Time to junk atonement theories?
From the Revd Adrian Alker
Sir, — Dr Ben Pugh (Features, 29 March) outlines what he seems to consider is the full breadth of the atonement theories, but in his final sentences encourages us to “broaden our range this Easter”. I do hope that he discusses with his students at Cliff College the resulting effect of theories such as penal substitution — namely, that for many people who search for meaning in Christian faith, such theories portray God as a wrathful, punishing God, and humankind as miserable sinners. I have long since ceased to believe in that kind of God, and wish that theologians such as Dr Pugh would see the damage that such medieval propositions have inflicted.
The execution of Jesus was not because of divine necessity, but through human inevitability. Whenever cruel domination systems — be they Roman occupation or the many contemporary examples — are challenged by those whose passion is for justice and peace, the oppressor inflicts punishment. It was Jesus’s passion that got him killed: his passion for the Kingdom of God. In short, Jesus did not die for the sins of the world, but because of the sins of the world.
I hope that Dr Pugh discusses this way of looking at the biblical evidence in St Mark’s Gospel, and perhaps realises that ministers of the good news might find a more receptive ear in this 21st century when challenged to consider what Jesus was passionate about rather than outdated and, frankly, unbelievable theories concerning the Passion of Jesus.
Chair, Progressive Christianity Network Britain
Sheffield S8 7UA
From Dr Henk Carpentier Alting
Sir, — It is tempting to follow Dr Ben Pugh and theorise the atonement. After all, we are familiar with theories in everyday life. So why might there be a problem?
Assuming that the Bible speaks the truth about the atonement, theories then turn this into provisional human understanding, which might be mistaken, and truth eludes us. That is characteristic of a theory, particularly when it cannot be empirically tested. Furthermore, theorising typically generates opposed alternatives, where we evaluate theoretical problems, and this leads to the marginalising or outright rejection of poor theories. As we ourselves judge scriptural theories, however, our judgements too readily reflect the cultural presuppositions of our time. We may then reject an uncongenial but legitimate part of the scriptural witness.
Unsurprisingly, Dr Pugh notes that “the moral-influence theory was wholeheartedly endorsed by the German liberal tradition of the 19th century, who were all repulsed by penal substitution.” His closing advice will encounter a similar problem for us today if “our task is to listen out for what the culture needs us to play, boldly, or to soft-pedal.”
Why should anyone believe any of these theories, whether played or soft-pedalled, if they have apparently not been resolved in the Church’s history by its greatest minds?
But there is an even more serious problem. Why should we suppose that God’s ineffable transcendence is amenable to our theorising? Put differently, where our human reason is the final arbiter of theories, we reduce God to something more familiar to ourselves by applying a context of familiar reasoning to him who is not an object in our world. This contextual shift is immediately obvious when scriptural truth becomes provisional.
What seems more faithful to scripture is to give weight to all aspects of the atonement in proportion to what is exegetically justified rather than what we find acceptable. We then see Christ’s death in all its fullness as something that we can have confidence in ourselves, and commend to others.
HENK CARPENTIER ALTING
30 Buckingham Road West
Stockport SK4 4BA
Vision of the rural Church’s future in north Essex
From the Revd Margaret H. King and Mrs Janice Rudd
Sir, — The article “Now the green blade riseth” (Features, 29 March) provided a welcome résumé of rural ministry and differing visions of its future. Unfortunately, some comments by one of our parishioners give a misleading account of the approach to mission and ministry within this benefice.
We do not work on the resource-church model, as we do not have one dominant congregation, and we have no towns. All 15 churches are tiny and deeply rural. The overall responsibility for any individual parish rests with either the Team Rector or Team Vicar. As an instrument of unity, however, each congregation takes part in one of the three, monthly group services at which the Team Rector presides. This enables every congregation to see the Rector monthly, as well as the parishes to be visited by either the Rector or Vicar for their regular services. It may seem complex, but it works.
We have been actively encouraging our lay people. Training, such as leading public intercessions, Wings for Worship (to train worship leaders), and Acorn Christian Listening and Healing courses have been provided. As a result, many congregation members have the confidence to pray, preach, and lead services. This has never been considered a stop-gap measure, but a sign of the ministry of the whole body of Christ. Some have proceeded to enhance their ministry: in recent years, five authorised local preachers, two pastoral assistants, two spiritual directors, and our own curate (ordained last September). Another ordinand begins training this September, and a further person is in the discernment process with the DDO: this from a total population base of around 3600 people.
Many of our activities have a multi-parish or benefice-wide scope. The monthly healing service rotates around the benefice. For the past ten years, we have organised Lenten Pilgrimages, in which people can deepen their spirituality and try out leading worship in a safe space away from the home churches. In 2014, we held a year-long Festival of Faith, in which every church held a variety of mission outreach events and activities.
We are presently organising, as a follow-up, a Craftsman’s Art and Music’s Measure Festival for October 2019, where we are inviting all our artists, crafts people, and musicians to put on an event in their local church to showcase the rich local talent and help people to feel more ownership of their local church. This is about creating networks, developing community, and putting our often little-known part of north Essex on the map.
Neither of the clergy are too busy to organise things. Activities have included organised prayer walks, benefice days, Quiet Days, a men’s fellowship group, a reading group, and nurture courses. A new Taizé service is being introduced.
We are not without our problems: we have very few children in some of the parishes; so we concentrate our children’s work in the local primary schools (we have no secondary schools in the benefice). We use Open the Book, and have regular collective worship. Sadly, we had to cease our Messy Church, as we could not find volunteers.
Many of our churches do have ageing congregations, but sometimes it is only when a church comes under real threat of closure that resurrection occurs: as the Revd Sally Gaze notes, it is extremely difficult to close a church. One of our 15 was closed, after which the community rose up, and it reopened within nine months. Another was about to be changed radically internally to become a day-care centre as a solution to a structural problem, and this galvanised that community to say that they wanted their church to remain a place of worship, and it has since grown in size and has children worshipping there.
Our churches have been there for more than 1000 years, they are prayer-soaked, open, and inclusive sacred spaces, and we believe and trust that God is faithful and, in his time, brings people to keep them alive.
MARGARET H. KING (Team Rector, North Hinckford Multi-parish Benefice)
JANICE RUDD (Chair of the Team Council)
c/o The Rectory, Great Henny
Sudbury CO10 7NW
Russia, the West, and Greenbelt headliners
From the Revd Arthur Champion
Sir, — Thank you for Tim Wyatt’s report “Clergy lead prayers to reclaim Salisbury” (News, 16 March), which was well-balanced and struck exactly the right tone. In contrast, Paul Vallely’s article “How to respond to Russia’s aggression” (Comment, 23 March) is unbalanced and reminds me of a fear-inducing slogan from the 1960s: “The Russians are coming!”
Thankfully, the Cold War ended in 1988, the Soviet Union collapsed, and a more peaceable Russian Federation emerged. Afterwards, Pope John Paul II reflected on the resilience of the Russian Orthodox Church, which remained faithful to Christ while enduring 80 years of communism.
It is easy to point to examples of Russian aggression while conveniently excusing ourselves for provocations such as the EU’s and NATO’s trying to expand eastwards into Ukraine. It is easy to blame the Russians for interfering with the US elections and not to be aware of the part played by the UK-based Cambridge Analytica. It is easy to refer to President Putin’s “invincible” nuclear weapons while ignoring the fact that the US military budget of $600 billion (2015) is more than the combined total of the next seven countries.
Why has the West rushed to judge the Russians guilty before investigations have been completed by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW)? More importantly, why have so many Christians done the same?
In the words of our Saviour: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5.44). Paul Vallely got one thing right at the end of his article: “But, for now, a period of calm reflection would seem sensible.”
New Rectory, Cowley
Gloucestershire GL53 9NJ
From the Revd Dr David L. Gosling
Sir, — If Greenbelt is going to include Pussy Riot in its August festival (News, 29 March), then why not invite Boris Johnson along as well? He could preside over a stall for throwing rotten tomatoes at effigies of Vladimir Putin.
I have attended only one Greenbelt event, when it was still located at Cheltenham. I was attached to the USPG tent, and I recall frank and open discussions about every aspect of the Christian faith. Is that now to be replaced by a combination of cheap commercialism and political jingoism?
DAVID L. GOSLING
2 St Lukes Mews
Cambridge CB4 3DF
From Maggie Butcher
Sir, — In her review of Didier Rance’s biography of John Bradburne (Books, 29 March), Lavinia Byrne states that Bradburne went to school at Gresham College. Whether this is Rance’s error or hers, I do not know, but the school was probably Gresham’s School in Holt, Norfolk, founded by Sir John Gresham in 1555, not Gresham College, founded by Sir John’s nephew, Thomas, in London in 1597. The latter was never a school as such.
(Former Academic Registrar, Gresham College)
5b Compton Avenue, London N1 2XD
Not enough defending
From Dr Stephen Pacey
Sir, — Our Sovereign’s son has called for an end to persecution of Christians. No one could reasonably argue with that, but let us not forget that one of his mother’s many titles is Defender of the Faith.
Although obviously not subjected to violence and persecution, Christians in this country are increasingly marginalised and under serious, continuing, and increasing threat from rampant secularism and other religions.
I very much regret to say that I have seen no real evidence that Defender of the Faith is anything more than a grandiose, but empty, title.
3 Dickinson Way
North Muskham NG23 6FF