Category Archives: News

The Flying Scotsman Bible.

 

I happened upon a grand old lady (as people like to style the gender of masculine named locomotives!) the other day. After an informal visit to a church, I dropped by at the Bo’ness and Kinneil (preserved) railway, and there, like a great simmering kettle, was the 60103 Flying Scotsman, resplendent despite the subdued  BR livery that she is currently sporting, attracting nonetheless the reverence due the oldest mainline working locomotive on Britain’s tracks.

Every panel and pipe shone, no dents or scratches: none of the ‘cellulite’ that creeps into the bodywork of workhorses with fewer armies of adoring fans. Looking, of course, rather different from when she first steamed out of the Doncaster engine sheds in 1923. Re-numbered, with a different livery, thoroughly renewed inside and out, even her face is changed by the compulsory addition of  smoke deflectors to channel the smoke and cinders at high speed.  She ran with a bell and cowcatcher in America, which are of course now absent.

 It’s easy to lose count of the alterations and renovations, as well as “restorations”, reversing technological advance for the sake of “preserving” what she had been, let alone those grim years lying around dismantled in the NRM,  that this particular much-loved fossil fuel vehicle (ouch) has been through. And to ask, with reluctant scepticism, whether there is any point in claiming that ‘she’ is at all the same ‘engine’?  And although everyone likes to say that the locomotive was ‘designed by Sir Nigel Gresley’, a full list of those skilled engineers who have had a hand in it would fill up your screen.

A television documentary put this iconoclastic question to an enthusiast, who faced it honestly, head on: whilst much of the metal has been replaced, or even  functional parts  (like the double funnel) swapped in and out so many times, he was confident that the ‘spirit’ of the Flying Scotsman lived on convincingly and meaningfully. Even seeing her simmering in the sidings at Bo’ness, let alone thundering across the Forth Bridge, you’d have to be the most boorish of locomotive atheists to disagree.

This encounter came after a struggle with Scripture: John Chapter 5. If you check online at Biblehub , you’ll find that 16 English language versions are on offer for verse 4. Move to verse 5, and you have a choice of 28. As it happens, the story of Jesus’ intervention  with the question “Do you want to be well” only makes sense if verse 4 is included, with a mention of an angel who intermittently troubles the waters of the pool of Bethesda/Beth-Zatha.  The angel verse is authenticated in a very important manuscript which was authoritative for Martin Luther and the King James Bible, though seems to be absent in earlier manuscripts. This does not in itself mean it is either inauthentic or a later addition, though some scholars would lean in that direction, and editors of modern-language Bibles exhibit, perhaps an embarrassment both about folk religion and indeed about angels, which is foreign to all the Gospel writers. That’s why you find it in some versions and not others. But is it, or isn’t it “the Bible”?

Maybe the Bible is not far from the Flying Scotsman: inspiring awe, joy and wonder, a spirit of continuity, maintained and re-thought by thousands, and reinterpreted by often very valid agendas. Having had the additional scandalously iconoclastic thought of what might be the implications of a fossil-free steam loco ( e..g. water heated by hydrogen), I also ask you to consider what the Bible needs to be, to help us discern what the continuing identity of the Holy Spirit is saying to us today. Which parts do we take or leave or re-shape?  But whatever we do, it helps to be honest about it. “My version IS the Bible, full stop” does violence to the Bible as dynamic and interactive resource for relationship with the Word of God.

In the event, I decided to acknowledge the place of the angel in the story, which, as noted, adds both coherence, and helps us understand that Jesus did not claim any sort of personal monopoly on healing. Neither should we. It also sets certain ‘miracles’ in perspective, but also the importance of letting the church be the church, letting mystery be mystery. The mystic and the realistic are complementary, not at odds. The deep  rationality of spirituality, and the experiential power of story help us more fully to grasp the deep currents of change that are vital to our survival in this age. 

 And when the churches  face up to the need to convince themselves to make changes of policy (including financial)  and liturgy in the light of the Climate Crisis, they perhaps might reflect on what it means to work with the continuing  Spirit of their own identity, rather than falling back on facts and figures unadorned by narrative or passion. 

Be church, not just committee.  Full steam ahead.

 

Faith in the thicket

I wonder if you’ve ever had the experience:

Atheists, agnostics or secularists taking the ‘Dawkins’ line of telling you what they think you ought to believe, and having set up this particular straw man, expecting you to be intimidated as they proceed to attack and dismantle it?  

It’s important to be able to say with confidence, that you don’t believe in the useless, petty,  and obnoxious god they don’t believe in! 

Nor in the fluffy bunny!

Nor indeed, in a faith hostile to and domineering with regard to  life and natural ‘resources’. Though such assertions frequently go unchallenged.

You don’t believe in that…

But do you?  Or do you think you ought to?  Is there some voice in the back of your head?  

As a grassroots minister, I  sometimes wondered if I were continually at war, in preaching,  with the Sunday-school teachers of half a century or more before, themselves passing  on, with less than reflective obedience, what they had received.  Please, if, today  you are introducing children to Christianity, immerse them in Creation, and in wonder!

But for now:

Was there ever a time when the narrative of the danger to life of avoidable human destructiveness had more coherence? Or indeed, the peril  of idolatry: the lethally misleading worship of false gods?

Catastrophe repeatedly seems to be built into the way the world works, when pushed too hard, and  disaster, unsurprisingly,  frequently linked to human behaviour, stupidity, greed and injustice. 

Surveys of prehistoric  Britain show that  ecological collapse through defoliation has been well within the capability even of less technological societies.  We’ve done it before.  We should take note. And I might speculate (wildly) that the importance of sacred  trees to the spirituality we dimly glimpse from afar to the ‘druids’, described by writers from the hostile,  invading,  Romans, and even mentioned (by attribution)  by such as St Columba, should not be underestimated.

Returning to more easily attributable thoughts….

A sense of ‘you have been warned’ pervades the whole of Scripture. (And, incidentally, not just in Christianity, but we’ll keep the word-count down for now.)  I can’t think of any instance where a bolt from the blue arrives because God had a bad hair day, though the Book of Job – and indeed much of the teaching of Jesus – goes out of its way to disconnect genuinely ‘natural’ processes from any sort of ‘no smoke without fire’ argument.  The planet always has its own agenda.

Creation becomes the  more alarmingly irrational when we pretend that it came into being for us, or that we are the centre, the pinnacle and purpose of the universe.  Mainstream Christian  critics of ‘anthropocentricism’ concur.  Maybe  even that  “big word” isn’t strong enough: ‘anthropolatry” – the idolatry of the human might be more like it, though even that, it seems, is a mask to the idolatry of the injustice of the Market, ( mammonolatry) itself a human invention.

Not that human beings are at all neglected in the stories of our faith. Humanity has and evolves a place and purpose in the management of the Garden. 

Is the Incarnation “for us”? Or just the Cross? And how wide or how exclusive is the “us”? Every time  I try to pin down provision reserved only  for human life, it involves a mental pruning of the wide web of Life. Of the thicket, the brush, the forest of intimate connection with the rest of Creation.

There’s realism in  the poetic Book  of Job: the processes of the earth are not determined by humanity, though we are now effectively  at war  with “laws that cannot broken”.  I wonder if this might seem ‘gloomy’, but it looks as if living well and with justice is not automatically “rewarded” by prosperity, (for  that is the fallacy of ‘Prosperity Gospel’ ) though self-destructive behaviour and pig-headedness and complacency, with regard to warning signs, lay cataclysmic foundations.

God the Creator also repeatedly does time as God the Mitigator: what matters is not the wrath or anger of God expressed through cataclysm, but the safeguarding of the seeds of life, in partnership with faithful, and invariably far-from-perfect people. We find God picking up the pieces after tragedy, rather than bringing it on.  But also in the tears of Christ, seeing it coming.

Do you find, in the Garden of Eden story of Genesis, a vindictive overlord, or a God creatively limiting damage?

Do you find in the story of the Great Flood someone who has thrown their rattle out of the pram, or who  in the face of damage done to the planet holds on to life through partnership with people who will listen?

Do you share in the terror of Isaiah that God cannot be contained either in temples or ideas, but rather that God’s glory fills all Creation?

And are you able to  hear, in John 1:14  That the Word  became flesh, rather than, in the first instance, only human?

Ah well, this is a speculative blog, rather than a PhD thesis. But if you’ve begin to question some of what imprisons and enslaves  us as Christians, and liberated from the feeling you need to defend what turns out, in the end, to be inauthentic, then it’s worthwhile .

I believe…. we should pray and think about what we believe.

And maybe, as Abraham looked up and found in the thicket, confirmation both welcome and disillusioning,  that a God worth believing in does not require sacrifice of what we should love, a way forward may be found. 

 

Cut the crap: the Brand of Hope

 

“...The church is big and influential enough to be a significant part of the solution to the current crisis.”

 

This was the recent  banner headline for the recruitment webpage for a ‘sister’ Christian organisation. 

 

I do have a problem with this. 

 

The language still conveys a less-than-fully honest confidence in a “fix-it”  ‘solution’, rather than a creative  approach to an enduring  and already ongoing  crisis.  

 

Relying on  this sort of strapline, we won’t be transforming ourselves as the church into what we need  to be for the damaged  world, because we’ll just be buying into doing things the old imperial way.  

 

It’s in our weakness, our differentiation from “might is right” that our strength, and our prophetic ability to speak truth to power, will lie.

 

We don’t defeat empire by being empire, because empire is seductively expert at co-opting.  

 

(As an example in passing: if you ever get invited to a Royal Garden Party, see how republican you feel by the end of it! Wow, what graciousness, what  wonderful tiny sandwiches....)

 

 

And yes, when we, as churches, do  engage with the mighty industries which already plan to continue selling us extinction and climate catastrophe, we need to do so with the spiritual and moral authority we have as churches, rather than as pathetically insignificant shareholders.

 

And we need to be honest about our own  hypocrisy and imperfection: we fly, drive, drop plastic, and all the rest of it. The distance of repentance we ourselves  have to travel should not be allowed to silence us. Because if we waited to put our own house completely in order, there would be no voice to speak that truth.

 

That we, as “people of unclean lips”, can nonetheless engage with  people of unclean lips, is hopeful and wonderful.

 

Whilst hope, and its sustaining, is a vital part of our work as churches and as Eco-Congregation Scotland, misleading ourselves and others about the magnitude of what we face, is not. 

 

Not, as in distant memory,  the ‘Band of Hope’  but the The Brand of Hope we’re after is a deep and durable one.  We are a passionate, -  and yes, joyful  - movement, because realism sets us free to the profoundly defiant power  of joy. 

 

(I’ve already had a piece I worked hard  on for a church ‘pulled’ for being ‘gloomy’, but this blog is a place for free reflection. For being realistic, not ‘gloomy’. And if the blessing of “dark humour” is part of it, then bring it on!)

 

We are perhaps  the first age of humanity which has swallowed, hook, line, and sinker,  the assurance of Satan to Jesus that ‘angels will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone’.  We have already jumped off the parapet, and wonder what’s keeping those angels. 

 

I’m not ruling out the odd branch sticking out of  the cliff on the way down, though.

 

We are a  culture cherishing  a wholesale denial of cause and effect, grounded not even in a twisted, naive faith in God,  but in the blinkering tyranny of unlimited greed and growth. 

 

I’ve already noted the ‘greenwashing’  of the job-title of the UK “Minister of State for Energy and Clean Growth”.  

 

For it’s the idolatry of growth, and the enforced lie that business as usual can continue with a bit of ‘green’ tinkering, that continues to break the “laws that never shall be broken”.(cf Psalm 148).  If we’re attentive followers of Christ, then we do not pretend Sky  and Earth will not  pass away. 

 

The promise to Noah was that if rising waters destroy, it’s not God’s doing. Again, naive and decontextualised reliance on that sort of promise, is putting God to the test.

 

Our species (and perhaps the asset managers of some Christian organisations)  have presumed to disagree with the God who in conversation with Job, cited the invincible strength of Creation in the Leviathan and Behemoth: and something obscene and blasphemously out of balance has resulted, where other species die out, not in God’s good time of ‘seedtime and harvest’, but wholesale

 

(Of course, since we’re not creatures like the other creatures, we might be sad, but we’ll be safe - or will we?)

 

It’s the most perverse reading - if they bothered to read - of  Jesus in Matthew 6: 34 

 

’Do not worry about tomorrow’.... 

 

because it disregards the  “- κακία -“ (genteel translation) troubles” or perhaps, given the way language often  works, the ‘crap(speculative translation) we’re up to our eyes in today. If you don’t deal with today, there won’t be a tomorrow.

 

 Whether we’re also living out the gullibility of Adam and Eve, that ‘you will be like God’ needs more reflection. 

 

I looked at the selection of medieval gravestones in St Andrews Cathedral recently:  pretty well all of them had some variation on the words “memento mori” “remember that you will die”. 

 

That’s not gloomy, but part of what we need to know to live well. 

 

To know that everything we know does have an ending, which would be fine. 

 

How would we behave if we were more conscious that this “day” could be  our last?  

 

Guess what....?

 

Some, perhaps, would react  with despair, some with hope and compassion. Which itself transforms every situation. 

 

 

We seek a Life Appropriate to the Age, and the church, not the empire, that God call us to be, for God’s glory and the good of Christ’s beautiful, crucified, creation.  In joyful faith, we seek the Way, because the solution  is not yet  in sight.

 

Hallelujah anyway. Amen.

 

 

Church and Community Orchards Twinning

We are looking for four churches in Scotland to take part in an orchard twinning project with churches in Hungary.  The aim is to learn from the inspiring Plant Native Fruit Trees in Church Gardens project in Hungary that has planted hundreds of orchards across the country and won the ECEN Roman Juriga Award in 2018.

We want to inspire church and community orchard planting in Scotland.  Planting fruit trees is both a symbolic and practical expression of care for Creation.  It is a recognition of the fruitfulness of Creation and a source of healthy food; an orchard requires care and nurture to thrive; and with care will enhance green spaces both for humans and wildlife, particularly in urban areas.

To do this the Church of Scotland, Reformed Church in Hungary are working together with Okogyulekezet (Eco-congregation) Hungary, Eco-Congregation Scotland, and a UK charity The Orchard Project.  The project is part funded by the European Christian Environment Network (ECEN) but churches who wish to be involved will have to make a significant commitment of time, effort and in some cases a financial contribution.

Who is eligible?

Any Eco-Congregation in Scotland may apply, however we are primarily seeking congregations in Edinburgh and Glasgow. We would like to involve priority area churches in urban areas and will seek to find match funding where necessary to enable churches with limited resources to participate.

To take part you must have access to land suitable for an orchard, be prepared to work with a Hungarian church partner, including travel and providing hospitality and make a long term commitment to look after an orchard. For more information, please request an ‘Eligibility Check’ document.

Planning, and training and will be provided by The Orchard Project, a charity with staff based in Edinburgh and Glasgow.

If you are interested please get in touch.  Although we can only provide financial support to four churches it may be possible for other churches to informally join in some of the training and events – so do get in touch.

Contact: Paul Williams

email: pwilliams@churchofscotland.org.uk, tel: 01312402277.

Christ and the Tree.

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[Image: a happy bird feeding on the Tree of Life, surrounded by runic script, quoting the poem] .

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Once before I have mentioned  the Ruthwell Cross, which, in stone, and with the clout of history, presents the fellowship of Jesus with wildlife in the wilderness. 

 

It’s an even more fascinating pile of rock, in that, incised on one of the faces of a cross, presented very much as a tree of life, and a habitat for God’s creatures, is a quote (for Celtomaniacs, wow: it’s in runic script!!!!) from the moving Anglo-Saxon poem ‘The dream of the Rood(the Cross)’.

 

The poem has been part of my own journey to faith. 

 

Before I came back to Christianity in my twenties, this poetry, completely unexpectedly,  reached out to me. 

 

It’s doing so again, after the retreat I co-led on Iona.

 

 Studying Anglo-Saxon as a subsidiary  in my German degree, ‘The Rood’  had leapt out at me with an unexpected power, not only in the contextualisation of Christ as a ‘Young warrior’,( though crucially, one who powerfully resisted all pressure to destroy his enemies) but also the predicament of the ‘Forest -Tree’ itself:  viciously torn from its forest home and coerced into being an instrument of torture.... 

 

....Which is what humankind does daily with the ‘resources’ of Creation. We use good things badly. And neglect even to use bad things well.

 

In ‘The Dream’, The central words and image of the unity of Christ with the Cross itself (Crist waes on rode) ironically achieved by human evil,  let alone  the weeping of all Creation, (Wēop eal ġesceaft) - for human mourning cannot be sufficient...... these are staggering ideas.  

 

That violence, both against Christ and against Creation, drives these closer together, to the extent that we cannot evade the concept of the ongoing  Crucifixion of Creation. 

 

Whatever/whoever suffers, is the concern of Christ crucified. 

 

This  adds powerfully to a theme of how, through the instrumentality of human action, and perhaps despite it, God’s will might nonetheless be seen to be done, in the one who was welcomed by branches and nailed to the tree.

 

In the nailing of Christ to the Tree, we find we have nailed the Tree to Christ. We cannot henceforth contemplate them in isolation. We cannot follow Christ and neglect the life of the Earth.

 

In the final lines of the poem, the solidarity of the ‘tree’ with Christ continues,  searchingly, after the resurrection, in the question of who might be prepared to put their own life on the line in response to the harm that is done to the world.

 

Perhaps the ‘Sheep and Goats’ speech from the Risen Christ, of Matthew 25 takes us, with the logic of preaching, a little further. And science, apart from mediating  the warning voice of the Earth in climate crisis, also confirms the extreme level of kinship of all life, including us, down to a celular level and beyond.

 

Thus, when you see the Creatures of God in distress, and respond, you respond to Christ. Whether you know it or  not.

 

After Easter, keep it mainstream!

 

 

Don’t leave the stage clear: feed your faith this Easter!

 

 

I’m grateful that the blurb on the Eco-Congregation Scotland website describes us as ‘passionate’ – so committed that it hurts.

The days ( and years)  ahead in all our lives  will require extraordinary love, forgiveness and generosity. 

For the churches to burn brightly as signs of hope in the gloom of climate crisis, we need fuel; we need to fill up with inspiration, for where there is commitment, there is also always, the danger of burnout. 

So, above all, seek out occasions of feeding this Easter Season, and if you’re shaping worship or events, look any how they encourage and sustain, rather than macho considerations of sacrifice. You can’t compete with the sacrifice of Christ. You can only share in it.

For that, though, there needs to be trust in the possibility that we can be fed. I know that, as with politics in a time of brexit, disabling disillusion stalks our consciousness: the disconnect between threatening reality and ‘theology’ means the stage is free for harmful responses to our situation:  the  pernicious ‘common sense’  of  denial  funded by growth fixated commerce; the bitter blame game that polarises and ignores the need for just transition; and of course, the ‘rationality’ of despair.  

So let Easter be to you a time of refreshment, as well as of confrontation, in solidarity with Christ on the Cross, on Good Friday, with the genuine threats to Creation.

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So, perhaps,  play this game: Creation itself, like mission, is a partnership. We cannot therefore ‘imitate’ Christ or be ‘Godly’ by isolation,  by selfish power-games. Life, like God, is a community project. Communion. 

Most Christian traditions are content to talk of the ‘Communion of Saints’ ( the Church in heaven and on Earth). Of course, they interpret their relationship variously, but nonetheless…  The language we are learning again to ‘drive’, to inhabit, and to pray with, is broader.  Allowing the Voices of the Earth the standing of fellow worshippers leads us into a ‘Communion of Creation’. 

It may not  often have been put  that way, but it certainly has genuine ancient roots in the churches of the British Isles. 

I’ve recently been able to refer to stories of St Columba and his followers; how, when faced with real peril from natural forces, they chose blessing and friendship over cursing and emnity.  

There’s wisdom there. In a time of accelerating climate crisis,  we might be threatened by natural forces,  though these are not our enemies. Rather, they are allies in the fight for survival, to be abused at our peril. The war against the environment, against Creation, cannot be won. The alternative approach, to befriend and cultivate them, seems to be what we were put here for.

Preparing for Palm Sunday in Iona Abbey, a few days ago, I had the privilege of a conversation with a Christian friend of some years standing, about how they were looking forward to Holy Week and Easter. They certainly found the worship, and the celebrations worthwhile, though it seemed that they had given up some years before on the foreground teaching they were based on. Which, like the community dynamism of the Holy Trinity, ( into whose dance, humanity, in the image of that Communion, is invited, ) should get us moving. 

Somehow,  again, like politics in the era of brexit,  with ecocidal parties courting the popular vote, my friend felt disconnected and bored by a  ‘theology” , which had been captured by the professionals and locked away somewhere.   Even as Easter approached, they were ‘going  along with it’, without being ensnared by the connection with our reality. In a low moment, they might just be content to let  Jesus be sold short  merely as ‘a good man’.  And ‘sin’ was dismissed as some abstract concept, rather than about real damage to Creation.

I hope that in these special days,  my friend will find it helpful to recall that Jesus, welcomed by branches, was nailed to a tree; that Christians less precious about letting theology be poetic, see in that the Tree of Life,  itself torn from the forest and abused by that wicked use,   a fellow creature, finding itself in solidarity with the abuse of Christ by power and Empire.  

Sharing, ultimately too, in the triumph of life made new despite it all.

Faith makes connections. If you see them, encourage your friends.

More soon.

Sunday of the Branches

Local churches will mostly be far advanced in their preparations for Holy Week and Easter.  In my rather strange role, after 2 decades in a local setting, I have been preparing to co-lead a reflective retreat on Iona.

 

I hope that when the main operation of the Iona Community  gets going again from next year, after renovation, we might be able to do something like this on a larger scale.

 

On this occasion,  it also means that I have the very special opportunity partially  to shape festival worship, - as ever, collaboratively rather than dictatorially  - for Iona Abbey.  

 

Iona (and more widely, the Iona Community)  has sometimes been a place of experiment; a laboratory of liturgy, though always with the discipline of working in the ecumenical context of the wider Church. 

 

Trial and error, both, of course.

 

Able on this occasion to depart from the Lectionary to select readings, I am bringing “if (disciples) keep silent, the stones would shout aloud”  together with the “groaning Creation/earth” of Romans 8: 22, both acknowledging the Voice of Creation, which we so readily exclude.

 

What I probably could not responsibly do, would be to accept an Easter ‘booking’ as Chaplain with a local church, without a considerable amount of collaborative preparation. 

 

Maybe in the next couple of years it might happen. 

But I’ve just begun. Real change needs relationship.

 

Yes, all our Easters are now in the global contact of climate crisis, but a local worshipping community also needs to feel, in a meaningful way,  that they have ‘done’ or experienced Easter, whatever the shaping influences. The spiritual nourishment of the festival should not in any way be diminished.  Though you may already have taken up this task and discovered it certainly can be enhanced.

 

A ‘green Easter’ needs to be sufficiently familiar that it feels like Easter. Because it will have brought out some authentic ingredient, rather than just added decorative green icing on the Easter cake.

 

As I have noted, with delight, of the Pope’s encyclical ‘Laudato Si’ , he didn’t suddenly step aside from being Pope to write it,  but rather, it arose  out of the mainstream calling of his office.

 

Nonetheless, I am excited whenever  the boat can be pushed out just a little in looking, from a ‘green’ context, at the key  festivals and celebrations of the Christian calendar.  

 

Some of you have more opportunity here than others, according to your tradition.

 

But if you were asking: (and maybe thinking about next year) : as regards Palm Sunday, I would encourage a gentle departure from imported palms in the direction of use of foliage and branches from your own neighbourhoods. ‘Look.... at all the trees’ says Jesus. 

 

 A forester friend suggested a “top-and-lop Sunday!. 

 

In French, Palm Sunday is ‘Dimanche des Rameaux” (Sunday of the branches). 

 

We gain a closeness to the Gospel when we find it at work in our own environment, rather than  just somewhere detached and conveniently distant. 

 

It might also be very interesting for a study group to look at liturgical commonplaces, or well-known hymns, and come to appreciate the creative distance these wordings have travelled from their invariably scriptural origins. And what agendas were at work in that journey. 

 

 Even as far back as the voyage from the ‘Word made fleshof John’s Gospel  to “he was made [specifically]  human in the Nicene Creed.

 

I am working with a music composer  friend on a fresh look - for this occasion - at the  Agnus Dei (‘Lamb of God’) which is already known and used in a wonderful variety of wordings and settings. 

 

The aim will be: not to replace, but to deepen our understanding of the power of Christian heritage. The result needs to be both recognisable and meaningful.

 

Not just a matter of tweaking the odd word, but a prayerful and poetic challenge.  I am encouraged to hear of several denominations taking up this gauntlet.

 

Have a good Holy Week!