Of Strategy, Smallbone and the Spanish Train

There’s a Spanish train that runs between Guadalquivir and old Seville,
And at dead of night the whistle blows, and people hear she’s running still…
And then they hush their children back to sleep, lock the doors, upstairs they creep,
For it is said that the souls of the dead fill that train – ten thousand deep!!

Well a railwayman lay dying with his people by his side,
His family were crying, knelt in prayer before he died,
But above his bed, just a-waiting for the dead, was the Devil with a twinkle in his eye,
“Well God’s not around and look what I’ve found – this one’s mine!!”

Just then the Lord himself appeared in a blinding flash of light,
And shouted at the Devil, “Get thee hence to endless night!”
But the Devil just grinned and said “I may have sinned but there’s no need to push me around,
I got him first so you can do your worst – he’s going underground!”


Having been a strong Chris de Burgh fan in my innocent youth (don’t snigger) and then given up on him around the time that ‘Lady in Red’ became so popular, I recently rediscovered his early songs, which are actually rather fun – and this is one. I played the album on the way to Greenbelt and concluded that the title song was enjoyable but very bad theology. Yet there is more to it than that – the bad theology reflects a certain understanding of the nature of Christ – and therefore it says something significant about the Christian church which exists to tell people about Christ. I had those thoughts bubbling away in the back of my mind when a number of themes that I have been wrestling with for some time crystallised together, triggered by looking at David Keen’s very interesting figures:

The Church of England is dying, although it is not yet dead. Essentially fewer people are giving more, and whilst the latter side of that equation is a sign of spiritual vitality, the process cannot continue for ever. There is, of course, no reason to believe that the CofE will keep going in perpetuity. Establishment acts as a bulwark against any precipitate collapse, but that simply means that the butter gets spread ever more thinly. It is not impossible that the centralised (and centralising) forces associated with Church House collapse, and that the thousands of different parish churches are simply left to go their own way. Some will thrive on their independence, some will simply close, others will get handed over to the local Friends organisations and be turned to other useful purpose. The overall structure will revert to that existing before twentieth-century statism, and possibly even to that existing before the implementation of the parish structure, so we would have Minster churches, who send out clergy to serve local congregations. The several different denominations will work together (good thing) and eventually merge on cost grounds, whilst various ‘plums’ get picked off by the predatory. This isn’t to say that Christianity hasn’t a future in England, just that it may need to die a proper death before revival and resurrection.

What is it that has killed – is killing – the Church of England, and Christianity in England more generally? Well, here I want to talk about the Rev Adam Smallbone. I think Rev is an incredibly good programme, but it shares in some of the theological mistakes that Chris de Burgh articulates in his song, and I think it cuts right to the heart of where our problem lies. That is, there is no real sense of God in the programme, and no sense of the gospel – and in this, it is a faithful reflection of the wider culture. It gives, I believe, a very important insight as to what the church has lost, and why the church is dying.

Consider this clip:

I believe that our wider culture sees two types of Christian. The first is an aggressive evangelical, full of overwhelming bonhomie about “good news”, who comes across to the wider culture as part of the Borg – resistance is futile and you will become a part of us – equal parts insane and malevolent. This is often the target of New Atheist criticism. Whilst there are often apparent stories of ‘success’ from such projects I cannot help but believe that there is a limit to how far such activity can really reach into our wider society. The other type of Christian, however, is the woolly liberal do-gooder, who means well, and understands and moves within the wider society rather easily – and therefore isn’t bonkers – but has no passion or strength – they are just, in Hauerwas’ words, “asking the culture at large to be a little less racist, a little less promiscuous, a little less violent”. This is not a new problem: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity”

Watching the most recent episode of Rev (2.3) the moment that encapsulated the problem for me – amongst several possible examples – was when Smallbone swigs from the bottle containing ‘Holy Water’. This Rev is completely irreverent, and, as a result, is completely irrelevant. Compare and contrast Smallbone – and the evangelical opposition – to the church as described in Acts, which was very highly regarded even though people were very afraid. Why afraid? Because the Pentecostal fire had made these men holy – and holiness is an aweful thing. There is very little holiness in Rev, and this is because the wider culture sees no holiness in the Church of England. This is our problem.


“But I think I’ll give you one more chance” said the Devil with a smile,
“So throw away that stupid lance it’s really not your style,
“Joker is the name, Poker is the game, we’ll play right here on this bed,
And then we’ll bet for the biggest stakes yet: the souls of the dead!!”

And I said “Look out, Lord, He’s going to win, The sun is down and the night is riding in,
That train is dead on time, many souls are on the line, Oh Lord, He’s going to win!..”

Well the railwayman he cut the cards and he dealt them each a hand of five,
And for the Lord he was praying hard for that train he’d have to drive.
Well the Devil he had three aces and a king, and the Lord, he was running for a straight,
He had the queen and the knave and nine and ten of spades, all he needed was the eight…


I’ve recently read John Richardson’s ‘A Strategy that Changes the Denomination’ which I thought was rather good. John quotes from a 1945 Church Report called ‘Towards the Conversion of England’ and it makes fascinating reading: “We cannot expect to get far with evangelism until three facts are faced. First, the vast majority of English people need to be converted to Christianity. Secondly, a large number of Church people also require to be converted, in the sense of their possessing that personal knowledge of Christ which can be ours only by the dedication of the whole self, whatever the cost. Thirdly, such personal knowledge of Christ is the only satisfactory basis for testimony to others. It will thus be realised that the really daunting feature of modern evangelism is not the masses of the population to be converted, but that most of the worshipping community are only half-converted. The aim of evangelism must be to appeal to all, within as well as without the Church, for that decision for Christ which shall make the state of salvation we call conversion the usual experience of the normal Christian.”

I think this is right (although I would enter a caveat about the use of the non-Scriptural term ‘personal knowledge’ which is an importation of Enlightenment-era categories of thought, and a frequent tool for the enemy). I most especially like the passage which John quotes after this: “Above all, the Church has become confused and uncertain in the proclamation of its message, and its life has ceased to reflect clearly the truth of the Gospel. It is for the Church, in this day of God, by a rededication of itself to its Lord, to receive from Him that baptism of Holy Ghost and of fire which will empower it to sound the call and give the awaited lead.” I find it remarkable that this was written sixty-five years ago. Is it something that will remain eternally true, or is it possible to actually live up to our faith? I wonder what difference it would make if we took John’s argument and at each point changed the word ‘evangelical’ to the word ‘Christian’ – because it seems to me that what is needed is for all the believers to take the faith seriously, and live up to it. From John’s conclusion: “…we must shift our primary goal from either seeking to preserve the institution from others or seeking to make it more comfortable for ourselves. Instead, we must look to the Church’s true task: to seek people’s conversion through the proclamation of the gospel. And in the light of this we must seek the transformation of the Church for gospel proclamation.”

This requires, of course, that we believe the faith ourselves, that we have indeed been cut to the quick, and repented, and experienced the breaking of our hearts of stone and their new creation as hearts of flesh. It is this and this alone that can fuel mission. It is the absence of this that has killed the Church of England in particular, and Christianity in England more generally. Why? Well, there is a long story about atheism here – I’ll be able to tell it properly one day – but a very large part of it is that we have lost confidence in the faith. The atheistic criticisms have been internalised and we have lost our confidence, and this has undermined everything else. Now we are simply regarded as a good works club – alright if that’s your thing but please don’t take it out on me. Our holy fire has been extinguished.

I wonder what John Robinson would say about it now? In some ways he became a poster child for the disbelieving Bishop, inaccurate though that might have been, but I do think that this element of intellectual confidence is what has been lost, and the fish rots from the head down. The other messes can be traced back to this. We no longer inhabit the world distinctively because our beliefs are no longer distinct, and we cannot have the one without the other. We will not be gospel people unless we have a gospel to proclaim, rather than just a gospel to mumble about hesitantly, half-hoping that nobody notices.


Well the railwayman he cut the cards And he dealt them each a hand of five,
And for the Lord he was praying hard for that train he’d have to drive.
Well the Devil he had three aces and a king, and the Lord, he was running for a straight,
He had the queen and the knave and nine and ten of spades, all he needed was the eight…

And then the Lord he called for one more card but he drew the diamond eight,
And the Devil said to the Son of God, “I believe you’ve got it straight,
So deal me one for the time has come to see who’ll be the king of this place,
But as he spoke, from beneath his cloak, he slipped another ace…

Ten thousand souls was the opening bid, it soon went up to fifty-nine,
But the Lord didn’t see what the Devil did and he said “that suits me fine”,
“I’ll raise you high to a hundred and five and forever put an end to your sins”,
But the Devil let out a mighty shout, “My hand wins!!”


It is, historically, surely quite an odd place to be inhabiting, to be an English Christian in these early years of the twenty-first century. There often seems to be a background sense of ‘we tried that and found it false’. We’re no longer even strong enough to be worth fighting against. We’re like an old family dog who is gently declining, and needs to use the back garden rather than long vigorous walks, but for whom the owner still holds some tenderness, and so their last years will be made as comfortable as possible, until the pain is too much. How has the gospel been reduced to this?

The entertaining heresy in Spanish Train is the posed equivalence between Christ and Satan – that Satan might actually be able to trick and manipulate the Lord and thereby win the souls of the dead. Whilst this does have some cultural resonance it is in truth a complete nonsense. There is no comparison between creature and Creator – were Jesus actually to command ‘Get thee hence to endless night!’ then the effect would be accomplished by the speech, it wouldn’t even require Satan’s consent to go along with it. So what is missing in the presentation of the Lord here, and why it is heretical, is any sense of the immense power and overwhelming strength of the Lord. It is yet another presentation of Jesus as milksop, recipient of abuse. It is an echo of Nietzche’s characterisation of Christianity as slave morality. I like the word thumos, which is the Greek word for ‘spiritedness’, the precursor for courage and manliness. Put bluntly, the trouble with this presentation of Jesus is that he is no longer a mensch, he is no longer a centre of life, he is no longer a progenitor – he has no thumos but is instead simply a patsy for other character’s actions and desires. He does not stand for anything beyond a weak-willed wish to do good. It is surely no accident that the lead character in Rev is called Smallbone, and perhaps part of the problem is that our wider culture has dictated to the Church that only women are allowed to have balls.

I wonder whether a part of the root issue at stake in all of our arguments about women priests and women bishops is in fact an inchoate sense that the Church has become emasculated. Perhaps it is rooted in a reaction to the first half of the twentieth century, which scarred men so deeply that they wished to withdraw. Yet even that may be because the church had already failed to be the church. In the Medieval era returning warriors had a particular form and ritual for re-engaging with society, which recognised that the taking of life was sinful – and therefore rendered the warrior unfit for sharing in Holy Communion – and so the church made provision for the warrior to become reintegrated with wider society. It did not repudiate their manliness but integrated it into a larger whole. Now the very notion that there is something healthy about manliness, and that it needs to be nurtured and cultivated, is laughable. Yet this is also why our society is so fractured. There is something essential here that has been lost sight of – it is as if we are in a boat without a rudder, the boat is still sea-worthy and we seem to be moving, we’re just at the mercy of larger forces – and for the church in particular, we are being dashed upon the rocks.

There is a particular flavour of holiness which is associated with manliness. This isn’t an argument that only men can be priests – although I think that there are some very non-trivial arguments making that case, alongside a great many very trivial arguments (“justice!”) that argue against it. God will call whomsoever he chooses, and it is the character of the individual that counts, not her biological composition (another Enlightenment-era heresy). Yet for fear of offending women we have ended up denying men – and we need to repent of that sin. In particular, the form of caring that seems to have become determinative in the training of clergy is (forgive me) a more classically female understanding – the showing of compassion and solidarity, the alleviation of immediate hurts. Being a spiritual nurse, for want of a better description. The idea that the sharing of truth is also pastoral, that the proclaiming of the gospel is the foundational spiritual medicine – this is what we have lost sight of. And so we do not care to train the clergy in the right understanding of doctrine, nor do we seek to hold our clergy to account for the doctrines that they proclaim. So long as they are nice to people, keep their heads down and don’t cause a fuss then they can keep doing what they are doing. This is not good enough.

It is as if we think that all we need for an engine to work is the generous application of oil to lubricate the parts. The hard work of hammering the metal into shape and then organising the parts into a right form is no longer a consideration. So we are left with an oily and sticky mess and we are not getting anywhere. We are dying, drowning in the oil of our gentle compassion.

If this is to be addressed, it is no good simply looking at our structures and the allocation of resources – important though those things are. We need to recover our sense of the awefull awesomeness of Christ our God. “Jesus is my girlfriend” – no, Jesus is Almighty God and Creator so fall to your feet in awe and worship! I believe that this is what we lack, and it is tied up to our failure to understand and appreciate what it is to be a man. Of course, this can only finally be demonstrated by actions, not by words.


And I said “Lord, oh Lord, you let him win, the sun is down and the night is riding in,
That train is dead on time, many souls are on the line, oh Lord, don’t let him win…”

Well that Spanish train still runs between Guadalquivir and old Seville,
And at dead of night the whistle blows and people fear she’s running still…
And far away in some recess the Lord and the Devil are now playing chess,
The Devil still cheats and wins more souls and as for the Lord, well, he’s just doing his best…


It is not enough to ‘do our best’. We need to do what is right, and to cleave with our Old Testament Hearts to the truth of the gospel. In the context of the overwhelming decline of the Church of England that may well seem an impossible task – but then, that’s the sort of thing that appeals to men of sufficient thumos, to men of sufficient faith. It’s our mission, should we choose to accept it…

UPDATE: these statistics are interesting: “Its not that men are not interested in spiritual things. There is no gender gap in Islam, Buddhism, Judaism or Hinduism, nor is it a feature of the Eastern Orthodox Church.” If it is true that a family follows the faith of the father, then what I’m talking about here is even more important than I thought…

When you go home, tell them

We have gathered together today to remember before God those who have gone before us, who gave their lives in war in order that those whom they loved would be saved, and be enabled to flourish in their lives and homes in peace. This year we especially mark the passage of 90 years since the foundation of the Royal British Legion. How can we best honour those who gave their lives for us?

Well, in a simple sense, we can honour them by what we do today – simply by remembering them, and naming them. Anything beyond that runs the risk of being superfluous – but I would run that risk today. Clearly it is in living out our lives freely, making the most of the gift that we have received as a result of their sacrifice, that we do honour them. A straightforward example will demonstrate this point: in Afghanistan today there are girls being educated who would not be were it not for the courage and sacrifice of those men and women serving there. For those schoolgirls to honour those soldiers simply requires them to take advantage of their education, to have and to enjoy better lives. That is enough of a purpose and an honour. Sadly, what seems straightforward thousands of miles away seems much less clear closer to home. For what does it mean in this country to enjoy such better lives? What might it mean for us to enjoy the freedom that has been so expensively bought? How can we here, today, best honour those who have given their lives for us?

Earlier this week, as part of his homework assignment from Mersea school, my eldest son has been tasked with learning something about the First World War, most specifically about the trenches. Now the trenches were a barrier, there was the enemy in front, and there was the home to be protected behind. I expect to be going through his homework with him this afternoon, and what I am wanting to teach my son is that the place for battle, the place for military excellence, for courage and skill, is on that front line. But the most important thing is that those virtues are placed in service of something larger – something larger than any one soldier’s own interests or personal advantage. This is what makes the difference between the heroes and the villains in all the stories that he has become familiar with. For example, my son greatly enjoys the Harry Potter stories – Harry Potter fights on behalf of a community and, in the end, he accepts his own death in order that they might flourish. His enemy, Voldemort, is simply pursuing his own immortality, and he is quite willing to dispose of his closest allies if it allows him to get closer to his wish. What I want to do is tie together what he has been learning through reading such fictional stories, with what actually has happened, and does happen, in our world.

It is this sense of serving something larger than our own desires that makes the difference between the hero and the villain, and it is this sense of something larger that I think our society has been forgetting for several decades now. It has become unfashionable to say that there are objective values, that some things are definitely right, and some things are definitely wrong – irrespective of what anyone might actually think about them. It is because our society has been so corroded by this moral relativism that we have the spectacle of young men hanging from the Cenotaph in London during the student protests last December, whose defence was that they didn’t realise the significance of what they were doing. They hadn’t been told the stories, their community hadn’t insisted on the importance of telling them the stories, of saying – this matters.

I asked earlier what it might mean for us to enjoy the freedom that has been so expensively bought – and that is Christian language. As Christians we claim that in Jesus is our fullest and truest freedom – and that it is in so far as those who laid down their lives for us did so in resemblance to Jesus laying down his life for us that we honour them, and we remember them. What that means is that their stories find their meaning and purpose through being a part of the larger true story, the story of the creation of the world in love, the breaking of that world through our own sinful mistakes, and then the ongoing healing of that world through a loving sacrifice. As Christians we insist that there are values that are independent of our own judgement or preference, values that are woven into the fabric of this world by the one through whom it was all created, and it is by tuning in to those values and aligning ourselves with them that we start to touch the real and genuine freedom which is God’s intention for us. Freedom is not license, the ability to do whatever pleases us. True freedom comes from recognising the nature of the world and aligning ourselves with it: the truth shall set us free. This is the overall story that binds us together and within which all our own individual stories find their meaning. This is the story that gives us the fabric of our common life – and it is that fabric that has been unstitched over several decades by those with no awareness of the havoc that they have caused – Father forgive them for they know not what they do.

I asked at the beginning of these words what is it that we can do to best honour those who have given their lives for us. I believe that I can now offer you an answer: the answer is simple, but very hard to live up to. We honour them best by telling their stories, and we give those stories meaning by embedding it within the larger story which gives it sense and purpose. We honour our heroes – those who fought for something larger, something bigger than themselves – by also telling the story that is bigger than them themselves. It is this bigger story which allows us as a community to live together and to enjoy the fruits of a hard-earned peace. This is our common story, within which the stories of the veterans and fallen take their place and within which they find their meaning – and we honour them by continuing to tell all of those stories, from the stories of Jesus in the gospels through all the different stories of those who at different times in different places have given their lives and health that we might enjoy our lives and health. As the Kohima declaration has it: when you go home, tell them of us and say, for their tomorrow, we gave our today. That is the essential thing, to best honour those who have given their lives for us: keep the story which structures our lives alive. So today, when you go home, tell them.