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.