Bishop Alastair Writes


August is often associated with holiday – people break their normal patterns to get a different perspective, on themselves, on the world.  An opportunity to see, feel and think differently. Everyday life so easily becomes trapped in patterns and routines, tramlines and the tensions of keeping within our normal targets and expectations.

Two anniversaries fall in August, which might throw some light on this dynamic between tramlines and seeking new perspectives.

On 7th August 1784 the Derby Philosophical Society was formally inaugurated by Erasmus Darwin (grandfather of Charles Darwin of evolution fame).  The original members included a clergy person, the Revd Thomas Gisborne.

Meetings were at Darwin’s House, 3 Full Street, and the Kings Head pub in the Cornmarket.  

The aim was to encourage creative thinking.  A strong faith that the human ability to reason and analyse could create new insights – enlightenment – which would allow us to understand ourselves and our world better, and also equip us to live more fulfilled lives.  A faith in progress, science and the ability of human reason.

Christianity emerges from logos, the word, the power to see, express, understand this life more fully.  Perceiving the inner workings of material logic.  This approach to the challenge of human living has become a major driver of what we call the modern world.

A very contrasting August anniversary can be observed on 2nd August 1892.  The day Bishop Edward King was largely acquitted, by the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, of charges about certain ritual practices.  King was an intellectual, a university professor, a principal of a theological college, and became Bishop of the vast Diocese of Lincoln in 1885.  Part of his practice in leading worship was to have candles on the altar, and mix water with the wine of Holy Communion, and to make the sign of the cross at the Blessing and Absolution. These practices were seen by radical Protestants as ‘foreign’ (Catholic) practices not specified in the Book of Common Prayer and acts of mere superstition.  King was taken to court and the case heard by the Archbishop of Canterbury at Lambeth Palace.  On 2nd August an appeal from the Archbishop’s decision to the Judicial Council was rejected.  His distinction was recognised – between the importance of written systems and carefully devised formulas (the preferred currency of those termed the ‘hotter sort of Protestant’) and the value of sign, mystery, a sense of presence pointing to a deeper reality.  Both were important.  We would be impoverished by only using one of these currencies rather than both perspectives.

We know this wisdom when human ability to assess and explore runs up against its limits – as with a natural disaster or a terror attack.  At such deeply difficult moments, we need to value the thoughtful approach of Erasmus Darwin and the Derby Philosophical Society.  We always have more to learn, and great gifts to receive further enlightenment.  Edward King valued this approach too.  But, as a priest, often alongside people facing the poverty of existence and the poverty of being able to understand, he recognised the power of a flickering candle – fragile light in what might otherwise be greater darkness.  A feature of contemporary spirituality is the desire of people with little religious hinterland to come into our churches and light candles at times of concern.

As we seek new perspectives in August, think about Erasmus Darwin and Edward King: two kinds of trial – by reason and by candlelight.  Can we learn to celebrate both perspectives, and witness to the fullness of the Enlightenment brought to our world in Jesus Christ: a living word, and a sign of sacrament and salvation – even through the realities of failure and death.

Let light perpetual shine in our hearts and through our lives.

Bishop Alastair

The Diocese of Derby

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