Christian Essentials 1. What or Who is God?

What is God?, is question set in mythological time – that is, taking place before the dawn of historical time.

Genesis 1: the first story of creation from which we learn the following:

  1. The Creator exists as the prime mover of creation, existing before the act of creation itself.
  2. In the act of creation, the Creator brings order to the chaotic, swirling elements ordering them in the structures of creation.
  3. The created order is built up layer upon layer.
  4. The final layer of creation is human. All the elements of creation are expressions of the Creator’s desire to make something lovely. But humanity is different – how?
  5. Like all artists each layer of the creation in some vital way is Creator’s self-expression.
  6. However, humanity is the layer of creation that is most like God – able to behold the goodness of creation and to know the Creator of the beautiful ordering of creation – humans are given a quality that only God has up to this point – awareness and self-awareness.

In Gen 1 we learn that God as Creator is relational by nature. God uses the pronouns we and us and our, not I, me or mine -let us make humanity in our own image; male and female God created them.In humanity God’s intention is to make a layer of creation that directly reflects back to God the attributes of the divine – the divine as a relational community.

Genesis 2: a second story of creation from which we learn:

  1. That creating humanity is God’s first and the last action of creation. Between the first human being – Adam and the last human being to be created – Eve, we find the other layers of creation established.
  2. Genesis 2 also has a central theme of relationship; each layer of creation is made with the intention of providing Adam with company so that he won’t live in the garden all alone. We can deduce that relationality is a central attribute of the divine community of God.
  3. God waits to see what Adam names each new element in creation – again there is an expression of a desire for intimacy to be an essential attribute in creation.
  4. Finally, God sees that animals are not quite right as true companions for Adam. God realizes he needs a complementary blueprint of being human to provide a true companion for the human Adam.
  5. God takes an element of Adam’s body and separates it out into a separate created being; a true companion who embodies complementarity – the same and yet different;  to Adam’s masculinity comes Eve’s femininity.
  6. Chapter 2 ends with the hint about a special type of relationship – a relationship that expresses the notions of companionship based on both similarity and complementarity.

Where might God’s deep desire for human beings to experience relationship come from if not as an expression of God’s essential nature. Harking back to the ending of Gen:1  –let us make humanity in our own image; male and female God created themAdam and Eve come to mirror the relational and communal character of God.

What can we deduce here?

  1. God is communal – relational and not solitary.
  2. The Divine is neither male nor female but expresses a complementarity of masculine and feminine principles.
  3. We are made to reflect back to God and into the rest of the creation God.
  4. To be fully human is in this sense to be most like God

God and gender – a side note.

God is energetic – in whose nature can be found the creative energies of the masculine and feminine – yin and yang – animus and anima. 

A further question: Is maleness only an expression of masculine energy? Is femaleness only and expression of femininity? If God is neither male nor female then biological gender is not an essential characteristic of God. But in human identity, despite the procreative function of biological gender, identity as it seems to be within God, is a reflection of a variety of energetic combination and recombination of animus and anima, masculine and feminine, rather than a simple biological binary of male and female.

Genesis 3: a third creation story from which we learn about the tensions and interplay between free will, awareness and self-awareness as essential divine elements reflected in human beings.

So far, we have been building up a picture of God through the idea of humanity being an image of God. An essential element of the Creator’s nature is that God is free. Therefore, God must also intend humanity to be more than lovely puppets to be played with and adored. God intends humans to be truly free to know our own mind through the exercise of choice.

In Gen 3 we see the tensions played out when the creation exercises the full rights given to it by the Creator It becomes messy. Did not God foresee this? It seems not.

No relationship can exist if one party is not free to choose. God seems to understand this from the very beginning but also seems strangely unprepared for what happens when humans do what humans are created to do – make choices as an expression of free will.

In the 3rd creation story humanity comes of age, maybe a little sooner than God intended and sooner than Adam and Eve seemed able to cope with, like children prematurely thrust into the responsibilities of adulthood.

What is God? This is a back-to-front way of really asking, who are we or what does it mean to be human? The answer to this is that to be human is to be made in the image of God. To be fully human is to be most like God. We are made for relationship with one another and with God.

Who is God? God is Liberator

Who is God?, is a question set in epic time. – that is, unfolding within human historical time.

So far by exploring how our human identity as a reflection or image of God reveals some essential aspects to what God is – What is God, God is creator.

The question: who is God takes us into epic time recounted in Exodus 3. Here we find a different kind of question to explore namely who is God, that is who is God in human history?

In the story of the call of Moses we encounter God operating within human history, building a relationship with the man Moses. In Exod 3 we have a completely new question and a new answer. It’s no longer what is God, but who is God?

In revealing [himself] to Moses God identifies as:

The God of his ancestors, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob
Furthermore, I am the one who has heard the cry of my people who are in Egypt and I have come down to deliver them.

Who is God?

God is the liberator who hears the cry of the oppressed and frees them from bondage. 

To be fully human is to be most like God.

Who is God? God is love

Revelation occurs when God breaks into history with a final and complete self-identification.

John’s Prologue speaks of God as Logos or Word. The Word is in the beginning with God and is God. The Word is identified with Jesus, who was with God at the beginning of creation and has now finally come into the world – full of grace and truth. 

In the human face of Jesus we find God’s final and fullest self-revelation – the ultimate answer to the question: who is God? The Creator moves from outside the creation to become one with the creation. The Creator becomes by choice, subject to the conditions of creation as an expression of profound love. We will take this up more fully in the next session Who is Jesus?

Questions to ponder.

  1. What does it mean to me that I am made in the image of God and how might this realization change my view of God and or my view of myself?
  2. Is it important to me to discover that God is relational and a community rather than solitary and individual? If so how does this change relating to God for me? How might this affect how I relate to other people?
  3. Understanding that I have free will – freedom to respond or not to respond to God – how might this help me in the experience of life – day by day?
  4. What implications flow for us from God as the one who hears, is concerned for, and who is the agent of liberation?

Community as Spiritual Practice

Church is a place for community. We often view this in social terms and miss the point that church as community is like no other. Participation in community is not about membership it’s about discipleship and participation is a form of spiritual practice.

Members view community as a place where they get their needs met when they chose to come and be present. Disciples view community as the agency for God’s purpose not only in their own lives but in the wider world.

Henri Nouwen puts it like this:

The Christian community is not a closed circle of people embracing each other, but a forward moving group of companions bound together by the same voice asking for their attention.

Michelle Heyne comments that:

If we consciously adopt that as our stance and see part of our purpose as attending to the call of that voice in community, it is less likely that the parish will become simply another demand on our time, or a place characterized by turf struggles and pet projects (however worthy) pg 73-74. 

Heyne notes that three key words stand out in relation to Christian community: Formation, Renewal, Apostolate. 

Formation-the maturing of Christian identity around the living-out of the baptismal covenant. Spiritual practice is the means by which we grow in experiential understanding, loving affection, and holy action – doing motivated as an expression of reliance on God.

Renewal – occurs through worship, daily spiritual practice and community involvement and participation.

Apostolate – participation in the work of Christ in service, evangelization, and stewardship – tender competence – in the parish, the workplace, among family and friends, and in civic life. 

The Specific task of the Church – to create healthy communities in which individuals grow into mature Christian disciples.

Scott Peck (The Different Drum 1987) states that the dysfunction in most communities is the result of an inability to create true co-operation. He outlines four stages in moving from dysfunctional to functional community: Pseudo Community, Chaos, Emptiness, and True Community. 

Pseudo Community

A community that pretends all is well through denying the presence of conflict. This is the community where no one confronts the problems but bitches endlessly about them in the car park.


When someone or a group break rank and accuse others of ignoring the problems. Because this group has no mature resolution skills it descends into chaos. In such a state the community will either revert to Pseudo Community or move on into Emptiness.


The group refuses to return to denial. It begins to ask questions that create space for reflection, testing out and seeks to create understanding rather than being understood. This lays the possibility of moving to True Community.

True Community

Is marked by a quality of collaboration and flourishing. Energy levels rise, folk engage with what they are passionate about and don’t fear communicating about this, and people enjoy being together.

St Benedict emphasized the importance of cultivating obedience in community life. What he meant by this is the cultivating of the skill of really listening. Not listening selectively, or only when not feeling threatened, but really listening to God’s Word, (Scripture) the consensus in community (the Rule), and the counsel of leadership (authority). He understood the experience in community to be one of life-long learning in the building of a community fit for the Lord’s service.

For Benedict community was the mark of God’s presence in the world. It is through community that we hear God speaking to us. When we pray with each other in mind, when we reflect on God’s Word for our own living and action, but chiefly when we gather for worship, God continually speaks to us, and through us, into the world. These are the deeply Anglican values of community.

In our world full of strangers, estranged from their own past, culture and country, form neighbors, friends and family, from their deepest self and their God, we witness a painful search for a hospitable place where life can be lived without fear and where community can be found … That is our vocation: to convert the hostis into a hospes, the enemy into a guest and to create the free and fearless space where brotherhood and sisterhood can be formed and fully experienced. Henri Nouwen Reaching Out.

Spiritual reflection – a personal spiritual practice


A short recap

  1. Eucharist is for most of us a weekly spiritual practice. In the Eucharist the community gathers for worship and it’s into this context that God speaks most directly to us as a community of the Body of Christ in the world through the lectionary readings. Eucharist also offers a vertical as in transcendent connection to the spiritual dimension.
  1. The Daily Office is a daily spiritual practice. This is what we call the Common Prayer of the Church and when we participate in saying any part of the Daily Office – morning, midday, evening or night prayer from the Book of Common Prayer or another format for the Daily Office we can be likened to a lamp plugging into the electric current of worldwide prayer, that continues 24/7. Even when we pray the DO alone, we do so with others in our community and those throughout the world who will always remain unknown to us, very much in mind.

You can find more about our recent exploration of these kinds of spiritual practice at Lent Program details

  1. Spiritual reflection is a broad term that covers any form of personal spiritual practice – mental reflection, inner stillness -silence, and deep listening practices.In Anglican Tradition, spiritual reflection is referred to as habitual recollection, the practice of the continual awareness of God all around us in the world. This can be a moment when we are overcome by beauty of nature, a moment in time and place, or a moment when we are deeply aware of pain – another’s or our own. Habitual recollection uses our senses to become aware of God being present in such moments.

The cultivation of personal prayer, rooted in silence and listening involves:

  • Exploring a relationship with self, using meditation and body based activity. Meditation is a practice of silence that focuses on fostering an awareness of how the elements of the mind and the heart support or hinder a sense of the coming together of our whole personality. Body based methods use the body as a focus for becoming aware of oneself in a similar way.

Prayer must involve the unifying of the personality, the integration of the mind, heart, into one center …. Without self-discovery there can be no further progress. In order to find of whom we can only find in and through the depths of our on soul, we must first find ourselves. Without self-knowledge our love remains superficial. Kenneth Leech, Soul Friend.

Exploring a relationship with God through scripture and spiritual guidance. Lectio Divina is the method Christians use to encounter a personal encounter with God communicated through meditating on a short passage of Scripture. In this way God seeks to draw our attention to something that needs recognizing in the immediate here and now.

  • Exploring spiritual guidance as a relationship with another person who acts as a spiritual friend, spiritual companion or soul friend, a guide accompanying us as we discover those elements of our relationship with God that remain hidden from us, because we are too close to ourselves. Like Lectio Divina, spiritual guidance, traditionally referred to as spiritual direction can happen in one-to-one or in a group.
  • Self-examination using the spirit of penitence, particularly through the sacrament of reconciliation (confession), which involves consulting with a priest as the sacramental sign of God’s presence for the purpose of working through emotional blockages and spiritual obstacles that hamper us on our path to a deeper awareness of God.
  • At points in our life our spiritual exploration is well supported by a period of psychological therapy, often needed to firm up our emotional foundations so that they are strong enough to support our spiritual growth.

All practices that cultivate stillness, increase our toleration of silence, offer us a deep opportunity to listen to God speaking through the world around us, through the Christian revelation, through others in our lives, and from within our own mind and heart.

A fact of our lives is that we live in the presence of God … This is true whether we have an awareness of it or not. Conscious awareness isn’t even the goal. The objective is a subconscious reliance upon God as members of the Body of Christ, in the workplace, family, friendship, civic life, and congregational life. … This state is built up by grounding ourselves in Eucharist, Office, the community of the church, and particular methods of reflection and personal devotion. Robert Gallagher, In Your Holy Spirit: the parish through spiritual practice.

In short, to live with awareness and reliance on God is to live from our Baptismal Covenant.

Gallagher cites a comment by David Brooks, the NY Times columnist. Brooks speaks of two approaches to life. The first is the Well Planned Lifethrough which you search for your overall purpose and then make decisions about allocation of time, energy and talent – i.e. we are always in control. The second is the Summoned Life. Here life isn’t a project to be completed, it is an unknown landscape to be explored … guided by sensitive observation and situational awareness, not calculation and long-range planning. Gallagher notes that both can play a part in unifying the personality integrating heart and mind into one center. Pg 58


We run from silence in the modern world, fearing it, and so avoiding it with distraction. The spiritual practices grouped loosely as habitual recollection can help us in this struggle to run from ourselves It’s often an uncomfortable encounter but one necessary for spiritual flourishing.

Each of us possesses a temperament, which orients us to prefer some approaches, finding them helpful while accepting that there are other practices that won’t work well for us. As the great Archbishop of Canterbury during WWII, William Temple said: We pray as we are, not as we are not.


The Daily Office -a daily spiritual practice

The Daily Practice

Last week we studied the Eucharist as a form of predominantly weekly spiritual practice. Contact me for a copy of the handout if you don’t have it. Or you can buy Michelle Heyne’s little book In Your Holy Spirit: Traditional Spiritual Practices in Today’s Christian Life Ascension Press.

Today we take a look at spiritual practice from a day-to-day perspective. Daily spiritual practices can take many forms and are often dictated by individual tastes and patterns of life. Yet, for Episcopalians, the backbone of daily spiritual practice is something we call the Daily Office.

With the exception of A little History section and material relating useful materials and links for  the parishioners of  St Martin’s parish, this summary follows the material presented by Michelle Heyne in her book In Your Holy Spirit: Traditional Spiritual Practices in Today’s Christian Life  and Robert A. Gallagher in his companion volume- In your Holy Spirit: Shaping the Parish Through Spiritual Practice, both published by the Ascension Press

A little History

The monks in their monasteries kept seven hours of prayer throughout the 24hour period, referred to as the Liturgy of the Hours or the Divine Office. This pattern was simplified for the parish clergy into a general pattern of morning, midday, evening and night prayer with an addition of something called the Office of Readings. Both the monks and the clergy understood the Divine Office to be the official prayer of the whole church, the church’s Common Prayer, and they as the official prayers of the church were obligated to pray it, while the laity was not expected to.

Thomas Cranmer in the first Book of Common Prayer of 1549 simplified the pattern to Morning and Evening Prayer – referred to as Matins and Evensong. In addition to simplifying the monastic pattern, he had the novel idea that as the Daily Office was the prayer of the whole church, i.e. the Common Prayer prayed by everyone, Matins and Evensong were to be public services in the church for which the doors had to be open and the bell rung; still the practice in most English churches. Thus, the ancient Benedictine practice of the Divine Office or the Liturgy of the Hours became embedded in Anglican spiritual practice as the backbone of our approach to prayer.

Common Prayer

My father was a parish priest. When I lost my faith he said, “if you find you can no longer believe just act as if you still do. If you feel you can no longer pray just go on saying the word’’ Inspector Adam Dalgliesh in P.D James’ A Taste for Death.

Today, most of us will use the Daily Office as an individual practice. When we do we unite our prayer with the perpetual prayer of the church. This can be likened to plugging into an electric current of prayer endlessly circulating the globe. Most of us now can be better supported in praying the office in front of PC, tablet or smart phone screens. See the resource list at the end of this summary.

Robert Benson author of In Constant Prayer described an agreement he and several friends made to pray the Office alone but keeping one another in mind. They prayed it for one another so that if one person was prevented from praying the Office one day then others were saying it for her. Also if one was tempted to neglect saying it because he didn’t feel like it one day, he had only to remember the others who were relying on him to pray with them in mind.

In the forward to this book, Phyllis Tickle wrote of people in today’s post-Christian world becoming evangelicals on the Canterbury trail in pursuit of intimate contact with the ancient future. 

The structure

of the Daily Office is always the same:




Common Prayers

The different offices differ because the mood and feel of the psalms and collects – the common prayers of the church reflect the time of day, synching with our biorhythm. This is a very important point because praying the Office is an aid to regulating the pace and stress of our day. Morning prayer sets us moving into the day. Midday prayer marks the shift of energy and activity as we pause for lunch and transition from morning to afternoon. Evening prayer marks the further transition from the activity of the day to the settling into evening, dinner, hopefully winding down and time for relaxation. Night prayer transitions us with a looking back over the day passed, preparation for sleep, and the anticipation of new day – so to as the great Persian poet Rumi puts it: awake with the dawn with the remembrance of thee in my heart. 


The benefit of the Daily Office is in its consistency without too much variety. Yet, the BCP (Book of Common Prayer) offers three formats for common prayer:

Rite 1 – traditional language

Rite 2 – contemporary language

An alternative Order for Evening

Simplified Daily Devotions for morning, midday and evening.

The BCP has it’s own 2-year lectionary table in the back and this is for the Daily Office readings, which are different from the 3-year Sunday Lectionary. The daily lectionary gives longer pieces of scripture and allows for a more sequential pattern with reading a book from the Bible over a period of days or weeks.

Book options

The normal BCP has the Daily Offices, psalms and lectionary table for which you need to also have a Bible, or a Lectionary volume – there are 3 of these covering the entire year.

The Daily Office Volumes 1 & 2 containing the Daily Offices and the lectionary readings in one book. 

Electronic options

  • The Online Book of Common Prayer – Allowing access to the whole BCP from a PC, tablet or smartphone.
  • I highly recommend the new Electronic Common Prayer App available from the online Apple or Google App Stores, which contains the lectionary and the Daily Office and more.
  • Online Daily Office:
  1. Mission St Clare
  2. The Brotherhood of St Gergory – an Episcopal Community online Daily Office

At St Martin’s

Morning Prayer is offered from Tuesday to Friday at 9am daily. Each day there is usually at least one other parishioner, sometimes more joining Linda and I. Compline is often said following evening meetings. I know one parishioner who will say Compline with another person over the phone around 8.30pm.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be able to offer Evening Prayer, maybe a couple of times a week. But this would need greater participation from folk. Praying the Common Prayer of the Church is not something the clergy have to lead although wherever possible they should be present to participate. Lay folk can just as easily officiate.

A Bright idea -I wonder if we might follow Robert Benson’s experience and form small groups of people who although saying the office individually, would be doing so with a strong sense of connecting with others, praying on one another’s behalf, with the group sharing in this responsibility for keeping the common prayer of God’s people alive.

If you ask Muslim about the pattern of prayer he or she will reply pray 5x a day. What if someone were to ask one of us about our pattern of prayer and we replied with a description of the Daily Office.

The value of the Office is its objectivity. It is a means by which we pray with the whole church, uniting our prayer with that of millions of other Christians living and dead. This is true whether one is alone or in a group, for the Office is essentially a corporate act. It is objective too in that it does not depend on our feelings, but gives our prayer life regularity and a disciplined framework. Kenneth Leech, True Prayer.

Spiritual Practice – Eucharist

Eucharist – a weekly spiritual practice

Here follows my summary of the first chapter in Michelle Heyne’s book In Your Holy Spirit: Traditional Spiritual Practices in Today’s Christian Life, our recommended text for the Adult forums in Lent.

One is unlikely to hear from the mouths of clergy in the Episcopal Church a direct statement that weekly attendance at the Eucharist, regardless of soccer, coffee, or brunch at Star Bucks, or staying in bed and reading the paper, is an expectation.

Hectoring people is rarely effective. But, the assumption that we all participate or not, as the case may be from a position of common knowledge and experience of the Christian faith, is not useful either.

We live in a diverse culture where the natural assumption is that individual preferences and desires trump communal ones.

Anglicanism has a broad tolerance for nominal Christmas and Easter attendance.

‘Yet it has always insisted that the life of the church and her sacraments must be thought of as a necessary means of grace. Church life is not an elective, which a Christian may take on out of a sense of duty and responsibility but may omit without serious damage to his or her faith. The fact is he or she cannot really be a Christian apart from involvement in the community of believers’. John M Krumm Why choose the Episcopal Church

When we arrive at the awareness that being present at the Eucharist is more than a matter of transitory feelings on any particular day, we have cross a significant threshold of awareness. Showing up – is neither an obligation nor a recipe for emotional self-medication, i.e. making ourselves feel happy. Showing up is a joyful response to the love of God, and an expression of gratitude for love received and desire to give love in return.

For most of us, Eucharist falls into the category of a weekly spiritual practice. Eucharist is the fully Christian life in action. It is an experience of being conformed by Jesus example of self-giving love. In Eucharist, we are transformed by the inpouring of divine life. We express this through more generous living. As the Nike add says: ‘Just do it!’

Matters for consideration

  1. The issue of competence

 Liturgy is complex. Why? Because human beings thrive on complexity as a means of going deeper. We need a certain amount of anxiety in order to learn. (quote story Pg 27) It takes time to become familiar with the pattern of the Eucharist. What helps?

  • Being present is the most important step
  • Imagine yourself into being part of the action rather than a passive observer. Remind yourself that it could not happen without you being there.
  • Arrive early and take time to read through the service book, paying attention to the explanations or instructions that occur in italics.
  • Experiment with not holding the book but simply watching and listening – a kind of kinetic learning exercise through being carried by the motion and energy of the liturgy.
  • Note areas where you have questions
  • Come in good time to prepare yourself, collect yourself, anticipate the coming experience.
  1. Liturgy uses the physicality for worship

Bread, wine, water essential elements for life.Worship involves the body and movement, it’s not just about the head or the heart. We stand, we kneel, we speak and sing, we listen and we are silent, we eat, drink, touch smell. Bringing the body into worship reconnects us with the essential truth of our faith – The Incarnation.

  • Other practices that are common in Episcopal worship:
    • Bowing and or genuflecting (going down briefly on one knee) while facing the altar or entering or leaving a pew. We bow to the cross on the altar or as it passes in procession. We genuflect to the presence of the consecrated elements of bread and wine.
    • Making the sign of the cross, this is most generally speaking a reminder of our baptism and happens at parts of the service that connect us to our baptism, e.g.
      • the end of the Gloria,
      • the end of the Creed
      • during the absolution
      • during the Eucharistic Prayer after the gifts are sanctified by the Holy Spirit we ask that we too may be sanctified
      • before receiving Holy Communion during the final blessing we are able to be part of all of these things because of our baptism.

Not everyone has to do the same things at the same time. Actions articulate feelings. We all feel differently, and not always feel the same way at the same time.

At the very least, they can be persuaded that the bodily posture makes no difference to their prayers: for they constantly forget, what you must always remember, that they are animals and that whatever their bodies do affects their souls.S. Lewis, The Screwtape letters.

  1. Silence, stillness, being unhurried

How can we release ourselves totally to God’s Spirit? How can we relinquish our desires to God’s better purposes? We need the channel of silence to transport us from the busy harbors of our tensions out into the ocean of God’s infinite being. Marva Dawn, Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down.

Liturgy is a kind of unplugging, a kind of mind, body, spirit rebooting. In liturgy we individually merge with the community of worshipers for the purpose of spiritual and emotional renewal so that on leaving church we can rededicate ourselves to being instruments of God’s greater purpose for us in the coming week.

Ironically, as Norvene West points out we are noise-addicted people. We may think silence is easy to do, accessible for anyone to claim until we try it. Being silent is an art to be learned, an experience we learn to tolerate.

Feeling hurried and distracted is often our defense against the demands we experience when we try to practice silence. Silence is uncomfortable because in silence the only thing we can do is wait. How much more preferable is the talking, singing, movement of real worship to which we hurry to return from the experience of being silent or making silence.

Ways to experiment with being silent or making silence

  • Feel the solidity of the pew or chair you are sitting on. Sink back and let the pew or chair support you
  • Put down books, bulletins, or papers
  • Become aware of the gentle rising and falling of your breathing
  • Notice how the mind wants to distract you, notice how the body wants to fidget. Just watch these thoughts or sensations and don’t respond to, nor engage with them
  • Notice if being silent in a congregation – in public makes you feel self-conscious. Use body movements like standing or kneeling as expressions of a silent orientation.
  1. Engaging and listening to the Word

We believe as Episcopalians that God addresses us through Scripture as a community. It’s as a community that we interpret the meaning of scripture. As an assembly in worship God invites us into a conversation which is always so much more than the conversation we would prefer to have with ourselves.

We don’t have to comprehend the meaning of the passage. All we need to do is to receive it and let it work in us. We often hear the words in the distance while our attention is distracted. None of this matters – very much. The important thing is we are there, and as a community we receive the invitation from God, and as members of a community, we act upon it.

The Creed is a response of faith to what we receive in Scripture. But it’s not our personal faith, although it may be. I find the words of the creed sometimes make sense and sometimes don’t. As individuals, we ebb and flow in and out. The Creed is the faith of the community. It’s what we as a people of God have always and everywhere believed. It’s a protection against the mystery of God being reduced to only what we in our generation are comfortable with accepting or understanding.

This takes us back to the corporate nature of worship, Eucharist is not an action for individuals, it’s a practice of community.

Ways to experiment with receiving the Word 

  • Be curious about what the word is that God might have for us as a community.
  • Alternate between reading along and raising your head and listening.
  • Read the lessons in advance of coming to Church.
  • Be open with yourself about the challenges of taking the text seriously or authoritatively. How to do hold a tension between your own sense of personal integrity and the being open to a broader tradition of understanding that is part of the community?
  • Let yourself be distracted and maybe at times just admire the sense of the space, being in this space with others who share the experience of being present together.

Christian Essentials 101: Spiritual Practice

Spiritual Practice


Spiritual Practice lies at the very heart of what it means to be an Episcopalian. Our Anglican Tradition of spirituality has deep roots in the ancient Benedictine spirituality that came to be one of the chief characteristics of English Christianity. This ancient spirituality was given a reemphasis at the English Reformation, particularly in Thomas Cranmer’s reforms of the liturgy that led to the creation of The Book of Common Prayer. Benedictine, and what later came to be identified as Anglican spirituality, emphasizes the importance of the ordinary rather than the extraordinary. It teaches that God is to most often found in the midst of the ordinary events of the daily round of our individual lives, and our life lived in community.

The great figures of Anglican Tradition are not referred to primarily as theologians, or prelates. Historically we have used the word divine to refer to our great thinkers and spiritual practitioners. This communicates another of the Benedictine influences which has resulted in the formative figures of our tradition being valued because of their teaching and practice of the spiritual life of prayer, study, and reflection. The period of the 16th– 17th centuries saw the flowering of classical Anglican Spirituality as exemplified in the lives and writing of a group known as the Caroline Divines We continue to look back to this period as the one in which the quintessential expression of Anglican spirituality comes into modern flower.

St Benedict referred to his small community as a little school of prayer. The Greek’s used the word askesis to describe a kind of gymnasium for spiritual practice. This gives us our English words ascetical or ascetic to describe the disciplines of the spiritual life. Anglican theology is really ascetic theology as described by Benedict as a little school of prayer.


Worship, for Episcopalians is the primary spiritual expression of the Christian life. All other aspects of Christian ministry and service flow from the central root of worship. Worship is where the community of faith and God primarily encounter each other. It is in worship that we transcend personal differences. In each generation it is in worship that we hear God’s invitation to conversation addressing the challenges of Christian living. It is in worship that the human heart soars to meet God in praise and thanksgiving.

We use the term liturgy to refer to the practice of worship. It is another Greek word, which in origin means the work or the service performed by the community of the baptized in the world. Liturgy is also the word we use to describe the way the community of the baptized structure the patterns for their service of worship. The Episcopal Church is therefore, a liturgical Church.

Liturgy and Music

Liturgy and music emerge out of an inheritance from the past, reformulated for the yet-to-come through the prism of present. The Anglican musical tradition gives expression to a remarkable synthesis of transcendence and intimacy able to address the hunger at the heart of modern imagination. We need more, rather than less, of this food. Present day challenges catalyze musical and liturgical innovation enabling our tradition to speak in an age characterized by plurality of spiritual need, rich individual and communal diversity, and rapid, destabilizing change.

Liturgy and Psychospiritual Need

Psychospiritually, liturgical worship is best likened to a process of oscillation between our here-and-now awareness and the deep unconscious currents of God’s communication with us as the faithful community. Through worship we approach a thin place where the dimension of time and space intersects with the dimension of divine energy. We enter worship as individuals. In worship we become formed into a corporate body – the Body of Christ. Here, we are nourished and refreshed by the energies of encounter with the divine.

This is a journey that we undertake every time we celebrate worship, esp. Eucharistic worship. The formality of Anglican liturgy invites transcendent connection, which paradoxically floods individual experience with a longed-for warmth of intimacy with God and with one another. Liturgy addresses the human psychological need for spiritual transformation. Movement and music are liturgy’s tools. The Episcopal Church is the location where liturgy and music become effective instruments for transformation in the lives of individuals identifying with multiple and overlapping communities of interest.

In the 21st Century, church has little concrete meaning for many people who nevertheless are discovering the Anglican Tradition of the Episcopal Church as a location for encounter with a sense of the numinous. Each week, I meet at least four or five such persons who pass through the Great Doors of Trinity Cathedral. They seem propelled by an inarticulate sense of spiritual loneliness and longing. At Trinity, they encounter the power of our liturgy, which beckons them to return. Eventually, many report three identifiable components in this encounter: traditional Anglican liturgy, preaching that seeks to address the bewildering confusions at the heart of their spiritual loneliness within complex contemporary life, and the experience of seeing themselves reflected in the diversity of the faces of other people around them. Through liturgy, music, and welcome of diversity, our churches become the location for a unique quality of spiritual encounter for people with little connection to religion but for whom spirituality is a search for meaning.

Our Anglican Tradition of worship, structured by The Book of Common Prayer, places the Episcopal Church at the intersection of contemporary social, civic, and spiritual life, as never before. Here, the spiritually seeking, the spiritually illiterate, and the conventionally religious find a location for spiritual and social encounter capable of addressing the plurality of today’s needs and the opportunities, and hopes, of tomorrow’s world.

Common Prayer

This is both a form of worship as well as comprising the second element of Anglican spiritual practice. The reference to common simply means prayer of the people of God in distinction to individual prayer. The ancient patterns of the Daily or Divine Office comprised of seven services of prayer throughout the day and night. The rhythm of this cycle of prayer not only expressed a need to praise God, but also regulated the daily round of life. This seven-fold pattern is condensed in the Book of Common Prayer of 1979 into four orders for Morning, Midday, Evening and Night Prayer. It was Cranmer’s original intention – see back to the session on The Book of Common Prayer  that these become services of public worship, in addition to forming a daily pattern for personal devotional practice.

When we participate in these patterns of common prayer, either by reading them from the prayer book, or prayer book app or listening to them , or attending them in a church, we are plugging-into the perpetual cycle of the Church’s common prayer, rather like a plug is inserted into the electrical current. While the current flows all the time, we only light-up when plugged-in.

Anglican Tradition, because of its Benedictine nature, places great emphasis on the importance of participating in common prayer or the Daily Office. This practice remains a formal obligation of the clergy of the Church of England and a strong spiritual practice for the clergy of the Episcopal Church. As you can see from the links above, we now have wonderful electronic access points so that all of us can participate in the patterns of common prayer in ways the fit well with our busy modern lives.


Study is the third element of Anglican spiritual practice. This can include many different kinds of reading for the purpose of deepening our understanding and experience of God. Historically, study also had a very specific meaning within the Benedictine Tradition. It referred to a method of reading the Holy Scriptures known as Lectio Divina – literally, divine reading. There are many forms for Lectio Divina, all variations on a common pattern. The form I like is as follows:

Open the Bible randomly and let your eyes full on a section of verses, maybe no more than 3 or 4 in number e.g. Mark 4:26-28. For those of us new to this practice I suggest use the psalms or the Gospels for this. 

Then read the passage slowly three times. What is the word or phrase that stands out for you? Repeat it softly to your self over the period of a minute or so. 

Then read it twice more and ask yourself how does this word or phrase connect with my experience at the moment, what are my associations to it, what does it remind me of or make me think about? 

Read it again letting it sound in your mind or out loud and ask yourself – is there an invitation from God in this passage that applies to my life over the next 5 – 7 days? 

Finish with prayerful reflection on gratitude and thankfulness for what God is revealing to you through this passage. 

This is a method for praying the Scriptures rather than just studying them.


Reflection is the forth element of Anglican spiritual practice. The Caroline Divines used the lovely phrase, habitual recollection to refer to the spiritual practice of reflection. This is the cultivation of an awareness of the presence of God in the world around us. This can be a sudden experience of beauty in a sunrise or sunset, a moment of encounter with another person, or an experience that fills us with gratitude. God is present to our rational faculties of perception in the natural world and in human society. The practice of contemplation is mindfully reflecting on the presence of God. Habitual recollection may also open us to experience the seeming absence of God, during times of disappointment.

Today we might use another word – meditation – in place of habitual recollection. Meditation can follow many patterns. Today our Christian experience of meditation has been deeply enriched by the presence of Buddhism in our society. A simple form of Christian meditation is:

find somewhere to sit quietly at home or elsewhere so to bring your attention to the rising and falling of our breath. We imagine the breath deep within our belly, rather than in our chest while we simply observe ourselves breathing. Through observing our breath we come easily into the presence of God, who is the breath that is the source of all life. There is never a moment when we are not breathing. Yet, because we do it all the time we hardly ever notice the experience. 

Once we have stabilized and relaxed into our observation of breathing we can allow a word or mantra to rise and full on the breath. This can be anything, but the one I recommend is the Aramaic word Maranatha. Aramaic was the language commonly used by Jesus. Maranatha simply means: Come, Lord. 

It is important that the word we use does not stimulate intellectual thought. It is also important that we use a word or a phrase that can be easily divided into syllables that attach to the rising and falling of the breath. In this way the first two syllables ma-ra attach to the in-breath, with na-tha sounding on the out- breath.

Habitual recollection or meditation or contemplation, are all methods for developing a mindful awareness of God in each present moment of the day.


Spiritual practice is best thought of as a daily routine to orient us to the presence and experience of God in our lives. I have listed the formal components of a balanced approach to spiritual practice. However, there are lots of permutations and combinations and the most important thing is to begin something, and to begin with a structure and pattern that fits the demands of your life. There is nothing to be gained by being overly ambitious. So start small, start slow, but the important thing is to make a start. For busy, people make use of the apps that are now available to smart phone and tablet devices. These afford flexibility and convenience.

Spiritual practice is also a way to manage the stresses of our day. Benedict advised his monks to start and then to consciously stop activity and allowing a pause before starting a new activity. Our problem today is that we start, but never really stop anything, reaching the end of the day with an accumulation of unfinished business weighing us down. Stopping does not mean completing, it simply means recognizing a natural boundary when one activity or task, of necessity makes room for what needs to follow in the day. There is always next time!

The patterns of common prayer: morning, midday, evening, and night reflect the human body’s biorhythm as well as the changing mood and texture of the day. Each prayer evokes the tone of the time of day. Paying attention to this helps us regulate ourselves emotionally and energetically, as we move through the course of each day.

Other helpful links: Lectionary or

Daily Office

if the hyperlinks don’t connect cut and past to your browser.




Christian Essentials 101: True Worship

Worship and Common Prayer

Worship plays an important role in most Christian Traditions. However, in the Anglican Tradition, of which the Episcopal Church is the American representative, it plays a central and crucial role. We are one of the few, if not the only tradition, which defines itself by its worship. The boundaries of our communion are defined by the activity of worship because we know we are a community primarily, not by our experience of shared belief – as in- we all believe the same truths defined in the same way, but through our experience of worshipping together. For Episcopalians, Jesus’ saying in Matthew 18:20 – For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them becomes that where two or three gather to worship in my name, there am I with them. Episcopalians have another adage: as we worship so we believe.

We know ourselves and recognize each other in community when we gather to worship God. The worship of God is our priority. It is important for us to understand why this is and where this approach to Christian community has come from.

  1. The roots of a worship-centered approach to religious identity are very ancient. At the time of the English Reformation the majority of English religious houses and monasteries followed in one form or another, the Rule of St Benedict. Benedict structured his religious communities around the centrality of worship. The Benedictine ethos has shaped our Anglican identity as a communion to a greater extent than is the case in any other Christian Tradition.
  2. The Elizabethan Settlement (a series of Acts of Parliament during the reign of Elizabeth I) resulted in English Christians, whatever their theological or political beliefs finding themselves compelled by Law to sit alongside one another in their parish churches. Although they did not share theology, nevertheless traditional catholics found themselves sharing pew space alongside neighbors who embraced the protestant reforms.
  3. Anglican identity did not emerge out of an agreed approach to belief based on a shared way of looking at God and the world. Anglican identity formed from having to tolerate difference within a national, Church of England.
  4. With agreement on belief impossible, a notion of right relationship became the crucial element in the formation of Anglican identity. Anglicanism emerged from a shared experience of right relationship, which over the generations became increasingly shaped into a communal identity by the worship and language of The Book of Common Prayer.
  5. This historical accident continues to shape our identity as a community. We are Christians who recognize one another through our willingness to worship together. We continue to be shaped by the words of The Book of Common Prayer, even though we may not share any common agreement as to what these forms and words might mean.

The Book of Common Prayer (BCP)

The Book of Common Prayer is unique. Other traditions have a book of services and prayers. No other tradition has anything approaching the contribution made by The Book of Common Prayer, which has single handedly shaped our community’s identity. On the landscape of American Christianity, it is the BCP that gives the Episcopal Church its unique characteristic as a community tolerant of considerable diversity, defined and held together by its shared approach to worship. Despitecover centuries there having been a number of revisions of the BCP, our current 1979 revision still carries the shape and linguistic stamp of Thomas Cranmer. Alas his soaring command of the English language, his poetic prose has to some extent been replaced by the use of contemporaneous English in the new Rite II service options. However, some semblance of Cranmarian English survives in the Rite I versions of Common Prayer and Eucharistic Services.

An Historical Overview of the BCP

In 1532, Thomas Cranmer became Archbishop of Canterbury during the last years of Henry VIII’s reign. In 1544 he published his first vernacular service. In 1549 he published the first Book of Common Prayer, based on an extensive reform of the English Catholic liturgy known as the Sarum (Salisbury) Rite. Cranmer was a master wordsmith and alongside the language of the later King James Bible, it is the cadenced prose of the Book of Common Prayer that has shaped the Anglican religious consciousness to the extent that Cranmarian English has become a term of linguistic classification. In 1552, under the more Protestant influences during the reign of Edward VI, Cranmer produced a first revision of the BCP of 1549. In 1559, the BCP was further revised in a more Catholic direction during Elizabeth’s reign. The prayer book of 1559 remained in effect until 1662. For the Church of England, the revision of 1662 remains the quintessential revision of The BCP, and remains the only Parliamentary approved version of the BCP despite more recent Church authorized liturgical revisions.

Cranmer’s intention was that the liturgy should be in the language spoken by the people. The hallmark of Cranmer’s approach lay in his insistence that the participation of the laity was as essential as the actions of the clergy. No longer could a priest alone, celebrate the Eucharist without the presence of at least one lay person, but the daily pattern of the Divine Office, hitherto prayed only by the clergy in private or in monastic choir now became simplified into morning and evening prayer or Mattins and Evensong. These became public services of the Church in which the laity were expected to take a full part. However, a subtle yet significant shift from the ancient Sarum Rite resulted from Cranmer’s creation of a tradition for worship and common prayer, not only accessible to ordinary people, but which celebrated the events of ordinary life in this world. This approach was in sharp contrast to the older liturgical emphasis on celebrating the life of Church and the Saints in heaven.

The BCP contained orders for Common Prayer, the Eucharist, and the liturgical celebration of life events in services of Rogation (blessing of the land and crops), birth (the Churching of Women), baptism, marriage, and death. It also contained The Thirty Nine Articles of Religion. These were a reformed interpretation, based on Cranmer’s return to Early Church and Biblical sources, of the historic belief and practice of the Church. The Thirty Nine Articles became the foundation for Anglican belief and practice. To complement the BCP Cranmer also compiled a two- year Lectionary of Scriptural readings for use in Church. He also wrote a separate collect prayer for every Sunday of the year as well as other major feasts and celebrations.

In 1789, following the Revolutionary War the newly established Episcopal Church authorized its own Book of Common Prayer. The first American BCP followed the English BCP concerning “the particular Forms of Divine Worship, and the Rites and Ceremonies appointed to be used therein”. The reason for a new book was the need to remove any political allegiance to the British Crown. The 1789 BCP followed the structure of the Eucharistic Prayer found in the BCP of the Scottish Episcopal Church rather than that of the English BCP. This was a condition imposed by the Scots in return for their bishops agreeing to ordain Samuel Seabury as the first American Bishop. The Episcopal Church revised the 1789 BCP in 1928 and then in 1979. The 1979 revision was needed to take into account the changes in liturgical practice resulting from the Roman Catholic Church’s liturgical revisions during and following the Second Vatican Council. The 1979 book remains the book in current use.

The Major Sections of the BCP

  1. Historical Ratification (1798) and Preface
  2. The Orders for Common Prayer – the collective daily pattern for the Divine Office or the prayer of the Church
  3. The Great Litany – a form of prayer used in Lent and at other times of national or communal crisis
  4. The Collects – opening prayers that pick up on seasonal and lectionary themes for a particular Sunday or feast days
  5. Proper Liturgies for seasonal or special celebration such as Christmas and Easter, etc
  6. Holy Baptism
  7. Orders for the Holy Eucharist
  8. Pastoral Offices – celebrations of significant life events such as marriage, ministration to the sick, death and burial of the dead, and the reconciliation of the penitent
  9. Episcopal Services – those only performed by a Bishop such as confirmation and ordination
  10. The Psalter of David
  11. Prayers and Thanksgivings
  12. An Outline of the Faith or Catechism
  13. Historical Documents of the Church including the Articles of Religion
  14. Tables for finding the date of Easter and other Holy Days
  15. The Lectionary

Link to useful resources

file://localhost/Users/marksutherland/Desktop/Education/EP101/BCP/Book of Common Prayer 350 years (2) | Liturgy.webarchive


Go online to and purchase your own copy of the Book of Common Prayer. It comes in a variety of formats: just the BCP, BCP and Hymnal combined, BCP, Lectionary and Daily Office combined.

Christian Essentials 101: The Bible -Interpretation

The Bible II

Understanding the Text

“Do you understand what you are reading?” The Ethiopian replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” Acts 8:30-31

The Historical Backdrop

The most important event of the 16th century is undoubtedly the Protestant Reformation. As the initial New Testament period -the period following Jesus’ ministry when the texts of the NT were written- drew to a close around the middle to end of the 2nd century A.D., there followed a long period of approximately 1400 years during which Christianity became largely a Tradition dominated affair. Remember, that by the word Tradition with a capital T we mean that view of what it means to be a Christian which is defined by what the clergy say it is. In Western Europe, the Middle Ages identify the period from about the 9th to the 14th centuries, as the time between the collapse of the Roman Empire and the Renaissance. Renaissance literally means the revival. Revival here refers to the rediscovery of the learning of Classical Rome and Greece. What is significant about the Middle Ages is not the absence of learning, but the restriction of education and literacy to a very small class of men and women religious, i.e. monks, nuns, and priests. For the largely illiterate nobles, knights, and peasantry alike, the Christian faith was something taught second hand through Tradition.

The Renaissance expands education with increasing numbers of people among the growing urban mercantile classes now able to read and write. They begin to question Tradition as the only source for Christian Faith. The Protestant Reformation was fuelled by the rise of a literate middle class, now able to read the Bible in its own language. We noted in our history session that 1522 saw the first German Bible (Gutenberg Bible) and in 1526 the first Bible in English (Tyndale Bible) appears. Once again the actual text of Scripture becomes a primary source for faith.

The most significant event of the late 17th and early 18th centuries is known as the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment is a period when rational thought and Reason, fuelled by Renaissance rediscoveries of classical thought combine with an increasing ability to observe the natural world. The scientific revolution is born; initiating a movement away from Scripture and Tradition towards the importance of Reason as a new basis for understanding not only the natural world, but also Christian Faith.

The 16th century Reformation led to Scripture becoming once again a primary source for faith. With advances in literacy, biblical translation, and the advent of the printing press greater numbers of people began to read the Bible for themselves. However, this posed a serious problem. People now have direct access to Scripture. With their ability to by-pass the quality control of Tradition the question arises: how will they understand what they read? 

The 17th century Enlightenment led to Christian Faith becoming increasingly subject to the rational analysis of Reason. In reaction some Christians retreated into a new approach to biblical interpretation, which we know as Christian Fundamentalism. The answer Fundamentalism gave to the question of how were people to understand Scripture was, everything a Christian reads in the Bible is to be understood literally. The paradox is that this sets up biblical narrative in opposition to scientific reason by treating biblical narrative language as if it too, is a language of factual, observational description. We are still living though the false conflict created by Fundamentalism’s reaction to Reason; most prominently in the debate between evolution and creationism; a sub-discussion of the religion verses science debate.

Anglican Tradition of Scriptural Interpretation

The Anglican Tradition of the Episcopal Church with its emphasis on the mutual relationship of Scripture, Tradition, and Reason – the three-legged stool from our history session –rejects the Christian Fundamentalist approach to the meaning of Scripture. We accept that:

  • Individual Christians have direct access to the text of Scripture, being free to hold personal views of interpretation.
  • Tradition – the common mind of the Church as a community of belief and practice, ultimately decides the meaning of the text and the authority to be given to it. 
  • Tradition is guided by the application of Reason as we take into account literary analysis of the functions of different forms of language.  For instance we recognize a difference between the way scientific language seeks to literally describe what can be observed, and biblical language, which is a language of narrative, creating meaning through the use of metaphor and allegory.
  • We recognize the way advances in the disciplines of historical analysis elucidate the influences of the social and political context in which texts were originally written or later edited. 

In 2002 the Episcopal Bishops of New York published: Let the Reader Understand; A statement of Interpretive Principles by which we understand The Holy Scriptures. 

This initiative was in response to the 1998 Lambeth Conference discussions between Anglican Bishops on the interpretation of Scripture. Their starting point was Acts 8:30-31 quoted above. Here the Apostle Philip comes across an Ethiopian reading from the Prophet Isaiah. Philip asks him, “Do you understand what you are reading?” The Ethiopian replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” Let the Reader Understand offers a series of canons for interpretation, sourced from the teachings of Scripture itself, and consistent with the creeds and documents of the Early Church, and The Book of Common Prayer. 

Here is a paraphrased summary of the main points:

  1. Scripture is the Word of God not because God dictated the text, but because God inspired human authors to write inspirited texts to be read within the sacramental worship life of the Church, in order to teach the faithful.
  2. Scripture provides the guiding principles for our common life with God through narrative, law, prophecy, poetry and other forms of expression. Jesus as the living Word of God uses the Scriptures to call the Church as a diverse community of belief and practice, through which he shares his divine word, wisdom, and life.
  3. Despite the huge variety of documents representing diverse authors, literary forms, and cultural contexts, the Church received and collected the Scriptures and interprets them in the light of what God has done in Jesus Christ.
  4. The Scriptures witness to the relationship between God and humanity. This relationship takes the form of an invitation and response – a covenant, respectful of human freedom and evolving within changing historical contexts, cultures, individual experience and need. Through the Scriptures the Church as a community of belief and practice seeks to respond more faithfully to God’s covenant renewed in Jesus Christ.
  5. The New Testament interprets and applies the Old Testament as announcing the coming of Christ. This is the lens through which the Church understands all the Scriptures.
  6. Individual texts must not be isolated and made to mean something at odds with the revelation and teaching of Jesus Christ.
  7. Not every text received by the Church is regarded as authoritative. The meaning of any text is never given, but always discerned within the lived experience of the community of faith.
  8. Because meaning is never given and always discerned no text can be used to condemn or approve anything simply on the basis that it is somewhere in Scripture condemned or approved.
  9. The first stage of faithful interpretation requires the Church to use the gifts of memory, reason, and skill to find the sense of the meaning through locating the text in its time and place (original context). The second stage is to seek the text’s present significance. Present significance is shaped in the light of Jesus’ commandment to love one another, and is consistent with the mystery of God as a relational community in whose image we have been created as relational beings.
  10. The Church’s interpretation of Scripture is our human response to the experience of being transformed and empowered by God’s love.
  11. The Church’s reading of Scripture is always subject to human fallibility and is an expression of a wayfaring community, which makes mistakes while discerning, conversing, and arguing to find its way.
  12. Correct interpretation does not rely on the Church’s infallibility as a teaching authority. Correct interpretation is tried and tested through our individual and communal living-out of the grace of baptism, which is embodied through the promises of the Baptismal Covenant.
  13. The Scriptures contain all that is necessary for salvation. The Scriptures operate within the sphere of human freedom. The sphere of human freedom places a limitation on tendencies towards justifying excessive demands in faith and practice by reference to scriptural texts. The Scriptures ultimate purpose and intent are to bring all people to the blessed liberty of the children of God, whose service is perfect freedom. 

Truth Claims

Truth as history remembered – the Bible records events that happened, e.g. Jesus did die on the cross.

But there are three contexts within which truth as history needs to be viewed. Context 1 is the historical context in which the event took place i.e. the events of Good Friday in 33AD. Context 2 is the way the event is remembered and recorded by the writer, writing many years after the event, i.e. what the cross and resurrection event means to the gospel writers and their communities. Context 3 involves the way history remembered impacts the mind of the community today.

It is possible to divide truth claims into two main categories: Truth as history remembered – the Bible records events that happened, e.g. Jesus did die on the cross. Truth as metaphor: (1) metaphorization of and event (Borg), e.g. Jesus walked the road from Galilee to Jerusalem. The spiritual significance of this event is not the physical journey but Jesus’ embracing his destiny as a metaphor for the road of discipleship.(2) purely metaphorical narrative (Borg) – no remembered event but story works   symbolically. A story that articulates a truth but has no origin in historical or factual event.

For a fuller discussion of this go to:

Biblical truth hardly ever responds to a black or white notion of true or false. In fact, biblical truth is not something to be passively believed in, but something to be actively engaged with.

Spiritual Practice

Over the coming week try, to spend some time each day reflecting on a passage of Scripture. I suggest the following example: Mark 4:26-28. If you don’t have a Bible go to: 

Find somewhere to sit quietly at home or elsewhere and bring your attention to the rising and falling of your breath. Imagine the breath as deep within your belly rather than in your chest and simply observe yourself breathing. Through observing our breath we come easily into the presence of God who is the breath that brings life. We also become aware of something we do all the yet, usually are not ware of doing it. Breathing offers an image of the presence of God, here all the time usually not noticed by us. 

1.     Then read the passage slowly three times. What is the word or phrase that stands out for you? Repeat it softly to yourself over the period of a minute or so.

2.     Then read it twice more and ask yourself how does this word or phrase connect with my experience at the moment, what are my associations to it, what does it remind me of or make me think about?

3.     Read it again letting it sound in your mind or out loud and ask yourself – is there an invitation from God in this passage that applies to my life over the next 5 – 7 days?

4.     Finish with prayerful reflection on gratitude and thankfulness for what God is revealing to you through this passage.

This exercise is known as Lectio Divina and is the most ancient methods for engaging with Holy Scripture.

Christian Essentials -101: The Bible – History and Structure

The Bible

I. History and Structure

What is the Bible? It is often referred to as the good book. Yet, it is not a book in any modern sense. The Bible is more akin to an encyclopedia or anthology, a volume within which a number of quite separate entries sit side by side. Their common theme is our human experience of God’s invitation to enter into faithful relationship together, and the struggles this entails. Although this is the common theme throughout the Bible, the way human beings and human communities understand and respond to God is dictated by context, i.e. time period, social values, and contemporary challenges.

The Old Testament

Otherwise known as the Hebrew Scriptures, the Old Testament is the textual record of the relationship between the God Yahweh and the Hebrew-Jewish people. The first five books: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy are known in Judaism as the Torah and believed to be from the original hand of Moses. The Torah comprises a Hebrew history of creation and the development of the nation out of the covenant God makes with Abraham, who becomes the father of the nation. It traces events through the lives of Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph, collectively known as the Patriarchs. The relationship between the Patriarchs is pictured as son, grandson, and great grandson of Abraham. The second half of Genesis is concerned with the great story cycles of the lives of the Patriarchs and ends with that of Joseph. Joseph was Jacob’s favorite son. Because of this, his brothers envied him and into slavery in Egypt. This is the story at the center of the well-known folk opera Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.  Being a resourceful man Joseph eventually rises to the position of Prime Minister to Pharaoh. To save them from famine he later invites his family and kin to come and live with him in Egypt. This brings us to end of the Book of Genesis.

The first chapter of Exodus opens with a genealogy of the descendants of Jacob. Then the ominous words in verse 7 – A new king arose in Egypt, who did not know Joseph. The Hebrews become enslaved because their numbers threaten the Egyptians. Many generations pass and the next great figure to emerge is Moses. So begins the Moses story cycle. Moses becomes the liberator of the people leading them from slavery in Egypt into the Promised Land. This is not a direct journey. Between leaving Egypt and arriving in Canaan the Israelites wander for 40 years in Sinai. It is on Mount Sinai that God renews his covenant with the people by instructing Moses in the Law. The Law was transcribed on tablets of stone, which we know as The Ten Commandments. The books of Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy are concerned with the development of religion and society founded on the application of the Ten Commandments. They are books of legal regulations, commentary, and sermon on how the Israelites are to worship God and structure their lives in community. Scholars believe that although the Torah was traditionally attributed to Moses, the texts are the later written form of earlier oral traditions, compiled organized, and edited between 1000 – 800BC.

The Torah comprises only a small section of the Old Testament as we have it in the Bible. In addition there are books recording the history of the Jewish people: Joshua, Judges, 1 & 2 Samuel, 1 & 2 Kings 1 & 2 Chronicles. Each book is an interpretation of the central stories concerning Moses and the emergence of the Hebrews as a unified people, living in the land of Canaan. The third category of writing concerns the books of the Prophets. Though not part of the Torah they represent what in Jesus’ day was known as the oral tradition, which chronicles the struggle God and the people have in staying in relationship together.  Two other major categories of literature make up the rest of the Old Testament. The Wisdom books of the Proverbs, Ecclesiasticus, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs represent a form of philosophical writing popular throughout the ancient Middle East and not original to Israel. In Wisdom, God takes on a feminine characteristic as a personification of wisdom. The Book of Psalms, is technically Wisdom literature, but is better thought of as the hymn book of the court of King David. The last type of literature is found in the apocalyptic books such as Esther and Daniel, although apocalyptic material can be found in several of the major prophets. Apocalypse means revelation and these are books that feature dreams and mystical events. The New Testament book of Revelation is part of this literary tradition. See my later comment on the Apocrypha in the section on the New Testament.

A major characteristic of Hebrew Scripture was the way the books were edited over and over again through the passage of time. Each editing reflects a need to update the themes of the writing in the light of a new national crisis. In this way the Hebrews understood Scripture to be a living and evolving tradition in contrast to some Christian approaches which see Scripture as a static and timeless tradition. The difference between these two forms of tradition is that where static timeless tradition requires contemporary society to conform to it. Living and evolving tradition conforms to meet contemporary needs. In this sense the Hebrews understood that their Scripture could speak directly to the needs of the time. Consistency, historical or literal accuracy were not important concepts for the ancients. The books of the Old Testament not only contradict one another but some books preserve parallel and often incompatible narratives, for instance in chapters 1 and 2 of Genesis and the stories of Noah and the flood – again, there are two of them.

Why do we need the Old Testament?

Christians from the outset have argued over the relevance and importance to be accorded the Hebrew Scriptures. Christian fundamentalists claim that everything in the Old and New Testaments is the divinely dictated Word of God and so everything carries equal importance. Yet, not even fundamentalists can seriously operate on this basis. The more consistent position of historic Christianity towards the Old Testament’s authority distinguishes between the over arching themes, through which God communicates God’s longing for a faithful relationship with humanity, and culturally embedded texts that reflect the attitudes and structures of a particular society, or a particular stage in the evolution of Hebrew Society. Therefore, to take instructions offered in Leviticus as applicable to our contemporary social context is highly inappropriate and ineffectual. An example of this is where fundamentalists see the sexual injunctions in Leviticus 18 as relating to the modern experience of homosexuality, yet disregard the other injunctions that dictate the stoning of wives and daughters who stray from confinement during menstruation.

Looking at the development of the God’s identity and image over-time, from the wrathful and jealous God of Moses, to the compassionate God of Jesus, we might be led to suppose that God evolves with time. We grappled with this question in our first session when we looked at the question: Who is God? Perhaps the answer is maybe God evolves, maybe not, how can we know? What the scriptural record does show is that human understandings of who God is do evolve over time, as human society evolves in its complexity.

The common view to the authority of the Old Testament held by mainline Christians today recognizes its integrity as a narrative record of the relationship between God and the Children of Israel down through the ages to the birth of Jesus. With the birth of Jesus the Old Testament loses its authority as binding law for Christians. For instance the Ten Commandments have been incorporated and superseded by Jesus teaching on the two Great Commandments: to love God and love our neighbor as one self. Christians revere the Old Testament as the longer-range historical context out of which Christianity evolves. It’s our back-story! Into this back-story we read the lines of the development that emerge in Christianity. Jesus’ identity is revealed for the first Christians in the prophecies of Isaiah and the promises God makes and remakes with the Hebrews throughout the record of his covenant in the Old Testament. The meaning of terms fundamental to Christianity, for instance resurrection, is dependent on understanding the Jewish concept of resurrection. Today we are tempted to view resurrection as a kind of spiritual life after death. Yet, the early Christians being rooted in the religious concepts of Judaism would not have used the word resurrection to describe their belief in spiritual life after death. Resurrection for them, and for the Jews, meant one thing only: the return to physical life after death. The Anglican Biblical Scholar N.T. Wright notes that in Second Temple Judaism, the name used to refer to the form of Judaism at the time of Jesus, resurrection did not mean life after death, but life, after life after death.

The New Testament

Otherwise known as the Christian Scriptures, the New Testament is the textual record of the revelation of God in Jesus Christ. Episcopalians do not refer to the New Testament as the Word of God. Jesus is the Word of God, as we discussed in our second session: Who is Jesus? For us the New Testament is the textual word of God. It is the historical and literary witness to the revelation of God in Jesus Christ.

There is an interesting comparison to be made between the Bible and Quran here concerning the role of word and witness. The Quran is the sacred Word of God, dictated to the Prophet Mohammed. It is to be treated with great reverence, hence Muslim anger when it is desecrated. Mohammed is the Quran’s witness. In historic Christianity, Jesus is the Word of God and the Bible is his witness. Therefore, the Bible is not the sacred Word of God but the textual word of God. As an object it is not revered and even those who believe it is God’s divine Word, nevertheless feel free to underline text and write in its margins, something a Muslim would never dream of doing to the Quran.

The New Testament is composed of two main types of writing, known as Gospels and Epistles. The Gospels record the life, sayings, and teaching of Jesus during his earthly ministry. The Epistles are Letters written by the Apostles to the fledgling church communities during the first 150 years of Christianity. During this period there was a profusion of Gospels and Epistles. There was a Gospel of Thomas and one of Mary Magdalene. There were many more Letters, each written in the name of an apostle. Most of these did not find there way into the Canon of the New Testament.

By the mid 300’s the New Testament Canon of 27 books was fairly universally recognized. After the finalization of the Canon no new books could be added, although Christians continued to debate the value of some texts up to the 16th Century. Therefore, there are some small differences between Protestant and Roman Catholic New Testaments. The differences relate not to the major books but to a section of apocalyptic writings. This is the dream inspired mysterious apocalyptic genre occurring in both Old and New Testaments. Protestant Bibles leave these books out. Catholic Bibles include them, and Anglican Bibles separate them into a section known as the Apocrypha, which is placed between the Old and New Testament sections. For further information go to

The Gospels

Matthew, Mark, and Luke are known as the Synoptic Gospels because they offer a chronological synopsis of the life of Jesus. Mark is the first to be written between 60 and 70 AD. Matthew follows and Luke is written last around the end of the First Century. Matthew and Luke draw heavily on Mark’s core structure and material but add additional material from a source known as Q, comprising oral sayings of Jesus. The Gospel of John is the last of the four Gospels to be written, probably around 100- 120 AD. John has a completely different structure and so is not included with the other three Synoptic Gospels. John’s Gospel is a theology of Jesus’ ministry, and the writer does not feel he has to repeat the familiar chronological  structure of events originating with Mark. John builds his theology of Jesus’ ministry  around seven signs of the Kingdom of God. Some of these are very familiar to us such as the first sign of changing water into wine at the wedding in Cana, and the last sign, raising of Lazarus from the dead.

The writers of the Gospels have the same names as the disciples of Jesus. Yet, it is unlikely that the actual disciples wrote them. Rather the writers, whom we call Evangelists, are clearly connected to the schools that are associated with the Apostles Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John. The other point to note is that each Evangelist constructs his Gospel to reflect the issues and needs of his particular community. Because each community has a different history and context, the Evangelists differ in theological emphasis and in their understanding of who Jesus is: Mark’s Son Of Man – Suffering Servant, Matthew’s Son Of God -New Moses, Luke’s Son of God -reconciling healer, and John’s God the Son – second person of the Trinity. We see here the process, evident in the Old Testament, of Scripture as a living and evolving tradition tailoring to the needs of particular societies.

Luke’s Acts of the Apostles

This is neither a Gospel nor an epistle although it might be described as the Gospel of the Church. It forms a companion to the Gospel of Luke because it continues the story after Jesus’ Ascension. Only Luke continues the story of the ministry Jesus initiates in this way. Acts begins with the Day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit descends on the disciples and as we discussed in our session on the Church, empowered them in such a way that transformed them from disciples (followers) into apostles (messengers). Thus the Church is born. The rest of the book chronicles the apostolic ministries of spreading the good news of the Gospel. Acts should be read as a continuation of Luke’s Gospel, however it is placed in the NT following John’s Gospel, which obscures the connection to Luke and breaks-up the narrative of salvation history he records.

The Epistles or Letters

These are the Letters written by the Apostles or written in their name by someone else to the fledgling churches that began to form around of the Mediterranean World of the Roman Empire. Although the Epistles come after the Gospels in order, the Letters written by Paul are earlier and predate the writing of the Gospels.

Most of the Letters are written by Paul or ascribed to his name. The convention in the ancient world was for disciples or followers of prominent teachers to write is the teacher’s name. Traditionally the first 13 Letters were ascribed to Paul. Modern scholarship has raised doubts about this because of the huge variation in themes addressed and theologies espoused. Paul has a radical message: the Kingdom of God has come and through the cross and resurrection of Jesus the whole world order has been turned upside down. Paul proclaims that Jesus is Lord! For us this is not a provocative statement. Yet, in Paul’s world to say this is to deny that Caesar is Lord, a treasonous act punishable by crucifixion. Paul’s theology of the cross and resurrection sounds strongly in Romans, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians and Philemon. Borg and Crossan, two prominent N.T. theologians, identify this as the Apostle Paul as tag him Radical Paul. They doubt that Paul is the author of Ephesians, Colossians, and 2 Thessalonians and they identify this Paul as Conservative Paul. The issues here are more to do with the living of a pious and good Christian life and reflect the issues of communities that are more established and settled than the ones Radical Paul is writing to. Tradition ascribed Hebrews, 1 & 2 Timothy, and Titus to Paul. Borg and Crossan call this author Reactionary Paul whose theology can’t be squared with that of the Apostle (radical) Paul. No one seriously thinks Paul wrote these Letters anymore. They reflect a very conservative theology, which addresses issues of church order, i.e. women must cover their heads and not speak in Church, and the hierarchy of authority, i.e. only men and apostolic men may preach and teach and husbands are the head of the family. These were not issues for the fragile Pauline communities in the middle decades of the 1st Century. The preoccupations of these Letters reflect strong established church communities where order and authority become issues and clearly date from a much later period of time

Letters not ascribed to Paul are Hebrews and James (possibly authored by James of Jerusalem, the brother of Jesus), 1 & 2 Peter, 1,2 & 3 John, (clearly the same author as John’s Gospel or a close follower), and Jude. Revelation is not a Letter, but another example of apocalyptic writing in the form of a dream and its interpretation and seems to be connected to the Johannine Community.

N.T. Wright uses the analogy of sitting at a table and hearing only one side of a phone conversation to capture the flavor and dilemma posed by the Epistles. We hear the writer’s answer to questions and problems raised, but we are not privy to the questions and issues raised, except in very general terms.

Spiritual Practice

Over the coming week try, to spend some time each day reflecting on the following questions. The way to do this is to find somewhere to sit quietly at home or elsewhere and bring your attention to the rising and falling of your breath. Imagine the breath as deep within your belly rather than in your chest and simply observe yourself breathing. Through observing our breath we come easily into the presence of God who is the breath that brings life. We also become aware of something we do all the yet, usually are not ware of doing it. Breathing offers an image of the presence of God, here all the time usually not noticed by us. 

After a few minutes of settling begin to contemplate the questions. You don’t have to do all of them at one time. Let the question percolate in your thoughts and notice images or connections that seem to arise naturally for you. At the end of your time, end with an expression of gratitude for your life, your loves, and for your desire to come to know God more deeply. 

Questions to consider

  1. Why has Christianity preserved the Hebrew Scriptures in the Old Testament?
  2. Why has Christianity preserved the Hebrew Scriptures in the Old Testament?
  3. What is the difference between a gospel and an epistle?
  4.  How many Synoptic Gospels are there?
  5.  Why do modern scholars challenge the tradition that Paul wrote all the epistles that mention his name?
  6.  How do the Quran and Bible differ in the role they have within their respective religions, and Why?

Christian Essentials 101: God, Jesus, and the Church

Abstract: God is a community within a single identity. An aspect of God (the Word) came to co-exist within the person of Jesus, who through his death and resurrection God does something new in the relationship of creator to creation. After Jesus’ ascension a different aspect of God (Holy Spirit) infuses the community of disciples with empowerment giving birth to the Church. The Church continues God’s work in creation. Baptism is entry into membership of the Church. The Church witnesses to the mystery as well as the revelation of God in Jesus through receiving God in the form of Spirit. God, Jesus, and Church are linked – Jesus died; God raised him to new life; the Church affirms this new beginning through the celebration of Eucharist. 

Trinity Joke

Jesus said, Whom do men say that I am? And his disciples answered and said, Some say you are John the Baptist returned from the dead; others say Elijah, or other of the old prophets. And Jesus answered and said, But whom do you say that I am? Peter answered and said, “Thou art the Logos, existing in the Father as His rationality and then, by an act of His will, being generated, in consideration of the various functions by which God is related to his creation, but only on the fact that Scripture speaks of a Father, and a Son, and a Holy Spirit, each member of the Trinity being coequal with every other member, and each acting inseparably with and interpenetrating every other member, with only an economic subordination within God, but causing no division which would make the substance no longer simple. “And Jesus answering, said, “What?”

Jesus’ response to Peter is a fair summary of how many people feel about the Trinity, which is where I want to begin in responding to the remaining three questions in this Christian Essentials section of Episcopal 101. We have explored questions of identity with respect to God, the Creator and Jesus Christ, the Word of God. We are now ready to explore the fuller identity of God as a relational being. God as a community of relationship is known as the Trinity.

As the joke above captures, many regard the Trinity as a thorny theological and philosophical conundrum. However, the important and relatively simple thing to remember is that the Trinity emerges out of the ordinary experience of the first Christians as they begin to make sense of their experience of God. As Jews, they knew God as the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of their fathers and the Creator of the world who revealed himself to Moses and to the people through the gift of the Law and the preaching of the Prophets. They also had direct experience of Jesus as a revelation of God, this time within their intimate human experience. They now have a further experience of God as a force of nature that overwhelms them and leaves them in a completely changed frame of awareness.

Another way to approach this is to remember that to be human is to be relational. As human beings we are built for relationships. Our human need for relationship finds expression in the life lived in community – one Christian is no Christian- says the Early Church Father, Tertullian. Therefore, our relationality is a reflection of God’s relationality. For the first Christians, God as a divine community is powerfully experiential. They identified with the Father-creator – lover, Jesus the Son- communicator – beloved, and Holy Spirit empowering presence, love sharer. For them, all three were expressions of God, directly experienced.

In italics I have added nongendered relational terms to these identities – lover, beloved and love sharer. As we saw in our first session, God is neither male nor female, yet the principles of masculine and feminine are present in God’s nature. Although Jesus as a human being certainly was male, the Word of God (logos) is not male. The Father – creator, and the Son – communicator, can be viewed through masculine imagery without being defined as male. The Holy Spirit, in Hebrew (ruach) and Greek (peneuma), is feminine. The feminine principle is captured in the notion of the Spirit as generative, fecund energy, bringing life to birth. Traditionally the Holy Spirit was referred to as it, because I guess it was difficult for a patriarchal tradition to refer to an element of God as she.

As time passed the first Christians needed to be able to articulate their experience. As the influence of Greek philosophical thought grew among the gentile Christians, it was natural for them to turn to this tradition of learning in search of a way of speaking about their experience. The Trinity is a philosophical theory that gave the growing Christian Church the language to speak about God. In Greek thought, the term person could be used to speak about different identities that, nevertheless shared one nature.

There is a recognized psychological theory for how our individual identities are also the product of our relationships with others. Our individual identity i.e. who I am is constructed out of a complex dynamic of being in relationship with others. Who I think I am is as much a function of how I perceive others viewing me. I catch a glimpse of myself in the face of the other, looking back at me. It’s kind of like that, we can imagine, within the divine community. There are not three Gods, but three persons in one God, each reflecting back the image of the other. Each person has a function. The Father (the lover) is the creator source of all things. The Son (the beloved) is the communicator of all things – the Logos or Word. The Holy Spirit (feminine principle) is God in all things. But the main point is not their functions but the way each function emerges out of being in relationship with one another.

Please go online to explanation.htm  Here you will find a further explanation that uses Andrei Rublev’s icon of the Trinity to demonstrate how this can be imagined.

What is the Nicene Creed?

The Trinity emerged out of the way the early Christians experienced God (see above). The doctrine is important not because it explains mystery, but because it protects the mystery of God from being reduced to mere human understanding. This protective function is what the Nicene Creed is, and does. The Nicene Creed gets its name from the Ecumenical Council that met in a place called Nicaea in 325AD. There were seven of Ecumenical (Greek for inhabited world) Councils up to the end of the 5th Century. They met to iron-out differences and disagreements. They formulated statements that protected the full mystery of the relational nature of God, the incarnation, and the two natures in Jesus as the foundations for the shared faith in the life of the Church. They used Greek Philosophy to do this. The teaching of the seven Ecumenical Councils is the teaching agreed upon by the Latin-speaking catholic Church in the West and the Greek-speaking orthodox Church in the East. It is the teaching that Episcopalians recognize as the Historic (Catholic –universal and Apostolic – from the Apostles) tradition of Christianity. For further reference you can view the Historical Documents section of the Book of Common Prayer beginning on page 864.

Harry Williams, was a renowned spiritual writer in the middle 20th century. His writing was a huge influence on me growing up. He was also a monk of the Community of the Resurrection, an Anglican men’s community at Mirfield in Yorkshire. A story is told that during the recital of the creed in the Eucharist, Fr Harry would sit down and switch-off the light over his stall when he came to lines he did not believe. I am often asked do you have to believe every line of the creed? The answer is no you don’t. The Nicene Creed represents the historic faith of the Church. We related to the faith of the Church from within the dynamic experience of our own spiritual journey. Think of roaming about the many rooms of a great mansion, sometime feeling more, sometimes feeling less comfortable in various rooms. However, the faith of the Church continues to remain true and because it is the faith of the community, its truth does not rely on our individual assent, nor is it invalidated by our individual doubts. Remember, that we participate in the life of the Church not through holding at all times correct belief, but struggling at all times with the demands of right relationship. This leads nicely to our next question. 

What is the Church?

What we call the Church, the Christian Community in the world is born on the Day of Pentecost, literally 50 days after the Resurrection. On the Day of Pentecost those gathered were visited by the power of God in the form of wind and fire, both atmospheric phenomena that communicated the presence of God in a particularly new way. This is recorded in the second chapter of The Acts of the Apostles. This is the first experience of God as Holy Spirit.

The Evangelist we know as Luke wrote a two-part work. He wrote his Gospel as an account of what God had done in the life and ministry of Jesus. He continued the story in Acts, with the birth, life and ministry of what God is continuing to do through the power of the Holy Spirit in the Church. The Ascension of Jesus and the birth of the Church are linked by the Holy Spirit’s actions at Pentecost. Now that the ministry of Jesus is completed with his return to the divine community of the Trinity, something else is needed.

With the empowerment of the Holy Spirit, two elements came together for the first Christians. The pieces of knowledge that had remained as fragmented memories of Jesus’ teaching when he was alive began to make sense through their direct experience of a series of events, i.e. the death, resurrection, post resurrection appearances and the ascension of Jesus. The intervention of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost is the catalytic event is a tipping point moving the disciples from a state of loss and confusion into a new order of perception.

Through Jesus, God shares Godself with the creation, a sharing that bridges the breach in relationship between the creation and creator. Through the Holy Spirit, God now shares Godself in order to further energize the work Jesus started. Empowered by the Holy Spirit the disciples, which means followers now become apostles, which means messengers. The Holy Spirit is God’s second gift of Godself. The result of this encounter dramatically changed the disciples of Jesus from bewildered followers into impassioned messengers who then proceeded to talk openly and publically about Jesus. The Church is born!

As Christians of the Historic Tradition, Episcopalians conceive of the Church as more than a voluntary association of believers, organized for mission. We conceive of the Church as the mystical Body of Christ, which has a corporate identity, which is greater than the sum total of its individual parts. The Body expresses itself primarily through liturgy – esp. the Eucharist. Liturgy is the mechanism for incorporating individual believers or worshipers into the experience of being part of the mystical Body of Christ known as, the Church. For example in Eucharist, even if there are only two of the baptized present, and one of the two is a priest, then the Eucharist can be celebrated. Two members represent the function of the whole as if the entire Church is present. I mentioned the Eucharist requires at least two baptized persons, one of whom needs to be a priest because each represents the separate function that together constitutes the whole. It’s time to talk about baptism.

What is Baptism?

Baptism is the ceremony of entry into the Church. Contrary to a lot of popular belief, baptism is not about individual salvation. It’s about belonging, nurturing and growing as part of a community of faith.

Baptism involves four key elements. The first is Spirit. Baptism finds an echo in the actions of God’s Spirit hovering and brooding over the void at creation in Genesis 1. It also finds echo in the Spirit breathing life into the lungs of the human being fashioned out of the elements of the earth in Genesis 2. The Spirit, which is the source of all life, is given to us through the gift of the Holy Spirit. For Christians the Holy Spirit is the sanctifying and sustaining energy of God active in the world.

The second element is Water.  Water is necessary for life. It is elemental. It also nourishes, cleanses and restores. In our baptism we find an echo to the passing of the Israelites through the waters of the Red Sea  – a rite of passage. In the waters of baptism we also die and rise to the new life in Christ whether through the symbolism of total emersion or the pouring of water over the head. Both have the same meaning in the sense that the Eucharist is a meal even though we are only given a piece of bread and a sip of wine.

Thirdly there is Covenant. In the 31st chapter of Jeremiah God speaks of a new relationship with his people in which his law is transformed from a set of commands to something written on the inside of their hearts. In baptism we are signing ourselves into the New Covenant initiated by Jesus through the cross and resurrection. Baptism is our response to God’s invitation to enter into covenant. Like a contract, a covenant is a conditional offer that requires a response of acceptance to transforms it into something potential to something realized.

The fourth element is Community. All of created life is sacred. Physical birth ushers us into the goodness of God’s Creation. Being created involves neither a choice nor a response from us. In this sense to be human is to be most like God. Baptism reminds us that no one drifts into the Kingdom of God by mistake. As Christians we embrace the fundamental goodness of creation by making the choice to enter into a deliberate and particular covenant with God. In this sense being Christian is to know that to be human is to be most like God. Baptism is our entry into the saving and cross bearing community we call the Church.

Baptism is the same for all whether you are three months-old or 30 years-old. It is a once in a lifetime event. No prior knowledge or demonstration of faith is necessary to be baptized. What is required is an intention to journey within the community of the Church. The importance for baptism is what happens following it. Its meaning and effect grow within us through a daily renewal of our baptismal promises of the Baptismal Covenant. There is no special status within the Christian community beyond that of being baptised. Both St Paul in Romans 12 and the writer of 1 Peter:2  speak of the community of the baptised as a royal priesthood. Even those set aside by ordination hold the same spiritual rank as all other baptized members. Ordination for ministry is a call from within the whole body of the baptised for leaders to guide the community into becoming more fully an embodiment of the Kingdom of God.

Baptism and The Eucharist

Entry to Holy Communion is by virtue of our baptism not confirmation. Historically, entry to communion became linked to confirmation as an attempt to ensure that people continued to present for confirmation. Confirmation adds little other than an opportunity to confirm baptismal vows, often made by us as infants. The current practice of the Episcopal Church is to communicate infants and children who have been baptized. Baptism is the sacrament of entry into community of the Church. Eucharist is the participation in the life of that community. Confirmation is the sacrament of personal affirmation of baptism and is the ceremony of entry into relationship (communion) with the local Episcopal Bishop. The unity of the Church is a result of local bishops being in communion with one another. 

Additional matters

The Order of Baptism in the Book of Common Prayer.

Take a look at the structure of how the rite unfolds and think of it as the unfolding of the drama of our salvation story. Note the different parts:

  • Presentation and decision
  • Blessing of the waters
  • Baptism and sealing with the Holy Spirit
  • Confirmation – note confirmation is the concluding part of baptism. Because it was reserved only to the Bishop to confirm over time as the Church grew beyond single communities each led by a Bishop, confirmation became increasingly divorced from baptism becoming separated by an interval of years.

Baptismal Covenant Pg 304 BCP

We affirm our faith through saying together the Apostles Creed, which identifies how to live the life of a baptized person in the world. It involves making three reaffirmations of belief:

  1. Do you believe in God the Father – Creator God – Source of Being?
  2. Do you believe in Jesus Christ – Redeemer God – Bridge of Being?
  3. Do you believe in The Holy Spirit – Sanctifier God – Spirit of Being in and through the Church?

We affirm our faith through five promises:

  1. Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread and in prayers? (be a faithful member of the saving community)
  2. Will you persevere in resisting evil, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord? (work to stay in right relationship with God)
  3. Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ? (live out the values of the Gospel in the world)
  4. Will you seek to serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbour as yourself? (live a life motivated by love)
  5. Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being? (fight against social systems the deny human dignity to all)

Spiritual Reflections

Over the coming week try, to spend some time each day reflecting on the following questions. The way to do this is to find somewhere to sit quietly at home or elsewhere and bring your attention to the rising and falling of your breath. Imagine the breath as deep within your belly rather than in your chest and simply observe yourself breathing. Through observing our breath we come easily into the presence of God who is the breath that brings life. We also become aware of something we do all the yet, usually are not ware of doing it. Breathing offers an image of the presence of God, here all the time usually not noticed by us. 

After a few minutes of settling begin to contemplate the questions. You don’t have to do all of them at one time. Let the question percolate in your thoughts and notice images or connections that seem to arise naturally for you. At the end of your time, end with an expression of gratitude for your life, your loves, and for your desire to come to know God more deeply. 

1.     Why are human relationships and communities important from a theological standpoint?

2.     How might a growing sense of your answer to 1. above influence the way you live?   

3.    Trace in your mind’s eye the emergent sequence of experiences that led the first Christians to conceive of God as Trinity.

4.     Are you taking the vows of the baptismal covenant seriously in not only the way you live but though the worldview you hold?

5.    Go to the link given for the Rublev Icon of the Trinity. Gaze at it. Note the sequence of movement from Creator to Word to Spirit. Reflect on the experience of gazing at identical figures and ask yourself the question: the figures look identical but do they feel the same to you?.

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