Thursday, April 09, 2009


Thursday was a day that brought together many strands of my life. 9 April is my father's birthday. He died in 1997 (The book Fear or freedom? Why a warring church must change which I edited last year is dedicated to him, and to my mother, who passed away in 1978.) It is also the anniversary of the execution of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whose life and work is one of my inspirations. Though not one that casts me in a particularly good light! There is a family connection, in that I discovered Bonhoeffer through Eberhard Bethge's classic biography on my father's bookshelf, though I think he rather preferred the cautious Otto Dibelius. The new and expanded edition of Bethge is so much better, by the way.

There's no Holy Thursday night vigil around these parts, so instead I have decided to re-watch Martin Doblmeier's moving film Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Pacifist, Nazi Resister, about his life and influence. The theological dimension gets a look in as well, with an interview from South African writer John de Gruchy - whose stimulating review of Stanley Hauerwas' Performing the Faith: Bonhoeffer and the Practice of Nonviolence can be found here. Doblmeier gives an interview about the project on the film website. I must also pick up Geoffrey Kelly's reading guide (pictured) to the Fortress Bonhoeffer works edition at some point. Fresh perspectives are always welcome, and I am far from complete in my reading.

Thinking of the Maundy Thursday vigil: the Eucharist and the stripping off the altar at the Church of the Annunciation in Brighton, where I lived for five years (in the town, not the church!) was always an extraordinary occasion. The then priest, David Wostenholme, who is now in Glasgow, would turn the lady chapel into a flowering garden of waiting and remembrance, complete with the Host and the shadow of the tree of betrayal. It generated a tremendous sense of prayer and suspense before the abandonment of Good Friday. Some people who know the Anabaptist, and especially modern Mennonite, influence on my theological thinking are sometimes surprised that the liturgical and aesthetic dimension of the Catholic tradition is important to me. But as far as I am concerned they are wholly congruent. As Dorothee Soelle once put it, mysticism and resistance are two complementary paths to meeting the Other in the midst.

One final thought, on foot-washing. I was intrigued by today's news that it has been temporarily reincarnated as shoe-shining. Actually, that's quite a creative idea. I'm delighted that money is going to Zimbabwe, too. But in another sense it would be wonderful if church leaders could go out onto the streets and serve for no reward at all. In our commodified culture, "random acts of kindness" are regarded with suspicion, though. Debt rather than grace is the way society is ordered. The church as well, all too often, in contradiction of its calling. So it is worth reflecting again (since I have certainly mentioned it before) that whoever asked: 'what might have happened differently if foot-washing had been the primary Christian sacrament?' posed one of the most important post-Christendom questions of all. Perhaps it will be picked up more and more in the 'new monasticism' (which of course goes back to Bonhoeffer) and in 'emergent' circles?


Jane said...

Splendid stuff Simon. We had a Lutheran Maundy Thursday service yesterday and I discovered the theology of Hanning Luther (I nearly typed Henning Mankell!!)
MEanwhile shameless self-publicist that I am you can find my brief Maundy Thursday meditation from last year here

Simon Barrow said...

Thanks. I think that your link got gobbled. If you re-post it as a Tiny URL ( it should work. I'd like to read it myself!

Jane said...

Maundy Thursday meditation with TinyURL