On Not Living Ahead of Time: The Hopeful Realism of Advent

St Bene’t’s, Cambridge, where I worship, are putting together a series of Advent reflections, with one for each day. I post mine below.


The subject of my reflection is Augustine’s Letter to Boniface (Letter 189) and is inspired by the thoughts of Canadian philosopher James KA Smith on the letter which you can listen to here:

“we ought not to want to live ahead of the appointed time”

Near the beginning of the fifth century, the great ecclesiastical writer St Augustine addresses a Christian politician weary with his civic duties and the terrible tumult of his times (plus ça change!). We sadly do not have the surviving letter from Boniface to Augustine and so we have to infer Boniface’s attitudes and thoughts from Augustine’s prose. When we do, what we notice is a figure anxious about reconciling his allegiance to God with serving in the government of the time. Among other things, Boniface is particularly keen to know whether he should lead military campaigns as a Christian. Augustine cautions Boniface against abandoning the position he finds himself in and from running away from the gifts God had bestowed on him to fulfil his tasks for the common good.

While we might not follow Augustine in all of his conclusions (we may well raise an eyebrow at Augustine’s justification of Christian involvement in battle, for instance), his words have peculiar relevance and resonance for the Season we now find ourselves in— the Season of Advent. I want to draw our attention, in particular, to Augustine’s short and suggestive supplication: “we ought not to want to live ahead of the appointed time”.

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Christian Life is Lived Between Christ the King Sunday and Advent

James KA Smith’s address to Christians in Parliament from 2018 is a must listen for the week between Christ the King Sunday (a relative newcomer to the Liturgical Calendar) and Advent. Check it out below:

The Little Things and the Unglamorous Ordinary

A friend last night reminded me last night of the significance of the small and seemingly insignificant things of life—making coffee for a loved one, spending time with one’s parents, relating well to the person we find annoying. For the Christian, if all the situations we find ourselves are in some way a gift from God, then how we relate to these things, people and situations seems to be of infinite importance.

It seems that most of life is spent in the mundane humdrum. Yet it is easy to get distracted by the flashing lights of false visions that we might have for ourselves (who we might be, where we might be working, and so on). I’m reminded of Eugene Peterson’s quote that discipleship and wisdom take place in the unglamorous ordinary. It is here that God would have us, for it is here that we grow.

Writing Break

My blog writing will probably be slightly sporadic over the next couple of months.

This is because I am working on a book project: turning my thesis into a published monograph. I’ve had fun working on this in the morning using the Ulysses writing app which I would thoroughly recommend. But this side of Christmas, you might see slightly fewer posts. I’m still working on the Tribalism series (number two is almost ready), as well as few other pieces on history and theology in the Church, Quietness (drawing on language from the Book of Common Prayer), Christianity and Class and some personal reflections as an Anywhere-r on finding a Somewhere.

In the meantime, I updated my About Me page, which you can check out. I’ve dropped in a section in which I outline where I broadly sit within the political and theological landscape, for those who are interested.

Two New ResPublica Seminars on Post-Liberalism

With a Summer and Autumn of cultural upheaval in the Anglosphere (as a result of Covid, fiery protests of various sorts, Brexit debates and, now, an ongoing US election that will perpetuate the liberal order, whether economically with Trump or socially and economically with Biden), there’s certainly appetite for considering fresh ideas that might take us forward with the crucial task of re-constructing community and society.

It’s just as well, then, that the UK think-tank ResPublica have recently produced two instructive seminars on post-liberalism, that political philosophy which, in broad terms, advocates moving to the left on the economy, to the right on culture and identity and to the local and particular in governance. Identifying the overarching assumption of liberalism as unmitigated autonomy—the human person unmoored form ties to person or place—post-liberals seek to offer a positive vision that prioritises relationships, community and belonging in our cultural, economic and social life.

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Churches Should Stay Open

Following the announcement of a second national lockdown in the UK starting this coming Thursday, the thoughts of church leaders, and religious leaders more broadly, have turned to how this will affect the live worship of their congregations. The published government guidance is not entirely clear on this point, though it seems to point to the end of gathered worship and its replacement by services broadcast by priests from church buildings (the guidance is also clear that buildings remain open for private prayer).

I believe that churches, and other places of worship, should stay open throughout the second lockdown.

Some might be surprised to hear me say this. 

After all, in two previous blog posts on the subject (here and here), I took a more optimistic view of church closures. I was prepared, at that point, to give the Church of England’s leadership the benefit of the doubt given the novelty of the virus and, as I explored, the theological reasons for home worship (I did, however, register my frustration at the prohibition of clergy entering church buildings to film worship). 

I am no longer convinced that my reasons hold in the current situation. I want to explain why I think this, why I have changed my mind.

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