalating tension between America and North Korea. For Moltmann, the message of the resurrection is that tomorrow can be different. Jesus invites us to God’s future; a future that is not a continuation of the past, but is radically different. History has its limits: ‘Behold, I am making all things new.’ (Revelation 21:5)

InFormation1

Welcome to this blog, in which I will aim to share the experience of training as a Methodist minister while working in the Oxford Circuit during 2017-18. In this first post I will reflect on the purpose of the blog in relation to the human experience of formation.

Who is it that you seek? We seek the Lord our God.

Do you seek Him with all your heart? Amen. Lord have mercy.

Do you seek Him with all your soul? Amen. Lord have mercy.

Do you seek Him with all your mind? Amen. Lord have mercy.

Do you seek Him with all your strength? Amen. Lord have mercy.

These are the opening responses (inspired by Psalm 27) of the Northumbria Community's service of Morning Prayer. The words are a reminder that knowing God is not a matter of possessing knowledge - if we feel that we have 'got' God we are in danger of getting no further than ourselves. Rather, knowing God is a process of seeking, like getting to know another person. It is a search for meaning and value in life; a search for our own place in relation to the people among whom we live - past, present and future.

A search such as this does not leave the seeker unchanged. Indeed, the training of Methodist (and other) ministers is often referred to as formation. Becoming a minister is not just about acquiring knowledge and skills; it is about a change in being - becoming someone who is a representative of the church. Being formed.

But it is not just ministers who are formed. Nor is it just Christians. Every human undergoes a process of formation from childhood to the end of our lives. It is how we become who we are. The thing about Christians is, first, that the process of formation is intentional - it is something we think about and commit ourselves to; and, second, that we seek to be formed after the model of Jesus.

Part of my formation for the next year will involve working in the Oxford Circuit, primarily at Rose Hill. I will do this alongside studying part time at the Queens Foundation in Birmingham while continuing to live with my family in Wallingford. This experience-based approach to the formation of ministers is a new departure for the Methodist church. It is part of the church's continuing formation.

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