Adult Discipleship Blog: Context Gives Meaning


The story goes that in the 1600s a fire burned down much of east London. Some years later, an architect by the name of Christopher Wren laid the foundation stone for Saint Paul’s Cathedral. It took him 35 years to complete it.

Pause for a moment, and consider your own vocation. Can you imagine working on a single project for 35 years? What would that mean for you? What would that be like? How would you feel when you were finished?

When the cathedral was complete, Christopher Wren had the opportunity to show Queen Anne what his 35 years of work had created. He showed her around the cathedral, taking her all around, pointing out details. When they had finished the presentation, he waited anxiously for her response.

Finally, the queen spoke. She turned to Christopher Wren and described his cathedral, the one he’d poured most of his life into, as “awful,” “artificial,” and “amusing.”

Imagine how you might feel about this evaluation of your life’s work. Imagine how you might feel about the person who gave you that feedback. What would that do to you? What might you want to do to them?

When I tell this story or hear it told, most first-time hearers have some pretty harsh words for Queen Anne. Once I even heard the suggestion that Christopher Wren should have punched her in the face!

But that’s not what he does. Instead of being angry, he is overwhelmed with gratitude and relief. He bows down and thanks her for her kind words.

So why is it that Christopher Wren’s reaction is so different from our reaction?

The answer is that in their time, “awful” meant “awe-inspiring.”
Artificial” meant “artistic.”
And “amusing” meant “amazing.”

Context gives us meaning. Without knowing the meaning of these words in their own context, it’s not that we don’t quite get the right message. Without the context, we end up getting the opposite message.

Context gives us meaning.

This is a story we tell at the beginning of Manna and Mercy retreats, because Manna and Mercy is about the Bible in context. At Manna and Mercy, we dig deep into biblical texts, probing the original languages, historical factors, and social expectations of the original readers.

The Manna and Mercy Retreat is an opportunity for Christians to take a weekend to go through the Bible – to reexamine familiar passages, to explore less well-known scriptures, and to hold it all up to the light of context for new meanings and applications today.

The truth is, historically, we are not very far removed from Christopher Wren’s context – only around three centuries or so. We even share a language! 

If context can make such a difference in our understanding of Christopher Wren’s story, how much more would it make for in our understanding of the Bible? 

Join us for the next Manna and Mercy Retreat, April 15-17 at Camp Sumatanga. Bible-nerds and Bible-newbies welcome.

Hoping to see you there,
Rev. Caitlin Harper

The Adult Discipleship Blog is produced by the North Alabama Conference Adult Discipleship Team as a way to use the depth of our United Methodist connectional relationship to resource local churches to best grow disciples and to help deepen the North Alabama Conference's connection to the vine who is Jesus Christ. (For the purpose of this blog see the post “The Power of Religion”.) Please join the conversation by adding your comment below. If you have an idea for a blog topic or would like to make a submission to the Adult Discipleship Blog please contact the Adult Discipleship Team Convenor Rev. Peter von Herrmann at

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