Handy Theology


 praying hands

The first time I saw Durer’s ‘Praying Hands’ I remember feeling incredibly moved by its simplicity. The painting isn’t beautiful, but it does depict a certain dignity. The legend behind the painting adds to its sense of mystique: the two eldest sons of Albrecht Durer (Albrecht the younger and Albert) both wanted to study art at the Academy in Nuremberg. Sadly, the family couldn’t support the cost so, the brothers tossed a coin to decide which one would go. Both pledged, should they lose, to work to help finance, for a four year, period the ‘winner.’ The brothers anticipated that the ‘loser’ would, in time, take up a place at the Academy with the fees being paid from commissions received by the brother who had completed his training; it was a scheme in brotherly love.

Psalm 90 verse 17 prefigures the bothers’ aspirations: ‘Let the favour of the Lord our God be upon us, and prosper for us the work of our hands, O prosper the work of our hands.’

Sadly the scheme was only partially successful, for Albrecht the younger did become a celebrated artist, but his brother Albert was unable to follow his dream as, in the intervening years, his hands became badly disfigured as he worked, in the mines, to fund Albrecht’s education. ‘Greater love has no man……’

Albert’s charity had a profound effect on Albrecht, leading to ‘Praying Hands.’ The story shows how success ascribed to one person is frequently, usually, a result of a prior act of charity. Albert’s contribution to the painting is at least as important as Albrecht’s, in much the same way as the nurse who saves the life of the entrepreneur in casualty is every bit as much a wealth creator as the entrepreneur him, or her, self. We need to remind ourselves that we are seldom, if ever, the sole authors of ‘our’ success and, that our talents are pure gift.

We also need to remember that Christianity is a handy form of spirituality. Christian spirituality manifests itself in the material, physical and, practical world: ‘O prosper the work of our hands.’  Jesus was nailed to the cross, through his hands. Salvation is literally the work of His hands.

 In the gospels we read countless examples of Jesus both touching and being touched by the unclean. His hands could only bring purity to that which was considered impure. So if Christianity is about growing into the likeness of Christ we need to be prepared to get some dirt under our finger nails. We need to touch, and allow ourselves to be touched, by all and sundry.

Hands are also used in worship, they may be raised in adoration, crossing ourselves reminds us, again and again, and that salvation only comes from the cross. We use our hands to bless, to anoint, to reassure and, to accompany. Durer’s painting, and the story behind it, reminds us that Christianity is handy religion. Perhaps we can use the ‘Praying Hands’ as, with the psalmist, we pray:

 ‘Let the favour of the Lord our God be upon us, and prosper the work of our hands, O prosper the work of our hands.’

Good and Goodness in education; a reflection on Monkton Combe.

This week the A levels results, finally, came out. For our daughter the news was ‘good.’ Very good in fact.

Her achievements got me thinking about what constitutes a ‘good’ education.

Is ‘good’ simply to be defined in terms of the results achieved?

Well, I suppose a consumerist or utilitarian ethos would regard final school results as the sole indicator of whether the standard of education received was good, bad, or indifferent. In the utilitarian and consumerist model the student,or pupil,is,as already implied, to be regarded primarily as ‘recipient,’ with,to a large extent,teaching reduced to instruction – after all success or failure is determined solely in relation to the final test scores. 

In this scheme ‘good’ has little to do with virtue (or ‘goodness’), and everything to do with objective, empirically validated standards. ‘Good’ can only be defined by those external to the community. Each students results are placed on a lens, under a metaphorical microscope, on a given day and that’s about it!

Achievement and success are to be celebrated and, of course everyone wants their children to do well, but achievement and success devoid of corresponding growth in virtue might in the long run cause significant problems, both for the individual and wider society. Schools have an ethical responsibility to ensure growth in ‘overall goodness.’ Let’s look at the quality of schools by considering the how students behave ten, twenty or even thirty years after leaving school. 


‘Educational Goodness’ requires humility (the recognition that our abilities are gifts which others have passed on, nurtured, shaped, discover and develop) and, the conviction that the education received is not merely a private good but, a communal asset, the fruit of which is to be shared.

Chapter 57 of the Rule of Benedict encourages those with special and creative gifts to ‘use them with proper humility’ and to ‘remember Ananias and Sapphira;’ quality advice for budding students, teachers and, parents. 

So how does a ‘good school’ relate to it’s ‘stakeholders?’

Firstly, I suspect that it rejects the consumerist model, in favour of a community model. In doing so it asks to be trusted but, also accepts its own fallibility. No institution is perfect. Good institutions allow themselves to be shaped by their members, but are not beholden to their members.

My daughters education has at times been an extremely uncomfortable experience and, on occasion I have been highly critical of the school, sometimes fairly sometimes unfairly. No doubt, behind closed doors, the school has been critical of me! (always unfairly of course!)

A ‘good school’, therefore, remains in dialogue with stakeholders but always reserves the right to say, ‘no I think you are wrong on this issue…’ A good school seeks to resist all tendencies to favour one group of another – and this is really difficult.  A Christian school should be able to do this as a matter of course because its starting point should be that all are made in God’s image by dint of their humanity. 

A ‘good school’ also encourages prudent risk taking, which implies the possibility of ‘failure.’ My daughter applied to two elite universities and I need to be honest, last year I was uncomfortable with her applying to her first choice institution, for fear of rejection. The school encouraged her to ‘go for it.’ They were right, I was, if not wrong, nervous in the extreme. Parents have to accept that a ‘good’ school might be the catalyst for domestic tension! Sometimes the school might know best! 

A ‘good school’ creates the space to make friends, often with the unlikeliest of people, it is able to do so because it believes in the inherent value of each and every individual, irrespective of ‘objective’ measures of attainment.’ Divergence and quirkiness are regarded favourably.

Trust, humility, dialogue, divergence, prudent  risk taking and space; are these hallmarks of good school? If so, where can you find such schools?

I know of two:

Waddesdon C of E Secondary School and Monkton Combe.

Both work for their constituents, because both work at being ‘good.’ One is a state school, the other independent. Its the ethos that matters not the legal structure.





B & B theology: branding and blessing, ability and disability.

The adverts always show happy, beautiful, people using a product to enhance their status and, standing.

Think of the absurdity of branding for a moment;

Branding asks us to define ourselves in relation to a manufactured (i.e. man made) product or service. Branding also creates group identity, thereby undermining our individuality and getting us to think in terms of in,and out,groups.This is fine so long as you qualify for the in group (buyer beware you qualification is always temporary and provisional!). If you qualify you can create an illusionary world believing that you really, truly, relate to whichever celebratory is being paid to champion the brand, and other users. Branding seeks to truly mark people. The vast majority of the ‘value’ offered by a specific consumer brand is intangible (intangible is a much more sophisticated word than vacuous!) 

Blessing also marks people and communities. When people are blessed they are marked not intangibly but indelibly, by God. As Christians we are called on to bless and not brand.

Blessing requires us to look beyond the exterior to the interior and its potential.Branding is concerned, primarily, with the exterior. What you wear, carry, use are all important. The brand cannot exist without its physical attributes. Which brings me back to the beautiful people! 

Let’s be honest few, if any, of us are really beautiful! Just go to a local swimming pool or gym and this will become immediately obvious. Buying a brand is not going to make you,or me,a beautiful person,still less is it going to give us a beautiful mind,or a warm heart.

Blessing might, however.

One more thought: three of the biggest heroes of the Christian faith were far from perfect physical specimens. Jacob walked with a distinctive limp, St. Paul had a thorn in his side that seemed to cause him significant pain and discomfort, and what about Jesus? I love the idea of the risen Christ limping along the road to Emmaus and then revealing his wounds to his friends, the disciples.

Jesus, Paul and Jacob would not have been signed up as brand champions, or endorsers. Neither should we. In fact Scripture urges us not to worry about what we should wear or eat (Matthew 6, 25-34). Scripture reminds us that our identity is shaped through blessing and,not brand. 

I have recently been spending a significant amount of time with members of Disability Target Shooting G.B. Most of their high performance athletes get what it means to be blessed, which is fantastic, given that very few of them would be obvious candidates for selection as brand champions endorsers. 

But here’s my niggle: are our churches too branded, overly populated by the beautiful people. Do our churches spend too much time worrying about what our worship groups and choirs look like? Our we overly concerned with externalities and customer satisfaction?

Hopefully not, for the Church is called on to embody Christ and, he was seriously wounded, or if you like, disabled.

The currency of salvation: St. Paul or the Two Ronnie’s?

I have a new ritual, a useful one I think!

As an ordination present I was given a mug. Inscribed on the inside rim is the following verse:

‘My grace is enough; it’s all you need,’ (2 Corinthians 12, 9).

Each day begins with substantial amounts of tea supped from my ‘ordination mug.’

Each day, therefore, also starts with a reminder about the sufficiency of grace – God’s gift of himself freely given.

Grace is God’s currency. But for the modern mind it is an unusual form of currency; for it can’t be exchanged, hedged against, bartered or used as a medium of exchange. Grace is simply a given!

Grace is ‘indiscriminately invaluable.’

Indiscriminate because it is freely offered to all.

Invaluable because it lasts forever and can’t be traded. Grace, unlike material goods, transcends mathematical valuation.

Grace bears no correlation to merit, worth, success or failure. Grace is correlated to mercy, not merit. If we wish to fully accept God’s grace we need to do so with humility, aligning ourselves with the tax collector,not the Pharisee. We need to be able, with all sincerity, pray the Jesus Prayer: ‘Lord, have mercy on me the sinner,’  (Luke 18, 9-14).

Grace asks an important question of us: ‘How do you regard others?’ One of the purposes of grace is to remove all false category distinctions: Greek versus Jew, Male versus Female, Able Bodied versus Disabled (more on this next week) etc.

Grace becomes the highway into peace and unity; heaven in other words!

Hell by contrast can be thought of as an enduring and eternal ‘graceless state.’

The state of hell might be a bit like being forced to live in an eternal parody of the famous Two Ronnie’s ‘ I look up to him, but down on him’  sketch (YouTube it if you haven’t seen it). The story of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16, 19-31) bears this out.

In Hell we never find our true, and highest identity, because we remain overwhelmingly concerned with merit; league tables, and our position in them, are the primary tool of analysis.  

Grace invites us to find our true identity as sons and daughters of God, indiscriminately loved and infinitely valuable. 

Grace, not merit, has become for me, something of a mantra, and each day it starts with a cup of tea.