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"I cannot be called anything other than what I am -a Christian"


If you were to ask a theologian what have been the main things that turned Christianity from the small sect it had begun as, to the greatest faith the world has ever known (over 2 billion people are believed to be Christians – nearly 30% of the world’s population and more than any other religion), they tend to come up with 3 main historical events:

  • The impact the early Christians had in looking after and caring for all people, including those who persecuted them
  • The miraculous conversion of the Emperor Constantine in 312 AD where he saw “a cross shaped trophy formed from light”. Within a decade Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire
  • The power of the Christian Martyrs who were persecuted or killed for refusing to deny Christ’s divinity

An important part of my coming to faith was when one such theologian was recounting the story of one martyr by the name of Vivia Perpetua. However, the theologian broke down whilst telling the story- so affected was she by the story and what it meant to her. For someone who is trying to be objective about Christian history, that tells you something.

So, although the story of Perpetua is vague in parts thanks to her being perhaps the first ever diarist, we can still read her words today. It is believed that she lived in the early 200AD period and was from what we now regard as modern day Tunisia and she, like other Christians at that time were being persecuted by the Emperor Septimius Severus, because they refused to pay homage to him or the Roman gods.

Now Perpetua was believed to be only 22, already widowed, educated, and was a Christian but had yet to be baptised, and with 4 other Christians from her household she was arrested and thrown into prison, awaiting execution.

Perpetua though was not afraid of being killed as she had a vision one day where she saw a golden ladder, guarded by a fierce animal, she saw herself climbing it and stepping on the animal’s head. When she looked around, she found herself in a green meadow with white robed figures alongside a shepherd who welcomed her and give her food. When she awoke, she understood that she must die for Christ.

After several days in jail she heard that she and her group were to have a court hearing to decide their fate, and Perpetua’s father came to see her to beg that she make the decision to live. Perpetua looked at her father and said:

On that scaffold, whatever God wills shall happen,

For we know that we are not placed in our own power but in that of God. 

Perpetua and her band of friends were given a chance to live if they were to recant their faith and honour the Roman gods. Her father continued to urge her to do that, but she said to him these extraordinary words:

Father, do you see this vase here?

“Yes, I do”, he replied

Could it be called by any other name than what it is?

“No”, he said

“Well, so too I cannot be called anything other than what I am- a Christian”

Her guards thought highly of Perpetua and her friends and she was able to be Baptised before they were taken to the roman amphitheatre where wild beasts were set on them and Perpetua at the front of them was tossed around by a fierce animal but she saw her servant Felicity wounded. She went to her, took her hand, and raised her up, and the crowd in the arena insisted they be allowed to recover.

Perpetua and her friends then came together in the centre of the area, give each other a farewell kiss of peace and all but Perpetua were run through by a sword. The young executioner who was to seal her fate was shaking and just could not do it, so she guided his hand and sword to her throat.

Perpetua like so many brave Christians down through the ages was true to God’s word. She understood The Truth and it was something that she and her companions were compelled to follow- someone wise once said that “A truth not acted upon becomes a poison”. Perpetua could so easily have followed her father’s wishes and lived on, but she knew that as a Christian she could only honour the one true God and Father. Jesus was and is real and she could not deny Him.

As Christians, we are called to carry out God’s word and work. Often, it is not an easy road we have to travel, it can be easier for us to ignore what we are being called to do but do it we must. There is nothing more urgent today then us listening to God and to follow his wishes. Perpetua showed us the way.

Finding Your Religion


The ways that people come to religion and to Jesus Christ are infinite. Some like the brilliant Christian writer C S Lewis (‘The Chronicles of Narnia’ including ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’) came “kicking, struggling, resentful and darting my eyes in every direction for a chance to escape”, and had his Epiphany at, of all places, Whipsnade Zoo (“I was driven to Whipsnade one sunny morning. When we set out, I did not believe that Jesus Christ is the son of God, and when we reached the Zoo I did”).

Others feel the warm embrace of God much sooner in their lives. The most beautiful story I heard was how the late (and very great) Sister and Carmelite Nun Wendy Beckett -who came to huge public notice and acclaim late in life as the most improbably of art critics in TV history through her 1990’s BBC series- met God.

For her, it happened on a Sunday morning, when she was only 3 or 4, she was sitting under her family’s breakfast table as they were eating sausages. She recalled that she could smell the sausages, she could feel the carpet and hear the local marching band and then something happened:

And I became conscious of God. It was an overwhelming experience of greatness, of goodness and of protection. I remember feeling with wonder that the world- so bewildering to a little child-made sense and that it was God’s world, and that I was a blessed child within it. If you ask how I knew, I cannot tell you. I saw nothing and heard nothing. But from then on, God was always with me, the centre of all I did, giving it significance.

I think also of actor and Anglican David Suchet (most famous as TV’s Hercule Poirot) who became a Christian whilst in a hotel bathtub in Washington. He had been thinking of his late grandfather:

I always felt that he was with me as my spiritual guide. I felt him sitting on my shoulder. Then I thought to myself, ‘why do I believe that and not believe in life after death?’. That got me thinking about the most famous person who they say had a life after death, Jesus”.

It led him to read St Paul’s epistles and this is what he found:

“I chose it because I knew that somebody called Paul actually existed. I knew that he wrote letters, and that they are there for everyone to see. By the end of the letter, certainly by the end of the book, I was reading about a way of being and a way of life that I had been looking for all those years.”

I think what these examples show us is that in order to know Jesus you do not have to become very learned, or go to theological college, or have to take part in some special form of meditative practice or ritual, or even to be in a particularly holy place.

God can come to you wherever you are and whatever you are doing. It can be in the most unlikely of settings -you could be cleaning your teeth, walking around the town, or taking your children to school. But when it happens it is significant and needs your attention.

It can take time for you to believe, or as in the case of Sister Wendy above it can be instant, and it changes your life (and that of others) for ever. It is a precious thing. I pray it happens to you.

"Be Thou my Wisdom and Thou my true Word"

I am sure we all have hymns that mean a lot to us, and to choose a personal favourite can be a really difficult thing to do, because so many are personal, that are linked to a special time, a particular person or experience.

For me, one that means a lot is ‘Be Thou My Vision’. I find that it is the perfect blend of a strong, almost mystical melody combined with poetic words with real depth and meaning, that have come down the ages, to sum up my feelings about God.

The origins of the hymn itself though are unclear but I think that just adds to its mystical appeal. It is believed that the words that we now know, were originally based on an Irish poem or ’lorica’ – a form of protection prayer that was written somewhere between the 6th and 11th century. Written in what was known as Old Irish, the person who most scholars think wrote the original text was St Dallan (meaning ‘little blind one’).

St Dallan was an early Irish Christian poet, who-the story goes- became blind after studying too intensively. After later writing in praise of Columbia who was largely responsible for spreading Christianity through Scotland, St Dallan miraculously regained his sight, and it is believed ‘Be Though My Vision’ was at some point written by him. The words we now sing were translated from old Irish to English first by Mary Byrne in 1901, and finally to the more familiar ones by Eleanor Hull in 1912.

The tune of the hymn is also a rather familiar one known as ‘slane’ and when you next sing ‘Lord of All Hopefulness’ (written by Jan Struther – also incidentally was also the author of ‘Mrs Miniver’ which later became the classic film starring Greer Garson) you will notice that the music is the same.

However good the music is, the lyrics and words are the soul of any hymn, and here ‘Be Though My Vision’ uses some really vivid imagery to illustrate what we are singing:

“Be Thou my Breastplate, my Sword for the fight;

Be Thou my whole Armour, be Thou my true Might;

Be Thou my soul’s Shelter, be Thou my strong Tow’r,

O raise Thou me heav’ward great Pow’r of my pow’r”

This echoes what Ephesians 6:16-17 has to say when St Paul talks about:

“With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the spirit, which is the word of God”

This is fairly violent imagery, but it was originally written at a time when there were regular battles and wars across clans and what this Hymn is saying is that only God is our Protector.

When we get to verse 3, we sing about what we do not need and what we have:

Riches I heed nor man’s empty praise;

Be Thou mine inheritance, now and always;

Be Thou and Thou only the first in my heart,

O high king of heaven, my Treasure Thou art.

This takes us back to Matthew 6:20:

“Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal;

But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust do corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal”

In short, we have all we need in Christ.

I think you can tell that I really like ‘Be Though My Vision’ and in my book there is only one version of it – which is the 1991 version laid down by the suitably Northern Irish soul/R&B man Van ‘The Man’ Morrison on the suitably apt album 'Hymns to the Silence'- you can listen below.

“We’re all doing church now!”


It seems that at the moment we are all ‘doing church’. I have been struck by the number of people with hobbies, interests, and activities, who during the lockdown talk about what they do as “their church”- and that they cannot wait to get back to it.

An example recently was with the BBC’s flagship film programme ‘(Mark) Kermode and (Simon) Mayo’s Film Review’ on Radio 5 Live and now on BBC 4 where they were lamenting not being able to go to the cinema – which they regard as “their church”. As a real film buff myself, I can sympathise with them, until the Cineworld, Odeon and Empire cinemas open up again.

However another ‘church’ recently re-opened and that was the return of live football, in Germany -their Bundesliga action similar to our Premier League started up this past weekend- and many, like myself, have felt quite deprived at not being able to go and support (or watch on TV) our team. I have always felt that there is a strong connection between Christianity and Football. Here’s why.

But first, a confession. From the age of 11 I have been supporting my local team (September 2021 will in fact be my 50th anniversary of first watching the club) -Charlton Athletic- you may not have heard of us but we are  a South London club ( I was born in nearby Woolwich), we used to have the biggest ground in the country and we have won the FA Cup. In 1947. Apart from a number of glorious years in the Premier League, we have been, like now, struggling, and if the English Football League gets it way, we are likely to get relegated to League 1.

So, I have supported ‘The ‘Addicks’ (don’t ask!) through thick and thin (mostly thick) and been a Season Ticket holder there for over 30 years, and through that time I have noticed how similar the ritual of supporting your team and a game can have some parallels with going to Church and honouring the only Lord:

  • You generally go to the same place at the same time on the same day each week- a ground rather than a church
  • You have a form of liturgy in how you support or worship your side which you share with others believe as you do. Fans generally live in the same community -rather than a parish
  • You usually wear something to show who you believe in- your colours rather than a cross
  • You sing songs in praise of your team- chants rather than hymns
  • You go to sometimes incredible lengths to support your team, including spending extraordinary amounts of your time and money to support them- money on season tickets rather than Giving, and time travelling there rather than volunteering
  • You praise your team in an ecstatic state when you score or win something (not likely if you support Charlton)- hands up in the air if you score rather than in recognition of the Lord

Now I have to give a huge health warning here. As important as football and your own team is to you, you know that it is a false religion- your own team , believe it or not, is not the greatest, and despite what every fan will tell you, it is actually just a game, and as a Christian you should know that it is Jesus and not a mere football team who you should be truly devoted to.

That said, football is an incredible force. Take Charlton away from me, and I would probably be a different and a lesser person. I have had some of my most enjoyable experiences in life watching us play-I have hugged people I have never known, in celebration. I have ended up in parts of the country in places I never expected to go to, I have made and met life friends who I share nothing with other than the fact that we support the same team and are bonded together through that. The one thing you do not do as a football fan is change the team you support.

I remember going to a funeral some years ago. For over 20 years I have sat at our ground with Lucy and Hannah and their father Bernard. The sisters first sat there when they were probably 12 or 13 and have now matured into two wonderful women. Bernard died suddenly and apart from his lovely family one of his greatest loves was Charlton. At his funeral he had the Charlton flag on his coffin and the opening music to his service was our theme song ‘When the Red, Red Robin (Comes Bob, Bob, Bobbin’ Along)’. That’s how much football can mean to communities and individuals.

There is another very important connection between Christianity and Football. A host of football clubs came into being through 19th century church Rectors, Ministers and Priests who believed in what became known as ‘Muscular Christianity’ i.e. to encourage healthy minds and health bodies- in short, to stop young boys getting into trouble.

For example, Everton football club were founded by St Domingo’s Methodist Church (there is still a church adjoining their Goodison Park ground). In London, Fulham FC were originally the Fulham St Andrew’s Church Sunday School FC. Manchester City were formed as a result of a side put together by two Church Wardens at St Mark’s church in East Manchester who were trying to curb local gang violence. On the south coast, Southampton FC were originally St Mary’s Church, Southampton whilst in Scotland, Celtic FC was founded at St Mary’s Church Hall, Calston in Glasgow.

The challenge for Christians though is this: how do we get the hundreds of thousands of people-especially the men- who go to football each Saturday to come to Church to praise and worship with the same passion and the same exuberance as they do at Old Trafford, The Emirates, St James Park and yes The Valley (Charlton).