3 Minute Theologian

Words about God and Life for the Attention Deficit Generation

The Coming Religious Revival?

A Zoom service as they used to be done

Those who read The Observer newspaper last weekend might have been reassured that COVID-19, at least in the United Kingdom, is preparing the ground for a religious revival: “British public turn to prayer as one in four tune in to religious services”. One in four! When was the last time the Church of England had that kind of reach! It must mean that the decision to close the church (buildings) while opening the church (digital) was the correct one. Allowing the people of England to see church ministers sharing in the isolation and hardships of lockdown, not hoarding the sacrament or the church building to themselves, was a prompting of the Holy Spirit. Perhaps even a precursor to the revival of religion in England?

The article reported that a quarter of adults in the UK have “watched or listened to a religious service since the coronavirus lockdown began”. One in 20 “started praying during the crisis.” And it gets demographically better:  a third of young adults aged between 18 and 34 “had watched or listened to an online or broadcast religious service”, compared with “one in five adults over the age of 55.”

The coming religious revival will be young!

And the CofE has been working directly to assist this revival in religious engagement:

6,000 people phoned a prayer hotline in its first 48 hours of operation.

Of course, when reading beyond the headline there were, or should have been, caveats:

  • The article was illustrated with picture of Dawn French as the Vicar of Dibley, a TV sitcom that never worried too much about an accurate depiction of parish life or sacrificial vocation – and an sitcom that hasn’t been made for 13 years. This is not cutting edge Christian discipleship.
  • The article was based on an opinion poll commissioned by Tearfund, the evangelical Christian aid agency. I have no doubt about the integrity of both Tearfund and Savanta ComRes, the polling company that conducted the survey. I am sure it was done with the utmost scientific integrity, but I wonder if a poll commissioned by the National Secular Society would have found the same results?
“have another opinion poll done showing the exact opposite…”
  • The article also mentioned another survey commissioned for Christian Aid, asking people’s opinions about the best “screen priest” to lead the nation through the crisis. In first place was the Rev Geraldine Granger, The Vicar of Dibley. Second was Sister Evangelina, from Call the Midwife. A strong third place showing was Father Ted Crilly, from Father Ted. How seriously are people taking these questions?
I hear you’re a trusted screen presence now, Father Ted!
  • Finally, the CofE’s figures show that less than one person from each of the church’s 12,500 parishes has telephoned Daily Hope, the name given to the hotline. As a friend of mine (a parish priest) said, even the most hopeless parish priest in England is capable of ringing more than one person every two days, surely?

It wasn’t until the Church Times was printed on Friday that I thought any more about the survey. Andrew Brown, in his consistently incisive press column, had actually looked at the structure and findings of the survey (Press: The case for and against a spiritual revival £):

“The findings of the poll reinforce indications of an increase in the numbers of people turning to faith for succour amid uncertainty and despair.”

That seemed an entirely straightforward lead; and so it would have been had it not been for the researchers’ conscientiousness. They did not only ask people what they had started doing since the lockdown; they also asked what they had stopped doing. 

emphasis added

So, it turns out, the conscientious pollsters of Savanta ComRes discovered that although five per cent of the sample had started praying, six per cent had stopped. Five per cent had started mindfulness or meditation; eight per cent had stopped.

Now, I’m an Arts graduate, without a background in advanced statistical analysis and I am willing to be demonstrated wrong, but if 5% have started praying and 6% have stopped praying, doesn’t that mean that fewer people are praying?

Furthermore, Savanta ComRes pressed on to ask who it is that people trust now, in the days of Coronatide. Question 7 asks: “to what extent, if at all, do you trust each of the following to provide information and guidance in the face of the COVID-19 crisis?” The answer is not good for a coming religious revival:

Family members53%10%
Government leader51%21%
Faith leader20%31%
Social media14%53%
(the missing %s are “don’t know” and “don’t care”)

“Faith Leaders slightly more trusted than Twitter shock!”

If you drill down to identify age, social class, geographical locality, and actual religious observance, as opposed to nominal allegiance, the figures become even more concerning.

Of those who describe themselves as religiously observant (whose prayer life could be described as praying regularly), 18% distrust faith leaders to give information and guidance in the face of the COVID-19 crisis. And for those who actually attend church, the number is 19%.

To know us is to distrust us.

Is there is to be a coming religious revival, then it won’t come by applying technological “solutionism”1 to the anxieties of the British public. The only religious revival that has ever taken ‘hold’ in England has been sort of revival that grew from slow, conscientious ministry exemplified by Augustine and his fellows:

“They were constantly engaged in prayers, in vigils and fasts. …they despised all worldly things as foreign to them; they accepted only the necessaries of life from those they taught; in all things they practised what they preached and kept themselves prepared to endure adversities, even to the point of dying for the truths they proclaimed.”

“Many found faith and were baptized through their admiration of the simplicity of it all.”

The judgment of the Venerable Bede and Henry Mayr-Harting
  1. about which I want to say more in a future posting []

‘North’ versus ‘South’ for C. S. Lewis

The things I have symbolised by North and South, which are to me equal and opposite evils, each continually strengthened and made plausible by its critique of the other, enter our experience on many different levels. In agriculture we have to fear both the barren soil and the soil which is irresistibly fertile. … In art, we find on the one hand, purists and doctrinaires, who would rather … lose a hundred beauties than admit a single fault, and who cannot believe anything to be good if the unlearned spontaneously enjoy it: on the other hand, we find the uncritical and slovenly artists who will spoil the whole work rather than deny themselves any indulgence of sentiment or humour or sensationalism. Everyone can pick out among his own acquaintance the Northern and Southern types—the high noses, compressed lips, pale complexions, dryness and taciturnity of the one, the open mouths, the facile laughter and tears, the garrulity… . The Northerners are the men of rigid systems whether sceptical or dogmatic, Aristocrats, Stoics, Pharisees, Rigorists, signed and sealed members of highly organised ‘Parties’. The Southerners are by their very nature less definable; boneless souls whose doors stand open day and night to almost every visitant, but always with readiest welcome for those, whether Maenad or Mystagogue, who offer some sort of intoxication. The delicious tang of the forbidden and the unknown draws them on with fatal attraction; the smudging of all frontiers, the relaxation of all resistances, dream, opium, darkness, death, and the return to the womb. Every feeling is justified by the mere fact that it is felt: for a Northerner, every feeling on the same ground is suspect.

…In Theology also there is a North and South. The one cries ‘Drive out the bondmaid’s son,’ and the other ‘Quench not the smoking flax’. The one exaggerates the distinctness between Grace and Nature into a sheer opposition and …makes the way hard for those who are at the point of coming in. The other blurs the distinction altogether, flatters mere kindliness into thinking it is charity and vague optimisms or pantheisms into thinking that they are Faith, and makes the way out fatally easy and imperceptible for the budding apostate.

C. S. Lewis, ‘Preface to the Third Edition’, in The Pilgrim’s Regress, Rev. ED. (original Date 1933; London: Geoffrey Bles, 1943).

Dydactylos on philosophy

His philosophy was a mixture of three famous schools—the Cynics, the Stoics and the Epicureans—and summed up all three of them in his famous phrase, “You can’t trust any bugger further than you can throw him, and there’s nothing you can do about it, so let’s have a drink.”

Terry Pratchett, Small Gods 1992

Fear no more…

Fear no more the heat o’ the sun, 
Nor the furious winter’s rages; 
Thou thy worldly task hast done, 
Home art gone, and ta’en thy wages: 
Golden lads and girls all must, 
As chimney-sweepers, come to dust. 

Fear no more the frown o’ the great; 
Thou art past the tyrant’s stroke; 
Care no more to clothe and eat; 
To thee the reed is as the oak: 
The scepter, learning, physic, must 
All follow this, and come to dust. 

Fear no more the lightning flash, 
Nor the all-dreaded thunder stone; 
Fear not slander, censure rash; 
Thou hast finished joy and moan: 
All lovers young, all lovers must 
Consign to thee, and come to dust. 

No exorciser harm thee! 
Nor no witchcraft charm thee! 
Ghost unlaid forbear thee! 
Nothing ill come near thee! 
Quiet consummation have; 
And renownèd be thy grave!

The Weathercock

Now it is not the office of the Church of Christ to be a weathercock, but to witness to the stable, eternal background in front of which these figures cross the stage, and so to preserve and maintain precisely those elements of the truth which are in most danger of being lost. For this reason, it rarely happens that the Church can “co-operate” with a popular movement; more often it is compelled to protest against its onesidedness. If we consider at what periods the Church has been most true to itself, and has conferred the greatest benefits on humanity, we shall find that they have been times when Churchmen have not been afraid to be “in the right with two or three.” Like certain ministers of state, the Church has always done well in opposition, and badly in office.

William Ralph Inge, The Church and the Age (London: Longmans, Green, 1912).

Judas reading Calvin

A predestined minion

The doctrine of predestination, says the XVIIth Article, is ‘full of sweet, pleasant and unspeakable comfort to godly persons’. But what of ungodly persons? Inside the original experience no such question arises. There are no generalizations. We are not building a system. When we begin to do so, very troublesome problems and very dark solutions will appear. But these horrors, so familiar to the modem reader (and especially to the modem reader of fiction), are only by-products of the new theology. They are astonishingly absent from the thought of the first Protestants.

(I am speaking, of course, about initial doubts of election. Despair after apostasy …is another matter and was no Protestant novelty. When Judas hanged himself he had not been reading Calvin.)

C. S. Lewis, ‘New Learning and New Ignorance’, in English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, Excluding Drama: The Completion of the Clark Lectures, Oxford History of English Literature 3 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1954), p. 34.

Why Calvinists can’t be poets (and vice versa)?

…there is a fundamental sense in which a Protestant theology of grace poses a problem for poets. This is especially so in Calvin’s development of sola gratia, where the insistence on the total depravity of fallen humanity prevents human action from earning God’s gifts of salvation and sanctification. Human agency is thoroughly impotent in this regard, and apart from the direct intervention of God himself, all human actions are vitiated by sin. As Calvin’s Institutes articulate this notion, “only damnable things come forth from man’s corrupted nature.” [2.3.289] Thus all human actions seem either to be sinful, because they are the product of a totally depraved human nature, or not really human at all, since any “good” action can only be the direct result of God’s agency. This theology places the religious poet on the horns of a similar dilemma. On the one hand, it is surely the calling of the Christian poet to write Christian poetry; on the other, if faithful poetry is just a mark of an already complete saving act of God, what can the poet add to that act by writing? Does it not even risk blasphemy to try and write “in excess” of the command of God?

Shaun Ross, ‘Sacrifices of Thanksgiving: The Eucharist in “The Temple”’, George Herbert Journal 40, no. 1 (Fall  /Spring 2017 2016): p. 4.

Why is writing so damn hard…?

It had never really progressed, it had simply fallen apart into a series of fragments. And out of two years’ work that was all that he had to show — just fragments, incomplete in themselves and impossible to join together. On every one of those sheets of paper there was some hacked scrap of verse which had been written and rewritten and rewritten over intervals of months. There were not five hundred lines that you could say were definitely finished. And he had lost the power to add to it any longer; he could only tinker with this passage or that, groping now here, now there, in its confusion. It was no longer a thing that he created, it was merely a nightmare with which he struggled. For the rest, in two whole years he had produced nothing except a handful of short poems — perhaps a score in all. It was so rarely that he could attain the peace of mind in which poetry, or prose for that matter, has got to be written. The times when he ‘could not’ work grew commoner and commoner. Of all types of human being, only the artist takes it upon him to say that he ‘cannot’ work.

Gordon’s agony, in George Orwell’s Keep the Aspidistra Flying, 1936

(HT @poetrypotion for the reminder)

Advice to a young man

Ignore everything your father says to you now. He’s an idiot. But be prepared to be amazed about how much sense he’s talking in five years’ time. (It’s not that you’ve grown up enough to understand what he’s saying: he will have learnt a lot).

Learn to lay bricks. This is a good and necessary skill. It’s not just useful for doing DIY around a house. It’ll teach you something about the dignity and rewards of labour.

Never believe a single word or image in an advert. They don’t want you to be happier, taller, sexier, more successful in work or love. They just want to sell you things. (It’s your money they’re after, not your welfare).

Go easy on “stuff”. You’ll have to carry everything you ever bought and wasted with you in the next life, so make it easier on your dead self.

Read at least one book a year which you disagree with.


Never say that you aren’t ready to settle down or grow up. Guy Gibson won a VC for the Dambusters Raid in 1943, and had to write the condolence letters to the families of 53 killed airmen before he had breakfast next day. He was 23. Growing up is one of the pleasures of life. Don’t postpone it.

The only way you’ll have a life is by learning to give it away: to others in service, to one other in love. Live your life for yourself and it will crumble to dust in your hands. Live your life for others and it will never be taken away from you.

Ignore cool. “Cool” is a lie told to make us despise other people. Cultivate “warmth”. Engage with people, especially those left out by the cool ones.

If you don’t vote, you have no right to complain about the way the country is run.

If you don’t volunteer in some way, you have no right to complain about the way the country is going to the dogs.

Life isn’t cheap. Life is expensive, and has always been costly. It’s death that’s cheap: cheap to get and cheap to impose on others. Your life is valuable only as much as you value the lives of others.

A music festival is 100,000 people confusing dysentery with a good time. The best experiences come in small groups. If it’s hard to do theology after Auschwitz, it’s harder to do Glastonbury after Nuremberg.

Look forward to friendships that have lasted forty years. Experiences shared and stories told and retold are the way we know we are human.

“FOMO” and “YOLO”: two more lies. Fear Of Missing Out is the real reason lurking beneath You Only Live Once justifications. Decide what is important to you and your family (however you want to define that) and do that. Don’t let other people try to sell you experiences.

Look for God and happiness in the small things, the small things that last.

There is more truth in a pair of boots that have been polished and patched for 20 years than in this year’s “must have”, “must buy” fashions.

Decide what your favourite meal is, and learn to cook it.

Change your mind every six months, and learn to cook the new meal.

Make sure the cooking involves washing dirt off ingredients: it’s not real food if you use scissors to prepare it rather than a peeler.

Eat something you have grown yourself every week, even if it’s just mustard and cress in a sandwich.

Oh, and bake your own bread.

Does it mean nothing to you? 4

Oh God! I don’t believe it! They’re back again! In the middle hours of the night, when all respectable, God-fearing people should be in bed with the door locked and windows closed, and only bandits, graverobbers and Romans are out and about, there’s a mutter of whispering and shuffling on the staircase outside my bedroom window. It takes me a bleary-eared couple of heartbeats to work out that those are Galilean accents, and I recognize one for sure: Big-Lump, the super-spy who’d come with the Galilean Rabbi on Thursday afternoon. My heart sinks. I had hoped to have seen the last of them when they left my furnished dining room on Thursday night, and even though Judas, the only decent one in the whole party, never showed up on Friday to pay the account, I would rather take the financial hit than deal with that lot again.

And anyway, who said that innkeepers have to be insurrectionists as well? I keep rooms in which Passovers may be eaten—hospitality for pilgrims is my business. I didn’t set out to be a base for every bandit in Judea to plot and regroup. I thought, on Thursday night, that they were just a bunch of stuck-up and slightly thick provincials. The usual crowd to make money from. And then, after what happened on Friday I realise that this lot are dangerous. “We’re leaving to continue our worship somewhere else,” said the high-handed Rabbi to me. “We don’t want to be disturbed.” Well he did me a favour according to all accounts. Temple guards and Roman soldiers arrested them in their prayer meeting, and the drippy Galilean was taken off to Caiaphas’s house. Can you imagine the complaints from the neighbours if the soldiers had come here? “Oi! It’s the night before Passover! Can’t you keep the noise down?” “Sorry, sorry,” I’d’ve had to shout back. “Not my fault I rented rooms to revolutionaries”!

Thaddeus told me that the Rabbi had been executed on Friday. Pincer movement between the High Priest and the Governor. Don’t like seeing anyone getting killed by the Romans, even a stuck-up sneak like that Galilean, but I like bodies in the street even less. I remember the last insurrection. Not pleasant, I can tell you, and if the death of one (or two!) Galilean rabbis means we don’t have to live through all that again, well— it’s a price worth paying.

But now they’re back! I stick my head out of the window and look at them milling pathetically around in the courtyard below. “What do you think you’re doing?” I hiss. “Go away!”

“We’ve got nowhere else to go to,” says one, not Big-Lump, who I can see standing to one side, arms wrapped around himself, staring into space.

“Not my problem. Go away!”

“Please! We need somewhere to rest. We’ve been on the move for two days.”

I’m about to swear at them when I see shutters beginning to move on the other side of the squares. Which is worse: neighbours or Galileans? Hard choice, but without really knowing why, I go downstairs and lift the bolt from the door, and let them in.

“Quickly” I hiss. “Before the neighbours hear.”

“Thank you, thank you,” they all mutter. Their gratitude makes me cringe more than the drunken arrogance of two days ago.

“Yes, yes, quickly. Inside.”

I take them upstairs, back into the large dining room I had hired to them for the Passover. Hired, but not been paid for. “You can stay here for the moment,” I say. “But I want to be paid for the dinner. Judas was supposed to pay me on Friday. Where is he?” There’s an embarrassed pause, and the one who spoke to me outside answers.

“Judas is dead. Killed himself. Buried in the potter’s field.” I sigh.

“With or without his money?”

Another pause: “Without. The temple priests took the money back from him.”

“Temple priests? Why did they have his money? My money? No, don’t tell me. I think it’s safer for me to know as little about you lot as possible. Two of you dead in two days. What do you reckon your chances of survival are?” At this Big-Lump shakes himself out of his stupor.

“Survival? Not good. Not good at all. We will not survive. We don’t deserve to survive.” Another pause.

“Well,” says I, business-like. “I’m glad to see the party mood continuing. You can stay the day. Then I want you out at night-fall, and I suggest you get out of the city then. You can usually get through the Dung Gate before the curfew sets in. But that’s your problem.” There’s no response from them, but they all just collapse on the cushions on the floor. They look as if they have slept since Thursday night. Well, trouble-making is a tiring business. And if I sound unsympathetic, then that’s because I am.

There’s peace and quiet for a few hours, but I can hear, before the city’s cockerels begin their usual cry, feet running to the foot of the staircase. There’s a thump, thump, thump on the door—not strong or insistent enough to a soldier’s demand to be let in—and then the door opens and there’s a hurried, babbling conversation. I make out a“I don’t believe it!” and I sympathise.

“I know what you mean, legate. I let you back in on the condition you keep your heads down, and before the sun is up, you’re drawing the attention of the whole neighbourhood to my inn. I don’t believe it, indeed.”

As I’m getting my robe on, more furious whispering and the door bangs shut, and I hear feet running away from the inn: three or four people this time.

By the time I get to upper room all the provincials are awake and huddled in gossipy debate. I look out the one who took the lead in the night.

“What is it now?!” I don’t mind showing my irritation.

He looks at me, and shakes his head. “It’s the women. They’ve come back with some kind of cock and bull story about Jesus.”

“Jesus?” I ask.

“The rabbi.” Funny. I had never heard his name before then.

“What about him? Still dead, is he?”

“That’s just it,” he says, half-way between smiling and crying. “The women went to his tomb this morning, to finish off the funeral rites. They didn’t have time on Friday, what with Sabbath beginning, and the storm, and the Roman soldiers. They say,”—  he put emphasis on ‘say’— “that when they got to the tomb, the stone was rolled away, and the body gone.”

“Gone? Gone where?”

“They don’t know. They just came back here to tell us, and Simon Peter and John have gone to check.”

“Very wise, legate. Sounds like a typical woman’s story to me. Wrong tomb, wrong grave yard, wrong body. Wrong everything. Unless… You haven’t already nicked the body, have you? I won’t have graverobbers in my inn!”

“Not us! We couldn’t have anyway. The Governor put a guard on the tomb. We’d never have got passed the soldiers.”

“Soldiers! So where are they now then?”

“I have no idea, but I tell you, unless I see it for myself, I’m not going to believe it. Too much has happened this week for me to get my hopes up.”

Just as he is speaking Big-Lump arrives back, with the Handsome one in tow. They’re out of breath. Big-Lump has woken out of his stupor then.

“They’re right,” he says. “No body there. No guards. Just the grave clothes folded neatly in the corner.”

“And…?” says the one I was speaking to.

“And what, Thomas.”

“Didn’t you look for the Master’s body? Where’s it gone?”

“I have no idea, Thomas. All I can say is that it isn’t there.”

“Peter! You are hopeless! That is no answer.”

All I think is that I am glad the revolution isn’t dependent on this lot. They can’t even keep track of their Master’s body. As the argument develops between the group, some following Thomas and not believing a word of it, others following Peter and John thinking that something, anything, has happened, a woman slowly slips into the room, and stands there. I’m the only one to notice her, at first, but gradually the argument quietens down. She is red in the face, and obviously moved in some way, and equally obviously, trying to keep her emotions under control.

Peter finally notices that everyone else has shut up, and turns to the woman. “Mary. You’re back.”

She catches her breath, and then it all come out. “Peter. He’s alive. I have seen him, almost touched him. He spoke my name. He tells me to tell you all that he is ascending to his Father.”

All this in a room of absolute stillness. She finishes and the silence continues for a moment, and then pandemonium.


“Don’t be ridiculous!”

“He’s dead, Mary. I saw his body on the tree!”

“There were spears, and nails. Of course, he’s dead!”

“A woman’s witness! What’s that worth!”

In all this, I notice something strange. Mary doesn’t attempt to argue or explain. She doesn’t find more words to describe what happened. She doesn’t join in. She just stands there, as sure as she would’ve been if she had told them that the sun had risen that morning. They could disagree all they liked, but the sun would still have risen, and its light would still be in the sky.

Despite myself, I’m getting involved. I don’t say anything. Rather, I find myself caring. Perhaps this woman is right. Perhaps the Galilean rabbi is alive, risen from the tomb. What would that mean if he has? What would that mean for me? For Jerusalem? What would that mean for the world? As I think these thoughts, such unexpected ideas, I find myself overwhelmed with excitement, no, not excitement, a joy like a meal with good friends and the birth of a child and the wonder of dawn and the songs of a high day in the Temple, all rolled into one. This means everything, I think. If only it were true. If only it wasn’t just a story told by a woman.

And as I think that, the noise of arguing men fades away, and the room grows warm, like the heat of a summer’s morning burning off the dew, and a sweet breeze blows through the stuffy and scruffy upper room, and he stands in the middle of the swirling group, and as I fall to my knees, the light and joy disarms me and all I hear is his voice, saying, promising, bringing: “Peace.”

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