It is understandable that we should think the world to be in a mess.

Of this there can be no doubt.

The events in Manchester on Monday night were a reminder, if ever we needed one, of the evil that stalks our world.

Add to that one of the most destructive wars since the Second World War being played out in Syria and visible on our screens week after week, year after year.

The largest movement, again, since the Second World War of people across the globe.

Refugees from battle zones, economic migrants fleeing abject poverty, famine and drought.

In our own islands there are moves towards the break-up of a Union that had once ruled the seas.

Policies that were once deemed to be far right are now accepted as mainstream.

And a third national poll in 25 months; we have lost our direction; we are not sure where to go let alone how to get there.

And what can the Church do?

It seems as if we are as impotent as Cnut in holding back the tide.

No one seems to listen, even when we may have something to say that’s worth saying.

If we cannot accept that the demise of the Western Church is imminent then at least we should acknowledge that it is in a serious, perilous state.

Respect, tolerance, courtesy, grace were all part of a moral compass that now appears to be difficult to find.

Shame too is a thing of the past.

Barefaced liars in public office, the disparaging of historical fact, a reluctance to hear opinions that differ to one’s own limited perceptions, and a Church so wrapped up in arguments about sex that it can’t speak to a rising generation.

Like the woman at the well we have given ourselves to those that can never meet our expectations.

We are left scurrying around in places already vacated by the rest of our generation.

We are alone at the well, wondering how deep the bucket will have to go.

Yet hope remains. Of this we should have no doubt neither.

We still hope to encounter the one who will satisfy us.

We still hope to answer all our questions.

We still hope to have something of value to tell our community.

And all these things may yet come into being.

But for them to do so a change of perception is necessary.

It’s not on this mountain or that mountain that we will find the salvation we long for. Not in this temple or that temple.

Not as we have always supposed but in a wholly new way will we find the truth.

Today we have a myriad of choices in almost everything.

From a ridiculous array of breakfast cereals on the supermarket shelf to information on the internet. We are awash with choice.

We have no idea where to look in order to find true, everlasting fulfilment. Is it here or there? With this one or that?

There will come a time, Jesus says, when you will not need the temples you build – for you will find the One you long for elsewhere – and you will do so through being in spirit and truth.

The end point is not where we expected.

David Jenkins once wrote that

‘Our humane mission now – as Christians and as faithful believers in God – is not primarily to convert but to share; not to conflict but to collaborate. We are not called to write off our neighbours but to seek to understand and to contribute some shareable insights into our mission, our hopes and our enjoyments.’[i]

The time has come to not convert but to share.

Only the arrogant close their ears to the possibility of insight emanating from the stranger in our midst.

Only the humble will hear the truths that God discloses through those whom we would not normally pass time of day.

Only the confident in faith will allow the faith of another to inform, enlighten and add to their own.

On Monday evening Manchester witnessed the worst and the best of human deeds.

From the one with evil on his mind and cruel intent to the emergency service personnel who rushed to the scene in selfless duty to protect and tend to the wounded; they could not have been sure that they didn’t have another Bataclan in their city with gunmen awaiting their arrival yet they went about their duty with great professionalism.

On Monday we witnessed the worst and the best of human deeds. From those who took to twitter and Facebook to spill out their vile hatred to those taxi drivers of every faith who ferried the stranded to safe destinations free of charge.

Today we might yet witness to the greater good. A good that unequivocally states that all life is precious. That states every human being is a child of God, whatever culture or creed in which they have been raised. That states we will not allow prejudice to infiltrate our way of behaving or speaking.

Today we might yet witness to the greater good.

Today we might encounter the stranger at a place where he or she seeks refreshment and find that we too have our thirst quenched.

Today there has never been a greater need for dialogue, development of understanding and appreciation of difference.

The woman asked Jesus where they were to worship, on this mountain, or that mountain; in this temple or that temple.

Jesus responds with a comment that resounds down the ages and comes to us this very night.

You will worship in spirit and in truth.

May we be sure that our minds are filled with good intention and our hearts with love so that the spirit and truth may be our guide and our legacy.


[1] Jenkins, David, The Calling of a Cuckoo: Not Quite an Autobiography (London and New York Continuum, 2001), p.175




Only those with evil minds and cruel intent would not condemn unreservedly the abhorrent attack in Manchester last night.

This is not a time for either platitudes or hate-filled rhetoric and posts, it is a time for silence and grief; it is a time for action for actions speak louder than words.

There will also be a time for judgment. While the Christian Gospel speaks of loving our enemies and praying for those who persecute us, it also speaks of judgment, in this regard there is special mention of those that bring harm to little ones. So there will come a time for those behind the outrage to be brought to justice.

I know of no person of truth faith who would not condemn the taking of innocent life. There will be those who will seek to divide us further by nurturing the understandable anger that we feel. We must not let them. Their prejudice fuels the terrorist and the terrorist fuels their hatred.

We must channel our energies into extending a hand of friendship to the stranger in our midst, to build better relations across the communities.

We have been heartened by the stories of people opening up homes to the stranded overnight, of taxi drivers (no doubt of all faiths) ferrying people away from the scene free of charge. There will be countless stories that may never be told, of heroism and compassion.

May our story be one of openness to difference of culture and creed, may our story be of humility and grace.

In my more relaxed moments I consider models of ministry from outside the church.

I sometimes think of the Church as a circus and I am one of the performers.

When all is going well I might consider the role of ring master, a sort of compere, acting as the one who steps in between acts to keep the show on the road.

Occasionally I feel as if I am walking a tightrope with the audience waiting for me to lose my balance.

At a difficult Church Council I might consider the role of lion tamer.

Sometimes I feel as if I am the clown – trying to put on a brave face when behind the mask all I want to do is cry.

And then there are other models that come from faiths different to my own.

Through my close contact with rabbis I have come to see the importance of teaching, of opening up scripture no matter how difficult or obscure the text.

When I worked with Kosovan Albanian refugees 20 years ago the local Muslim community were an important part of the support network. I started getting telephone calls from members of that community about all sorts of things, including a teenage boy whose mother had told him to ring me because he wanted to find a local football team to play for. I came to discover that in some Islamic cultures the imam is the one to whom members of the community turn if they need something to be fixed, or a contact to be made. The imam is the one who knows a man who can.

And there is one more model that I have more recently come to reflect upon, that is the guru.

Now if I were to advise Methodist ministers to become gurus I guess we would have an interesting reaction.

Today we use the term in all sorts of ways.

There might be a career guru – an expert who offers advice on career paths.

There might be a health guru – an expert in wellbeing.

Of course we are more likely to think of the Guru as an enlightened being.

The thought of being an enlightened being as a model of ministry might turn us off.

But I have discovered that the term is made up of two words from an ancient Asian language.  Gu and ru. Gu means dark, ru means light.

A guru is one who takes a journey from darkness to light; and who guides others on this journey of transformation.

I don’t think that’s a bad model for ministry; and it’s one we can all adopt as we sit with those whose past diminishes their present or with those who fear the future.

As we minister to one another, as we ponder what may be done with what is left of what was once attractive, thriving and glorious we can take the journey from dark to light, from night to dawn, from despair to hope, from death even to life.

In recent weeks a number of people have asked me about the future of the church. The future is playing on people’s minds.

In some cases I have nearly been in tears as those who have given their life to their local church lament the burden of maintaining the premises. They desperately try different things to attract others to what they feel is an absolutely vital aspect of their life. Then they are unable to understand the reluctance or even indifference of their neighbours.

The fear of closure and death is very real; not just the existential fact but of society too and the church’s role within it.

In our lifetime we are experiencing changes that previously would have taken generations to evolve.

At a time when we have better communications at our disposal, loneliness is as great as it has ever been.

At a time when we can see before our eyes the consequences of hostility we threaten war on an unprecedented scale.

At a time when we witness at first hand the stories of survivors we somehow grow deaf to their cries.

If we were to sit back and either fall for prejudice or to allow it to fester we would be failing our calling.

Or if we offer a lazy rejection to challenge and the possibility of change by claiming to draw on traditional belief this would be no way to live out the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

The journey from darkness to light includes showing interest in the one who is different.

The journey includes revisiting our beliefs and practices.

The journey includes providing hospitality to the stranger fleeing their home.

The journey includes ending the madness of inequality.

To take this journey will to us appear to be a small act of kindness, generosity or resistance on our part.  But to take the journey together, joining hands with those whom we have never travelled before, will change for the better not only us as individuals but our communities and world.

Yes we need to be gurus alright.

We need to take the journey.

And this is the supreme model of ministry found in Jesus.




Rowan Williams identified three other models, three metaphors for the ordained.  For him a minister may be a watchman, a weaver or a witness.

A watchman is one who stands on the city wall, looking out for those who are approaching. Those approaching may be friend or foe, ally or enemy, come in need or come to attack. The job of the watchman is to spot them and alert the community. That is a model I can live with. To keep abreast of the issues of our day. To spend time reading and watching, to note where we are being led.

A real concern for me is psychometric profiling. The way in which social media, especially Facebook, is able to identify our interests and concerns, select material to which they expose us and bend us to vote even in a particular way. This method was used extensively by the Trump campaign and it is becoming increasingly likely that it was used in the referendum last year.

It is our duty as ministers today, as it was for our predecessors, to act as a warning to those we seek to serve. It is not always a comfortable place to be, standing on a wall, looking out and passing on news of what we have seen, it can be cold, it can be lonely and it is easy for people to throw stones at us, but it has to be done.

The second model is that of weaver.

The weaver draws together different strands which in themselves are not that interesting. But the one who can take the threads and turn them into a beautiful rug is one that fulfils the call of God to serve a community.

Watchman, weaver.

The third model Rowan Williams offers us is that of witness.

How we appear to those about us sets in their imagination what it is to be a disciple of Jesus, how the Church is in this age of searching and multiple choice.

I regret that I have not always been a good witness for the church. The things I have said and done in public have not always been to the standard I would expect of a disciple. But in my frailty and vulnerability I would hope that others see a weak human being called by God and in that weakness God offers hope to them, those who are equally fragile.

Watchman, weaver, witness.

At one time or another we will have explored models of ministry.

We will be familiar with the terms prophet, pastor and priest.  Each model has served the church well over millennia.  Some are called to be prophets, others pastors and some priests.

We have all known ministers who were great preachers but lousy visitors;  or those whose insufferable sermons have been tolerated because their visits were an absolute delight.  We rarely, if ever get, someone who is wonderful at all they do; I take some comfort from this fact.

Methodism has traditionally placed great stress on the preaching aspect of its presbyters. This falls into the category of the prophetic model.

It was once said that the only newspaper people would access was through the Sunday sermon. That fell away some years ago as tabloids became available.  Then it was claimed that the sermon became the only Bible some would access.

The responsibility on preachers has always weighed heavy.  Today , as always, but as never before, we are called to discern the truth amidst the fake news, the conspiracy theories, the psychometric targeting of voters through social media.

The significance of the prophetic side of ministry has never diminished, neither has the pastoral. Indeed the pastoral aspect informs the preacher, keeps the preacher alert to need, to where the issues are.

Killinger in his book ‘The Fundamentals of Christian Preaching’ wrote ‘The preacher who is pastor is a preacher indeed.’

In Methodism we have focussed on the prophetic and the pastoral, less so on priesthood.  Yet priesthood is there.

The presidency at the Eucharist is one such visible expression of the one called to be priest.  And it is also present in our relationships.

Like it or not, our ordained ministers are expected to act differently. The ordained are meant to be holy, to be devotional and to discern the will of God in a given situation.  Please never come and observe me watching an England rugby international, especially against Wales – it would shatter what little respect I have left!

We will shy away from priesthood, we will underplay it, but it is there and not always beneath the surface neither.

Prophet, pastor, priest.

We are accustomed to thinking that the Hebrews fled Egypt and arrived in the Promised Land after 40 years in the wilderness. It is more likely that 40 years is simply a metaphor for a lifetime as 40 represents a great number of years. It may even mean a lifetime. Three score years and ten was as long as anyone could expect to live, but the average life expectancy was probably around the two score years mark ie 40. So people were born, grew up, were married and died in the wilderness, they knew nothing else.

It is also possible that settlement in Canaan or the surrounding territories was a hit and miss affair. There may have been some settlement, then expulsion followed by another period of wandering until eventually the land was conquered or settlement was more permanent. Some scholars believe that there was no single period of time from flight from Egypt to arrival in Canaan on a permanent basis.

A number of Psalms and other writings refer to the time in the wilderness. Ps 78.19 speaks of a table being prepared in the wilderness (ie the table is in the future). Ps 23.5 tells us that the table is already spread out before the people.

Whatever the historical accuracy, the Psalms notes the experience of the slave and refugee. God has a heart for those held captive to economic oppression and for those who flee from it or are expelled from a place they had called home. In the time between flight and arrival God is the one who guides, comforts and provides for the one in transit.

And the promise is fulfilled for the table in which the people hoped for in Psalm 78 is now set before them in Psalm 23.

We can bear all this in mind over the next month as politicians vie for our votes in the coming Gen Election and how those fleeing economic oppression, religious persecution and warfare are lumped together as ‘swarms of migrants’, to quote the former PM, or, as others might have it, foreigners taking our jobs, filling our A&E waiting rooms and taking up our school places.

Last month I had the privilege of coordinating a Faiths Festival in Lincoln which brought all the faiths across the city together in exhibitions, coach trips and the sharing of food.

One of the exhibitions was from Touchstone Bradford. A Methodist inter faith project that works with Muslim women and produced amazing rugs that tell the story of their weavers. One particular rug caught my eye. It was produced by refugee women. On the one side was a mass of yellow and a barren tree representing the desert from which they had fled. In the middle was a mass of blue representing the sea across which they had travelled with oval shapes for boats complete with tiny buttons; one for each of the women making the rug. To the other side was a tree in a meadow – the Promised Land – Bradford.

We can hear all of this; we can even be moved by it.  But what does this table that was promised now spread before us say to us in the here and now? What was it that we had hoped for and is now right before our eyes? Do we see what it is? Do we know to what it refers?

It will differ of course from one person to the next; what is hopeful for one may be something already enjoyed by others:

  • Maybe a family that is ‘normal’; a parent that takes note of achievements; where the threat of violence is not present.
  • Maybe a sense of purpose where it’s good to wake in a morning and know that the day will be a fulfilling one.
  • Maybe anything taken for granted yet denied someone else.

Yet those who hoped for something that has now come into being, when it is a righteous hope, is a true miracle of God.

For the Hebrews that were slaves – freedom.

For those travelling through the wilderness hungry and thirsty – a banquet spread before them.

For those longing for a homeland – a secure nation where their child can grow up without fear of persecution and pogrom.

For 2000 years Jews, descendants of those Hebrews, longed to return to their ancestral lands, to the city where their Temple stood, to the holiest place on Earth.

Last Monday and Tuesday Jews around the World celebrated Israel Independence Day – in their eyes a true miracle of God.

For us we might look about us and consider where God spreads his table for us to enjoy the feast, where we might find God’s miracle.

Where we have somehow been travelling through a long dark night of sorrow and grief and woken to a new dawn where we can smell the newly-mown grass and hear the birds singing of their utter joy in life.

Where we have struggled to make sense of something only for the penny to drop at last.

Where we have felt unloved, unwanted and uncared for and then to feel the elation of being cherished for who we are and not what we thought we would have to become.

This is the table to which we are invited.

This is the table spread before us – a promise fulfilled – and it is one of welcome; it is one that is open to all; it is one of plenty.

Almost 20 years ago I was blessed with the opportunity of serving serve Kosova Albanian refugees fleeing the Serb onslaught in Kosova. 65 strangers became my neighbours and friends over a three year period before I was moved elsewhere in the country.

One story illustrates the openness and generosity of those one providing the table before us. Mrs L spoke through her son Amir acting as her interpreter. Amir told me that his mom wanted to invite me to a meal in their rooms. I replied that I would be delighted to accept and that when I had my diary we could arrange a mutually convenient date. Amir sheepishly translated for his mom my response. She looked concerned and said something quietly. Amir was reluctant to tell me what she had said. Eventually I got it out of him. Mrs L had said – ‘what sort of country is this that you can’t knock on your neighbour’s door and expect to be fed.’

Mrs L taught me a valuable lesson.  We can knock on God’s door at any time; we never have to arrange a mutually convenient time to call on God. The provision is such that all our righteous hopes are realised and indeed already present for us to partake.

So we nurture our righteous hopes – for here at this table God will meets our every need, quenches every thirst, satiates every hunger and turns our longing for the promise into reality.

Nightmares are always disturbing. Like dreams, they can often tell us something about what is going on in our world, about what is occupying our thoughts or even about our subconscious.

I am given to vivid dreams and on occasion, though thankfully an increasing rarity, an all-consuming nightmare. This morning I have woken from sleep with what seemed to be a lengthy episode. As a youngster I played a lot of football and quite fancied myself, as many a player who pulls on their boots do.

In my sleeping hours I arrived for the game and changed into my kit. The only problem being that I was the age that I am now, 57, but all the other players were young men as the team appeared to be an under 18’s side. (I stopped taking football seriously when at 18 I realised that I was never going to get signed by a professional club).

The game got underway but I was left on the touchline as a substitute. Even when one of our players was injured the manager kept me off the pitch. My frustration grew. Neither side looked like scoring. At half-time I expected to be called on and warmed up accordingly, but I wasn’t. The second half descended into a slog with the pitch turning into a mud bath with occasional fights breaking out amongst the two sides. At one point I walked onto the pitch and told four players to cut it out, which amazingly they did; at least being 57 carried some authority even if not sufficient trust to get me onto the pitch and make a difference.

With minutes to spare the opposition scored. I felt despondent. It became clear to me that even then I was not going to be sent out from the touchline to save the day with a late goal. So I left the pitch and sought to collect my bag and clothes from the dressing room, but they had been stolen.  And so I awoke.

All this the night after I felt that I had been discriminated against in a shop because I was wearing a clerical shirt. Over the course of 30 years ministry I have grown accustomed to being treated differently on account of my dog collar. Maybe I have become cushioned a little to the more nuanced reactions; maybe as I have got older it is less of an odd thing to see a minister in their 6th rather than their 3rd decade as was once the case. But there have been three occasions in the past 18 months where someone has sought to verbally attack me because of my faith, evident by the clothing I wear. On one of those occasions the abuser was served a Police Information Notice which meant that they can no longer approach me.

Hurtful and worrying though these incidents were, they are nothing of course to the hostility many of our friends who happen to be Jewish or Muslim are facing. At a recent exhibition in the city where I live a bottle was thrown at a woman in hijab and on numerous occasions she and her friends were told that they ‘are not wanted here’ and ‘should go home’.

With armed guards at synagogues and Jewish schools and increasing hostility toward Muslims my own experiences were minor compared to what my neighbours have to face. Looking beyond these islands I am also aware of the extraordinary level of hatred and violence people are facing because of their faith. I therefore must not exaggerate the discrimination I face and make of it more than it is.

However, I believe the main thrust of my nightmare was that I am losing influence. The Church today is more on the side-lines of society than once was the case. The ‘game out there’ is descending into chaos as the rules that once kept some control become less respected. And all I can do is make a brief and rare intervention that might bring some sense to the occasion.

What can we do in such a time? How can the Church respond? Is it enough to suggest we pray and plod on, a sort of limbering up on the touchline? Will there come a point when we get called onto the pitch to play a fuller part again? Is there still time with what is left before the final whistle to make a difference?

We clearly have to redouble our efforts and better understand how the game has changed, not just the tactics but the rules too. Even the offside rule is different to what it was. Indeed one could argue that the tactics have had to be adapted as a consequence of the game’s philosophy. Maybe it’s time to recognise that how we played 40 years ago is no longer appropriate and effective today.

At the heart of all of this then is a need to understand how the world is thinking today and realise that it thinks differently to the way it did a generation, let alone two or three generations, ago.

The Church has not kept pace with the changes. It’s not that it hasn’t tried, it’s just that game-plan has been tried and found wonting. Others have been promoted while we have been relegated. There are a lot of potential fans out there looking for someone to follow; the issue is whether we can offer them something that fires their enthusiasm and causes them to believe.