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Rachel Buckingham | Kernel of Faith

Rachel previously shared about her experience as a surgeon on Mercy Ships, the seafaring hospitals which provide overseas medical aid to communities in need. For this article, I heard more from Rachel about the faith which drives her work in healthcare, how it is impacted through studying theology, and where the Church needs to change if it is to have a future.


Rachel Buckingham in front of a Mercy Ships vessel


How did your journey of faith begin?

I was taken to church by my parents, and I nominally believed it, but it didn’t impact me at all. Then when I was fourteen, my sister, Lynne, came home from university and told me about how she had become a Christian. I could see this real change in her, even as she was talking, and that one conversation affected me so much that I had to lock myself in the bathroom to cry. I suddenly realised two things: I was not a Christian, and I needed to do something about it.

My brother also became a Christian during a gap year in Zimbabwe around then, and he wrote a really long letter to me all about the experience, which was reinforcement to me that I needed to do something. If Christianity was true, it had to impact my life and I had to come off the fence.

It was playing on my mind a lot at the time, but I kept it all to myself. I began praying that I wouldn’t die before I became a Christian! I started opening the Bible randomly and seeing what I came across. One time I encountered John 3 where Jesus says to Nicodemus, ‘You need to be born again.’ One time I prayed that God would show me something of himself, and I suddenly had a sense of God being really holy, and me being not at all, to the point where I felt so ashamed of myself that I crawled under my bed to hide.

I wrote to my sister and said, ‘I’ve realised that Christians and people who aren’t Christians are the same, but Christians are really alive, and people who aren’t Christians just exist.’ She came home at the October half term and we sat up talking until gone one in the morning; I was just asking loads of questions and she was explaining things. We started praying, then I suddenly thought: what the heck am I doing? This is the middle of the night, this is all a load of nonsense! I told her what I was thinking, and she said, ‘There’s a battle going on.’ I said I feel like I’m on the edge of a cliff and I need to step off it, but that’s really scary.

If Christianity was true, it had to impact my life and I had to come off the fence.

We got around to the point of praying three times before I knew I had to do this, because what’s life about? And so I did. I put my trust in God and asked for his forgiveness. I thought at that minute I would suddenly feel really joyful because that’s what my sister experienced, and I didn’t, probably because it was way past my bedtime and I was really tired! The next day, we were in Oxford for my birthday, and I suddenly thought: God loves me. It was like a penny dropped; it’s something that people tell you all the time when you’re growing up, but it suddenly hit me.

That was the beginning, but it’s been a long journey since then. What I really felt right from the beginning was that there’s a kernel of faith in terms of what you believe: Jesus is human and divine and he died on the cross. But there’s so much else around that central belief which can and does change. I’ve always just held onto that central belief of Jesus; other beliefs that I held have changed over time, and that’s fine. I think it’s very important that you don’t get bogged down into adhering strictly to a whole set of beliefs that may not be essential.

An example of that is that I never believed in a literal six-day creation; a lot of people do. I largely believe in evolution, and I think that’s how God chose to create, but if somebody proved to me that it happened in a different way, that would not undermine my faith. There’s a danger otherwise that if one belief gets undermined then the whole lot can come down like a house of cards.


Are there any other areas where your beliefs have shifted?

My stance on homosexuality changed. For a Iong time I chose to become neutral on it, because I realised I didn’t know and that I needed to rethink it. I’ve now moved on from the neutrality! What I really want to do now is look at the theology of it. A lot of people have been very badly hurt and badly treated by the Church, and I think: what’s the danger of getting something wrong?

For example, there are different views on women being in leadership or preaching: if you don’t let women preach in church and you’re wrong about that, then all of those gifted women have not reached their potential and the Church has not heard what they have to say; if you allow women to preach and you’re wrong about that, what’s the downside? I’m not sure there is an awful lot. When you say that homosexuality is wrong, you are automatically excluding a lot of people from the Church, and if you’re wrong, that’s devastating. If you say that homosexuality is a normal variant and you accept people, what’s the downside if you’re wrong?

Every generation rewrites its theology. We’ve seen it with the shift in attitudes to slavery and to women in leadership. People re-look at Scripture and there is a big question around how it should be interpreted. I don’t think any generation can say, ‘We’ve got this right now,’ because history doesn’t bear that out.

When you say that homosexuality is wrong, you are automatically excluding a lot of people from the Church, and if you’re wrong, that’s devastating.


A few years ago you embarked on a theology course at Wycliffe, what inspired you to take that on?

I wanted to do a bit more study, and I wasn’t very good at reading the Bible – I’m still not! – but I knew I needed to look into it more. I thought I was going to a nice Bible study, then discovered I would have to write essays! Had I known how much work it was going to be, I might not have done it, but that being said I don’t regret having done it at all. The family put up with an awful lot, because I spent quite a lot of weekends and weeks of holiday writing essays, but it enabled me to look at things more academically. That’s another amazing thing about Christianity, you can come to it on all different levels; it’s there for everybody.


Were there any surprises or notable things you learned?

There weren’t so much things that I wasn’t anticipating, but I was able to look at areas in more depth. I gained a better understanding of how the New Testament was put together and how they chose which books were in or out, and the fact that it was a really messy business; there are some books that people still think shouldn’t be in the New Testament canon and other books that should be. Another area was considering in what sense we understand Scripture as the word of God, realising that there are different approaches with their valid points that need to be taken together.


Are there any ways in which it challenged or enhanced your faith?

It didn’t undermine it. It’s important that you have people studying it academically, because if it doesn’t stand up to scrutiny then it falls apart. We had some really good lecturers who were all people of faith, so it evidently hadn’t undermined theirs. Some of the courses I did were around philosophy and science; they were taught by Alistair McGrath, and the way he went through things logically added backbone to what I believed, rather than removing it.

It’s a bit like archaeology, isn’t it? Looking at the historicity of Scripture, particularly the Old Testament, and how it might have changed over years; it’s like taking layers away and trying to get back to what the original writer intended. I found that fascinating.


If the Church has a purpose beyond just serving itself then it will go somewhere... It is possible for Church to become too introspective and then it will implode.

What would you like to see the Church become?

I think the Church does need to change. It’s not just about believing a set of stuff; if we’re really Jesus’ disciples, we need to look at how he lived and emulate that. I don’t think we’re very good at doing that. If the Church has a purpose beyond just serving itself then it will go somewhere; churches that are running food banks, looking out for refugees, doing good in their community or their workplaces; we’re not just Christians on a Sunday. It is possible for Church to become too introspective and then it will implode.

I read a good book by Mark Shrine, the international Chief Medical Officer of Mercy Ships. He was brought up initially as a Catholic and then in the American evangelical Church; he went through a faith crisis and saw both of those churches as ‘othering’. He then spent twelve months going around twelve vastly different churches and spent a month in each. At the end he said that the churches he was drawn to were those which were working for the poor, and that became how he got involved in Mercy Ships. He has that kernel of faith, that centrality of Jesus, but he’s rethought an awful lot of other stuff; he makes a comment that a lot of his evangelical friends would think he was a heretic!

The Church needs to stop being self-serving and expecting people to come to them, because that just doesn’t happen. It’s about going out and serving people, no strings attached.


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