Report on the South West Regional Day Conference, Saturday 3rd February 2018, by David James
from Signs of the Times No. 69 - Apr 2018

In the late 1960s, Charles Napier, a lecturer at the old London College of Divinity, was leading a Doctrine seminar. During it, he proclaimed that in future years it would be Creation, not Salvation that should engage the mind of the Church as it communicated its message to the world.

Most were, in that context, dismissive of his words, but they often came to mind at Manvers Street Baptist Church in Bath on Saturday 3rd February as we listened to Margaret Barker and Bishop Nick Holtham.

Margaret, an Old Testament scholar, is an exponent of Temple Theology as the basis for a theology of the environment. In the morning she explored the shape of the Temple as it related to the days of Creation, and led us through the consequent significance of the Holy of Holies and other Temple features such as the Veil (of matter which separates human beings from the throne of God).

Such an understanding of the Temple also required an exploration of the Covenant as one of Peace, or shalom, with Creation, with clear implications for its well-being. We have a role as high priests of Creation, in turn involving our understanding of atonement. This was best described by Mary Douglas, quoted in Margaret’s Introduction to Temple Theology:

Atonement does not mean a covering of sin so as to hide it from the sight of God - it means making good an outer layer which has been rotted or pierced.

Even Melchizedek, the priestly figure who refreshed Abraham and his companions as they returned from battle, takes on a new meaning. So many Christian concepts have been informed by Greek culture. Their real root is in Jewish tradition and a proper understanding of the role of the Temple, and how it represented Creation.

Questions followed, which Margaret answered in a generous and scholarly way. For one who has always struggled with the nuances of various atonement theories, this was a breath of fresh air.

We enjoyed lunch, graciously provided by Manvers Street Baptist Church who involve folk with obvious special needs in this ministry. The thirty who attended this gathering were well looked after.

In the afternoon, Paul Brett interviewed Bishop Nick Holtham about his role as Church of England’s Lead Bishop for the Environment. Bishop Nick faced a tough task, due to the breadth of Paul’s brief and the incisive interviewing.

Bishop Nick, a former parish priest on the Isle of Dogs and in Central London, admitted to having had little experience in environmental concerns, but his new role as Bishop of Salisbury required a certain shift. Bishops only have authority in their own diocese, but the brief as Lead Bishop for the Environment required an awareness of political developments in environmental policy, the necessity of a sound and comprehensive theological approach, ecumenical developments, and the possibility of involvement by individual congregations and individuals. We were treated to a wide-ranging and authoritative overview from issues of international importance such as the Paris Agreement and subsequent Conference of Parties through to the importance of churchyards as green spaces and the Church Times Green Awards.

Bishop Nick fielded Paul Brett’s direct questioning with humour and thoroughness, especially as his ‘innings’ ended with a ‘googly’ about the badger cull in Dorset and Wiltshire - his own ‘patch’. Margaret joined Bishop Nick for the final part of the afternoon as we returned to a more theological discussion about this very extensive and comprehensive subject.

The following Monday was ‘bin day’ back home in Bristol, and, if I am honest, the sorting was done with rather more grace than usual.

O ye tins and bottles, Bless ye the Lord

may not contain any depth of theological insight, but at least it made a start. Thank you, Margaret Barker and Bishop Nick.