A Lament for Sri Lanka

23 April 2019


A Lament for Sri Lanka

Claim neither pride nor personal cost

for the prayer offered far from the unknown slain.

Hearts that beat uninterrupted

beat not with those so suddenly stopped

mid psalm and tortured pain.

Tears that streak across our cheeks

or even fall to ground

reach not shattered glass bloodstained,

nor indeed gather at hospital bed hastily arranged;

for silence there was the only sound

with lifeless limbs quietly crying in vain.


The Gloria and alleluias of our songs, sing not of Jubilate,

and cannot work their once claimed magic,

not when paralysed prayers of prostrate pilgrim

reach beyond anything we could ever imagine.

Our eloquent sermons and compassionate posts,

form endless fantasies of shameless affinity,

but quench not the thirst,

nor satisfy any hunger

of orphaned child and widowed intercessor.


Not even well-meant words convey,

with sufficient believability,

the plainchant of silenced tongue

and perplexed stare of mystery.

They spew out and fall,

on soon-to-be deafened ears


until, with all

an echoing cry goes out:


Why must this song be sung again?

And again and again and again?

Why did their morning of resurrection

end in sorrowful mourning of dejection?

Why was the unlocked door

through which our Saviour strode

be open at all times too

to one bent on evil intent?

Within that fragmentary moment of light

doubt not that waiting in those wings

is a carefully disguised design

of well-crafted darkness

and for certain vile grime.

Place not then your finger in frail flesh side

but consider those, all those,

from which the soul departed in time.

And doubt no more,

doubt not that hurt is without some gain.

Nor dare you doubt anymore that precious sanctified stigmata,

yes in unsearched-for sacrifice, for certain,

but in earthly dust, this gathering dust

we find One of a pure and heavenly Divine.



The Transforming Word

15 April 2019

Opening sentences are important:

  • they can capture the imagination
  • or set the scene for that which is to follow
  • or they can be a real turn off.

My opening words to Karen on a circuit youth Weekend at Barnes Close in February 1981 was not the best chat up line in history, but I managed to rescue it and make amends.

There are some wonderfully captivating opening lines in literature:

My favourite has to be from L.P. Hartley’s The Go Between: “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”

Or how about this? “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” J. R. R. Tolkien, The Hobbit.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” Charles Dickens of course, A Tale of Two Cities.

I love the whole sentence “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”

Wow! How about that for a commentary on the present state of our nation and society?

 Then there is arguably the best known opening sentence in any of the New Testament books – John’s account of the Gospel: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Not only is it captivating but it is packed with meaning and sets the scene for all that is to follow. Just a few verses later is the following:

“And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”

This notion, this deeply significant theological insight, I would argue, carries right through the Gospel account to the very closing episodes: the Word had become flesh so that flesh might proclaim the Word.

The Word had become flesh so that flesh, yours and mine, might proclaim the Word.

The incredulity of those who knew Jesus best must have been utterly indescribable.

There is a misconception that the witness of the women was the root cause of the disbelief on the part of the male disciples. Jewish scholars tend to dismiss such a suggestion. They argue that if a close friend, executed before their eyes, could somehow have appeared after death and spoken to those who first arrived at the burial place it would surely have been sufficiently mind blowing for an enormous level of doubt and disbelief to ensue. Whoever first conveyed the news would have been viewed as suspect or delusional, whether they be male or female.

So who can blame the disciples for their reaction?

When we receive news that challenges all our preconceptions we can do one of a number of things, including:

  • Ignore it and shrink back into our little world.
  • Dismiss it vehemently with a counter claim.
  • Or investigate further.

The Gospel accounts tell us the latter approach, investigating further, tended to be the option chosen by the first believers.

And that investigation led to surprising results.

  • Dashing to the tomb and finding it to be indeed empty.
  • Walking along a road a familiar voice opens up that which they had been overlooking.
  • Meeting together in a well-used room where the wounds were on full display.
  • Going about their daily business the teacher somehow draws near and together they share in a conversation over food.

Speaking personally, the more I investigate the revelation received by those of a different perspective, culture and story to my own the more I am enlightened by their experiences.

Most of us have found this to be so through the ecumenism of recent decades. We have come to see that Anglicans and Catholics are not as bad as our spiritual forbears claimed, not always! Indeed their practices and insights have taught us much and contributed to our own practices. And today, those of us who interact with believers in a faith other than our own discover we still have much to learn. When I first heard and read of those who made such claims I was incredulous. It was as if they had come rushing back from the encounter with surprising news, news that I couldn’t wholly accept as true. I could have ignored that news, or challenged it with unfounded prejudice or investigated it further. I chose the latter and I’m glad I did.

I am glad that I have engaged with those who have a different story to tell. I didn’t quite run to the tomb, it has been three decades of encounter, engagement and enrichment. But I have now come to believe that just as no single denomination has a monopoly on Jesus, so no single religion has a monopoly on God. Each has their own theology of God for sure, but there is, after all, only one God. Nevertheless I still believe that God speaks uniquely through events in first century Judea and Galilee and that these events are as incomprehensible as they are undeniable. 

My own conviction is that the resurrection is an endorsement, an endorsement of the fact that despair and darkness are overcome by hope and light, and an endorsement of the fact that even death does not have the last word.

The words of the Galilean Jesus and the last words of the resurrected Christ inspired the words of those closest to him: those who would go to the ends of the known world to spread the news; those who would write letters that would convey the developing understanding of the new movement; those who, like the one they followed, spoke of forgiveness and life as their death approached.

From letter writers to song writers, from poets to preachers, well-chosen words have conveyed the Eternal Word and still do to this day:

  • the hymn that lifts the soul,
  • the sermon that speaks of grace,
  • the conversation that enriches our lives.

All these methods of communication are valid in the conveying of the Gospel’s everlasting truth.

Yet we also know how words have been used to diminish and destroy:

  • those who have an axe to grind,
  • or a limited and naïve political perspective,
  • or a cause without historical context are prone to speak in ways that divide, disfigure and destroy.

The propagandists who believe in their own self-righteousness are an inherent danger to truth. From Goebbels to online trolls, from political extremists to religious fundamentalists, humanity has often faced a barrage of lies.

But perhaps there has never been a greater threat to truth than today:

  • facts are dismissed,
  • historical and scientific investigation scoffed at
  • and the old prejudices have risen to the surface in an explosion of hate, much of it masked in a quest for justice, the promotion of human rights and the overcoming of perceived wrongs. 

It is said that whoever holds the story holds the power.

The story we, as Christians, convey has to be evidence-based, tried and tested over time, one that stands up to any level of scrutiny and above all one that impacts upon our lives, community and world in as positive way as any other.

Those who first heard the news of resurrection may have been incredulous but it is clear that additional encounters and their own personal experiences would prove the claims to be true. The tomb was empty, how, God alone knows. But the impact is plainly undeniable.

  • The flesh that walked the Galilean hillsides is now the Word that invites disciples to the shoreline.
  • The flesh that stilled a storm is now the Word that reassures a doubting brother.
  • The flesh that ate a Passover meal is now the Word that chats over breakfast.
  • The flesh that turned tables is now the Word that unpacks scripture along the road.
  • The flesh that appeared in what was for anyone other than a member of the Jewish community a pretty insignificant place is now the one who draws near to us, here and now, as the Word that speaks through the bread and wine of sacrifice, forgiveness, renewal and meaningful purpose.

The Word did indeed become flesh so that flesh, even our flesh may convey the Word.


13 April 2019

Easter Poem Image

I want to begin by considering the importance of context and culture before moving on to the context and culture of the Letter to the Colossians.

But firstly a story. It’s a familiar story but, like all good stories, it bears repeating.

It was a cold winter’s night. The monks were gathering in the abbey church for evening prayer. A cat crept in. It made its way to where the Abbot was sitting and curled up by the leg of his chair. The next night it did the same. And even when the weather picked up, and the sun remained high in the sky, the cat still marched into the abbey church and took its place next to the Abbot’s chair. After a year or so the cat was found dead by the monastery gate. The monks were saddened by the loss of their little feline brother. So they decided to find another cat who could be trained to sit next to the Abbot’s chair during evening prayer. Of course, it had to be the same colour as his predecessor, otherwise it simply would not do. After quite a search in the neighbouring villages the monks found just what they were looking for and later that day the cat was ceremoniously presented to the Abbot at the beginning of evening prayer. But as soon as the new cat was put on the floor it ran out of the abbey church. The following morning it was found and caught. In the evening the cat was again brought into the abbey church for prayer. However the monks were not going to have a repeat of the previous night’s mishap so the cat was tied to the leg of the Abbot’s chair. This is how each evening prayer began: the cat ceremoniously brought into the abbey church and tied to the Abbot’s chair. After the Abbot died the tradition continued. By the time several abbots and several cats had died and been replaced by new abbots and new cats a whole liturgy had grown up around the presenting and tying up of the cat to the Abbot’s chair. Indeed centuries later learned treatises were written by scholars of that particular religious order on the theological and liturgical significance of tying up a cat during a time of worship. Heated debates ensued on whether the cat should be black, white, tabby or ginger and indeed, as a consequence, some breakaway orders were formed.

This is my extended version of Anthony de Mello’s story The Guru’s Cat found in his book The Song of the Bird.

The title of this paper is Context & Culture.

We are going to take a brief look at the importance of context and culture before we reflect on the context and culture in the church to which the Letter to the Colossians was sent.

Context is important. Hugely important. And I trust that no one would disagree. Yet so much misunderstanding has arisen as a consequence of those failing to take into account the context of a written document. Much hurt, even, has been inflicted on others by those who, for whatever reason, have chosen to either ignore or remain ignorant of the circumstances in which the writer composed their sentences. This is so for any form of communication of course, not least on social media.

I recently upset someone on Facebook by posting the picture of a cat asleep on the stairs at Launde Abbey. My caption went something like this:

Last night whilst on retreat at Launde Abbey I put the cat out. This morning I found her in exactly the same place from which she had been ejected. When I recounted the story to other colleagues at breakfast I discovered that several others had done the same.

This seemed quite innocent to me, but it caused great consternation for a Facebook friend who saw the post two days later. By then the weather had taken a turn for the worse and the temperature had dropped considerably.

‘How could I be so cruel?’ she asked. ‘You wouldn’t put your dog out in the snow!’ My Facebook friend even said she was ‘very disappointed’ in me, which was cutting and very hard for me to take.

I had to point out that:

  1. the weather had been mild the night we put the cat out
  2. the cat was in the accommodation block where signs had been put up stating that visitors should not leave ground floor windows open lest the cat gets in
  3. there were plenty of other places where the cat could take refuge at night.

My Facebook friend apologised and we are now liking each other’s posts again. Memo to self: as a dog lover never put pictures of cats on my Facebook. But who knows, after telling this story and the story of the Abbey cat being tied to the abbot’s chair I may not get out of here alive.

Appreciating the context is vital if we are to understand, as well as we can, what is being written or said. The same of course is true of scripture, be it prophetic, liturgical, instruction, letter or purportedly historical account. If we are to properly understand the message we need to consider the context in which the messenger was writing. It’s ironic that on occasion preachers have pointed the finger at those who raised stones against the woman caught in adultery, yet overlooked the fact that the followers of Jesus have ever since been casting the stones. It is equally ironic that we have shaken our heads about the night of the resurrection when the disciples were behind locked doors for fear of the Jews, when the truth is that the disciples were themselves Jews, and that for centuries it’s the Jews who have been behind locked doors for fear of the Christians. Or indeed, that we have nodded at Jesus speaking of those who say their prayers in such a way as to attract attention to themselves, or prefer to be on show at worship, or in the market place wear their finest. Yes: I am guilty as charged I’m afraid. Both to all these examples and many more and indeed for not taking the context seriously enough to do a decent job of presenting the grace and truth of God that calls us into love and respect for all people.

How many times now have we in theological or ethical discussion been frustrated by those who simply respond, or should I say simplistically respond, ‘scripture says’ without any consideration for context or indeed contradiction elsewhere in scripture. Those who draw on scripture alone to back up their own argument, or even prejudice, are simply not taking the Bible seriously. People have been excommunicated and executed by those who have not been able to appreciate the context of scripture. Today’s equivalent of being sent to the stake may only be ridicule and a cold shoulder; nowhere near as devastating of course but forming an exclusive church based on a false premise is still pretty destructive nonetheless. Whereas those who consider the context of scripture are taking it seriously; they are closer to the true essence of the Divine will and indeed more likely to therefore build the inclusive community that I believe was envisaged by Jesus.

So context is important. Now what of culture?

Well, there can be no denying the part played by culture on how a group expresses itself. As a youngster standing on the terraces of Highfield Road, the home of Coventry City Football Club, the chants were very different to the ones you might hear today. They were in tune, if that’s an accurate term to use for thousands of fans worse for wear after a few hours in the pub, the chants were in tune with, or reflected, that’s better, reflected the music of their time. ‘Come on without, come on within, you’ll not see nothing like the Sky Blues win.’ (To the tune ‘Mighty Quinn’ by Manfred Man). No, they don’t chant today like they did in the 60’s! The use of rattles that had been chosen by air raid wardens twenty years previously was such fun. Dangerous when catching the ear of a fan next to you – but such fun, and very, very loud!

And what about tying scarves to your wrist in the mid-seventies? What on earth was that about? I wasn’t even a Bay City Rollers fan – I left that to the girls in class, three of whom were carried out of a concert in Stoke-on-Trent when they fell into hysteria at the sight of lead singer Les McKeown.

Clearly the cultural environment plays a significant part in how a group expresses itself. The language it adopts, the vocabulary, the accent, the sentiments, the behavioural patterns, its ethics and fundamental beliefs are all influenced by what is going on externally around the group.

If it were possible to find identical twins with identical characters or personality preference types and raise them in two different households, one where each day only the Daily Mail is delivered and the other where only the Guardian is delivered, without any reference to other news outlets you would probably end up with two very different voting intentions. Such is the power of the media. And boy are we seeing its effect on the world today.

Capitalists and Communists, Leavers and Remainers, the far left and the far right, come about because of a complex range of contributory factors, not least the culture in which each is set. They also formulate belief structures, adopt strategies and convey their own perceived truths in such ways that set them apart, which then gives them identity and purpose.

It is difficult to believe that Christianity is a single religion when we look across our world and see such an array of expressions. The Church is far from one in its identity:

  • The base community in a Brazilian favela studying Luke 4.
  • The Russian Orthodox baptismal celebration with the child literally dunked, heavily, into a pool of water three times.
  • The St Thomas Christian Eucharist on the western coast of India which owes more than many gave credit for to the Jewish Passover celebrated by Jesus and his disciples.
  • The Nigerian church mourning its lost children to Boku Haram.
  • The televangelist urging donations for the forthcoming mission.
  • The midlands chapel where there seems to be more of the past than can possibly be hoped for in the future.

Each one, one would hope, speaks of and to its neighbourhood. But as representations of a single religion, the Church of Jesus Christ, one might conclude that they were not related. It would certainly take a lot to convince an alien visitor from a far off planet that they ‘speak the same and cordially agree’!

So let us turn to the context and to the culture of the church that was to receive the Letter to the Colossians.

Hopefully we will now see that it is neither wise nor appropriate to lift a sentence from the page and preach on it without a decent attempt at studying what was going on at the time: to consider what was happening not just in the community itself but across the wider region too. What were the socio-political dynamics? How was the community made up? What trades were prevalent? Were there any environmental factors at play? What were the belief systems to which the recipients were exposed?

A whole range of considerations must be taken into account if we are to get to grips with the context and culture of any historical document, and the Christian scriptures should not be drawn upon without such scrutiny.

A typical understanding of the New Testament world is one of religious conflict: Christians versus Jews, Christians versus Pagans, Gentile Christians versus Jewish Christians. It is somewhat more complicated than this. And the letter to the Colossians is an example of this complexity. In this second half of my presentation we are going to explore the geography, the socio-political world and the beliefs of the Colossian community.

Let us begin by taking a look at the place to which the letter was first intended. For much of this particular section I rely on the commentary by Marcus Barth and Helmut Blanke. They tell us that Colossae was a city, or more likely a town, ‘125 miles east of the Aegean Sea and 90 miles north of the Mediterranean coast in the central highlands of Asia Minor, around 800 feet above sea level. It was exposed to grim winters, lovely springs, and hot summers. Its central section, including a theatre of modest size and an acropolis of less than majestic dimensions, lay south of the river Lycus. The tributary of the Maeander rushes into and through a gorge near ancient Colossae. The Lycus Valley is dominated on its north-eastern side by the mountain Salbacus, and in the south-west by the snow-capped Cadmos. Precipices, partly covered with gleaming white travertine, form walls on both sides of the valley.’[1] The writers go on to tell us that the crops were primarily figs and olives and that sheep farming was a significant feature in the community, many of the sheep being raven-black in colour. ‘Colossian’ was the trade name of a then world famous purple-red dyed wool. The city was on a trade route linking the Eurphrates through Syria to the cities on the Aegean. But by the time the letter came to be written Colossae had known better times. In earlier centuries it had flourished but now some of its neighbours were more economically active. Ten miles from Colossae in a north-westerly direction and six miles apart from one another were two major centres. Laodicea was the banking, administrative and industrial metropolis and Hierapolis was a health resort. Both cities boasted magnificent theatres and gymnasia. Further afield other far more influential cities existed. So while it would be untrue to claim that Colossae was a backwater at the time of the letter, it had certainly known better days and it was in the shadow of more influential and wealthier communities.

In 61 or 62 CE an earthquake destroyed both Laodicea and Hierapolis. It is almost certain that Colossae may have suffered the same fate. It is documented that each of the two major cities were quickly rebuilt but there is little evidence to suggest that Colossae managed to fully recover. Coins from Colossae dating to 150 CE have been discovered but other than these little is known of the place or of its fortunes.

Had the letter to the Colossians not survived it may well be that the city or more accurately town, would have passed into oblivion. Even in early Church terms it had little significance, while Bishops continued to hold high profile seats in each of Laodicea and Hierapolis little or no recognition was bestowed upon the Christian community in Colossae. Indeed the newly-found group of believers may well have ceased to exist shortly after either the earthquake or the letter, whichever came last. It is certainly so that the writer of the Revelations, nor indeed the Ignatian letters, felt any need to mention a letter to Colossae amongst those they list. So of all the letters in the New Testament the Letter to the Colossians was sent to perhaps the least significant community of them all.

But what was the community of Colossae like? Colossae was the destination of migration over a number of centuries. The movement of peoples as a consequence of wars and vulnerable harvests across that part of the world meant that it was inevitable for there to be a mix of ethnicities and religious beliefs. Once the Persians had lost control of Asia Minor in 312 BCE Jews had been encouraged to settle there. Before that time only small numbers had travelled to the region. Because they had a good deal of religious freedom Jews continued to move there and like their non-Jewish neighbours enjoyed economic prosperity, becoming independent farmers and even great landowners. Records show that there were merchants, artisans, physicians, scribes and civil servants. Some were bound in slavery. By 60 BCE there were 10,000 – 11,000 tax-paying Jews in the region of Laodicea alone. It has been estimated that around 500 of them would have been resident in Colossae.

At the time of Christ there appears to have been at least four distinct Jewish groups. The first was Hellenistic Judaism, which was one of assimilation and acculturation and deeply influenced by the philosophies of ancient Greece. Some commentators believe that the Hellenistic Jews had turned their backs on Judaism completely whilst others suggest that their philosophy was more syncretistic and tended to still keep a foot in the Torah camp. The second group being Torah-abiding Judaism, continued to look to the Temple in Jerusalem for their inspiration. Sectarian Judaism, a third distinct group, represented by the Qumran community, was an apocalyptic sect that practised initiation ceremonies and believed itself to be the true remnant of ancient Judaism. The fourth group was Gnostic Judaism which held a dualistic world view of good and evil, light and dark.

In my opinion it was likely that more than these four groups were in existence. As with today’s range of expression within all the major religions, there would have been sufficient diversity in each to not pigeon hole every individual in clearly defined camps. There would have been many points of contact between each of them and the possibility of cross-fertilisation was very real. One area that may be of interest to us is the fact that for some Jews or pagans the Lord Sabaoth (the Lord of Hosts who instituted the Sabbath) and the god Sabazius were no longer distinguishable from one another. Circumcision and dietary laws continued to be practised alongside other forms of mutilation, while festivals were aligned to the lunar calendar alongside the Temple in Jerusalem. Indeed the joy of Jews at the Messianic table bears a close resemblance to the pleasures at the table of Sabazius, to which Hermes, ‘a good angel,’ led the souls of the faithfully departed. My own understanding is that the cross-fertilisation of ideas, philosophies and theologies was nothing new. Each community that becomes exposed to the beliefs and practices of those they encounter can be receptive to change, especially when they seem to work or to make sense. Add to the mix newer philosophies and ancient paganism and you have some idea of the religious melting pot that was the world in which the Colossians existed. Being on the trade route the town would not have been immune from the debates that ensued. Into that world comes a somewhat bewildering claim: that a Jewish teacher from a minor Galilean town had offended the authorities by his attempts to fulfil the Law and reform Judaism as a consequence. Nothing new in that, plenty of rabbis had done the same, were still doing the same, and would do so to the present day. But it was the claim made by some of his followers that he had been put to death by the authorities, yet had appeared to them three days later and even on a fairly frequent basis for a while thereafter.

So how does this impact upon the community in Colossae and why was the letter so necessary?

Well, in order to answer this we must first address the possibility that Paul may not have been the writer of the letter. Carrying his name does not necessarily constitute authorship. It was common practice at the time to attribute a document to a high profile person in order to give it more gravitas. It may well have been that those who had sat at the feet of Paul had composed the letter and were content to claim it to be of his mind.

Because we know of letters that are authentically Paul we can determine that some of the vocabulary in the Letter to the Colossians is indeed Pauline (‘principalities and powers’, ‘love’ [ie agapē], ‘justification’ and ‘body of Christ’). But, and again it’s a big but, in Colossians ‘salvation’ is a present reality (3.1-4) whereas elsewhere in Paul’s letters salvation is in the future; for Paul only ‘sanctification’ and ‘justification’ are in the present (Romans 6.4-5).

Much stronger evidence to the claim that the letter was not from the hand of Paul is the hierarchical description of household relationships (3.22-4.1). Paul tended to see household relations as remarkably non-hierarchical (1Cor.7.1-4) where husbands and wives each serve the other. There are similar household codes to the one in the letter to the Colossians found in second and third generational writings, in other words much later than the time Paul was operational, this was because the Parousia was not immanently forthcoming and intermediate regulations needed to be put in place to retain some form of order.

If Paul was the author then it was certainly a change of tack for him in terms of theological and ethical understanding. The writer, whoever he was, or whoever they were, let’s not discount the possibility of a group effort, had not visited Colossae but had become aware of, and concerned about, new teachings present there. Christ had been placed on the same level as ‘elemental spirits of the universe’ (2.8), and ‘rulers and authorities’ (2.15) and ‘angels’ (2.18). There were also concerns expressed in the letter about new dietary rules in the community at Colossae and lunar observances as well as Sabbath practice (2.16,20-23). The writer may have drawn on other Pauline imagery, not least Christ as the head of the body of Christ and the claim that his death has a role in the salvation of humankind, but he also belittles those in Colossae whom he opposes by suggesting that they are providing little other than shadows whilst Christ is the real thing (2.17). This owes not a little to Gnostic thinking.

One area that I find fascinating is the way in which the writer addresses Jewish ritual. When Paul wrote to the Galatians, a letter that is authentically Paul, there was a debate in the Church as to whether Gentile believers needed to observe Jewish rituals (circumcision, dietary regulations and Sabbath observance). It was Paul’s view that Gentiles were to not become Jews in order to become believers, whilst it was still incumbent upon Jewish believers to still practice Jewish ritual (Gal.5.3). But, again another big but, the writer to the Colossians sees such practice as being antagonistic to the rule of Christ.

And finally in his letters Paul is able to draw on his extensive understanding of Judaism and Jewish scriptures whereas the letter to the Colossians has seemingly little or no knowledge of such traditions. Clearly, by the time the Letter to the Colossians had been composed, the split in that part of the world between Church and Synagogue was deeper than at the time of Paul himself.

The theology was different too. By the time the Letter to the Colossians was written, understanding of the Christ had developed from that of the authentic Pauline letters. I personally think that much of it owes as much to the later Johannine School as it does any earlier group. The Christological hymn of verses 15 to 20 is a clear example of this. It echoes the preamble in John’s account of the Gospel which, as we should all agree, was probably very late 1st century if not early second.

Arguments against this would include the fact that elsewhere in the letter there are verses almost identical to verses in genuine letters of Paul. But as I said earlier, this proves nothing. I’m sure you will have found it as humble a pleasure as I have done to hear in a church meeting someone present an idea as if it is their own, when actually it was you who fed it to them in the first place! It was common practice during the 1st century to draw on those documents that carried kudos in the scattered church gatherings and create a new and relevant letter. There is a strong possibility that the Letter to the Colossians was typically one such missive, one of many that was sent that used a cut and paste technique to get the message across. The letter to the Ephesians bears such a strong similarity to the Letter to the Colossians that I can’t help thinking that they are just two of many that were circulating around the late 1st century churches. Purporting to be from the hand of Paul to substantiate their credibility, and drawing on some of his familiar themes, they nevertheless tweaked the teaching in the light of more recent theological developments. It is clear to me that the major concern of the senders was to promote a particular ecclesiology.

So there we have it: a letter from the late 1st century CE, likely to be a cut and paste job, drawing on earlier Pauline and more recent Johannine Schools, to get the Colossae Church to believe and behave in ways that were acceptable to the authorities of the 2nd or even 3rd generation Church. It was not the only one of its type or time, Ephesians was another of the same genre and likely to have come from the same community. We may only have two of these letters, but chances are that there were many others circulating at the time, but lost at some point in the turmoil of subsequent years.

We must be careful to not think that what we have is all that was written. What we have is but a handful of letters from the vast postal industry that was the means of communication for the Early Church.

In conclusion: at the end of the Second World War Sir Winston Churchill was informed that his Chief of Staff Field Marshall Alan Brooke was writing an account of the war which would show Churchill’s conduct of the war in a bad light. On hearing this Churchill is said to have been un-phased. ‘History would judge (him) well,’ he said, ‘because (he) would write that history.’ There followed Churchill’s six-volume account of the war which outsold Lord Alanbrooke’s version of events. It is claimed, not without good reason that history is written by the winners. I believe that theology too is written by the winners. What became the accepted history of the Early Church and the orthodox theology was composed by Paul and his disciples. The truth is that other accounts and theologies of the Jesus event pervaded for centuries afterwards alongside the Pauline strand. Many would be centred in those places that are now modern day Syria, Iraq and India. The teachings and the practices were very different to those with which we are accustomed. Many of them had died out by the 6th century CE, others persisted elsewhere and indeed to this day the St Thomas Christians in India will claim a different lineage to the one we would refer, theirs being the one that came through the missionary work of Thomas, brother of Jesus, rather than that of Paul. Which one would be authentically Christian? We may well ask. Well, that is for others to decide is it not? Because by the way we lead our lives is surely the best piece of evidence we can provide to answer such a question.


[1] Barth, Markus and Blanke, Helmut, Colossians, the Anchor Yale Bible, Doubleday 1994, p8

If the Christian Gospel is anything it is the overcoming of the divisions that mar society, be they social or religious elitism, race or gender.

  • Jesus and the sinners
  • Jesus and the marginalised and losers in society
  • Jesus and those of a different religion altogether.

Paul picks this up in Galatians when he recognises the consequences of the Jesus event:

There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.

Paul was quite clear: no longer shall you divide one another into groups that are acceptable or unacceptable in your eyes, for in the sight of God all, all, are equal.

Yet for 2000 years much of the Church has not only turned a blind eye to such divisions, but has actually fostered and even imposed them. For centuries rival groups within the Church battled to determine who was right and who was wrong. Thousands went to the stake over the wording of a prayer. And each side was adamant they were right, drawing on scripture as their evidence.

Once religion had lost much of its influence, post-Enlightenment, nation states were formed across Europe. The scene was therefore set for the biggest conflagrations in human history as patriotism became nationalism. Some would argue that the First World War didn’t really end on 11th November 1918 but 71 years later on 9th November 1989 when the Berlin Wall was torn down. The reunification of Germany got underway and with it the hope of a Europe free from the old rivalries and hostility. For a while the old tribes and enmities seemed to become less important. They had been slowly replaced by the tribalism of sport, in particular football for example, where once it was a healthy and humorous rivalry. But this became less so for many: United or City, Red or Blue, Rangers or Celtic, you are either in or out, one of us or one of them.

And in more recent years the arrival of people from elsewhere has caused a tribalism across society in this country that is far from healthy. This is also reflected in the churches. The ecumenical dreams of the mid-twentieth century, following the cataclysmic events of the Second World War, gave rise to a belief that we could be one. Once we began to realise that no individual denomination had a monopoly on Jesus it became plain to see that we should work more closely together. By the same extension, if the individual denomination does not have a monopoly on Jesus then in even more recent times we ought to have become aware of the possibility that no individual religion has a monopoly on God. However, instead of seeing this as an exciting venture many have viewed it as a huge threat. An increasing number have fallen for the temptation to treat the one who is different as too strange to befriend, be that in our county, our country, our Church or religion.

The end result of this is that each community has turned in on itself. Tribalism has appeared in all sorts of places often seeking to recreate an imaginary glorious past or a future that can never be. This has led to a greater possibility of even deeper factionalism and irrevocable breakdown within each community. Just as we have far left and far right in politics, so we have fundamentalism and progressive views in religions, irrespective of the particular faith itself.

Now, if no individual denomination has a monopoly on Jesus and no individual religion has a monopoly on God, no faith community has a monopoly on Holy Scripture. It is the Divine’s right to speak to us in whatever way is appropriate, and that voice has never been restricted by time and place. Even though the human listener through wilful malevolence or naïvete has not always been unable to hear with clarity.

So even the sacred text that is common to us can be drawn upon in oh so many varied ways. This has ever been thus of course; which over the centuries has caused debate, discussion and even dissension. As I mentioned earlier, such differences of opinion have even led to martyrdom for thousands of righteous believers.

Let me be absolutely clear. When we come to important debates and consultations following conference this year, whether it be on marriage and relationships or indeed any other issues of great importance, no side has a monopoly on scripture. No side has a monopoly on truth. No side has a monopoly on what is right and what is wrong. Personally, I have yet to discover any group that is so closely and marvellously aligned to the will of God that there is no room for doubt.

Think of the Jerusalem conference in Acts 15. The outcome was that the early movement would exercise its mission in different ways. Those Jews who came to believe in Jesus would continue to be Jews, circumcising their male offspring, keeping the festivals and honouring food rituals. Those who were not Jews, who came to believe in Jesus, would not have to take on the Jewish traditions. And so the Church was manifest in many different forms and practice to the present day. That doesn’t make any of it less authentic or holy. Scripture, interpretation and experience, would form the basis of each approach: the ongoing Jerusalem Church and the expanding Roman Church.

Sadly, all too often scripture has been used as an excuse for prejudice and not a resource for reconciliation. The lifting of proof texts without taking seriously the context and the core message does no service to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. But I fear that this will again be tragically so in the coming months. In a sense, this is only to be expected, the Church has often reflected the movements present within a given society. What is happening today is that many in the Church are merely reflecting the tribalism of our contemporary world. Groups have been formed that are unable to hear what others are saying and anyone within the group who dares to dissent is somehow the worst of all: a traitor or a heretic.

Reason and truth, honesty and humility, grace and openness, courtesy and compassion are diminished virtues today. The consequences are highly dangerous, not only to society and the world itself but to the unity and mission of the Church.

Let me conclude with an incident that I find deeply moving. (taken from Christian Salenson, Christian de Chergé A Theology of Hope, Cistercian Publications 2012)

In 1960 de Chergé, a French soldier, was serving in the admin corps during the Algerian War of Independence. It was there that he met Mohammed, a family man, a simple person and a devout Muslim. A deep friendship struck up between the French Christian and the Algerian Muslim. During a military skirmish, Mohammed intervened to spare his friend’s life, insisting on de Chergé’s attachment to Algeria and the Muslim people. De Chergé went unharmed but the next day, Mohammed, father of ten children, was found beside his own well, murdered. Several years later de Cherge wrote:

“In the blood of this friend, I came to know that my call to follow Christ would have to be lived out, sooner or later, in the very country in which I received the token of the greatest love of all.”

De Chergé went on to become an ordained priest and returned to Algeria as a Cistercian monk to pray, as he said: ‘amongst those who pray’ ie his Muslim neighbours. Understandably Mohammed’s sacrifice was one of the greatest influences on de Chergé’s life and ministry. Whenever he celebrated the Eucharist de Chergé recalled not only the life and death of Christ but Mohammed who had also given of his life for him. De Chergé wrote:

“Every Eucharist makes (Mohammed) infinitely present to me in the reality of the Body of Glory where the gift of his life took on its full dimension ‘for me and for the many’”.

On Maundy Thursday 1995 de Chergé gave a homily, in it he said:

“He loved me to the end, to the end of me, to the end of him…..

He loved me in his way, which is not mine.

He loved me graciously, gratuitously….. I might perhaps have liked it to be more discreet, less solemn.

He loved me as I do not know how to love: this simplicity, this self-forgetting, this humble service, without self-gratification, without any self-regard.

He loved me with the benevolent but inextricable authority of a father and also with the indulgent and somewhat nervous tenderness of a mother.”


To whom was de Chergé referring? Jesus or Mohammed?

We shall never know because shortly afterwards Christian de Chergé, prior of the monastery Tibhirine, Algeria, was assassinated alongside 6 of his fellow monks.

There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.

So, if in the weeks and months ahead you are tempted to divide the Body into ‘us’ and ‘them’ between those who are ‘acceptable’ and those who are not, you are doing more than dividing the Body, you are disfiguring it and diminishing the effectiveness of the ministry and mission of Christ in whom God was reconciling the whole universe to himself.

‘Passion, erudition and unswerving honesty’The Right Revd Michael Ipgrave, Bishop of Lichfield

‘A milestone for both the Church and the relationship between Christians and Jews’Rabbi Tanya Sakhnovich

‘A cogent and persuasive answer to the question of the Church’s involvement in persistent antisemitism’Gisela Feldman, survivor

‘Excellent, clearly written and accessible’The Revd Dr Geoffrey Harris, Lincoln

‘A remarkable work, coming at a time when the spectre of Judeophobia is rearing its ugly head again’Chazan Jaclyn Bennet, Director of Studies at European Academy for Jewish Liturgy

‘A courageous and warm-hearted assessment of a long-standing existential issue for all concerned’Paul Heim, survivor

‘Profound, highly readable and very disturbing’The Revd Colin Smith, Cambridge

‘A searing dissection of the church’s antisemitism’Gillian Walnes, President Anne Frank Trust UK

‘Offers both self-reflection and a sense of hope that in unpacking some of the historical roots of Judeophobia, we might better tackle today’s antisemitism together’ Rabbi Debbie Young-Somers

‘An erudite but eminently readable book that provides a solid foundation for those who wish to learn about the history of antisemitism in a Christian context’Noru Tsalic, The Times of Israel


Available from online booksellers at £15

or £12 direct from the author on revbrucet@yahoo.co.uk

The opening decades of the 21st century have witnessed an extraordinary deepening level of contempt toward Jews. In recent years it has become acceptable, even laudable in some quarters, to express anti-Jewish sentiment. The margins of decency have shifted; the checks that were once in place seem to have been dismissed as no longer relevant. And those who dared question such hostility have been ridiculed or even seen as some kind of social deviant; nowhere more so than in the Christian Church. Has the Church and her members not learnt from history? Do they not appreciate how theology and practice over the centuries have echoes in the present? Are they not aware of the links? Can they not see that they are being played by Israel’s enemies every bit as much as Hitler played the Church in 1930’s Germany? Have they read history at all? The answer to each of these questions appears to be a frustratingly tragic no.