Theyre Lee-Elliott, 1903-1988, Crucified Tree Form – the agony

© Trustees of the Methodist Collection of Modern Christian Art


My first imaginative experience of the First World War trenches, beyond the limited knowledge of them being a distantly historical fact, was the poetry of Wilfred Owen. Owen was killed just 7 days before the Armistice was signed and his mother received the telegram informing her of her dear son’s death as the bells of their native Shrewsbury were ringing out in celebration of the end of four years’ carnage.

It was Mr Day, my English teacher, who introduced me to the heart-rending poems of Wilfred Owen. When he read to the class Greater Love it seemed that the bomb-churned French mud was still splattered over the page:

Red lips are not so red
As the stained stones
kissed by the English dead

And there was more so much more, despite the brevity of his life and the sparsity of his writing, Owen took a fourteen-year-old boy out of the classroom into the horror of the whistles that called the men to go over the top, the sound of machine gun fire and the waiting at home by those who loved them so.

The so-called war to end all wars did not succeed in its naïve and bogus claim of course. One cartoon depicted the train carriage in which the Armistice was signed with a mother outside it pushing a baby in a pram; the baby was crying. Twenty-one years later the baby had grown into a man and would be paying the price of the mistakes made by those at Versailles who sowed the seeds of future discontent and the inevitable war that followed.

When that war was over it concluded three decades of conflict during which more than 100 million had been killed in warfare. Europe was sick of conflict, the nations were tired and exhausted from fighting one another, which was an additional reason to the threat of nuclear conflagration for the unsteady peace that followed. We had also witnessed the very lowest the human race could sink, with killing on an unimaginable scale and the attempt to wipe out the entire Jewish population in horrendously industrialised ways, harvesting not only their possessions, but their hair, teeth and fat.

When the facts and scale of the Holocaust began to become known by those beyond the former Nazi-occupied territories many were silenced by their shock, unable to imagine the depravity of those who had orchestrated or perpetrated it. Famously one philosopher, German Theodor Adorno, born in 1903, whose father was an assimilated Jew who had converted to Protestantism, is claimed to have said that after Auschwitz there can be no poetry. What he actually wrote in 1951 was that writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric. In other words, art itself was uncivilised, dead even, in the wake of the science that had led to the racist ideology, and so-called Final Solution, of the Nazis. It is understandable that someone writing in the shadow of the gas chambers should make such a claim. But like Owen decades before, it is art that lifts the soul from despair and indeed lifts our vision above the killing fields to find new ways in which we can express our sorrow and horror at what has been done in the names of man and God. It is art that enables us to express our deepest emotions.

The almost grotesque figure of Theyre Lee-Elliott’s painting, Crucified Tree Form – the agony, captures for me the torture of the pain a human body experiences in a conflict not of their making. Lee-Elliott had been gravely ill, close to death even, when he committed to painting this extraordinary work. As a teenager he would have seen the survivors of the Somme and as the son of an Anglican clergyman drew a comparison between their suffering and the crucified Christ. The body is trapped on barbed wire and the figure echoes the shattered trees from obsessive shelling to the landscape. It’s not only humankind but creation itself that is nailed to the cross.

Today we know, of course, that our world has continued to engage in conflict. Lives are shattered, homes destroyed, millions flee their homes. There seems no end in sight to the prejudices that mark people out as objects of hatred, no end in sight to the inability to see through the propaganda and lies, no end in sight to thinking there are glory days ahead if we could only have our own way and dispense with difference.

We are again on a trajectory that could end in even darker days. The cyclical of violence is turning once more unfavourably towards disaster. If the dead whom we remember today could speak they would urge us to look and listen, to read history and observe the signs of the times, to act before it is too late. The historic prophets of Judaism and Christianity, have long left this earth but their voices remain in scripture. They, including Micah of course, urge their listeners to do as the Lord requires: to act justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly before God. On many occasions in history these words needed to be heard as a matter of urgency, but none more so than today.  The early church had Jesus saying that greater love has no one than this: that a man lay down his life for his friends. Used often on a day such as this; used often in the military cemeteries across Europe as comrades heard the padre bid their friends farewell; and of course used by Wilfred Owen in the title of his poem I quoted above, they may still be used today, not necessarily as a comfort or consequence of military conflict, but as we are called to lay down our lives in resisting the sweeping hostility toward our neighbours, be they racially or religiously different, be they different in their gender or sexual orientation, be they of a different opinion or character.

If there is one thing you and I can do, and indeed do well, it is to stem the rising hatred across our nation, by loving one another as Christ loves us. There is no qualification for that love. There is no expectation of a positive outcome. But there is a demand made upon us and having loved we leave it then up to the other and of course to God. Love one another; and if at first it fails to achieve anything, love some more, love again and again and again.

Only love can conquer hate.
Only love can transform cold hearts and closed minds.

It may be that the only weapon we have in the fight to build a better world is love – and that is good enough to give me a sense of purpose.




An age of Impunity

6 October 2019

For many this is an age of impunity. Often, words are spoken and actions undertaken without any thought of the consequences. And indeed, in many circumstances, people are getting away with it. From the bus alongside me a few days ago that went over on red at a pedestrian crossing whilst a young family were about to cross, to politicians who make all sorts of claims knowing them to be unfounded, we live in an age of impunity. This is not how it should be. If the consequences aren’t apparent in the immediate, or considered at all, then there will come a time when someone, somewhere, will have to pay the price.
It all comes down to a matter of choice. Moses was quite clear. Those people that had followed him out of slavery into the environmentally hostile deserting the hope of an uncertain yet promised land had moments of doubt. Moses could not be clearer: you have a choice before you, this way or that way, press on or go back, life or death. Press on and you will receive life, if not for you then for your descendants but at least in the meantime you are free from the yoke of oppression. Or go back, yes you’ll get fed, yes you will have a roof over your head and yes you will know what each day will bring, but it will take you back to where you were – slavery. And I have no doubt that just as some chose to remain where they were when the first instant of possible escape was put to them so even those who had set off on the journey would be tempted to turn back. Later Jesus would invite people to follow him. Some would reject the possibility out of hand. Others were tempted to follow but then, like some at the foot of Sinai, they would get cold feet and set conditions for discipleship: yes, but once I have completed the job in hand; yes, but first this or that. No, says Jesus, it’s all or nothing. Life or death says Moses.


There is no room for sitting on the fence in age such as this. There are already too many occupying the space for us to join them, it’s a crowded place. It is clear that we are living in unprecedented times for our nation. The next three weeks are the most critical since the Second World War. Decisions will be taken that affect our place in the world, the stability of our communities and the economy of every single household in the UK. The choice is stark. Some will argue that the result of the referendum was clear. Others would argue that the facts weren’t clear and that you wouldn’t change the hymn books on a spilt vote that was so close.

Whatever your view it is clear that these island nations we call the UK and NI are divided as they have not been for centuries; not since the English civil war according to historian Simon Schama. One would be forgiven for thinking that there would be a strong case for truth to be told and reason to be the guiding factor in all our deliberations at a time such as this. But no, it seems that obfuscation, a disregard for the truth and irresponsible behaviour are the traits of so many who should know better, it’s just that they are so bent on driving home their own political ideology and goals come hell or high water.

As children of the Book we, of all people, should know that there are always consequences to the avoidance of truth, the erosion of ethical behaviour and the duping of the populace. The reason why Moses had to lead the people out of Egypt was because the brothers had sold Joseph into slavery. The reason why it was claimed that David would write the greatest poetry we call the Psalms was because he had committed a great sin in sleeping with his commander’s wife and sending her husband off to die in battle. The reason why Jesus would demand of his disciples absolute loyalty was because the movement was fragile and could so easily have been lost with so many other movements that had sprung up at the time.


Today, the Church is threatened as it has so often been in the past. But despite what so many of us think, it’s not declining numbers that make us vulnerable, it is the lack of faithfulness in the tasks to which we are called. It would be the easiest thing in the world to mirror society; to fall into camps and act as tribally as our socio-political climate dictates, to dig our heels in over one issue or another, to refuse to listen to views different to our own, to believe that we, and we alone, have a monopoly on what is true and what is not true.

Some things are self-evident, many are not. Better still for us to model good behaviour in a world bent on division and hostility. To find a welcome in our places of worship, in our homes and in our hearts and minds for those who think and behave and believe differently. It is then, and perhaps only then, that the bus driver will know he was wrong to cross a red light, or the politician to know that their bigotry will get them nowhere, because history will be correct to judge them harshly and the precious legacy they long to create will be tainted.

To all MPs in Lincolnshire, North Lincolnshire and North East Lincolnshire
I am writing to you as a matter of urgency and out of deep concern for our county and indeed nation. You may not be aware of the fact that my role is to represent the 145 Methodist churches of Lincolnshire, North Lincolnshire and North East Lincolnshire. So whilst I may not reside in your constituency I do act on behalf of many Methodist congregations in the area you represent in Parliament.

A while ago we, the Lincolnshire Methodist District, became increasingly aware of our responsibility to challenge and change attitudes and language in all our forms of communication. We entered into a partnership with Lincolnshire Police and Lincolnshire County Council and have embarked on what we have termed Positive Prevention. This scheme has ensured that the consequences of even unintentionally offensive language have become more known to us. As a result, we have seen a tempering of language in social media posts. We cannot eradicate it completely, I would be naïve to think otherwise, but positive steps have been taken and we are now keen to listen to one another with greater respect than may have once been the case.

As a senior Church Leader I would urge you and your colleagues to find ways of tempering the vocabulary and behaviour in both parliamentary debate and public arenas including media interviews and social media.

We live in difficult and challenging times, indeed they are unprecedented for our island nations. Your role is far from easy, there are many pressures upon you and it is an unenvious position in which you put yourself forward to serve your constituency and our nation. I want you to know that you are constantly in my thoughts and prayers. However, I am deeply dismayed at certain events of recent days.

I sat through the Prime Minister’s statement on Wednesday 25th September, and on numerous occasions was appalled at both what was said and indeed at the behaviour of many members. Earlier in the day I had turned on my radio for the 1 o’clock news and caught highlights of the exchange between the Attorney General and Labour MP Barry Sherman; at first I honestly thought it was an overreaction in some poorly scripted and performed afternoon play. I was almost incredulous when I discovered that it was an actual clip from proceedings in the House.
To dismiss threats on the lives of MPs as ‘humbug’ was a new low. I won’t even begin to express my feelings about what some have said about the Supreme Court’s judgment.

With authority comes responsibility. I fear that some of us in our nation today who carry some form of authority are overlooking this fact for their personal self-interest and gratification. We should expect better of ourselves and indeed those whom we serve are right to expect better of us.

History teaches us that divisive discourse in the political arena and appeals to populism never end well; they lead to an erosion of moral boundaries and conventions across the nation. Let me quote the European Commissioner for Security, Sir Julian King, ‘Crass and dangerous. If you think extreme language doesn’t fuel political violence across Europe, including the UK, then you’re not paying attention.’

Should you wish to meet with me to discuss my concerns then I am happy to do so.

For the sake of transparency and accountability this letter will be circulated to my colleagues across the region I serve and published on our social media outlets.

I remain respectfully yours,

What is it that makes me the minister I am?

  • Is it John Wesley’s theology? Less likely I think than the hymns of his brother Charles.
  • Is it the model presented by 17th century puritan pastor Richard Baxter?
  • Or the example set down for us in Paul’s letter to Timothy?

What is it that makes me the minister I am?

  • Is it the sense of God’s presence that took me by surprise on a familiar walk across Cannock Chase 40 years ago this coming spring?
  • Is it the Gospel of John Lennon for music has played a great part in in my reflections over the years?
  • Or is it my daily devotions I try to faithful maintain each morning, and fail more often than I would like to admit?

All of these may be contributory factors but what is it that most makes me the minister I am? Is it I wonder, the people I have encountered and continue to encounter each and every day of my life? Yes, above all others it is the lives, stories, characters, idiosyncrasies of those I meet when walking my dog, when sifting through racks of bargains at TKMaxx, when packing my shopping into reusable bags at the supermarket checkout, or promising the attendant at the petrol station that I will get a new and undamaged Nectar card for my next visit? Yes all of these and so many more that make me the minister I am.

This should come as little or no surprise to those who recognize God in every individual. The core message of the Abrahamic faiths, Judaism, Christianity and Islam is the belief that we are all, every single one of us, made in the image of God. As a consequence the writer of I John 4 is able to conclude that in loving one another we know something of God and conversely in knowing something of God we feel compelled to love one another. It’s a chicken and egg. Which comes first?

  • Loving one another followed by knowing God because there is something of God in the person we love?
  • Or knowing that God is manifested in one another and therefore we are compelled to love them?

Let’s think about this for a moment as ministers, chaplains and disciples of God’s grace: in loving we shall know God; in knowing God we shall love one another even more fully than before.

There is something very powerful about knowing. When we know one another well, we can have a good stab at guessing how they might react to something, how they might behave in certain circumstances, but we can also love them more deeply when mistakes occur – for we know what makes them tick.

Equally so there is something very powerful about loving. When we love we create an environment in which mutual respect and eventually reciprocal love can take root. Therefore not only is the one whom we love being impacted upon, so are we. Those we encounter and engage with are shaping us by their response to our attention, our care and concerns. We begin to realise that we are not all that we may have thought of ourselves, there is still much within us to complete.

  • The conversation with a stranger on the seat next to me on a long train journey.
  • The brief encounter with someone who washes my car.
  • Seeing the busker at the end of the day knowing he has made too little to buy the ready-cooked meal he wanted.

All of these and so much more make me what I am and hone my ministerial insights and intentions.

And I turn to another question of interest to me: what was it that made J what he was? Where is the teaching in the early years of his adulthood? Was there any I wonder? Or was there an informative silence?

  • A time to contemplate?
  • A soaking in of all that he was seeing and hearing on the shoreline of the Galilee or the streets of the surrounding villages?
  • Witnessing the hurts and fears?
  • Listening in on the debates?
  • Mulling over what God had in store for his life?
  • Formulating stories that would resonate with the people?

All of these and so much more for sure. As I read scripture and in particular the accounts of the life of Jesus we call the Gospels, I can detect a growing Jesus rather than a static Jesus.

  • We see this in the wilderness as Jesus wrestles with his destiny.
  • We see it in the debates he has with those who came to him for help or healing – there is sometimes a negotiation involved.
  • We even witness it in Gethsemane in the shadow of the Temple on Mt Moriah, the site of Ab’s would-be sac of his son Isaac.

Jesus was not complete from day one. But like us Jesus was a growing human being, becoming more aware of the world about him, gathering more understanding of the needs of those with whom he shared the living space, responding in ever increasing commitment and deepening love. This is the eg I take with me in my encounters with those ab me. And it helps me when I realize that I am not yet complete:

  • Misunderstandings occur.
  • Mistakes happen.
  • Meaningfulness often eludes me.

But the encounter, the engagement, is the opportunity to love and to know, to know and to love.

It is indeed a reciprocal transformational process.

  • The chaplain and client.
  • The minister and congregant.
  • The neighbour with neighbour.

So the people are in the wilderness. They have arrived at Sinai and Moses has ascended the mountain. But he is a long time coming down again. The people grow impatient and thy look elsewhere for help. Aaron directs the men to get their wives and children to hand over their gold (note not the men!) and he creates for them a golden calf. He then declares that these are the gods that brought them out of slavery in Egypt. The people then lose all moral compass because the writer tells us that they sat down, ate and drank, and rose up to revel. The commentators tell us that the original term indicates that it was somewhat bacchanalian – a wild, wine-soaked rowdy affair often becoming something of an orgy.

These first six verses of the chapter have much to teach us!

It was Voltaire who said that if God did not exist it would be necessary to invent him. This is what the people are doing at Sinai. In the perceived absence of the LORD they make their own gods. And in the absence of their trusted leader they seek the guidance of another – it is a misplaced trust. For the leader then offers the people fake news. He rewrites history. According to Aaron it wasn’t the LORD who had led the people out of slavery but the gods symbolised by the golden calf.

Interesting that he pluralises the term – gods – not God. In other words the people have abandoned their monotheism and re-embraced polytheism. Despite all the examples of the LORD’s supreme power they had not let go of their past superstitions. How quickly they reverted when the going got tough and the opportunities arose.

And it all ends in a bit of a mess.

It doesn’t take a great exegete to ask who our golden calves are today.

From the humorous poster I once saw in Manchester Piccadilly Railway Station:

Welcome to Manchester. While here visit the temples of worship: Pictures of a church, Old Trafford football ground and a Boddington’s pub.

To more serious examples:

  • the trust placed in social media, where opinions are valued more than the facts presented by experts,
  • or the admiration some have for ‘here- today- gone-tomorrow’ celebrities,
  • or indeed simplistic political ideologies.

We have created golden calves.

In addition, like the people at Sinai in difficult circumstances, many are prone to forget the lessons of the past and how it was that those before us extricated themselves out of previous crises.

I am currently reviewing Tony Bayfield’s latest book and am finding it fascinating. It is clearly his legacy, his definitive account of his accumulated insight and understanding of his faith after more than half a century as a rabbi and teacher. Every now and then there is a sentence or two, often in the form of a question, printed in bold. At first I thought it was the editor’s comments as I had only a pre-publication copy. But it wasn’t the editor’s comments. It was the voice of God: Questioning. Probing. Cajoling. Admonishing. Quirky but fascinating.

We are often unable to detect the voice of God in the clamour about us. We often miss God’s presence in the narrowing down of focus during difficult times. But I suggest that it is precisely then that God can be detected most clearly for the open and receptive, the willing and faithful.

  • The pricking of conscience
  • The gentle and sometimes not so gentle nudging
  • The awareness of consequences
  • These and other occasions re-alert us to G in our lives and W.

Tony Bayfield’s book doesn’t have a very good title in my opinion, Being Jewish Today, will limit the readership. Had I been asked I might have suggested another, or at least a sub-title – The God who won’t leave us alone.

You see the people may have been in the wilderness and bereft at the foot of the mountain, they may have sought help from those who would do much harm, they may have even had a good time in wine, dance and sex, but it was all short-lived.

Moses descends the mountain and the people are ashamed. So much so that Aaron displays his inadequacies as a leader: he firstly blames the people for his own initiative, ‘they told me to do it, I was only doing what they asked me to do it’ and then goes on to make one of the weakest excuses in the whole of scripture: he claims that he merely took the gold, threw it into the fire and out came the calf, hey presto! Not exactly what was recorded earlier?

Let’s go back to Voltaire. He said that if God did not exist it would be necessary to invent him. All too many think negatively of this quote. They see within it an Enlightenment philosopher who might be disposing of God. But nothing could be further from the truth – it was act not meant to be anything other than a retort to atheists.

The full quote goes:

If the heavens, stripped of his noble imprint,
Could ever cease to attest to his being,
If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.
Let the wise man announce him and kings fear him.
Kings, if you oppress me, if your eminencies disdain
The tears of the innocent that you cause to flow,
My avenger is in the heavens: learn to tremble.
Such, at least, is the fruit of a useful creed.

Luke 14.1-6

10 September 2019

These six verses from Luke’s account of the Gospel tell us a lot about issues in the early church community, perhaps 40 years after the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. In fact I would go so far as to say that these verses tell us more about that early church community than they do the context and contemporaries of Jesus.

I have absolutely no doubt in my mind that Jesus ate with Pharisees, after all the Pharisees and Jesus had more in common than our prejudice against the Pharisees allow us to believe. Nor do I doubt that discussions would have often taken place between Jesus and the Pharisees on the Law and interpretations of it. But by the time the compiler came to present the account of the Gospel we know as Luke, relationships between the early Church and Pharisaic communities had broken down.  Sometime before the Gospel account was written down the Temple had fallen, in 70 CE, and only these two Jewish groups thereafter remained viable; as a consequence the early church and the Pharisaic communities became rivals and competed for the hearts and minds of the people. Hence the somewhat accentuated hostility recorded in these later Gospel accounts.

Therefore this hostility we read of, in both Luke and Matthew especially, are more a reflection of that post-Temple period than those few years of Jesus’ ministry decades before.  For example, the debate over healing on the Sabbath, in this and other passages, was less of an issue at the time of Jesus than the Gospel accounts would have us believe. The sanctity of life and care for the sick have always been central to Jewish law and practise. And from the 2nd century before Christ it became pragmatic for Jews to heal on the Sabbath even though it was prohibited by Torah Law.  This was because 1000 Jews had been massacred having refused to take up arms to defend themselves when they came under attack from Macedonians on the Sabbath. Keeping the Sabbath Law was more important than defending the city. Thereafter it was agreed that there should be greater flexibility in the interpretation and observance.

Now I know this is a challenge to the preconceptions of many Christians, likewise the fact that much of the teaching on the Sabbath that has been attributed to Jesus is actually part of the debate between Rabbis Eleazar and Akiva, however what is important is not who said what, when and where, but the fact that healing is an integral part of our being: the desire to make whole, to restore and to save.  This is our Judeo-Christian heritage and it is our calling today: to make whole, to restore and save souls, heal hearts, bodies and minds.

The Psalmists and Prophets believed that God healed the broken hearted and bound their wounds. The followers of Jesus came to believe that Jesus was anointed to do the same and that his Spirit enabled them to continue such a ministry. That which had been the work of God is now the ministry of believers.

A stupefying fear is gripping our nation. So stunned are we that many of us are unable to express our concerns let alone formulate some kind of action. We know that things are not okay and yet we are so overwhelmed by the relentless rhetoric of our politicians that it is as if we have become perturbed and paralyzed in equal measure.

The seemingly unstoppable downward spiral of dishonesty in British politics is becoming so normalized that those who dare question a blatant lie with an appeal to the facts are somehow seen to be missing the point. There is little care about consequences anymore, this is now an age of impunity. Even the Prime Minister is threatening to ignore an Act of Parliament and by doing so a substantial section of the electorate, maybe even the majority, applaud him; this could be seen to be the promotion of anarchy, it is certainly an unhelpful and unhealthy precedent for our nation. It seems that the old rules that held us together for so long are now falling apart. Our constitution may not be without fault but thus far has been sufficient to restrain the demagogue and promote the nation’s interests. Let us be clear: a demagogue is one who seeks to appeal to the prejudices of the people rather than draw on rational argument. Tyranny has so often followed a time when little regard is shown for authority.

And where is the Church in all of this? I can’t help but consider the possibility that future historians will conclude that we were so focussed on making disciples that we overlooked our neighbours’ needs; we were so keen to increase membership and secure a future that too great an emphasis was placed on evangelism than on addressing the societal changes of the last decade. We sought greater attendance and failed to hear the cries of the neglected and hungry. Our voice of righteous protest is muffled because we have been blind to the signs of the times: we overlooked the fact that inequality causes anger and anger mistrust and mistrust populism. If we shout now then the response of our critics may be that it is a case of too little too late. But we know that throughout history the Church has always been at its best when its back was against the wall. So now is the time for us to come out of the corner and fight for the truths that show the lies up for what they are, to express the love that dispels all fears and to bring a halt to the rush to the cliff edge.

Much of the German Church in the 1930s left the politics to the politicians, the same mistake cannot be made again. Learning from this error the Latin American Church resisted the dictatorships, the South African Church stood against the apartheid regime and similarly the British Church must rise to the challenge of today. It is incumbent upon us to not reflect the tolerance so many have to the utterance of lies; it is necessary for us to not be swept along with the tide of intolerance that marks so much of social discourse. There is no shame in listening to those whose views differ markedly to our own. There is nothing wrong in learning something from someone we thought we had no common ground with. There is everything to gain from open hearts and minds. We are far more complete when we come to lay down having done what is right in the sight of God.

Music was my first love

24 August 2019

Karen and I have recently been to the cinema. We went to watch Blinded by the Light. It’s the story of Javed a British-Pakistani Muslim teenager coming of age in 1980s Luton.

The comedy drama is based on the memoirs of journalist and documentary maker Sarfraz Manzoor and is directed by Gurinder Chadha, who was responsible for Bend it Like Beckham. So Blinded by the Light is a sort of ‘Sing it Like Springsteen’.

In the film Bruce Springsteen’s lyrics speak to Javed like nothing else. There is resonance between the working class struggles of Springsteen’s New Jersey and Luton England. There is a deep connection between the composer and the listener when addressing the relationships that so often concern and confuse a young adult making their way in the world.

In my own teenage years, during the 1970s, it was the music of John Lennon, Simon & Garfunkel and even the Sex Pistols that spoke to me. The Troubles in Northern Ireland were at their height, there was the Three Day Week, the Winter of Discontent and the ever-present threat of nuclear war. It was an interesting time to wrestle with adolescence. The lyrics of the songs I listened to in my bedroom helped open my mind to something beyond the immediate; they made me question my existence, and analyse what was going on in my life. Indeed I am quite prepared to say that they played a significant part in my becoming and an ordained Christian minister.

It was the spiritual that sustained slaves in their long torment, and then drawn upon to help liberate them. A century ago music hall songs and brass bands inspired men and boys to volunteer for the trenches; five decades later the civil rights movement and anti-Vietnam war demos were fuelled by their anthems.

Music is a powerful force; couple it with the right lyrics and almost anything is possible: from Gregorian chant lifting the 9th and 10th century Roman Catholic congregations into the heavenly realm or the hip hop of today transporting those on the dance floor to a very different place to the one that is so constraining.

Few can escape the influence of music on our lives. Get into the car and the radio may be tuned to light pop music or relaxing classics. Arrive at the supermarket and the sound system is playing Christmas songs in November.

Music can be the soundtrack of our years.

I often hear a song from the past and am able to associate it with an event in my life: a summer’s day, a particular experience, a journey, a holiday or a person I have known and loved.

Which of us who tuned into the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales, will ever forget Elton John singing a variation of Candle in the Wind?

To this day Hymns and worship songs remain a strong feature of Christian worship. I believe that the hymns of Charles Wesley have sustained the Methodist people far more effectively than the sermons and theology of his more famous brother John.

Visiting a Muslim country would not be the same without hearing the Adhan, the call to prayer. And you don’t have to be a member of the Jewish community to be moved by the mourners’ Kaddish.

I recall Natasha Kaplinsky on Who Do you Think You Are? travelling to Belarus and to the city of Slonim where members of her family perished during the Holocaust. There she and her cousin Bennie climbed into the abandoned synagogue where their family had once worshipped. Once inside Bennie, a cantor chanted the mourners’ Kaddish. It was probably the first time the crumbling walls had absorbed its soulful tune since the city’s Jewish community was brutally massacred in 1942.

The film that Karen and I went to see was a reminder, as if we needed it, of how music and song can change a person’s life. It can speak more clearly, more loudly, more eloquently than any great philosophical work. It can be of greater assistance in life than a self-help guide. It can be a prayer to the Divine. It can even unite enemies.

Cyril was a member of the Church in which I grew up. During the Second World War he was a guard in a Prisoner of War Camp. On Christmas Eve he and a German soldier sang Silent Night/Stille Nacht, just as their predecessors had done three decades earlier during the famous Christmas Truce.

I end with the words of a song made famous by British rock singer and musician John Miles:

Music was my first love
And it will be my last.
Music of the future
And music of the past.

To live without my music
Would be impossible to do.
In this world of troubles,
My music pulls me through.


Songwriters: Breyon Jamar Prescott, Michael C. Flowers
© Universal Music Publishing Group, Kobalt Music Publishing Ltd.

When Boris Johnson is elected leader of the Conservative Party, as looks increasingly likely despite the scandals, racism, misogyny and downright stupidity, the populist revolution will take another significant step towards completion. To have a far right Prime Minister facing a far left Leader of the Opposition at the dispatch box, backed by those who are even further extreme on their respective political spectra, will be an indictment of the state of British politics.

The UK is not only reflecting the populist trends of other nations across Europe and around the world but is part of the leading charge. I would liken this crisis that is fueled by a lack of belief in democracy and lack of trust in informed authority, to that of the collapse of the Weimar Republic. That event of course led to a catastrophe in Germany and the resultant consequences for the rest of Europe. The similarities are just too great in number to ignore. Today again so many are blindly walking towards a dark outcome thinking it to be a new and hope-filled dawn; it is not, as before the nightmare will be real, long and utterly destructive.

This present crisis in trust calls upon honest, caring, compassionate people of all political ideologies and religious faiths to seek one another out and join together in countering this rising tide of populism. Having courage in the face of hostility and being prepared to sacrifice oneself in this just cause is a moral obligation; we shirk such responsibilities at our peril.


Assault on London Bus


We will all be familiar with how the disciples gathered together in Jerusalem and how the Spirit came down upon them like tongues of Fire. People from all around the known world with different languages were suddenly able to understand one another.

We will probably have been told that there is a correlation between the Day of Pentecost and the Tower of Babel: that Pentecost reverses Babel. The writers of Genesis sought to understand why it was that there were different ethnicities, races and religions in our world. The only way they could make sense of this was to develop a myth of the people who were once one but who sinned and, like the story of Adam and Eve, God casts a spell upon them: they are forced into having different languages so they can no longer understand one another.

For the disciples who wanted to gather the nations around the teaching of Jesus Christ Babel was reversed as the Spirit enabled them to understand each other in each other’s languages.

Now the coming of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost assumes that God has forgiven that sin, he has been reconciled to his people. Please notice not that his people have been reconciled to him but that he has been reconciled to his people. This is because in one version of the atonement one man died on the cross reconciling not only us to God but God to us. This is how we have come to believe that Pentecost reverses Babel.

However the truth of the matter is that the Jewish people believed for a very, very long time, centuries even, that God’s purpose was to bring all people together as one. We only have to read passages from the 8th century prophets to know this. What happened was that the disciples saw in Jesus the one who could do this. And yet for 2000 years the Christian church has divided and put people into different camps. So much for no longer Jew, Gentile, Greek, slave, master, free, male or female. All too many have gone to the stake for using a different phrase in a prayer.

Today we might consider how we can be one without such division and tribalism; to ask ourselves if Pentecost is possible in world where Babel still exists.

If Pentecost was the day different peoples understood the language of others – we need a New Pentecost for the Brexit Babel that has caused hate crime to soar, so that we might better understand one another.

Personally I believe that we are able to communicate without words. I grew up at a time when pop music was almost a religion. Some of us got our spirituality from John Lennon and later the Sex Pistols. One particular track comes to mind when I think about imagery and conveying a message. In the early 70’s I was a big fan of Kojak. I wasn’t into Starsky & Hutch – far too good looking and smooth for my liking! Telly Savalas was the star of Kojak. With his catchphrase ‘Who loves ya baby?’ and lollipops meant that many of us could often be seen at lunch time walking round school with a lollipop stuck in our mouths. And then in 1975 he came out with his hit song ‘If’, a remake of the David Gates track. It began ‘if a picture could paint a thousand words then why can’t I paint you. The words will never show the you I’ve come to know.’

There’s a limit to imagery but also there is nevertheless the possibility of communicating across nations with imagery. A picture does indeed paint a thousand words.

Why is it that Karen and I travelled all the way to Amsterdam to go and see the painting of Rembrandt’s Nightwatchmen? We know that there are some paintings that will never be loaned out to overseas galleries. So if they can’t come to us we have to go to them. Hence the pilgrimage that millions are prepared to make in order to see the greatest paintings artists have ever produced. This is in my view a modern day pilgrimage, it carries with it a similar sense of awe and reverence for so many people that once did a reliquary carried for the medieval Pilgrim. As pilgrims we travel at great cost and make great effort to stand before something that takes us beyond ourselves. When Karen and I went there to the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam the place was absolute crowded around the painting. This was the same when we went to the Louvre to see the Mona Lisa. People from all around the world were gathered, people of different languages, different races and different religions gathered around a single image in deep admiration and awe. It spoke to us, drawing on a universal language. A picture can indeed paint a thousand words.

This past week many, many people have been deeply moved and horrified by another image: two women on the top deck of a London bus, recently spilt blood all over their tops. One is looking as if she’s in pain with her head turned away from the camera. The other stares beyond the lens, her eyes conveying that she is completely dazed by the attack. All that they were doing was sitting on the double-decker bus in London in 2019. Their attackers tormented them; they had urged the two women to kiss for their sadistically voyeuristic sideshow. And when the two women refused to do so they attacked them viciously. This is an image that should change a nation. You don’t need words to convey the horror and righteous anger.

Just as the image of the little Vietnamese girl running naked along the road following a napalm attack steeled the anti-Vietnam war protests, so this should move even the most indifferent to the plights of our sisters, brothers and friends in the LGBTQI community. You don’t need words to convey sorrow.

Sorrow is an international language. So too is love. You don’t need words to convey love just as you don’t need words to convey sorrow. It crosses boundaries. It crosses all sorts of human made barriers. The Methodist Conference in a few weeks’ time is to bring a report on marriage and relationships. It is called God in love unites us.

There is no place in this world for homophobia. So why some in the Church should give fuel to it by false and outdated doctrines that draw on selective texts whilst missing the bigger picture is beyond me. It is time for us to move forward.

It is time for us to embrace all people of every race, every religion, every ethnicity and every sexuality knowing that all are the children of God, loved by God, welcomed by God and if we can’t do the same then we have turned against the goodness of God.

Brexit has unleashed a multitude of hatreds – prejudices once frowned upon are now being normalised, be they xenophobia, antisemitism, islamophobia or homophobia. Hate crime, such as the attack on the innocent two women on a night out in London last week is rising rapidly. If Brexit is our Babel, dividing and disfiguring our nation, then we need a new Pentecost where the universal language of love is spoken and heard by all people.

Telly Savalas was right: a picture could paint a thousand words but remains inadequate because it still couldn’t convey the true love that he had. Love demands action. And after all is said and done actions speak louder than words. ‘I may speak in tongues of men or of angels but if I have not love then I am nothing.’

And a verse to conclude:

‘What language shall I borrow

to praise thee dearest friend

For this thy dying sorrow

Thy pity without end?’


Paul Gerhardt 1607 – 76