Margaret is a committed and faithful ‘8 o’clocker’, and despite her free church leanings usually manages to cope with my Anglo-Catholic excesses. She is also one of the driving forces behind the church-led Barton Food Bank and is regularly appalled at the deprivation and suffering endured by those who seek its help. Great, then, was her embarrassment when at the 8.00 mass a few weeks ago she found herself reading out the words of the Epistle, ‘Anyone unwilling to work should not eat’.
We Christians are all sophisticated enough these days to recognise our moral superiority over the rest of unenlightened humanity. The Jubilee movement, Fair Trade, even (for Neanderthals like me) ‘Faith in the City’ are constant reassurances that ethically we are on the side of the angels. We believe.
Uncomfortable though it is to recall the widespread Christian support for slavery, John Wesley’s enthusiastic endorsement of capital punishment and the solid Church backing given to many an unpleasant regime and policy, we who know God to be a Guardian reader who sources the ingredients for the Messianic Banquet ethically, stand above that misguided history.
The problem is, of course, what is our security for that belief? The philosophical debate on whether there can be a morality independent of a deity rages on, but wherever we stand in that discussion, the easy equating of ‘Faithful’ with ‘Moral’ often passes unexamined. Our ancestors in the faith did not believe that they were in any sense unjust, and yet we are astonished or repelled by their lack of vision, their obvious feet of clay.
We all enjoy the ‘brood of vipers’ reference in the Advent 2 Gospel reading, as the venomously powerful get a verbal flogging. We may even identify other bits of the Church with that description: on a good day even accept that there’s a poison within ourselves. However, when I consider that image, I see also a knotted herpetological tangle, snakes coiled and curled around one another, impenetrable, self-sufficient, self-absorbed, self-embracing.
The mathematician Kurt Gödel established his ‘incompleteness theorem’, whose insights have been taken into other disciplines. Simply put, it is impossible for a line of reasoning properly to critique itself because any flaws in the system are invisible from within it. It can be an admirable line of defence for theists against arid rationalism, but we are not immune: what if even our Christian thirst for justice is a selective reading and favouring of our own prejudices and proof texts, be they Bible or Blog? It’s said that the verdict of history is often, ‘How could they not see that?’ where ‘that’ is an issue so vast that no-one at the time recognised it was there.
There is no simple resolution of this, and certainly one is not to be found in surrendering our own insights in favour of another unverifiable world-view. But a tradition running from John to Pope Francis reminds us that the word of the Lord may sometimes come from outside our own tightly-bound communities of the like-minded. There is a world beyond our serpentine knot which we forget at our peril.
David Barker is vicar of Barton-on-Humber in the diocese of Lincoln.
I live just outside Glasgow, but I worship and work there. The first I knew of it was hearing a doctor friend had been called into her hospital, and things, quite unspecified things, looked bad. Then, overnight, the picture began to build.
The news reporters have said it all. The courage of the helpers, the calm of the survivors, the willing aid of the medical staff.
And because we are human, the search for meaning starts. We want it all to mean something, if it can. Jesus, we are told, got waylaid by the same questioning. Those people killed by the fall of the Tower of Siloam, were they wicked? Or was it a flawed Eurocopter which fell on them?
No, it was just a tower, it just fell. Something went wrong, and people just died. Foundations were not right, or metal was fatigued, and people just died.
It is a hard thing for faith to grapple with — this injustice. This lack of reason.
In this case we have as yet no idea what caused the tragedy. The overwhelming probability is that some small flaw somewhere caused this disproportionate effect. The natural impulse is to demand why God does not set the world up to be just. Why he cannot step in each time to sort things out so that the innocent never suffer and the guilty only suffer proportionately.
If we could solve this, we would have unravelled one of the major stumbling blocks to faith, and I suspect our churches would be much more full.
Sometimes, it is true, we can catch echoes of a kind of reason, if not a justice. Global warming increases weather disasters. Any one typhoon may not be down to global warming, but the fact is, we know that western greed and selfishness will create weather events that kill the disadvantaged elsewhere. It is not justice but it is a consequence. If there were no consequence, if each time God stepped in and stopped the suffering, it seems to me that people would be trapped in endless childhood. If no person could kill with evil intent, we might as well all give rein to our anger to the full, for who is hurt? If no negligence could ever derail a train, who would, in the end, put in a full day’s work or pay a wage which offered motivation? Not me, that is for sure.
But for all that, we start Advent, and we start our meditations on justice, with a glaring example of how unfair the world is. Any Glaswegian could have been unwinding on Friday night, listening to the music. Any pub could have the one on which the helicopter fell. It could have been anybody.
The pious lesson is that we can keep such terrible harm to a minimum by each doing what we can, just as the medical staff of Glasgow all answered their various bleeps on Friday night. Just as we have worked over the ages to understand the foundations of towers, and the breaking points of metal, and the stalling of engines. The little we do builds to a greater whole. Also, we can attend to the great matters of justice, so that the poor can eat and typhoons be stilled.
But still, for each of us, as we face the inevitable random tragedies of our lives, the large and the small, there will always be a struggle to make the best sense we can of things, and a need to say firmly that after all, there is no sense to be made of some things. No sense, but if we believe in our creative faith, even out of the horrors of no sense, and of heartbreak, we can still spin beauty, and seek comfort in the faces of the rescue workers, the medical staff, the ordinary public, who let a little light into a dark place.
Rosemary Hannah is the author of The Grand Designer.
To report on all the enormous diversity of the 40th Greenbelt Festival would be impossible. Participants will look back on the glorious sunshine in contrast to the floods of 2012 which enabled everything, music, activities, talks, worship, to be enjoyed to the full. But the most significant event may turn out to be the launch of the British response to A Moment of Truth, the Kairos Palestinian document. It is time for action by British Churches in response to the suffering of Palestinian people. The document is available here.
It is timely, for it exposes the sham of the current ‘peace negotiations’ about the future of Israel-Palestine. Even as the Israeli government is claiming to talk, its actions in annexing more Palestinian land and building settler homes give the lie to the words. The homes of Palestinians in the occupied territories continue to be bulldozed. The descendants of refugees still inhabit the camps to which their grandparents fled 65 years ago.
The Kairos event attracted the attention of Zionists who protested outside Greenbelt — they could have bought tickets and participated in debates about Palestine, but chose not to. Had they joined the Festival they would have heard a huge variety of speakers, Christian, Jewish and Muslim, all acknowledging that it is time to act, with Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions. These brought an end to apartheid in South Africa, and these same means are needed to end the Israel’s apartheid both in Israel and in the occupied territories. The flawed theology of those who made religious claims in support of apartheid in South Africa was as misguided as the Zionist claims of Christians and Jews about Israel-Palestine. The genocide reported in the Book of Joshua cannot be used as a justification for the actions of the Israeli government today.
It is acknowledged that this struggle will have to begin at the grass roots, and that it will provoke hostility. Christian leaders have been intimidated into failing to support Palestinians. Last year the Church Times reported that the C of E Bishop of Newcastle and the RC Bishop of Hexham and Newcastle withdrew from a conference on Palestine organised by Christian Aid, after local Jewish organisations threatened to withdraw from inter-faith organisations.
The present situation is a shameful result of Britain’s colonial past, when countries in the Middle East were divided up after the First World War. This is why Christians in Britain today have a particular responsibility to seek the end of the continuing injustice suffered by Christian and Muslim Palestinians.
I should not blame the men for not believing us, but I do. The story was, coldly considered, incredible, but then the last year had been equally unbelievable. Jesus. His life, his death, all unbelievable. Yet, after all we had heard and seen and gone through, the men should not have turned to us and told us we were hysterical and not to be believed.
We had done what we always do. We had taken ointments for flesh that will never heal, perfumes that we know too well the stench of death will drown. Why? But we do. We cannot help it. I remember that Jesus told somebody to leave the dead to bury the dead, but no, we could not.
It was all the more grim because of the delay. We had done the best we could for his shattered body on the Friday, but we had little more than moments.
It was the Sunday, early. If you need do terrible things, do them as soon as possible. Go as soon as you are awake, without eating. If you have not slept, that will be early, before the light starts up. Best to go before the day starts to heat up, before the body starts to decay further. Understand, we know death. We know it as an intimate enemy, even as an occasional friend, but we know how death works. And then — none of us wanted to go that near the site of the execution. Remember how close the site of the execution was to the tomb, nestled in a dog-leg of the wall.
Rolling back the stone was not a challenge to women like us. But when we got there, the city making its first stirring noises behind the wall, the light starting to wash grey gently in, the stone was already rolled back. We were, oh, worried, but then he had so many who loved him, who might be there first, and what else could we do but go in?
There was no person. There was no body. And there was the shroud, lying there. Even had somebody moved the body, they would have kept it in the shroud. We had been steeling ourselves for the unwrapping of the shroud, now, over a day later, and after a hurried committal.
I don’t know when we began to take in the shining figures. It seemed absurd afterwards that they were not the first thing we saw, but they were not. When we did see them, another kind of fear filled us.
They spoke. They asked why we would look for a living person among the dead. Our hearts filled with images our minds could not grasp. Light, and water, and dazzle. Fear transformed to awe. Awe to something so stupendous that neither mind nor heart could rise to its level. I no longer know if we dared to leave the shining figures, or if they went as silently as they came. The next thing I remember is running back to the rest, to the men.
When we burst in through the door of the house where we lodged, with the words of angels ringing in our ears, and the shining reflected in our faces, and a growing confidence in our voices, the men should have believed us. But they did not. Not then.
Just another pointless death. A provincial prophet, a failed rebel, a stirrer-up of trouble is brutally executed by the imperial regime. A story that has been repeated innumerable times before and since. What did he and his followers expect? What did he think he could achieve against the power and privilege of the establishment even in such a minor, far-flung trouble spot? What a waste.
But here we see Jesus of Nazareth continuing to proclaim the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God is near you, among you, he had preached. The kingdom of God exists wherever God’s will is done; a place where the hungry are fed and where each forgives the wrongs done to them by others. A place where that forgiveness is immediately recognized by sitting down and eating together, breaking the barriers.
And this is how Jesus dies: breaking bread with his friends and forgiving those who executed him. Here in this one day (by the reckoning of the ancient world), beginning at sunset on Thursday evening and culminating on a hillside outside the city a few hours later. Here is the epitome of the kingdom.
And so, as Jesus dies on the Cross proclaiming Love, this is no less than the inauguration of the kingdom of God on earth, as it is in heaven.
Maundy Thursday commemorates the last meal that Jesus had with his disciples before he was arrested by Jerusalem’s temple guards, a meal at the time of the Jewish festival of Passover. It’s a meal which has gone on since to be ritualised by Christians as the eucharist, our defining ritual.
As with many things administered by organisations, meaning can be the first casualty of the systems which support it. Many years ago I asked a class of schoolchildren what they already knew about the eucharist, and they told me it needed a priest, and folk had to be confirmed in order to participate. What I took from this was that the regulations had obscured the meaning.
In fairness, the ease with which churches sat in British culture, until the 1960s and even some time after, meant that it would take a considerable leap of the imagination to understand the subversive character of a faith conceived in opposition to imperial domination, and the radical power of the rituals which it conceived. The eucharist I grew up with had been domesticated into a rite designed to foster personal piety.
These days, as we recover our identity as counter-cultural bodies, churches are developing eyes to see how potentially inflammatory our primary rite is. We can now imagine what it must have been like, in occupied Jerusalem, for the Roman authorities to anticipate a festival which was the subjugated people celebrating their identity. Passover was nothing less than a re-telling of their origins as a people, a people liberated from subjugation from an imperial power. This festival, in the context of occupied Judea, made it potentially seditious.
Setting the fourth gospel aside for the sake of brevity, Mark, with Mathew and Luke following him, style the Last Supper as a Passover meal. As with other meals which passed through Jesus’s hands, bread and wine, no less than loaves and fishes, are shared out in accordance with the idea that there is enough for all. The land is God’s, says the Torah, we are tenants and the distribution of its bounty is according to God’s justice, which is to say, enough for all. In a country where the land was being commercialised by the Romans and the Jewish aristocracy, God’s food for all is an unwelcome, and counter-cultural, conviction.
For Christians, the primary acts of Jesus’s meal, the sharing of bread and wine as body and blood, and for it to be shared with all, even Judas, is saying that to live counter-culturally is to court violence upon yourself. The meal is an enactment of denying self and taking up your cross, ‘for those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it’ (Mark 8:35) It is an attempt to bring all his followers into step with his way through death to new life.
Just as the Passover meal was food for the journey, so bread is about belonging together, and wine, representing blood, is a reversal of the old sacrificial notion that blood should be left on the altar as representing divine life-force. By sharing the wine Jesus is telling his followers to take divine life-force into themselves and to be empowered by it.
Maundy Thursday takes us back into the cauldron of occupied Judea, to the opposition of the Empire of Caesar and the Kingdom of God, and this rite embodies all the challenges which arise from that collision.
To recover and to enact all those meanings of the rite is far more important than who is authorised to make the rite happen, and who is permitted to partake in it.
Andrew Spurr is the Vicar of Evesham in the Diocese of Worcester
Today we begin our Holy Week journey with Jesus, following the Way of the Cross. It’s a week when people like me, who are a clear ‘T’ or Thinking type personality, have to let our intellectualising take second place to our emotions. We need to feel first, and then strive for some modest measure of understanding afterwards.
Once again I’m indebted to that great saint, Francis of Assisi, for showing the way. For beyond the sentimental image of Francis preaching to the birds and befriending the animals is the reality of a man who took the Way of the Cross into the heart of his life. When Francis prayed that he might feel in his own body as much as he could humanly bear of what Jesus felt on the cross, he did so not out of perverted masochism, nor even like those contemporary flagellants who sought to punish their bodies as an expiation of sin. Francis embraced suffering because he knew that this was the only way in which he would be able to feel in his own body as much as he could humanly bear of the love that held Jesus to the cross, and held him there with a force no nails could equal. What Francis had found was that the cross is not some intellectual solution to the questions of Judgement and Salvation, instead it is the place where divine love shows itself in its fullness, and so doing conquers all.
If two individuals as different as St Paul and St John can be united in placing love at the apex of their theology, then we need to accept Francis not as just some medieval mystic, but as one of our prime theologians. But it’s a theology that forms and grows in the heart long before it finds a lodging place in the mind. And so my focus this Holy Week, and one I commend to you, is to so enter into the Passion of Christ that we enter also into the heart of his love, into that more contemporary understanding of the very word ‘passion’. Yet, as one whose faith ever seeks understanding, I want to take with me on this week’s journey a particular question, the question of why there must be suffering at all.
For I think I’ve received a glimpse that such answer as there may be lies in that preeminence of love. Can it be that the world is as it is, with all the pain, evil and corruption that afflicts it, because in no other world could love be freely given and freely received? Can it be that the true question is not that of how a God of love can allow bad things to happen, but of how great must be the love that can know, feel and embrace all that suffering, and taking it, transform it into more love?
David Walker is Bishop of Dudley in the diocese of Worcester
The gospel narrative for Passion Sunday, of Mary anointing Jesus, is a story of the crossing of boundaries. The rules of thrift and the responsible use of resources are cast aside, as what may have been the most valuable item in the house is dissipated in a grand gesture and few moments of fragrance. A routine act of hospitality is elevated from a mundane kindness to an eye-catching drama. There is a physical intimacy in public between a man and an unrelated woman, as Mary bends to wipe Jesus’s feet with her hair.
Of course, if it had happened last Friday it could be a ‘red nose’ stunt, pouring a bottle of perfume over a dinner guest. I’m sure you could get sponsorship, upload the video, send it to wing its way through the social media.
Comic Relief, and similar undertakings, tame the unusual and domesticate the extravagant gesture. Boundaries are transgressed, but only with careful planning; generosity is harnessed to a date, and eccentricity given its place on the calendar. All is made safe, if occasionally embarrassing, and care for those in need is slotted neatly into a consumerist culture, where we buy our red noses at the tills of major supermarkets.
Even with that domestication, however, such events retain an association between giving and the breaching of what are normally considered the limits of acceptable behaviour. Like the licensed fools of previous centuries, participants act out a defiance of the rules by which we live so much of the time, the rules of the market, of contract and commerce, of the exchange of goods and services. For this action I should receive this payment: with this money I can purchase these things. Sit in a bath of baked beans, and someone will give you money because he is mildly entertained by your humiliation (but not as much as if he paid the same to see a really good comic), or she feels an obligation to support a friend or workmate; not because there is an identifiable value or outcome to your action.
By attribution, at least, it was Ignatius Loyola who prayed for the generosity of spirit which gives without counting the cost and acts without expecting reward; I doubt if Red Nose Day is part of the cultural heritage of Francis I, the first Jesuit pope, but there is a pleasing coincidence in his election as this country engages in one of its periodic exercises in communal altruism.
Flagrant generosity, without palpable reward, is the generosity of God, which breaks all the rules about what is deserved or earned or due. In God’s giving of God’s very self in the passion, the rules of parenthood are breached; the primary loving relationship, as experienced and valued in most human lives, is ruptured.
Yet this Passion Sunday story, of course, is one of the few in which Jesus is the recipient, not the giver. He accepts it all, the perfume, the careful wiping of his feet, the symbolic preparation. Accepting the gift, he values the giver, and accepts the identity she gives him.
So much of our tradition emphasises our inadequacy, and disables us from that acceptance. May we learn to accept that lavish gift of God’s love, which breaks the rules of the market place and pre-empts any question of deserving, and allow ourselves also to accept the identity offered us, as God’s beloved children.
Canon Jane Freeman is Team Rector of Wickford and Runwell in the diocese of Chelmsford.
The blanket of daffodils, chocolate and cards which engulfs the nation must not obscure the fact that Laetare Sunday should not entirely be allowed to morph into ‘Mothers’ Day’ (sic). There is much more going on here than an expression of familial (or even ecclesiastical) affection.
Laetare, Mid-Lent or Refreshment Sunday is the Lenten equivalent of Advent’s Gaudete Sunday. A note of joy enters the liturgy, the purple vestments are set aside for rose, and the day marks a point of transition from one mood to another. For us this week, we are aware that Passiontide is now waiting in the wings, but, for one last time before Easter Day, we are to be joyful. And the theological and spiritual significance of this instruction shouldn’t be undersold.
It is said of a particular tradition of Christianity that it leaves its adherents unable to sleep at night for fear that someone, somewhere might be enjoying themselves. Whether that deep suspicion of the physical world derives primarily from our Neo-Platonist inheritance, from the rise of capitalism (as some have suggested), from the triumph of the opinions of (say) Theodore of Tarsus over those of Gregory the Great (look at the early mediæval penitentiaries for copious examples of the former), or wherever, there is a lurking conviction that abstinence is intrinsically holy. ‘The less the holier’ is a beguiling mantra.
The presence of Laetare Sunday in the liturgical year challenges that quasi-masochistic, dualist take on the created order. In the middle of the solemn fast of Lent, we are commanded to rejoice, even to consider breaking out the chocolate and removing the padlocks from the decanter. What, we might wonder, is going on?
A starting point is the ancient example of Anthony of Egypt. Artists have long rejoiced in painting his Temptations, perhaps because the irresistible invitation to let the imagination run riot with naked women and/or demons. Less frequently painted, though is the scene where Anthony, at the end of his period of fasting, is tempted to continue into ever-deeper asceticism. It’s probably rather difficult to paint someone being tempted not to eat — apophatic art is an interesting concept — but the point is clear: ascesis is not an end in itself, and may unwittingly become a vice as it leads us into pride, and a despising of creation and of those others who cannot meet our high ideals. Another tale of the desert fathers recalls how a solitary broke his fast in order to offer hospitality. Even within ascetic Christian monasticism rigorism and puritanism have long been suspect.
Within the Benedictine spiritual tradition there are countless reminders of our necessary embodiedness. Benedict’s Rule insists that we do not devalue our God-given physicality, even our frailness. RB 37: ‘Although human nature itself is drawn to special kindness … towards the old and children, still the authority of the Rule should also provide for them. … let a kind consideration be shown to them, and let them eat before the regular hours.’ Benedict insists on exception after exception — for the sick, for when the weather is hot, or the work arduous — and on proper provision being made for adequate food, clothing and bedding — and a ‘comfort break’ between Offices.
RB 39 expects a choice of menu to be available; the Monastery of Our Lady and St John at Alton sets aside the Wednesday fast if a feast or solemnity intervenes — ‘Beer on a feast, and wine on Sundays and solemnities.’ Our calling is to become holy, not skeletal, or pious, or puritanical. “Do not aspire to be called holy before you really are,” says Benedict in RB4, and goes on to demonstrate that holiness and proper regard for our physical state are anything but mutually exclusive.
It is in this context that Laetare Sunday may be seen to make sense. This enforced breaking of the fast is a reminder that the Sabbath (so to speak) is made for us, not us for the Sabbath (Pharisaism is such a tempting route to take, especially for the professionally religious). It ensures that we cannot enter into a mistaken imitation of Jesus’s forty-day experience in the wilderness, and thus promote ourselves to the category of spiritual Olympian, ‘seeking to be called holy before we really are’. Instead, we hear the words of the Angel to Elijah; ‘Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.’ It is one thing to discipline our physicality, another entirely to abuse it.
There is a starkness to Lent, from the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness to his brutal death on the cross. Raw physical hardship, deprivation and pain run through the entire season. This Sunday’s Gospel reading contains two harsh passages, the first, Jesus’s blunt message of ‘repent or perish’, and the second, his parable of the barren fig tree.
When, after three years, a vineyard owner finds no fruit on his fig tree, he instructs the gardener to cut it down. The gardener pleads for the life of the tree, saying he will dig around it and spread manure on it, and if it doesn’t produce fruit by the following year then he will cut it down. Tantalisingly, we are not told what happens after the year is up. Jesus leaves the fate of the fig tree hanging in his hearers’ imaginations.
Both the passage preceding today’s reading and the one immediately following feature further stories of a strangely stern Jesus, accusing the crowds who had come to listen to him, as well as the religious authorities who were trying to find fault with him, of being hypocrites. Jesus’s words offer no comfort, no solace, only a piercing indictment of sham, hypocrisy and lack of true compassion.
The Jesus, who, when the time came, would be willing to make the awful journey to Golgotha, is also the Jesus who saw the full extent and consequence of human fear, self-righteousness and self-deception. His sternness arose, not from a condescending judgement of human waywardness, but from the depths of his compassion and it spoke into the chasm between the reality of his own intimate and trusting relationship with God and the needless barrenness of so many people’s lives around him, living without a vision of the true God and of the community of love into which they were continually being invited, if they could but see.
This chasm, this sharp and agonising dissonance between Jesus’s internal reality with his Father and the world in which he lived is most beautifully expressed in a parable Luke relates a few chapters further on. It is the story that, perhaps more than any other, expresses the mis-match between human rebelliousness and false projections onto God and the true divine nature. The parable of the prodigal son tells the story of human wilfulness and folly, and eventual repentance, but more than anything, it reveals the depth and breadth of divine longing, compassion and love.
Jesus’s earlier harsh sentence on the fig tree and his scathing accusations of hypocrisy can be seen as urgent appeals to his listeners to come to their senses, to listen to what he has been telling them and to turn from their delusions about themselves and God, and turn to the offer of loving unity and intimacy that Jesus expresses in his prayer to his Father recorded in John chapter 17, on the night he allowed himself to be arrested.
What is the main work of Lent? It will most certainly be different for each and every person who attempts anything other than the pattern and habits of the rest of the year, but is there any one thing that commends itself as a prime task or focus?
Very simply, my answer would be that there is one thing above all others that is the proper work of Lent. It is to see Jesus with new eyes and to hear his message with new ears, and seeing and hearing, to open ourselves anew to Christ’s transforming power and vision, so that the living out of our faith moves from being about Jesus to being more profoundly and intimately of and with Jesus.
If it is true that we already inhabit eternity at the same time as we live out our days on our spinning planet, then it must be the case that we can become more aware of and acquainted with the eternal Now. It is clearly a good thing to understand and accept the challenges and constraints of our earthly existence, but for Followers of the Way, that can never be enough. We are compelled by Jesus’s life and actions, and by his paradoxical teachings and his perplexing parables, to look deeper, further, to lift the corner of the deceptive curtain that separates our rational and physical existence from our sensed and half-remembered spiritual reality.
Our willingness to do this, to venture into the known-unknown will depend on our view of God. Do we shrink back in fear at Jesus’s harsh exposing of our barrenness and hypocrisy, or do we respond by acknowledging our folly, picking ourselves up out of the swill, and turning back to home?
Luke’s story of the Pharisees warning Jesus about Herod depicts Jesus as being particularly tenacious and heartbreakingly poignant.
To repaint the scene, some Pharisees warn Jesus to leave the area because Herod is out to get him. This seems to be out of genuine concern (we’re not told otherwise, and there are no parallels in the other gospels). In any event, Jesus had no plans to remain, though this had nothing to do with Herod. To make that point clear, he urges them to go to Herod (even if only rhetorically), to tell him that he’s not going to stop doing what he’s doing. Jesus will continue his journey to Jerusalem because he must, because it is impossible to think that a prophet would die elsewhere. This determination to make his way to Jerusalem reinforces Luke’s overarching journey theme, which began when Jesus ‘set his jaw for Jerusalem’ (9.51).
There is a justifiable tendency to read ‘necessity’ in such texts. It is easy to think that Jesus was fated to die, that his death was somehow preordained, that the blood sacrifice had to be made for our salvation. For better or worse, that is one way of reading the whole story from Candlemas (with Simeon’s prophecy of Mary’s sufferings) to the cross. However, the descriptions of Jesus’s resoluteness ought to undermine such thoughts of fatalistic inevitability. The more obvious narrative explanation is that Jesus’s death owes more to his decisions, to the logic of what he said and did, than to any pre-written script. There is undoubtedly a strange rightness to his ending up in Jerusalem, but that rightness is appreciated not by a glimpse into fate, but by the realisation that any other choice would have been the end of it all — instead of the culmination of it all.
It is sometimes helpful to wonder what might have happened had Jesus kept his head down, had he stopped preaching and healing. What if he’d refused to go to Jerusalem, what if he’d stayed on the periphery and not gone to the holy city itself, not proclaimed his message there, where it really mattered? What if his fear of death had been stronger than his belief in the coming Kingdom? Safe to say, it would have been all over. The dream would have fizzled; his disciples would have scattered. Seen in this light, Jesus’s death has nothing to do with fate, and everything to do with faithful choices. Indeed, the Jesuit theologian Bernard Lonergan suggested that Jesus’ sacrifice is best understood first in terms of Jesus’s choice to put his life on the line, and only secondarily in terms of his actual dying — the former is something he did (it was his sacrifice), the latter was something done to him. (Lonergan’s view of the Eucharist is similar: we are invited to share in Jesus’s attitude rather than in his physical death — the former is something actual, the latter is something we do symbolically, as a way ‘to put on the mind of Jesus’.)
But there is still more to this passage. Jesus’s decision to go to Jerusalem is not a political or dramatic calculation, even though the text suggests finality or even fulfilment. Neither is it a provocation or a grand geste. Though Jerusalem may well stone and kill the prophets, Jesus nonetheless longs for something else: he has longed to gather the people safely together, as a hen might gather her brood under her wings — to protect them from themselves. Later, in the nineteenth chapter (v. 41), Jesus actually weeps over Jerusalem for much the same reasons.
Jesus’s willingness to die, to put his life on the line for those who could hear his message — this was not a test of obedience to a divine decree (‘I must go on my way’), but was rather the out-flowing of his compassionate love. There is a strange rightness here, but there is no line of inevitability apart from the trajectory of love’s ‘dart to the heart’. Though we are smitten, we must still choose.
Joe Cassidy is Principal of St Chad’s College, Durham.
The attitude we take to things says much about our attitude to God. That’s why temptation is a spiritual issue. Ken Dodd used to say there were only three basic jokes. There are probably only three basic temptations, that go back to Adam and Eve.
Number One. Let your appetites lead. Hungry? Curious? Go on! Eve saw that the fruit looked good, smelt lush. So she took the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil. Ever since, says the story, the rest of us have had hell to pay. We know so much, but much outruns our moral capacity. We know how to destroy the world. We know how to poison ourselves and trash everything. Some knowledge defiles. The fruit of the tree was good to look at and very tasty; but it pitched our primal ancestors in way beyond their depth.
Of course we all have needs and appetites. Jesus told his followers that their heavenly father knows they need things, food, clothing, friends, homes. But when the attainment of these things becomes our prime objective, we lose the script. Make God’s Kingdom of justice and truth the prime concern, and everything else will follow.
Temptation Number two. Adam and Eve took, and ate, and hid. Cover up. Pretend. Put on a good show. ‘Hypocrite’ was the word Jesus used for people whose whole lives were no more than frontage. Adam and Eve hid in the bushes. “What on earth are you doing there?” said God. “You were made for something better!” Adam and Eve held their figleaves tight and prayed he would go away.
We are much more civilised. We have all sorts of ways of covering up our truth. The masks we wear often take other people in. The fixed Christian smile, carefully applied with theatrical gum, can be rather tiresome. But it’s the face to give the world, when we’re too afraid to be ourselves. God’s Spirit helps people be themselves and be real.
Temptation Number three. Knowledge is Power. Adam and Eve grasped knowledge that would make the whole world theirs. They thought that when their eyes were opened they would be able to control everything. In fact, like Greek tragedy, the exact opposite happened. Their knowledge didn’t give them power or set them free. It made slaves out of them both, condemned to scratch the dust on their own, banged up in their own hall of mirrors.
In the desert Jesus confronts the whole corrupting reality of temptation. “Go on! Do the obvious!” No, said Jesus, for we cannot live on bread alone. God’s word alone can truly nourish us. “Oh, Go on,” said the enemy. ‘It is written…’ God gives the word, so that we need not finally be deceived. Next stop, the Temple, and whole world of religion.
“Go on!” said the enemy. “Jump! That’ll show them. Their longing for a bit of real proof to justify their faith. They’ll love you for it!” “No,” said Jesus. Outer Show is nothing. God, to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid, looks on the heart. Hypocrisy is never enough. We look from the outside, then try to guess what is going on inside. God looks from the inside out, and until we aim to share his priorities, his way of looking at ourselves from the inside out, we are still probably lost in our sins.
Finally, the Big One. “Go on!” said the enemy. “It’s all yours; the world and everything in it. Time for the sack of firm government.” “No,” said Jesus. “It’s not.” When we play God we corrupt and destroy everything we touch. When we play control games, or allow our relationships to become self-serving, we wound the people who love us most, and make fools of ourselves. When we receive everything as we receive the bread of the Eucharist, with thanksgiving, we are blessed by everything we have been given. It’s as simple as that.
Alan Wilson is Bishop of Buckingham in the diocese of Oxford.
It blows down dry streets in eddies, dead. It gathers in corners. It forms into rich earth, and out of it sprout tiny seeds. It compacts into warm and rich clay, which can be cut and slammed and shaped by hands and wheel into pots, and bowls and little figures of stout women and tiny men. It blows in the stellar winds in furthest space. It is dust.
We are dust.
Do we read it as promise or as curse? As a cause for humility, or a reassurance? It is a complex image. We are dust, blown around for a moment on one corner of the planet Earth that we call home, and the next become ash and mud. Stand for a moment on any hill, and look down on a road, a city, to see how tiny each figure is in comparison to the great world we live upon. We are specks on the face of a mighty globe. It puts us firmly in our places: all the books published, the families reared, the academic recognition, the wealth earned, the tests passed, the career ladder climbed, all these are as nothing in comparison to the mighty Earth, still less in the face of the universe. Look at the dust eddying down the street. That is the totality of your achievements.
On the other hand, being dust limits our failures. The family row, the declining attendance at our churches, the catch dropped, the dead-end job, the constant grind to make both ends meet, well, that too is dust, insignificant, and unimportant. All of us are so tiny in the sight of the universe that it hardly matters. It is not that it will all be the same in a hundred years. It is all the same now. I struggle to imagine a universe so huge that the pinprick of light I see from my dark hillside, unpolluted by street-lights, is, in fact, an entire galaxy. Stand outside on a clear night and see the glittering dust in the sky and know that what you see as a speck of light is in fact not just a star but a galaxy of stars with their own planets. Let your miseries fall behind you and rejoice in being part of a dance of life so incredibly huge you cannot know all of it, indeed you cannot even imagine it all.
It is hard to believe that we, tiny little specks of dust, set on the face of a planet which is itself a speck in an immense universe, can be of huge value to God. That he can bend near us, and listen to our worries, and our anguish and our delight. Yet that is what we are taught. I pour out my joy for a new lamb born safely to one of my ewes, or my pleas understanding of the next steps that my path of life should follow to God, and this God is the same God who dances on the seas of some planet in that same bright speck of a galaxy. The sheer immensity of it all is what brings me my most agonising moments of doubt.
But then, I am dust. Dust is so limited. Our faith has always known that. As a liberal, I am frequently berated for trying to create a god who fits my limitations. Actually I don’t think I do. When I stand outside on a clear night, and compare myself to a speck in the mud on my wellies, I am acutely aware of the immensity of God. If the sheer scale of it all brings me doubt, it also brings me reassurance. No wonder there is so much I cannot get my mind around. No wonder the pain of the universe puzzles me. I cannot even understand how time and space can be the same thing; at least I cannot understand that intuitively. I know that there must be truths even more profound beyond my reach.
How then to make sense of it all? How to accept my intellectual limitations, and grasp both my lack of stature as dust, and also my belonging to God? I turn to that same One who dances on some distant planet as even now it comes into being, in the curved space/time continuum. Ah, that, then, is the worth God gives to dust: he becomes it. Dust may be limited but it can embody every value of God. My task is simple: to begin on the path of embodying those same values. Did I say simple?
In one of my former parishes there was a very energetic ecumenical group which prided itself on the variety of spiritual experiences it could provide for its membership in any given year. When I was approached for the use of the parish church for the annual visit of a linked West African congregation from Birmingham, I asked what the link was about. The reply was that the group liked to watch Africans worship, they are much better at it than we are.
I spent a couple of years in the eighties studying Black theology in an American seminary. During that time I had had to come to terms with some uncomfortable truths about my own race, particularly around the subject of slavery. As I didn’t feel comfortable with hosting African worship as a spectator sport I phoned a friend in Birmingham who is a Black theologian, who introduced me to a further uncomfortable truth. He said that slavery was not the only aspect of our past that I had to take into account when I was thinking about the relationship between our races; there was also colonialism. As an example he cited the way in which members of a colonised people would vie for invitations to social events at the local colonial residence, taking their status by being A-listers at a white event over solidarity with their fellow dominated blacks. He said that he would be thinking in these terms about a professional African congregation which was prepared to make the two-hour journey to a white church in the stockbroker belt, but have next-to-nothing to do with the Jamaican church in their own neighbourhood.
This episode from my past came to mind when we heard on the news this week that a careless Tweet, from Member of Parliament Diane Abbott, to a colleague about how whites tended to divide black people. When the news of this Tweet broke, she was immediately disciplined, and her party machinery moved at lightning speed to mend the damage from the outrage. If Diane Abbott was in error it was in the means by which she expressed the view. The truth that whites have divided blacks is incontestable, and I have no reason to doubt that it remains a present reality. I believe the Labour Party leadership missed an opportunity here, which Ms Abbott unwittingly provided, and it has to do with our national identity, which is inseparable from our national narrative. Who we think we are depends on who we think we have been. Politicians have understandably been cautious about articulating a narrative which has been about the decline of our status as a nation for most of the last century.
On the other hand, much has been made of our status as a multi-cultural nation. When the chef Jamie Oliver can tour the nation, and then produce a best-selling cookbook, full of recipes which we have inherited from the communities which have moved to these islands, then we know that multi-cultural Britain is an idea that his generation is ready to appropriate.
But there’s a catch. Almost thirty years ago I was told by my Afro-American Black Theology professor that it was not possible for a black person and a white person to have any kind of genuine relationship without agreeing a common version of history. In other words, unless the white person could appropriate the uncomfortable facts from our history about our nation’s role in slavery and colonial subjugation, then we would be blind to the key historical events which have shaped people of the African diaspora, and even why they come to call these islands home.
To begin to work on such a narrative is a big ask for politicians. It means becoming a target for tabloid ire, and having to face the anger of members of the public who cling to our colonial past and the notion of our identity being centred on imperial power. A party in the early period of Opposition has much less to lose that the Government, and this may be a way to serve the nation in a way that would bring healing and wholeness. There is a spiritual task here, about seeking the truth, even painful truth, about ourselves in order then to be able to seek harmony with our neighbours, and I include neighbours of all former-colonial races. In the absence of a story on which we can all agree, the vacuum will continue to be filled by the versions of who-we-are peddled by extreme right-wing groups, and we will still see racial violence on our streets. A shared story of how we came to be would be a substantial beginning to how we account for who we are, and what is keeping us from where we need to be as a nation.
Vicar of Evesham
In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus’s baptism is almost the start of the whole story. Brief, to the point, Jesus is baptised and he is the (only) one who sees the heavens open; he’s the one who hears the voice, ‘You are my son, the beloved’. Matthew, having done Theology 101, isn’t all that crazy about Jesus being baptised, and he depicts Jesus as virtually going through the motions ‘to fulfil all righteousness’. In Luke, again it is Jesus who hears the words addressed to him — though this time it is after his baptism, while he was praying: a sort of prayer experience. In John, it is the Baptist who attests to Jesus’s baptism.
All those differences aside, I’ve long wondered why Jesus queued up that day to be baptised. If Matthew is correct, how did he feel being the only one not repenting of anything? Or do we take the other accounts at face value? He got baptised: live with it.
Thirty years ago I wrote a brief article suggesting that Jesus could well have felt guilt for social sin, as anachronistic as it was to use that term in that context. But if he is as incarnate as we believe him to be, he would have been the product of a particular culture with all its insights and biases, some of which hurt people (Mark 7.27). He would have had to participate in an unjust socio-economic system - what other option did he have? And, without wishing to psychoanalyse him, he might naturally have felt, as a good Jew, a collective responsibility for the sin of his people. There were reasons to be in that queue.
Since then I’ve wondered if more could be said. In Mark 10.18 and in the parallel Luke 18.19, in a remarkable exchange with the rich young ruler, Jesus would not allow himself to be called good, insisting that ‘No one,’ himself included, ‘is good but God alone’. Matthew, as in his account of the baptism, is sharp enough to realise the same danger here, so he changes the story a bit: instead of calling Jesus ‘Good Teacher’, Matthew has the man ask about ‘good deeds’ instead — with Jesus responding a little less precisely, ‘There is only one who is good’.
The Greek word for good, agathos, is concerned with the moral good and perhaps could be thought of as ‘morally perfect’. Though one can understand why Jesus might instinctively have wanted to deflect praise away from him towards his Father (he was pretty consistent), and though we might appreciate how Jesus eschewed flattery to focus on good actions instead, what if Jesus had meant what he purportedly said? What if this wasn’t only humble hyperbole? Perhaps Matthew was quite right to sense the danger again. No matter how we try to wiggle out of it, Jesus was not claiming moral perfection. Quite the opposite. And though this doesn’t often feature in formal christology, as a divine person with a created finite human nature, Jesus is also morally finite like the rest of us, and would have experienced himself as such (granted, this needs some careful teasing-out).
For the sake of argument, though, let us suppose that Jesus was in that queue. He had honestly come to be baptised just like everyone else: he had wanted to be dunked in that water and he had hoped to emerge different. In response, something new did occur: he was caught up in the Spirit and discovered (whether during the event or in prayer afterwards) that God was truly delighted with him, that his Father loved him to bits. As wonderful as that was, this experience turned his life upside-down, so much so that he had felt driven by that same Spirit into the wilderness, where he struggled to figure out what it had all meant. There he faced his various demons, demons that might have duped him and undermined what had just happened, and Jesus gradually came to understand his vocation: he was called to share what he had received, realising in Isaian terms that he had been anointed by the Spirit to proclaim good news to the poor (taking Luke’s particular ordering of events).
Though others have balked at this idea, Jesus’ baptism seems to have had all the hallmarks of a powerful conversion experience, a real turning-point. Like the evangelist Matthew, some are reluctant to use such language, thinking that it implies a conversion from sin. But if we suspend our Matthean-inspired theological need to make excuses for Jesus, the basic story of Jesus’ baptism is all the more compelling and paradigmatic for Christians: if Jesus needed to experience God’s love so powerfully, do I dare ask for anything less? Should I even dream of following Jesus unless that same Spirit palpably courses through my veins? And, perhaps, should we really associate conversion with sin, with what we do, as opposed to what God is doing?
Principal, St Chad’s College, Durham
I’m speaking tonight, the Feast of the Epiphany, not in church but to a gathering of scientists and theologians interested in the interface between those two subjects. It’s really important, and outfits such as the Faraday Institute here in Cambridge do great work keeping the dialogue going and developing public understanding in an often polarised discussion.
Some of the themes that come up are the perennial big ones of origins and ends. In between are other issues of identity and — particularly at the moment — sexuality. The idea of Epiphany gives us a particularly helpful way in to what is a difficult topic. Epiphanies are showings. In the theological and literary tradition they are where two stories intersect, where the things of this world are shot through with the things of the beyond, and they are often the turning point of the story. James Joyce’s Dubliners was for instance explicitly conceived as a sequence of fifteen such events.
In them we are taken into the territory of wonder and mystery, and new meaning emerges. Accompanying people to their threshold is a key part of the work of the church — and whether it is through worship, or the sacraments, or the scriptures, or silence, or the awe of the universe, we see time again that as they encounter the Other their lives are transformed for good. Research too, in my experience, may be 99% perspiration but usually hinges on the 1% of inspiration, the sudden insight, often out of the blue, that sets its direction.
Closed doors are the enemy of epiphanies, the blockers of transformative insight. So my second suggestion, as we address the vexed issues of sexuality and identity, is that we can make common cause across the science-religion divide to keep the doors open, to oppose fundamentalist positions which close down the questions, and then close down the answers. And more positively (since just opposing fundamentalism breeds a sort of fundamentalist liberalism of its own) to sponsor new spaces in which such open discussion can take place.
It’s not an easy path to tread. One of my first experiences as a bishop was the so-called Indaba process at the Lambeth Conference, which deliberately tried to create such dialogue — and was roundly attacked from all sides for not coming down on any of them. Discussion is something an Institute such as the Faraday does rather well, but issues to do with homosexuality may prove challenging even for its members whose churchmanship is varied: so how might we go about it?
Both theologians and scientists have something to bring to the table here to create a dialogue that could just possibly draw in others too. On the theology side Reasoning, in which people of various faiths expound their scriptures together, might prove a useful model for explorative exposition. When the Lambeth Bishops picketed Parliament I was given a copy of the Poverty and Justice Bible, with all the relevant verses highlighted. Far more than any to do with sexuality. So, for instance, how do biblical teachings on justice and sexuality speak to each other?
Then from the science side, we have been quite fleet-footed in relating the Biblical accounts of Creation to our scientific theories about the origins of the universe. Could we read across some of that sophistication to build up an equal expertise in dealing with a verse such as “male and female he created them”? And just what is the current science anyway about male and female? I for one, even though I am relatively conservative on this issue and happy to live within the Church’s guidelines, see it as essential that genuine scientific insights are factored into and not out of our theology.
So — are there ways in which all of us could use our experience and positions to underpin a more creative debate in the church than the one I fear we may end up having? I pray for epiphanies!
Bishop of Huntingdon
At the end of the school carol service, the headteacher of our church school walked to the microphone to give her votes of thanks, on the way she whispered to me that I was on next, to say a few words and to give the blessing. I was all ready and had in my mind lots of good things to say about the Christmas story; about God in humble places and appearing to the shepherds, lowly people and the like. The headteacher stood up, did the votes of thanks, and then spent a moment talking to the congregation about Christmas and about God in humble places and appearing to the shepherds, lowly people and the like. I simultaneously felt delight that she was on-message and panic that I had been robbed of my lines. As I stood in front of the microphone I struck out into unanticipated territory. I said that while Matthew and Luke, in their gospels, give us our kings and our shepherds, angels and so forth, John begins his gospel with a wedding. That the wedding of Cana was setting the mood of a story which would be telling us what it was like for someone to be truly and fully alive.
Getting into my stride, I said that Christian living was like a dance, learning the steps to move in God’s way, and that John’s gospel was a story of how lives were transformed by this dance.
A couple of days later, I returned to the prologue to John’s gospel, a familiar text, to see what I could preach about on Christmas Day. As I read the lines I had read countless times before, it struck me that I was not far from the truth in describing the gospel as a dance. As my eyes scanned the verses about everything beginning with a still point, I began to contemplate the gap between this origin, and the promise of what we could become if we “received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God” [John 1:12]. Yes it was a dance, a dance between being and becoming; between what is and what will come to be.
Suddenly I saw the wedding in Cana where the old ritual jars were transformed, the encounter with Nicodemus a point of disclosure, the meeting of the woman at the well as a holding and hallowing of a shameful history, and so on, as occasions of people coming into contact with something which made them more human than they were before. It went on, to a blind man healed by someone who did not have the right credentials onto the climax of a dead man breathing again. John’s gospel is indeed a dance, a dance into fuller humanity through contact with the source of life.
In the week before Christmas I was intrigued to read David Cameron’s speech to clergy at Christchurch Oxford on the No.10 website. He was speaking of the legacy of the King James Bible, the phrases it has left us in our language, and the fact that the church has been in the forefront of education for the masses and social action. He said that we need to remember that we are a Christian nation, that it is part of what we should stand for, because we have to stand for something in order to know who we are as a people. His speechwriter had done a good job in saying what he thought the audience would want to hear. But he was saying we had to go backwards, conveniently ignoring that a state church had meant our monarchs could not marry Catholics, and Jews were forbidden from reading for a degree at Oxford until the early last century, or that only Anglican clergy can sit in the House of Lords. He spoke of a past maintained by coercion. To this day the Unitarian and Baptist church buildings in my parish do not have doors which open directly onto the street, a reminder of the time where it was not legal for them to do so.
If Christian values have any place in our contemporary public life as a nation, we need to recover what our sacred texts tell us about what it means for human beings to flourish in the way that St John’s gospel offers us, a way of transformation upon contact; a way of re-connection with the source of life.
What does it mean to flourish as a human? This, in a world where there are some very skewed visions about what it means for humans to live well. Look at our rich, look at our celebrities, look at the anger of the dispossessed which spills out of the pubs onto Evesham High Street on a Saturday night.
We need to rediscover what it means to say that, “to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God” rediscover the celebration and to learn again the dance steps to become the people God intends us to be, and to be the transforming presence God will for his people in the world.
Vicar of Evesham with Norton and Lenchwick
On the eighth day, when it was time to circumcise him, he was named Jesus, the name the angel had given him before he had been conceived. Luke 2:21 (NIV)
Of the four Gospels, only Matthew and Luke tell the story of Jesus’ birth, and only Luke includes both the naming of Jesus and his circumcision. For Luke, it was important that Jesus was accepted as the Messiah, the one whom Isaiah had prophesied about, and that would have required Jesus to have been involved in the obligatory Jewish religious traditions and rituals, including circumcision.
Luke’s version of the angelic pronouncement is what we know as the Annunciation, with the angel Gabriel speaking directly to Mary about the child she will soon be carrying and telling her what she is to name him. Not only was this baby to be given a certain name, Luke emphasises that Jesus had been given his name even before he had been conceived.
It is easy to overlook the extraordinary nature of Luke’s statement, implying God’s pre-knowledge of Jesus and the role he would assume (the name Jesus translated literally means ‘the Lord saves’). Most of us will have read the Old Testament prophecies about Jesus, and accept that, as one of the Persons of the God we worship as the Holy Trinity, Jesus would have been ‘known’ before he began his life as one of us: God would, of course, know another part of the eternal God-self.
Our understanding of God may also lead us to the conclusion that we have always been known, that we, too, have been both known and ‘named’ before we were conceived. Think of the Psalmist’s meditations on an all-knowing God:
It was you who created my inmost self,
and put me together in my mother’s womb;
for all these mysteries I thank you:
for the wonder of myself, for the wonder of your works. Psalm 139: 13-14 (NJB)
I can think of no better way to start a New Year than with a fresh realization that we are wholly and deeply known to a loving God, and that, whatever our individual ‘name’ may be, our own unique and distinctive calling which we are continually discovering, if we are Christians, we also walk under the banner of the name of Jesus Christ.
None of us knows what 2012 will hold for us or for anyone else, and my prayer for us all is that we will be able to go forward with boldness and confidence, in the name of Christ:
Christ be with me,
Christ within me,
Christ behind me,
Christ before me,
Christ beside me,
Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort and restore me.
Christ beneath me,
Christ above me,
Christ in quiet,
Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me,
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger. From Saint Patrick’s Breastplate
Barton being about as far away from Canterbury as it is possible to be in England’s southern province, it’s slightly odd that we have a mediaeval altar-dedication to Thomas Becket. But the presence of an artesian spring by the churchyard may hint at a connection: the healing associations of such pools is well-documented, and the mediaeval pilgrim-saying ‘Optimus aegrorum medicus fit Thoma bonorum’, ‘Thomas is the best physician for the pious sick’ suggests we might have a franchise of the saint’s healing cult, with convenient miraculous pool nearby.
Bede tells of Oswald’s relics ability to work miracles, so this link between saints, particularly martyr-saints, and healing is hardly newsworthy. But it does invite reflection on the relationship between death and wholeness.
They present as polar opposites: though in their different ways both hospice and euthanasia movements try to make death a better experience, both are counsels of last resort, of how we manage the transition from life into not-life. Neither challenges the polarisation of the two. That life might somehow spring out of death isn’t considered.
It is a commonplace of Christian belief that suffering unites us with the crucified Lord — ‘in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions,’ Paul writes. I suggest that the long association of martyr-shrines with healing take us one step further, that these who are united in Christ’s suffering are also somehow channels of the first-fruits of the Resurrection, signs of the wholeness that is to come. This bids us hold up a prism to the mystery of death which transforms our vision of future, present and past.
My father died a week ago, and my response to the inevitable, ‘I suppose you’re going to cancel Christmas this year?’ was found in this proliferation of martyr-days between Christmas and New Year, in turn underscoring ancient carols which see in the Nativity the seeds of the Crucifixion, inviting us to consider the truth that in the Incarnation death and life become co-workers in the story of redemption.
We may see Thomas as political victim, as meddler in State affairs, as prophetic figure, whatever. Saints have their fads and their fashions. But the cult of Thomas as Physician surely points us to this great paradox of the Christian faith, that in the midst of death, we are in life, and that death is not merely a gateway into life, but a gateway back through which life comes — and transforms.
Poor St Stephen, not only the first martyr to Christ but also the first martyr to Christmas, his feast day lost as most clergy enjoy their first decent day off for ages and even the most avid churchgoer feels sated after Carols, Christingle, Crib Service, Midnight Mass and Christmas morning Eucharist.
Even in the bible he appears only briefly on the scene; ordained deacon by the apostles in Acts 6, he is dead by the end of Acts 7 after one recorded sermon. Accorded the position of patron saint of deacons during the early centuries he finds his own transient ministry echoed in the way that for much of that time (and still largely today) the Western church has seen the role of deacon as a one year preparation for priesthood.
Yet for one brief moment it is Stephen rather than one of the twelve who is at the centre of the story. And in that moment he does two remarkable things.
Accused of speaking against Moses and the temple, Stephen draws a clear distinction between the two. Moses is a man in relationship with God, the temple a much later addition. The latter cannot hold God but the former may hold on to him, even when rejected by his own people. The fulfilment of what Moses proclaimed is not a building, or any other human construct, but a man, Jesus. Stephen has broken the link between Israel’s faith and its institutions.
Meanwhile somewhere at the back of the crowd stands another man, young Saul from Tarsus. Driven by Stephen’s words to attack the new Christian communities, he will find that his efforts to bolster his religious orthodoxy through ever greater degrees of aggression have backfired. Stephen has planted a seed in his heart that will not lie dormant. Saul will need to reassess what his faith is about, and he like Stephen will discover it centres purely on relationship with God. This is the context we need to set Saul in, lest his need later to speak so much on matters of practical church organisation lead us to think that is what he thought really mattered.
Holy Stephen, first of Christ’s martyrs, remember us, and redirect our thought and hearts, when we, like the Jewish council and like Saul, are tempted to place our institutions and their wellbeing ahead of relationship with God.
What would Jesus do… today of all days?
Lo within a manger lies
he who built the starry skies…
Doing what? Sleeping? Staring at the ceiling? Filling the first century equivalent of nappies? an occasional infantile gurgle or puke?
What did Jesus do? Not much, I’d say — certainly nothing out of the ordinary. The manger scene reveals the Son of God in a state of almost complete passivity.
The baby in the manger is almost as helpless as the tortured body on the cross.
And yet Christian theology says that in these two episodes of utter helplessness Jesus accomplished his life’s work, far beyond our capacity to describe let alone understand the implications. They are the heart of the good news, the foundation upon which everything else rests.
Jesus’ passivity is however, in itself, good news because it puts the boot firmly into into three pervasive pictures of God that are familiar but distinctly bad news. Disposing of these unwanted visitors to the manger can only clear the air.
First out the door is the “Action Man” Pocket God, always busy seeing people and doing things, fixing up the world, zapping the baddies and blessing the goodies real good. It’s a compelling, natural picture of God; indeed it’s the way most of us would tackle the job of being divine — it’s just not God’s. If God were like that, we’d have to say, with Woody Allen, he was something of an underachiever, as the good go unblessed and the innocent suffer. These facts, as much as the sleeping baby in the manger, indicate that this image is false.
Another god the sleeping baby disposes of is the absent Deist watchmaker, designing and setting everything off then letting it run. Whatever else he is, Jesus in the manger is the heart of the scene, present in the engaging way that babies become the centre of attention by not doing very much.
Finally out the door goes the old Gnostic God of Spirit, who’s around the world in some creepy mysterious way, but hates the place along with all unsanitised human beings. All that matters to him is Religion. Experience? Money? Work? Sexuality? Art? Science? He’s above all that. Jesus isn’t. He’s in the middle of it. Taking Jesus seriously involves laying aside the snooty assumption that the world is somehow beneath divine contempt. We may despise the world but Jesus’ two bouts of helplessness say the living God so loved it that he gave everything for it…
Finally among unwanted visitors to the stable, tell that pervasive old English hypocrite Pelagius to go away. “Don’t you realise the world is going to hell in a handcart?” he whines. “Do something! Pull your socks up! Sing Louder! Get Christians ideologically aligned! Get us back to the good old days, when God was safely back in his heaven and all was well with the world…!”
The baby in the manger sleeps on. And nothing will ever be the same again.
You think you’d like to see an angel, do you? No. Not something to like.
The very fag end of a long, knackering day with the sheep. We were boiling up a bit of gruel on the fire. To this day when I smell gruel burning I feel … it takes me there. Burned porridge, and, — look, I’m not one of your religious types. I’m trying hard to keep this clean, not use bad words.
This thing was there, and yes, we were all s — we were all — This thing was there. Bigger than a house. Burning light. A lot of wings, claws, legs, a terrifying face. Then something like a human shape, wavering like looking at fire. That’s not why I nearly peed myself. Not the claws, not the face. It was a sense — look, I don’t do touchy-feely, woman’s stuff? OK? Don’t do it. But I just wanted to hide. Wanted the ground to swallow me. Found myself thinking of things I’d decided to forget.
And then it spoke. It told us not to be afraid. It was quite clear this was an order. You ever tried to stop being afraid because something terrifying gave you an order? I knew I couldn’t — and it made me even more afraid. And the thing spoke of the Messiah — and we all know what the day of the Messiah is like, don’t we? Fine for you holy bods, sure. People like me? Darkness, that’s what. Threat.
And then the thing told us to go to the village and find the Messiah.
Look it was like the burned porridge. It was so f, flaming ordinary. Not a Messiah like what I expected. Not darkness. A baby, wrapped up just as all little ‘uns are — and lying where busy mothers put them, in the work room, safe in the manger during the day while the beasts are out. It was so — look you don’t expect great masses of flame and when you get them, you don’t expect a message about a baby all safely wrapped up. You just don’t.
And you don’t expect one blooming great mass of fire to turn into countless masses of fire, none of them any smaller, all singing in complex harmonies. I like a song — I’m one they always call on to sing at weddings and the like — you may well think us a rough lot, but we have our songs. And I ain’t never heard the like of this. I can’t tell you what I’d give to take a part in a song like that. A good deal more than I possess — that’s what.
Then an empty hill — well, it seemed empty. Just us, the sheep and the burned out saucepan.
First published in Love Blooms Bright.
The last Evening Prayer of Advent is the context for this final ‘O’ Antiphon, O Emmanuel. When Evening Prayer comes round again, tomorrow, he will come. And that is the hidden message in these seven antiphons. Working backwards from today we have seven titles addressed to the coming baby: Emmanuel, Rex Gentium, Oriens, Clavis David, Radix Jesse, Adonaï, and Sapientia. Taking the initial letter of each of these invocations yields the words ‘ero cras’, a couple of Latin words that mean ‘Tomorrow, I will come’.
And the identity of who it is that is coming is to be found in all those titles: the divine Word or Wisdom; the LORD, the ‘I AM’; a shoot sprung from the family tree of Jesse; the successor of David; a Light shining in the darkness; the true ruler of the world. And Emmanuel.
Emmanuel, or God-with-us, was a name used by Isaiah when he tells King Ahaz that the royal house of David will flourish despite the great danger that it faced from Damascus and Samaria. Isaiah foretells that before a child who is still in the womb is able to choose between right and wrong, the kings of Damascus and Samaria will fall, and the threat to Jerusalem will fall with it. Isaiah gives this unborn child the name ‘Immanuel’, a sign of hope in the future and trust in the divine will.
And Matthew, in his proclamation of the good news about Jesus, takes this message out of Isaiah and makes the parallel with Jesus’s birth, seeing it too as a sign of hope and trust in God, and of liberation from oppression and tyranny.
To us, the name Immanuel signifies even more. It tells us of the immanence of God: El in Hebrew, so we can make a pun and say that Immanu-el means the immanence of El — that God, the creator of the universe, lives among us, lives a human life, a humble human life, born to an ordinary family, in a far-off colonial outpost. God is not some remote cosmic being, and God is not some fickle pleasure-seeking divinity who masquerades in human form on occasion. No, this is a God who puts off the divine attributes to live within the limits of a human life and a human death. Here the human and the divine mingle in a way that poetry and theology are better at describing than science. And in a day or so’s time we shall be, as it were, witnesses to this mingling, this incarnation, as we celebrate the birth of that baby and ponder its meaning in our hearts.
O come, O come Emmanuel!
Back in the 1980s when I was in seminary in upstate New York, it had become fashionable to talk, not of the Kingdom of God, but of the Commonwealth of God. As a recent arrival, both to the country and to that particular concept, I was fascinated to hear familiar phrases in bible readings and liturgy where Commonwealth supplanted Kingdom. I had no trouble understanding why this would be; Kingdom is associated with heredity, class, privilege and self-interest where the identity of a nation, or a race was embodied by, even ceded to, a particular family which had the means to both maintain its supremacy by force, along with the illusion that its primacy was underwritten in the heavens. Yes, I could see it, Kingdom: bad concept, with dodgy associations, particularly in a republic, Kingdom out, Commonwealth in. It would take me years to figure out why this just didn’t sit right with me.
A commonwealth of God is indeed much closer to what the gospel writers envisaged. It is about the welfare of everyone, attested to in scripture from the creation of the world, where all of humanity, not simply the ruling elite, was made in the image of God. Again and again the overwhelming justice of God is described, not as retribution, but as a demand for proper distribution of the resources of the land. The first lesson the freed slaves learn during their exodus from Egypt is that there is enough manna from heaven for everyone to have sufficient for each day in the desert. It is written into the charter of the Promised Land, not only that that all have enough, but provision should be made for those who have no-one to provide for them, like widows and orphans.
The classical prayer of Christian faith, the Lord’s Prayer, describes the character of the household of God: everyone should have enough, bread sufficient for each day, echoing the freed slaves’ desert experience. The feeding miracles, and Paul’s tirade to the wealthy Corinthians who hog the best of the Lord’s Supper, so embeds the notion of common-wealth as a key Christian concept that it is amazing that it has never become a foundational Christian doctrine. The same lack of focus on common-wealth has compromised the definitive Christian ritual, which has long ceased to be about everyone having enough. The Eucharist has become petrified into a precious liturgy of prescribed words by authorised people, where God’s justice is now believed to be honoured by sanitised silver plate and spotless starched linen.
So, if commonwealth is so good, why do we revert to the word kingdom, and to the Kingship of Christ? It is a commonplace now to hear in Christmas sermons that the titles for Jesus: Son of God, Saviour, Prince of Peace are titles already well-known as titles for Caesar. The gospel writers, in using them for Jesus, are either having a joke or are committing treason against Rome itself. They are hi-jacking the existing language of power in order to re-define kingship, from being about punitive brute force to representing God’s distributive justice, a movement in which everyone will have enough.
And you can imagine Herod’s people getting news of the Galilean preacher and his Kingdom of God, and saying, “Kingdom, that’s our word, he’s talking about us” as indeed he was.
So we can embrace Kingdom and Kingship because the followers of Christ inherit a commission to take these titles of earthly power and subvert and transform them. In doing so, we enact God’s Kingdom: those happenings which derive not from earth but from heaven.
How many of us, even in these dark, short days, are around, or alert to the morning star of the east? Very few, I suspect; but most of us will constantly, in these last days of Advent, make the connexion between the light eternal and the coming of Christmas. Light, lights, are part of the way in which the season is marked, the story told, in church and out.
I’m re-adjusting, preparing for Christmas in a new parish and in a different culture. I’ve swapped the hectic and heady mixture of faiths and ethnicities of east London for the particularities of south Essex (very close to TOWIE country). Here light chases away darkness not in the succession of festivals of electricity and fireworks which marked Newham between late October and the new year, but in the forms of illuminated Father Christmases, glowing reindeer, trains which puff their way across the upper stories of neighbouring houses, pulsating stars, and flashing greeting signs. Our residential corner has an especially fine display: and the participants are not purely secular celebrants of the season — one near neighbour, whose house is well and truly lit up, is a faithful member of the local Roman Catholic congregation, deeply committed to issues of social justice.
Tasteless? It depends on your own taste. Questionable on grounds of stewardship of scarce resources? Perhaps. But there is a prodigality, an exuberance which I find appealing.
Christians can be dour about Christmas, repressing the impulse to party, to take delight. We want people to wait in the darkness of Advent until the 25th. We resent the consumerism which so consumes people that they will not listen to what we want to say. The alternative seems to be to catch their attention by appealing to an imagined past. In our church last Sunday evening, the carol service began in candlelight, and even our 1960s barn of a building looked beautiful as the points of light were repeated around the church, on the altar, in front of the nativity scene. An aesthetically pleasing moment, but perhaps a dangerously nostalgic one, which may have helped to keep the Christmas story firmly distanced from the normalities of daily life for any of those present.
At the back of the church, though, was the Christmas tree, hung with lights, including some which flashed on and off. At one time I would have wanted to banish it to the narthex, if not the church hall; now I welcome it, as a symbol of shared celebration, of that exuberant joy which should be ours on Christmas morning. Yes, people (including the faithful) will overspend on ridiculous things they would never buy at any other time of year: we will give each other presents that we don’t need and often don’t particularly want; family relationships will come under strain; there will be too much food, and too much drink; many, including the clergy, will reach Christmas morning exhausted; the money, the time, the effort could be much better employed.
But the lights, products of our own time and culture, shine in the darkness, brilliant, vivid, unstinting tributes, conscious or unconscious, to the light coming into the world.
‘O key of David!’ starts today’s antiphon: David, the second King of Israel, but the man whose name became synonymous with all forms of kingship and rule in Israel and Judah.
He is an extraordinary choice for the position of legendary revered ruler. It is sometimes suggested that he is indeed simply a figure of legend. Generally speaking, however, legendary kings are a good deal more noble and less flawed than David. The astonishing thing about the David narratives is their pictures of a fatally flawed but very vivid man. His beautiful lament for Jonathan, so beloved by those who want Biblical gay role models, should not blind us to the fact that Jonathan is killed as David makes his move on the throne. Jonathan is uncomfortably close to being the sacrifice made by his friend and lover in order to gain power. Indeed, too many of those whom David loves end up dead, particularly his sons. One of the most splendid narratives from the ancient world, the ‘succession narrative’, charts the closing years of David. His seduction of Bathsheba led to the skilful elimination (was she scheming?) of all plausible heirs to David except the son he has with her, Solomon. The narrative includes perhaps the most moving of all Biblical laments, that of David over Absalom: ‘O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would that I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!’ But only a fool could have believed that the action against Absalom was likely to end any other way – and David was no fool. This extraordinarily believable picture of a passionate man who keeps a very clear and calculating mind strikes me as so totally removed from hagiography as to be very believable.
History or fiction (and David’s period is far removed from the Victorians of whom I know something) the fact remains that this great king is consciously and deliberately presented as a flawed figure. Perhaps it is his very passions which make him such an attractive figure. Perhaps in the often grubby reality of life we are closer to God than we are in those noble moments when we are blinded by our illusions. For sometimes we come to believe that our aspirations actually reflect the daily reality of our lives; that we are the kindly, thoughtful, people we seek to be. If we are more honest, there is often a tangled mess of demands made on us, selfishness and loving response, a darkness of misunderstandings, naked greed and those loving actions which (like David’s desire to keep his power and save Absalom’s life) were never going to work out. There is a terrible reality about David’s mixed desires and ambitions which make him seem astonishingly contemporary.
In that sense, today’s antiphon seems to fit him well – and in fitting him, to fit all those of us who know too well our flawed and dark passions, our divided loyalties and the complexities of our lives. It promises the rescue (by ‘great David’s greater son’) of those in darkness, trapped and ignorant of the paths to escape.
O Key of David and sceptre of the House of Israel;
you open and no one can shut;
you shut and no one can open:
Come and lead the prisoners from the prison house,
those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.
Amidst the devastation of the holy city and the kingdom, Isaiah has seen the enormous potential for new life in the stump of a felled tree. Whilst forests may be destroyed by fire, or flattened by hurricane and tsunami, many species can regrow and the forest can flourish again. But the sign to which he points is not the military might of King David, nor the splendour of Solomon’s court and temple. He doesn’t choose the example of a heroic patriarch. Instead, Isaiah returns to the humble origins of David’s father Jesse. The man had been known simply as ‘the Bethlehemite’, someone from an unimportant village. Within the new kingdom of Saul this Bethlehemite would have appeared an insignificant sapling rather than one of the pillars of the realm. But the name of Jesse would replace that of Saul. Time and again the name Jesse appears, and Isaiah uses it to symbolise the enormous destiny of gathering God’s people from exile throughout the known world. It would stand at the heart of messianic hope of the Jews.
Directly this messianic hope is identified with Jesus in the writings of the New Testament, Paul (Romans 15.12) uses Isaiah’s prophecy with a wider significance. The name of Jesse provides a cornerstone for Paul’s mission to the Gentiles. Here is the inspiration for the apostles’ desire to bring the gospel to the ends of the earth, and for their faith to break out of the confines of their own nationality.
With the rise of Christianity, the Jesse Tree became a well-loved and familiar image throughout the Western Europe in the middle ages. The family tree, depicted as a vine growing from Jesse, passes through David and Solomon to Mary and Jesus, whilst all around the prophets make their proclamations about the messiah. Jesse, the root of this divine flowering, lies at the foot, blissfully asleep. He is oblivious of all that God would achieve. All he had ever done was respond to Samuel’s call to accompany him to a sacrifice. He hardly knew that God’s call was in Samuel’s bidding. But then, who does know? Did Ruth, Jesse’s grandmother, have any inkling of what would happen when she refused to abandon her mother in law? Did Boaz, Jesse’s grandfather, know what was in store when duty and desire invited him to marry Ruth, a foreign widow?
From all of this Isaiah gives us the unlikely spectacle of a fragile shoot rising from the unlikely ruin of a fallen tree. It is the insignificant man from Bethlehem, a forerunner of the unknown child who would be born in his town in a stable. God takes what the world counts insignificant, and with it he builds his kingdom. He takes our obedience, our generosity, our acceptance of him and uses them for his purpose. And though we may not see the fruits in our own lifetime, nothing is lost. Though we cannot see it, all will be grafted into the vine he makes, just as strange, seemingly unlikely disparate sayings of the prophets are woven first into messianic expectation, and then into glorious fulfilment.
As a youngster, the version of this antiphon found in the Advent carol ‘O come, O come Emmanuel’, always intrigued me. What was this strange word, sung as ‘add-on-ay-eye’? It was several years before I discovered the answer to this question, buried in the foreword of my Revised Standard Version of the Bible. There it was explained why in the Old Testament, the word ‘Lord’ was frequently printed in all capital letters (in ‘caps & small caps’ to be precise), and occasionally in the expression ‘Lord God’ the word ‘God’ was capitalized instead. This tradition, still followed in many of today’s Bibles, dates back many centuries, or even millennia.
When printed in capitals in this way the word ‘LORD’ represents the occurrence in the Bible of the name of God. In the original Hebrew this is indicated by four consonants (written Hebrew having no letters for the vowels), and variously represented in our own alphabet, perhaps most commonly by the letters I, H, V, and H. But in ancient times this name had already come to be considered too holy to actually speak, and instead the Hebrew word for ‘Lord’ was spoken aloud. And that Hebrew word is Adonaï.
This then, is the meaning of the verse of the carol, and the meaning of the Advent antiphon. Each of the antiphons is addressed to Jesus: and in addressing Jesus as Adonaï we implicitly declare our belief in his divinity: that the baby born in Bethlehem is indeed the incarnation of the eternal God who appeared to Moses in the burning bush, declaring to him his existence and his very name, the divine ‘I AM’. And the salvation that came to the Hebrew slaves, the downtrodden people in Egypt, that salvation is offered to all God’s people right now.
O come, O come, Adonaï!
I love the Wisdom writings of the Old Testament. There is something wonderful about a religion that can give space in its sacred writings to compare a beautiful person lacking in sense with a gold ring in a pig’s snout, or include a verse such as “The lazy person says ‘There is a lion outside! I shall be killed in the streets!’” (Proverbs 22:13). Whilst the Advent Antiphon speaks of wisdom that comes forth “from the mouth of the Most High”, the scriptures are full of more earthy wisdom. It’s the wisdom that emerges from careful observation of the way the world is. Such wisdom can rightly be said to spring from God’s mouth because it is God’s word that makes and remakes creation.
Within the Christian tradition the wisdom that comes from evidence has often been made subservient to that which is derived from abstract thought. Redressing that balance is a key aim of the branch of academic study known as Empirical Theology, in which my own research group is based. Holding conversations with people, or inviting large numbers to complete questionnaires, may not look as highbrow as reflections on basic theological principles but it might actually tell us something about the Christian faith as lived. And if that faith is lived by God’s grace then maybe it is also telling us truth about God too.
The things that my colleagues and I find out often challenge the presumptions of those responsible for running church programmes – especially the tendency to assume that everyone else believes and likes what I do. They also expose the gap between the intentions of some religious policy or practice and what people make of it. Doing theology on the basis of evidence chimes well with Archbishop Rowan’s famous dictum that the task of the church is to see what God is doing, and join in. Above all it suggests that the form of theology that is of most use to the church is reflective practice - which is just what some wise individual some 2500 years ago was doing when they collected together the distilled essence of their observations in the Wisdom literature.
As I sit typing this I can look out of the window over the city of Pune in the state of Maharashtra in India, about 100 miles south-east of Mumbai. The view comprises high-rise tower blocks, green lawns and trees, concrete and glass. It could be anywhere in the developed world (though the 30 C temperature and sun virtually overhead in a cloudless sky at noon confirm that it is not England!). But I know that just across the road, and out of sight from here, are the shacks, corrugated steel sheds, and tents that everywhere are intermingled with the lives and buildings of richer Indians and their western business partners. Pune today is a rapidly-growing city, the eighth largest in India, with half a dozen universities and growing hi-tech industrial, IT and commercial sectors.
It was in a very much smaller Pune, then spelt Poona, that in 1927 the Christa Seva Sangha made its first real home. Founded in 1922 by five Indians and an Englishman this ashram or religious community — whose name means the Community of the Servants of Christ — intended to form a life of common service and equal fellowship for Indians and Europeans. The Englishman was Jack Winslow and the community soon attracted some attention in both India and England, which enabled it to move to Poona after a few years. Winslow’s account of the Society can be read online. Originally dedicated to St Barnabas, the Society soon added St Francis as joint patron, a dedication that became more important as it adopted a formal rule and vows.
In 1927 the community was joined by a number of new recruits, one of whom was a young priest called Algy Robertson, and by 1930 there were around 30 members. Robertson was convinced that the Sangha should be a Franciscan community, but after a few years his health broke and he returned to England. Still a member of the Sangha, he became vicar of St Ives, a dozen miles north-west of Cambridge, and the vicarage at St Ives became home to several Brothers of the community as well as a refuge for visitors from Poona. There are still those in St Ives (where I have lived and worshipped for twenty years or so) who can recall the Brothers living in the vicarage and cycling around the town and to nearby villlages. In 1936, however, Robertson’s group joined with another Franciscan community in England to form the Society of St Francis, with a rule largely written by Robertson and based on the principles of the Sangha in Poona. In 1937 Robertson resigned from St Ives to move to the new community at Hilfield, near Cerne Abbas in Dorset, where he was based for the rest of his life.
The Franciscan ideal of embracing poverty and the service of the poor is one that comes swiftly to mind in the streets of modern Pune, just as it must have done in the very different Poona of the 1920s and 30s, to Francis in the thirteenth century, and just as it must have done to an itinerant preacher from Nazareth two thousand years ago. The poor are still with us, and the priority of working for the alleviation of hunger, homelessness, disease and injustice is as necessary now as it was then.
In his brief and brilliant poem T S Eliot traces the path of the Magi, through “the very dead of winter” facing hazards, challenges and portents on the road to their destination as witnesses of the newborn Christ. But as so often with Eliot, it’s the twist in the final few lines that takes the reader off into a new and hitherto unexplored dimension. For, whereas Matthew simply tells us that they made their way home by a different route, Eliot makes us listen to the elderly traveller reflect on life after Epiphany:
…this birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.
Eliot’s insight is that, no matter how hard or arduous the journey to a religious experience may be, the greater challenge lies in living in the light of that experience afterwards, among people who haven’t shared it and cannot understand it. It’s a thesis borne out by statistical surveys which invariably show a majority of respondents are able to identify something that has happened to them that they would classify as a religious experience, and yet in most cases they haven’t found a way of integrating it into the rest of their lives.
I like to think that what is in the poem isn’t just Eliot’s Christian insight but something of his quintessentially Anglican identity. Here was a man who spent many years in the office of churchwarden, a position less associated with theophanies than with the challenge of ensuring good order and that the practicalities of church life are given due attention. In my years as a parish priest I found that a high proportion of those who came to join us were not new-born Christians, fresh from some profound conversion experience, but men and women who had come to faith elsewhere, often in more evangelical or Pentecostal gatherings, and had, after a short while, found little there that enabled them to live in the world as it is; nothing that could sustain them once Epiphany was over.
To be Anglican is not to disregard or downplay religious experiences. I know in my own life how important are both the occasions when I receive an intense experience of God and the daily sense of his quiet presence beside me and within me as I encounter him in contemplative prayer. But being Anglican is so much more; it’s about being resourced, equipped and encouraged to live a Christian life that is fully incarnated into a world which operates according to significantly different values. The work I do, nationally and locally, to promote high standards in equality and diversity practice, and my involvements with the Housing Association movement are as much what it is to be Anglican as my attendance at public worship and, as a bishop, my role as Eucharistic President.
And so I delight that the Church of England calendar now has the post Epiphany season running all the way through to Candlemas on February 2nd. But I do slightly wonder why so many of the Sunday lections for the next few weeks are about the miraculous, when, as Eliot has told us, that’s the easy bit, it’s after the journey is over that the real challenges arise.
David Walker is Bishop of Dudley in the Diocese of Worcester
The way the stories of the nativity are told, they are full of journeys. There is Mary’s trip to see Elizabeth for companionship in pregnancy, the journey to Bethlehem to be registered and for the infant to be born, the journey to Egypt to escape Herod and later on to Nazareth to keep below the political horizon, and of course the journey of the magi to find the holy child.
And our stories are often full of journeys at this time of year. In our case, my son’s arrival from Germany was delayed by 20 hours and Air France lost his luggage for 10 days. Numerous family members across three generations came to visit from York and Lancashire, and this year the accounts of their travels were coloured with anxiety about the weather. And today, all my sisters and I are meeting in Lancashire to discuss the care of our elderly mother, though I will be travelling furthest for this occasion. And there will be similar accounts of the journeys made by you and yours over the holiday period, which will take in every detail of what went wrong or the signs of grace and blessing that made them a joy. On the whole, these are not life-changing journeys, though you can’t always know when you are setting off which trips will change things for ever and which will merely take you to another place.
The image of the journey is much used as a metaphor for the life of faith and for life in general. I have myself given sermons on the spiritual journey at this time of year. There are times when the metaphor works really well. I can remember a long wait once at Amsterdam airport, reflecting on how life is like waiting for the next plane. But the metaphor does have its limitations, and I would say on the whole that it is over-used and risks becoming a cliché. It becomes a problem as an image when one feels stuck and the sense that we should be going somewhere in our faith becomes another stick to beat oneself with. It is a problem, too, for people whose spirituality is centred on stability, on staying in one place and experiencing the height and the depth of that domain. It is a problem also because it tends to be used about my spiritual journey, rather than about the shared experience of a community.
It seems likely that different personality types respond more favourably to different images of the spiritual life, perhaps to artistic images such as a dance, for instance, or a picture or a symphony. Another series of helpful images centres on growth, seeds, trees, blossom and fruit.
The metaphor matters because it helps to shape the way you make sense of your experience. I have travelled with the spiritual journey metaphor for a long time, but I am beginning to feel that it won’t do any more. My hope for this new year is that I can find a new way to conceptualise my relationship with God and my calling to serve and that it becomes a little less about me.
Meg Gilley is a parish priest working in former pit villages in County Durham.
Thirty-five years ago, Cambridge opened new worlds to me — I used to think 1 January was New Year’s Day, Hogmanay in Scotland. The Cambridge University Diary, however, designated the day thus: CIRCUMCISION: University LIbrary closed to readers. A good day to stay out of the stacks, then. And what an embarrassing, not quite Anglo-Saxon thing ‘Circumcision’ sounds like! Messy, painful, foreign.
Up to 1752, new year in England, for most legal and general purposes, had been the Annunciation — Lady Day, 25 March, nine months before Christmas (geddit?). In a Christian scheme of time, the good news of the Incarnation made an appropriate start to the year. After 1753 it still did, but New Year’s Day, by default, became the Circumcision. Now we start each new year of grace with a liturgical reminder of Jesus’s location within the old law of … er, grace or works?
The old law was, in fact, a law of grace, not a simple game of works. God gave circumcision as a sign of his favour towards his people, their specialness (to use a rather cheesy term) and their identity. It was a way of personalising their belonging and identity by expressing it in an individual’s flesh. It was some of the troops who turned the observance of circumcision into a legalistic game of Brownie Points, and when they did this they were going beyond the original intentions of its Framer.
This matters, partly as a matter of good theology, but also because historically whenever Christians have rejected their Jewish roots, it has done them no good and cursed them and all the world, shamefully. Supersessionist fantasy leads directly to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the ghetto, ultimately the gas chamber. From Marcion to the Eisenach Institute for the Study and Eradication of Jewish Influence on German Church Life, be very afraid when Christians start trying to slew off their Jewish roots.
Anyway, the relationship between grace and works is actually rather interesting. Any fool can play one off against the other, indeed most fools do. Either we are home and dry, or we have to work our socks off to attain our heavenly home. But what if the truth was not either, or neither, but, simultaneously, both? Get out of jail free, and then work your freedom as vigorously and in as disciplined a way as if you still had to work your passage, but freely this time?
I’m fascinated by the way that when you lay before Christians, in a descriptive rather than loaded way, the dozen or so classic theories of atonement in the New Testament, people of all stripes, including many who often major in their sermons on one simple theory full stop, tend to end up choosing two, not one.
Furthermore if you put down the theories on two cards, one labelled ‘get out of jail free’ and the other ‘work out your salvation with fear and trembling’, usually they choose one from each card. Why not? The ability to walk down the sidewalk and chew gum simultaneously is a virtue, not a limitation.
So the Circumcision is not a feast of legalism, or a reminder of grace. Legalism is always bad news, and pure antinomianism is always fantasy. The Brownie Point circuits are too profoundly hardwired into human nature for this to be otherwise. Rather the Circumcision is a time to celebrate the joy of both/and theology — like light as wave and packet, life in Christ gloriously free and also infinitely challenged.
A secure identity, and everything to live for. Happy New Year!
Alan Wilson is area Bishop of Buckingham in the diocese of Oxford.
Tomorrow is just another day. Not. I am a Scot, partially by birth and partially by adoption. To no Scot whosoever, wheresoever, are today or tomorrow anything like normal days.
At Christmas Scotland strives for, and often fails at, good cheer, for the ghost of John Knox sits over all with Northumberland gloom, and mere materialism steps into the gulf even more readily than in England. Before the New Year, cheerfulness suddenly springs up in all its glory. It is natural to greet returning friends and former neighbours with cries of joy, blocking crowded supermarket aisles, while harassed shoppers ponder on just how much whisky, and lager, and ham and sausage rolls will ensure family and friends, and (even today) chance visitors will not go hungry, which actually means will not go without being stuffed to satiety.
There is a small frenzy of cleaning. Less than there used to be, but dear knows the Scots are particular at the best of times. Paintwork is washed down, floors vacuumed threadbare. And life is cleared out. The past year is reviewed. Its sorrows are brought to mind, and, in so far as they can be, dismissed. Guilt and remorse and misfortune are let go. Joys too are counted up.
There is a no-man’s-land between day and day. Most do not have to work then, but can rest. Now that time, nobody’s time, our own time, is transformed into a time of transition — part old year, and part new. It becomes Hogmanay. It starts in loss and expectation. And food and drink and dancing. It is a ceremony of letting go and drowning out — washing away if you like. And we do like it. Then comes ‘the Bells’. Midnight. The witching hour, the moment, the actual moment of transformation. The old year is finally dead, danced to death like a sacrifice. The new year is created. And the new year is beautiful, untrodden, pure. It stretches on and on. The daylight part of the First is liable to pass in a bit of a haze, even for non-drinkers, due to exhaustion. Those who managed doucely to bed at a reasonable hour of one or two in the morning set about creating a family feast. It is a day of new clothes and best dresses. The Second follows it, a public holiday in a country where most holidays are merely regional, and family and friends are visited, old jokes dusted off, and hopes for the new year counted out. And the third. From time to time Scots find themselves dragged back to their place of work on the third. Unhappy co-incidences of the calendar occasionally indicate it. That is not to say, of course, they actually do much work. It feels all wrong. And evenings are probably devoted to catching up with friends. Eating those sausage rolls before they go out of date. So, gradually, Scots re-enter life for a new start, with re-considered aspirations.
You understand it is a wholly secular time. Not.
Rosemary Hannah is a writer and historian living near Glasgow.
They sold me a dream of Christmas
They sold me a Silent Night
And they told me a fairy story
Till I believed in the Israelite.
(words by Peter Sinfield from Greg Lake’s 1975 Christmas record)
If your Christmas has been anything like mine you’ve heard quite a number of tellings of the birth of Christ over the last few weeks. Sentimental, imagined, romantic, harmonized, fictionalized, sanitized and idealized — that sums up so many of them.
Perhaps you’ve been told that Joseph was the best carpenter in Nazareth, with a reputation that spread far and wide. Perhaps you’ve been told that Mary was a good girl who did all the cooking for her parents, using herbs she’d grown herself (I heard that one in a service on Radio 4 last Sunday morning). No doubt you’ve heard all about the cute little donkey that plodded to Bethlehem, and the ox and the ass that nosed around the stable; and three kings who rode on camels and were most definitely called Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar. Maybe you’ve even heard that it was cold and snowing. And so on.
Do we, in telling the story this way, conspire with our hearers to perpetuate a fairy story? Do we perpetuate the idea that the birth of Jesus is a fairy story, just a fairy story, something that — like the idea of Father Christmas or the tooth fairy — parents use to encourage children to be sweet and good? But something which we fully expect them to grow out of by the time they are 10, and see that it is just a fairy story that they have listened to uncritically and can discard uncritically?
For it is certain that nearly all will discard the story uncritically. Very few will appreciate the subtle distinction that theologians might make when talking about ‘myth’. No, we have fed them only sentimental tosh, and sentimental tosh is what they will discard in the harsh light of the real world. And they have been given nothing on which to build a stronger understanding of faith. When they grow out of fairy stories they grow out of the fairy story we have spun them and discard the fairy story of the sentimental Jesus, meek and mild, that we told them in their childhood.
What, instead, should we be saying? We need to recover the sense that we are proclaiming the euangelion — originally the ‘good news’ proclaiming the birth of a son to the emperor in Rome, but a word harnessed by the first Christians to describe the truly great news that is the birth of the son of the emperor of all creation. We need to tell the story in a way that lets listeners and readers see the timeless truth of the Incarnation rather than a childish fairy story. It is in the euangelion according to John that, in poetic but unsentimental and timeless language, stripped of all narrative, the Incarnation is most clearly stated, and all else is commentary at best:
The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.
Simon Kershaw is one of the three co-founders of Thinking Anglicans.
‘The wolf shall live with the lamb …
… and a little child shall lead them …
… they shall not hurt or destroy.’ Isaiah 11.6
The picture of peace which the Messiah inaugurates is not just for humanity, but for all the world.
This year it was heartening to hear that one more form of animal cruelty, the so-called ‘dancing bears’ of India, had come to an end after a seven-year campaign.
It is part of a world wide move to end cruelty to animals. In Barcelona, there has already been a vote to outlaw bull fighting, and the parliament of Catalonia, in the east of the Spain, is considering a proposal to change local animal protection laws. The people of Catalonia, who suffered intense tyranny during the time of Franco, associate bullfighting with the kind of oppression they endured at the hands of the fascist regime. As a result they identify much more with the doomed bull than with the matador. Few locals in Barcelona want bullfighting: it is far more important to have a top football team. They don’t want to be known as supporters of blood sports, and, in the approach to Christmas, the words of Isaiah sound a message which encourages their campaign.
How revolting it is then, at Christmas, to hear that the Conservative Party in Britain is proposing to allow legislation to legalise once more our own barbaric blood sport, the hunting of deer and foxes with hounds. I question whether this has wide appeal. Animal charities and the RSPB have massive support from millions of people today. It is possible that the number of people who encourage foxes by feeding them in their gardens far exceeds the number of those who might want to hunt; even if they don’t go to the lengths of a former neighbour who provided Waitrose chickens to the vixen with her cubs in the garden. Isn’t it time, as we listen to the song of the angels, to heed the message of the prophet and seek peace rather than ritualised torture and slaughter of dumb animals? And then ‘they will not hurt or destroy … for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord’ (Isaiah 11.9).
Tom Ambrose is a priest living in Cambridge.
Within three days of the good news, comes the bad news. Yes, the Word has become flesh and is dwelling among us; but there seems to be a catch: the process of full redemption and recovery is to be accomplished within human beings, resistant materials that they are, step by step. As Robert Frost once observed ‘the best way out is always through’. Indeed the whole logic of incarnation is that God’s reaction to our evil is to meet it head on, not to steer round it. If this is the nature of the operation, the fulness of any redemption brought us in this holy child is bound to be a process that works from the inside out, needing to take flesh in real people through the seemingly random and cruel processes of the world, not a magic wand job.
Reality itself is not a magic wand job. Beneath the angel strain will roll at least two thousand years of wrong. At the sharp end of that will be innocent victims who will have to take their chances in a precarious and unjust world. The fact that God counts himself among them and takes his chances like the rest of us may be some comfort, but not exactly comforting. Herod does his thing, makes his choice, and the kiddies die anyway.
‘Rome wasn’t built in a day,’ observed the late great Brian Clough. ‘But then I wasn’t on that particular job.’ If Brian, or indeed most of us accustomed to having what we want at the click of a mouse, ruled the world, this is how it would be: Jesus would appear, ping! every one would go ‘Aha!’ ping! Herod would have no choice. The swords would turn to rubber or something, or at least the henchmen would call in sick. Herod could wish anything he wanted, however evil, but he would be unable to vent his paranoia in the real world. That would be that.
But what would that be? That would be the Fat Controller, the manipulator, pushing the buttons, wouldn’t it? That would be God the village copper, sorting everything out with the cheery wave, a few wallops, and the occasional well-aimed Monty Python 16 Ton weight. And if the whole message of the Incarnation is that God isn’t actually any of those things, it’s disappointing, perhaps, but hardly surprising that the Kingdom of God isn’t a ‘Ping’ thing. The ping has to come from us. It doesn’t merely happen on autopilot — indeed nothing happens like that.
What’s the point of kingdom come being a slow painful internal process, you may say. There might as well not be a God at all!
Well, not quite. It there weren’t a God at all, none of this would ultimately matter anyway, on anything but a notional, intellectual level. Unjust suffering would be no more significant than any other happenstance. We would just have to conclude ‘It happens,’ like sunspots or black holes. Being Nasty might be possible to portray as ultimately illogical, but Herod, and a thousand tyrants since, have a slightly different logic of their own, and, in a Nietzschean universe where might is right, who would be able to say they were wrong?
Over and above the particular choices that Herod, or for that matter any of us, may make, the wrongness of this unjust suffering stands in contrast to the justice of God, which stands eternal. That means it is what it is, whatever we may think of it, and remains supreme on a meta level. Indeed it defines the terms in which these things happen, whilst leaving us free to choose. Herod may get away with it, but no excuse he may offer can ever be adequate. No amount of rage and spite, power and opportunity, can change injustice into justice. That really would put us in a fix, far more than being told the score and given the choice.
The Christmas story turns out to be a moral compass, not a remote control device. Power games and bullying, attempting to fiddle the books by manipulating the politics regardless of the human cost, will always be off limits — a sign that the kingdom has not quite come in us as fully as it wants to, whether we are Herod or Hitler, a world leader or poor clergy of the Anglican communion. Oh, but Herod will say, what’s the alternative? The alternative is faith, but it’s harder to live by faith than by manipulation, especially if we seemingly have the means to accomplish our will by the latter. To think and act differently, we need a renewed outlook, and the grace and comfort of the Holy Spirit, nudging us along the way to wholeness and hope. And each step we take closer to that advances the peace and salvation of ourselves and all the world.
Alan Wilson is area Bishop of Buckingham in the diocese of Oxford.
This festival has something of a split personality. We celebrate John the Apostle, son of Zebedee and brother of James, whose mother tried to ensure a good position for her boys in the coming kingdom. And we celebrate John the Evangelist, who probably wasn’t the same person, but was the disciple whom Jesus loved, a young man who lived in or around Jerusalem and didn’t get to travel with Jesus on his teaching and healing tours, but to whom Jesus entrusted the care of his mother. And thirdly, there is John the Divine, author of the Book of Revelation. All of them are celebrated on this day, whether they were considered to be one person, two or three people.
The Church has generally assumed that John the Apostle was John the Evangelist, as the wording of the collect makes clear, but recent scholarship (e.g. Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, which won this year’s Michael Ramsey prize) makes a distinction between them. Bauckham argues that John the Evangelist was John the Elder, the Beloved Disciple, also known as John of Ephesus, who wrote the Gospel with his name and the three epistles.
It seems that church tradition has conflated two Johns, and possibly three. I wonder if this confusion of Johns in some way mirrors the position the church finds itself in.
There is the old John, the Apostle, Son of Zebedee. He was one of the small group which had the vision on the mountain top of Jesus in conversation with the old heroes, Moses and Elijah. This was a vision that made connections with the past. And yet John, with the rest of the twelve, singularly failed to understand Jesus. They walked with him along the way, they heard him, they saw the miracles that he did, but they just didn’t get the kingdom of God or the necessity of Jesus’ suffering and death.
I know churches like that. They had a vision once. They have a powerful connection to the past. They have walked along the way, but they haven’t quite got Jesus.
Then there is the younger John, a disciple, but not one of the original twelve. This is John the Elder, John of Ephesus, possibly also known as John the Apostle later in his life. This John understands the spiritual significance of Jesus’ ministry. He can see what God is doing. His vision is of God’s present activity. He offers the key theological insight that God is Love and longs for us to respond to him in love.
I love this John. He excites and inspires me. Churches in this mode are working to identify God’s work in their communities here and now. They look for ways to live the Gospel of God’s love, even when they don’t always get it right.
And we can also include the (possibly) third John, John of Patmos, John the Divine, who wrote the Book of Revelation. This John has a great vision of the future, when at the last, God will dwell his people in the New Jerusalem.
Churches can live this future-church model in different ways. There are those churches which wait for God to sort everything out in the sweet by-and-by without really engaging with the issues and challenges. And there are churches which are looking prophetically at our world in an attempt to understand where God is taking us, and which are willing to face the murderous and killing beasts that threaten the bond between God and humankind.
This is beginning to sound like a version of the three ghosts of Dicken’s Christmas Carol.
In the Communion of Saints, St John the Apostle, son of Zebedee, St John the Evangelist and St John the Divine have a kind of heavenly job-share. Personally, I am happy to think of them as having an active role today, sifting our prayers and praying for us, guiding us and prompting us. My prayer is that they can help the Church to grow into a Body of Christ that better reflects the God who is Love with wisdom and insight and courage.
Meg Gilley is a parish priest working in former pit villages in County Durham.
When God acts decisively, as we celebrated yesterday, he is inclined to do so in a manner that (however much Old Testament prophecies might have hinted at it) catches creation unawares. A baby in a manger is scarcely a more likely incarnation of the divine than the one-eyed, slightly chipped tortoise that is the great god OM in Terry Pratchett’s novel Small Gods (it’s Christmas, I’m allowed to read trash). When the church acts decisively it follows much more obvious channels. Hence, some of the first tasks of the post-Pentecost Christian community are about getting the structures right. Matthias is appointed to fill the place of Judas, and then, lest the apostles be distracted from their preaching and prayers by the mundane, and inward facing, tasks of sorting out disputes and allocating resources, seven new posts are created, the first deacons.
There’s meant to be a clear distinction between the apostolic and diaconal roles, but it doesn’t work out. The mistake the twelve have made is in appointing men ‘full of the Spirit’. And the Spirit won’t be tied to the mundane and practical. Indeed in the chapters that follow in the Acts of the Apostles we find two of the seven heavily engaged in proclaiming the gospel to those outside the community. In fact, given that we hear little in the rest of the book about any of the original dozen apart from Peter, James and John, you could say that there’s a higher success rate of apostolic ministry among the seven than there is from the twelve.
Today we celebrate the martyrdom of Stephen, one of those seven, arrested for his preaching and condemned for witnessing to his vision of Christ at the right hand of God. Stephen discovered, as countless others have down the centuries, that you can’t separate the proclamation of the Good News from meeting the practical needs of the poor. And that inseparability is for two distinct and complementary reasons.
Firstly, churches and Christians need to uphold justice and perform good works in order to show the love of Jesus. My friend the Bishop of Peru has a simple rule that no congregation in his diocese can achieve the status as a parish until it has some practical programme of work: a school; a clinic; a project teaching skills to the unemployed. There has to be something that reaches out and lifts up the poor of its neighbourhood. If we are not showing the love of God through our practical actions how can anyone be drawn to him through our words?
But secondly, it was only when he began serving the needy that Stephen was granted his vision of Christ. Twelve centuries later St Francis of Assisi discovered that unless he could see Jesus in a leper he could not truly see Jesus. In that sense the practical tasks we undertake are as much for own benefit as for the well-being of those who are aided by them. We will not see Jesus at the right hand of the Father until we cultivate the habit of seeing him in the drug addict, the beggar, the AIDS sufferer, the sex worker or the homeless person; or in whomever it may be that we and our society are minded to neglect, condemn or despise.
Anglicans too often divide into those who neglect justice in the pursuit of holiness and those who ignore holiness in their striving for justice. In Stephen both are held together. May they be so for us too this Christmastide and beyond.
David Walker is suffragan Bishop of Dudley in the diocese of Worcester.
I belong to that generation who, back in the seventies, were theologically weaned off Christmas in favour of Easter’s role as the pivotal celebration of Christian faith. So convinced were we, that it seems odd to be attracted back to Christmas, to be called to contemplate the Incarnation anew.
No doubt, in forming the infancy narratives, Matthew and Luke were anticipating what happened in Jesus’s adult life, anticipating the significance of that later life — much as John did via his quite different prologue. They expected us to be better able to understand the later life by understanding the early life — written creatively to show the hand of God active from Jesus’s very beginnings.
Once you suspect what the evangelists were up to, it is horribly tempting to make theological hay about how God is revealed in the exquisite vulnerability of a newborn infant; in a child of unusual, if not uncertain, birth; in a rejected child, soon to be persecuted, soon to become a refugee. The clear anticipation of the pattern of Jesus’s later life is almost too obvious. But good theology stems, at least in part, from good prayer; and the challenge of re-appropriating Christmas is perhaps more than getting the hermeneutics or the theology right. The greater challenge is to think a little bit less and to wonder a whole lot more. In his notion of the second naiveté, Paul Ricoeur spoke of the need to let the creative aspects of these stories strike us, even with our critical reading strategies.
That’s why I like to ponder the verse in Matthew depicting the Magi falling to their knees, or the verse in Luke saying how the shepherds went back to their fields glorifying and praising God. As Ignatius of Loyola said, ‘it is not much knowledge but the inner feeling and relish of things that fills and satisfies the soul.’ Perhaps Christmas is an invitation to put theology temporarily on the back seat, and to try to let these stories tell themselves. The evangelists had their purposes in passing on these stories, but those purposes were served by these stories themselves, not by a study of the evangelists’ motivations. Perhaps rather than try to explain the significance of Jesus’s birth, we’d be better off asking God to let us experience that significance, to be bowled over by it, to hear, as if for the first time, just how this utterly surprising birth could be a great joy for the whole world. Again, rather than worry too quickly about the two natures of Christ, we could first ask God to let us taste and relish the divine glory as we re-imagine that infant’s birth. Who knows, we may find ourselves flopping to our knees, just as the Magi purportedly did.
Theology can wait another day.
Joe Cassidy is Principal of St Chad’s College, Durham University.
Although from Gaudete Sunday onwards we may start liturgically to direct our gaze a little more towards the first coming of Christ, the Advent backdrop never quite goes away. Thus I wonder whether at the very end of Advent, on Christmas Eve, there is a theme easily lost in the rush to mount the 6.30 Carol service and make sure the charcoal’s not damp for the Midnight.
There’s little reason to doubt that this Advent will end just as uneventfully as all the others, and the nearest we will get to the stars falling from the sky will be when local revellers dismantle the Corporation Christmas Tree. Advent is a journey never completed: instead of the logical resolution of the Season — the final in-breaking of the Kingdom — we find ourselves back at the beginning once more. Rather like a child whose pile of unwrapped presents never quite matches the excitement of the mysterious parcels, we find ourselves happy enough that Christmas Day is here, yet aware that it’s not really where the story should have gone. We get a glimpse of what is to come only through hearing of the end of someone else’s wait.
Camus’s essay ‘The Myth of Sisyphus’ seems to me to suggest that although Sisyphus’s task never ends, he is nonetheless happy. He has almost reached journey’s end — and that is enough. A glimpse of what might be has been given him as he nears the top of the mountain. This is perhaps a paradigm of Advent, and particularly of Christmas Eve.
It’s long been ‘correct’ to identify the Easter Dawn Eucharist as the Solemnity of Solemnities, the ne plus ultra of Christian rejoicing this side of the Kingdom. Perhaps Christmas Eve should be styled the Vigil of Vigils, where the waiting is never quite over, but briefly we peer into that other country before we are sent back to the beginning to begin the journey once more. And like Sisyphus, we find that it is enough.
David Rowett (‘mynsterpreost’) is parish priest at Barton-upon-Humber in the Diocese of Lincoln.
O Emmanuel, our king and our lawgiver,
the hope of the nations and their Saviour:
Come and save us, O Lord our God.
The dream of Emmanu-el, or God-with-us is a very powerful one. Depending on the character of the God in question can make the greatest of differences to what you believe is the right or wrong thing to do. The creation myth which begins both the Torah and our Christian Hebrew bible tells of a god who creates the world as an original blessing; the world is created and it is intrinsically good. The creation myth of the Babylonian captors of Israel is a story of the violence of Tiamat the mother god slain by Marduk who spreads her butchered carcass out to create the geography of a world, a world which has been formed both in violence, and in violence against the feminine.
Before we smile too readily at these ancient near-eastern myths, we only have to consider those causes of our own day, who believe God-is-with-us. Osama bin Laden is a man of faith, in such a way as we may prefer him to have no faith at all. The last several United States Presidents have been impotent in the face of present-day Israeli atrocities, because the powerful voting lobby of the evangelical right believes that Israel has the right to that land, and is ethically absolved from how it maintains that right.
The Church of England has, by law, been the established church of the English people. While few would defend this as a meaningful title in public life, it remains the basis of assumptions in rural communities. If the Church of England represents Emmanu-el, God-with-us, whether we are signed up to the faith or not, we are currently witnessing a breach of that generation’s long-held view of that implicit covenant.
For over a thousand years, Emmanu-el meant the rights of the established church personified in the lord bishop, indistinguishable from his secular counterparts. Emmanu-el meant, for village communities, being required to gather each Sunday in churches funded by the landowners, in order to acknowledge that the pecking order of earth was ratified in heaven.
There are few rural communities now where the ancient feudal powers still exercise the same rights of patronage over the parish church their forebears built. Since the Second World War, in many places, these rights have been assumed by people of new money. These people have not been motivated by the noblesse oblige of the landed powers, but have expected the services of the church with little or nothing in return. They have expected power without responsibility.
As feudal estates have receded, with their guarantees of employment and grace and favour accommodation, they have been replaced with the new rural with the aspirations of gentry, but who do not understand the obligations with which that power was balanced in former days.
So, the notion of God-with-us is open. Formerly the Us, whom God was with, was a contact between feudal power and peasant, and each looked after the other. Our medieval churches are littered with memorials to the moneyed. As despicable as this is to the original Jesus vision, at least it is honest.
But, in these days of pastoral restructuring of the church, the voices who oppose closure of a church are not those which have contributed to its life, either by piety or by brute underwriting. They are arid voices which do not give life to anyone, but rather defend their own view of themselves and of the romantic view of the countryside which overlooks the impoverishment which made its economy possible.
We need church leaders who can articulate what it means to have God-with-us which supersedes the basis of much of what has given the Church of England, and before that, the Bishop of Rome, power in the past. It must be rooted in the character of God represented in the infancy narratives, stories from which we cherry-pick for our carol services each year, because we value attendance over conviction.
In short, we need to re-visit the character of the God whom we claim to be with us, re-visit Emmanu-el, and ask whether our practice discloses God’s character, or seeks to shore up a practice whose underlying assumptions are corrupt.
Andrew Spurr is vicar of Evesham, in the diocese of Worcester.
O King of the nations, and their desire,
the cornerstone making both one:
Come and save the human race,
which you fashioned from clay.
What now, late in 2009, might be the desire of the nations?
It should be possible to answer that question, surely. After all, only last week, the nations came together. Or, at least, their leaders did. From the super-powers and the almost-super-powers, and from the tiny island states, diplomats, negotiators, heads of government, all gathered over the last week or so in Copenhagen. Nations with contrasting, even competing, experiences and priorities; nations clinging to what the comforts they now enjoy, nations aspiring to more as they grow into affluence, nations desperately fearful of losing what little they have.
They came seeking a foundation — or to change the metaphor, a cornerstone, something which would hold them together in an accord, an agreed response to the threat of changes to the climate which may alter all our lives, diminish the earth’s abundance, and destroy those who already struggle for survival. If there is a cornerstone, if not entirely neglected, it is as yet scarcely in place. Over the last few days of the conference, reports moved from gloom to hope to gloom again. Since its conclusion, there has been some rewriting of the last grim summaries. At least the meeting took place. At least there were conversations. At least something was written down. At least we are at the beginning of a road. But it is the beginning, I suspect, of a very long road, and the journey may take too long. We are very, very far from being one, even in our fears, let alone in our hopes, or in converting hope into reality.
The old story, the story reflected in today’s antiphon, is that we were fashioned from clay, from the soil, the very earth from which we still draw what sustains our physical life. As we come towards the great festival of the Incarnation, we so often focus on the divine entry into the day-to-day, earthed, ordinariness of what it is to be human. Yet now, we are also aware, as perhaps never before, of a profound disharmony between the story of the earth and its well-being and the actions of the beings who have their life on it and from it. It is, it seems, the clay itself which is in need of salvation, in need of saving from what so many of us, in our particularly voracious way of living, are doing to the soil, the seas, the atmosphere.
‘Peace on the earth’, we will read, and sing, and pray, over the coming days. Perhaps we should be praying instead, ‘peace for the earth’, for the raw material of God’s creation.
Truly, an antiphon for our time.
Canon Jane Freeman is team vicar at East Ham with Upton Park in the diocese of Chelmsford.
O Morning Star,
splendour of light eternal and sun of righteousness:
Come and enlighten those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.
Today’s antiphon addresses Christ as the morning star, the rising sun, the dawn. Whichever translation is used, the image is one of the light of the sun turning the darkness of night into bright day. It echoes the words of Isaiah, who prophesied that ‘the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has the light shined’ (Isaiah 9.2). This light has the power to bring joy as well as justice, clarity as well as re-ordered relationships and peace. This light is intended to transform both individuals and institutions.
The prophet Malachi, in trying to convince the people of Israel of God’s continuing love for them, also speaks of the rising of ‘the sun of righteousness’ (Malachi 4.2), with a beautiful additional phrase made familiar in the final verse of the great carol ‘Hark, the herald-angels sing’: ‘Hail the heav’n-born Prince of Peace! Hail the Sun of Righteousness! Light and life to all he brings, risen with healing in his wings.’ The potentially dazzling light of the sun of righteousness comes not to blind, but to burn out and dissolve and so heal all that wounds or damages people and nations, all that prevents their flourishing and their right relationship with God.
In the New Testament, in the first chapter of the Gospel of John, Jesus Christ is described as the Word, in whom ‘was life, and the life was the light of all people’ (John 1.4). Part of the enlightening action of this light was to reveal the true nature of Jesus as the Son of God and to make clear the possibility for all who believe in him also to become children of God. The light of Christ both enables a new way of being and reveals a new identity, an identity in which we are invited to share in the life of the Divine.
As we prepare ourselves for the coming of Christ, we are encouraged to step out of all the different kinds of shadows there may be in our lives that obscure the life of God in us — the shadows of hurt and disappointment, fading hope and growing despair, sin, loneliness, grief, regret. We are once again reassured of God’s ongoing, never-ending love for us, a love that is strong enough to overcome any kind of darkness.
By stepping into the light we turn our backs on the darkness and on our own ability to deceive and to be deceived, and place ourselves in a position to be shown more of who God is and more of who we are. As we open ourselves more and more to the light, and look more fully into the face of the sun of righteousness, all that is shadow in us is eventually dissolved and ultimately we ourselves become light.
Christina Rees is a member of the General Synod and Chair of Watch (Women and the Church).
O Key of David and sceptre of the House of Israel;
you open and no one can shut;
you shut and no one can open:
Come and lead the prisoners from the prison house,
those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.
The Key of David figures twice in the Bible: once in Isaiah 22, when Eliakim is told that God, ‘will place on his shoulder the key to the house of David; what he opens no one can shut, and what he shuts no one can open;’ and then in Revelation 3 where the Church in Philadelphia is told ‘the words of him who is holy and true, who holds the key of David. … See, I have placed before you an open door that no one can shut.’
Jerusalem and Philadelphia both faced uncertain futures. Each in their own way is challenged neither to be hopeless, nor hope in hopeless things, but to put their trust in God.
Our own society has issues too about the future and hope. We oscillate between what can be an ostrich-like preoccupation with our present prosperity, and apocalyptic angst about the future that we find hard to turn into effective action. One of the reasons no political party seems to cut the mustard at the moment for me is that none of them seems to have a real grasp on giving us a future.
Can the Christian Gospel do it? Can a hope that is ‘steadfast and certain’ not dissolve into other-worldly post-mortem escape on the one hand, or doctrine-driven tyranny on the other, but lead us into a coming of God’s kingdom that is both good news now for all God’s children, and good news that in the end all shall be well?
I think it can. Committed faith in Christ matched with an equal commitment to live in a Christ-like way can release the resources of the past into the passion of the present, and unlock the door of the future. We see it happening all the time in very practical actions by people we know, and when the time is right we see it breaking through and changing society itself.
This, I sense, is such a time. Faith is returning rapidly to the public stage. Let’s make sure it speaks in a way that gives us all back our future.
David Thomson is the suffragan Bishop of Huntingdon in the diocese of Ely.
O Root of Jesse, standing as a sign among the peoples;
before you kings will shut their mouths,
to you the nations will make their prayer:
Come and deliver us, and delay no longer.
As a teenager I helped in coppicing woodland. Even the mightiest trees were felled. But the intention, rather than simply destroying the wood, was to allow the old roots to put out new growth. It wasn’t a replacement of the original trees, but something potentially just as useful. With careful management we had chestnut and hazel for woven fencing, cover for pheasants and even willow for cricket bats.
Isaiah saw the great family tree cut down. The legacy of King Solomon, a magnificent temple crowning the royal city, had been destroyed, and the rulers of the divided kingdom of Israel and Judah were taken captive. Surely nothing could arise from this, yet the prophet saw the survival of the stump as a sign of hope. Isaiah’s vision of what it might produce kept the hope of Israel alive through long generations in spite of conquests by foreign powers. However, rather than wondering about what the possibilities of new growth might be, people may have longed for a return to the old days, with a clone of Jesse’s son who might once more slay the new Goliath and throw out the Philistines again.
The descendant whom the nations would seek was no clone. The man who came, humble and riding on an ass, didn’t fit with the expectations of either the zealots or the temple elite. He neither restored the military power of Jerusalem nor added to the glory of the city’s temple.
But how people long to relive former greatness! There is in Britain today a similar longing to recapture the days of former glory, when London was the capital of an empire which reached every continent and included a quarter of the people of the world. In those days Britain was expected to take a leading role on the world stage and indeed did so. But the mighty tree is no more. It will not grow back as it was, and the coppice needs to be valued for what it can produce today.
The false perception wasn’t helped when the rapidly won victories in the Falkland Islands and in Kuwait lulled the nation into thinking that all that was needed on the foreign stage was a continuation of sabre rattling and gun boat diplomacy. We are now seeing that Bush and Blair only thought they needed to give a final kick to a regime in Iraq that was already beaten, and everyone would rush to congratulate them. The ‘special relationship’ with the USA appealed to Blair’s vanity and bounced us into an expensive illegal war with no plan for securing the peace. He clearly thought it was Britain’s role to act as the major player alongside the USA rather than acting alongside our more cautious and larger neighbours such as Germany and France.
But if governments can learn to move from conquest to co-operation, then the churches need to do the same. The stock of Jesse did not ask for Constantinian triumphalism, crusades, inquisitions and holy wars. This tender shoot announced a kingdom which did not require the trappings of worldly power in order to proclaim his universal message. Churches which appeared as temporal powers in nations and empires are increasingly irrelevant to the lives of many, and the wars between the remaining Christians bring faith into disrepute.
If we are truly to offer what the nations seek, then we need to model ourselves more closely on the shoot from the stock of Jesse, whose mission was to the bruised reed and whose message proclaimed justice for all. We need to be seen as the bearers of that hope, offering new life. ‘Come and deliver us’, we cry this Advent - that we might offer this deliverance to all. He offers us a new creation open to everyone, not a return to the past glory of a few.
Tom Ambrose is a priest living in Cambridge.
O Adonai, and leader of the House of Israel,
who appeared to Moses in the fire of the burning bush
and gave him the law on Sinai:
Come and redeem us with an outstretched arm.
Many years ago when I was still living in Germany, some time in the mid-1970s, I used to go on prison visits with a local priest. I was at that time a bank employee, and these visits seemed to me to balance my life in a useful way.
One of the prison inmates was a man then probably in his late 50s. He was a loner, and though he was always present in the prison’s leisure room when I was there, he never joined the group conversations and kept himself to himself. Eventually I learned from other prisoners that this man was a serial offender, usually convicted of burglaries and other similar offences. However, despite his clear inability to fit into society, he was known never to be violent towards the victims of his crimes.
One day I did manage to get him to talk to me, and I was completely taken aback by his story. Before the Second World War, he had been a Roman Catholic ordinand, but when the war started he felt he should join the German army and did so. From 1941 he was posted to Russia, and apparently was known as a courageous but also a humane soldier (a significant feature, given where he was and who he was fighting for).
In December1943, he and a group of other soldiers were instructed to ‘clean out’ a shed which had been used as a refuge and hiding place by some Jews, who had been found by the SS and had presumably been murdered. As this soldier and his comrades removed the bodies, he saw that one of the refugees had written something on the wall — the single Hebrew word ‘Adonai’. So here, somewhere in Russia, during Advent in 1943, this German soldier was reminded of his theological training, and as he put it to me, the shout of the people yearning for their God amidst this terror reached him through this one Hebrew word written on a barn wall. He was not able to fight any more after that day, and was in fact relieved to be wounded a few days later and, as a result, transported back to Germany.
After the war he was unable to return either to his seminary, or indeed to an ordered life, and he drifted in and out of petty crime. I ended my prison visits a short while later, as I was moving to Ireland, and I have no idea what happened to this man. But I think of him from time to time.
O Adonai has been described as the most Jewish of the O Antiphons, and it reminds us that the people of the law that was handed down on Sinai are the people to whom the Messiah was to come, and that we are also possessors of their heritage and are their brothers and sisters. And it reminds us that the Lord’s outstretched arm reaches through the torments and cruelties of this world and can touch us when we least expect it.
Ferdinand von Prondzynski is President of Dublin City University.
O Wisdom, coming forth from the mouth of the Most High,
reaching from one end to the other mightily,
and sweetly ordering all things:
Come and teach us the way of prudence.
O Wisdom. When God speaks, he speaks wisdom. But what is formed by his mouth is not words, but The Word. God is love, and when he speaks, what he speaks is a person. We usually think of ‘person’ as a human category, but God is much more a person than we ever are. Surely the Platonists were right in this instance at least. We are people because we are made in his image.
This person, who is God’s Wisdom, is the order and the purpose of creation, the strength which fires up super novae, and sends glaciers scraping through granite mountains, and is the desire which kindles the fawn in the deer. And all of this is very poetic and beautiful and moving. Inspiring, even.
Until we get to Jesus of Nazareth, who is Wisdom and shows us the way of prudence. Yes, right. We get to Jesus who is an extraordinary way of showing either of these two virtues. As Kenneth Bailey’s books show (Poet and Peasant: Literary-cultural Approach to the Parables in Luke; Through Middle-Eastern Eyes), he spent most of his public ministry firmly committed to a path guaranteed to exasperate and distress the religious and civil hierarchies. A path which alternately delighted and appalled the crowds, and which was, much of the time, clearly a mystery to his closest followers, never mind his family. The Wisdom of God in person.
And actually I believe he was. Wisdom does not lie in dodging conflict, or trying to escape it. It lies in just how you confront it. Jesus does not confront conflict by blaming others. It is striking how rarely in the Gospels he ever blamed individuals. He blamed that which creates false barriers between people: the mix of closed minds, impossible purity standards and bumptious self satisfaction which has people hiding behind masks which disguise their inner failings, and their inner selves. Faced with individuals, typically he asked for hospitality, or offered forgiveness, without ever seeking an admission of guilt. So Jesus accepted Simon’s hospitality (Luke 7.36ff.). Simon failed to offer Jesus the usual courtesies, and Jesus made no accusation then. Later, he took an opportunity to comment on what actually happened.
Jesus’s very reaction to others sparked more anger and more controversy. In my experience, it still does. When we are hurt, or despised, we very naturally want to hit back, to prove our worth, and to point out the failings in our attacker. To be pulled up short in the enjoyable pursuit of seeing all the failings in the other is painful. Naturally we want to aggrandise our own virtues by contrasting them with their failings. To forgive, and to advocate forgiveness, is generally misunderstood. People think one is condoning the failing, or admitting one’s own guilt.
Naming sins, wrongs done to self or others, is healthy. It always needs to be balanced by an awareness of the humanity of the other and a lively sense of one’s own weaknesses. Otherwise one gets dragged into a spiral of accusation and counter accusation. You don’t even need to believe that Jesus is the wisdom of God to see how pointless that soon becomes.
Jesus avoided tit for tat, dodging it by wit, or evasive answers or silence. He did not do much spelling out of what is and is not the right moral code, and gave his followers few chances of scoring against others. He did not give simple, clear and easy to follow moral codes. He would not make his people into ‘the good guys’ and he would not turn any of the expected figures of hate into the bad guys. On the other hand, he was impossible to turn from what he believed to be true. He would not keep silent and he did not take a path which lead to appeasement. He kept right on speaking the truth. He had no discernable interest in keeping others on board, and less in keeping any faction of the Jewish faith together.
He saw the need of the people, and also their desire for him to be a leader and a ruler of a kind he had no intention of being, and he refused to fulfil it. He took his own chosen and principled path. That is how one acts out the Wisdom of God.
He sparked a huge anger, and a mix of disappointed hopes and unreal expectations. Mere common sense suggested his death, which was facilitated by one of his own followers whom he had failed to keep on board. O Wisdom. He died in agony.
Christian leaders would do well to bear all this in mind. Easy moral codes are not wisdom. Wisdom lies in taking a principled path, which does not blame others, but holds to what is true. Not yielding one’s own agenda, but not heaping blame on those who do not follow it. The only trouble is that this is also the path for all of us, and it leads to various kinds of crucifixion, although it is actually the only path that really works.
Many will rightly comment that the distinction between boldly naming wrong done, and not getting drawn into recrimination, is at best a fine line, and very hard to maintain. But that is the trouble with having a Wisdom which is not words, but a person.
Rosemary Hannah is a historian and writer who lives near Glasgow.
Some years ago I was attending a Church of Ireland service in a country town on Good Friday. The service was long and, for me, without any particular focus. Yes, there was a rather mechanistic reading of the Passion, but the rest of it was just Morning Prayer. The congregation was tiny, my own presence accounted for a double figure percentage. And the theme of the sermon (curiously in my view, given the day that was in it) was ‘the empty cross’. The clergyman was of the view that the use of the crucifix was unscriptural, in that ‘the point of Good Friday was the empty cross at Easter’ (I think I have remembered his phrase precisely).
I remembered all that this year when, on the radio, I heard another Irish Anglican clergyman make a similar point about the crucifix, but he also added a more general comment about the cross: he didn’t like it at all. Not terribly original of course: a number of commentators have argued that the Cross as a symbol may be turning off potential new members of the church, that it may be a rather garish and cruel instrument and may, as some have suggested, ‘carry too much baggage’. This kind of approach was lampooned back in the 1980s by the satirical puppet show on Channel 4 television, Spitting Image; they had the then Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, deciding to drop the Cross as the Christian symbol in favour of the Tambourine.
For me, there is something important about the edginess of the Cross, with the Corpus of Our Lord. Yes, it is dramatic and in-your-face, but maybe that is a welcome antidote to the growing blandness of religion, and in particular of religiosity. Yes, it has ‘baggage’, but then again that’s what Christianity has. The Cross is not supposed to convey an empty message, but a message of hope that has meaning because of what it is set against. It is not a message for a vanilla world.
So even in this Easter season our Cross is not empty. What happened has not been reversed, it has been brought to its full conclusion.
Angels? Supernatural 1.
Woman finds gardener.
Hint: THE gardener,
Creator of heaven and earth.
Mary. He calls her name.
She reaches out to him.
He says no, don’t touch.
He is risen from the dead.
Supernatural 2. Mega supernatural.
I am ascending to my Father.
- o - o - o -
Jesus is dead, laid in the tomb. And God does something utterly different. God brings the corpse back to life and transforms him, not just restoring life but making him different. This is a new creation, similar to but different from a human body, similar in some ways to the angels, but different again.
The Resurrection is not natural. The Resurrection is not normal. God breaks in and breaks all the laws. This is supernature. And it makes no sense in our disenchanted world. In our world, we have left no room for the supernatural. When we find it, we deny it and find all sorts of explanations to make it safe.
I have read all the arguments about the resurrection being about the new life of the early Christian community, or the way the evangelists chose to tell the story – so many attempts to conform to the spirit of the age.
But I don’t want to edit out or play down the supernatural – in my life or in my world or in God’s engagement with that, least of all in the Resurrection. To rationalise the Resurrection is to reduce it, diminish it.
Christ is risen! He is Risen indeed! Really He is. Alleluia!
(And yes, I have been reading Charles Taylor, A Secular Age.)
Ignatius of Loyola, in his Spiritual Exercises, departs from the normal prayer structure for the Exercises-equivalent of Holy Saturday. Rather than pray four or five times as usual, he recommends praying the Passion once at midnight, again on rising, and then spending the rest of the day pondering Christ’s actual death, as well as imagining the loneliness felt by Mary and the disciples.
At first blush, it’s a sensible suggestion: take time to let Jesus’s death sink in. But at second blush, it is striking that Ignatius recommends, in effect, that we not even try to pray — not formally at least — but that we ponder and reflect instead.
Of course, if you’ve spent a week imaginatively meditating on the Passion, trying to stay alongside Jesus in his suffering, then his death does interrupt everything. With Jesus dead, Christian prayer doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Praying to the Father through the Son in the Spirit doesn’t work — unless you anticipate the resurrection.
Just as most of the Church does not celebrate the Eucharist on this day, so it is no surprise that Ignatius counsels against praying on this day. Instead, Ignatius suggests that we let the bottom fall out of our world too, just as it would have done for Mary, for the other faithful women, and for the apostles. He wants us to experience Jesus’s death without anticipating the resurrection. True, he is setting the stage for the next day’s prayer, when we ask to share in Jesus’s own joy at his resurrection, but the reality of Jesus’s death has to be plumbed first to make space for his own exquisite joy.
Some people might not appreciate such a suspension of the truth (of the resurrection) as a spiritual good. How could good come out of pretending not to believe something that you do actually believe? How do you even do that psychologically? But Ignatius is simply asking us to attend to the story as it unfolds, even if the story is familiar. And attending to Jesus’s all too real death is something many of us need to work at, not least to get over our inability to let Jesus be truly human, let alone truly dead. Unless we let him die, we lose out on Jesus’s own joy, his own gratitude, his own amazement, his desire to share his joy.
So if you’re wondering what to do this Holy Saturday, why not spend the whole day imagining that Jesus is dead. Go through the day, doing whatever it is that one does on a Saturday, but do so as if he has not been resurrected. Forget about the ‘not yet’. Go through the day as if his death had been the end of the story. Imagine everything Jesus said and did, imagine the promise of it all, but then also imagine that he was killed for it. But don’t anticipate. Ignore the speculative metaphysics of souls, and let him be utterly dead.
If you must sneak a prayer in, pray to God for some measure of desolation; pray for a real sense of spiritual numbness and darkness; pray for a sense of infinite grief; pray to experience the loss of any ground to prayer — pray even to be unable to pray. And then wait … for the darkness of the Vigil.
Today is a stark day, dominated by the image of a young man tortured to death. It poses us with terrifying options.
It may be that there is no meaning in the universe. That the savage beauty of this earth has no purpose. Human love is as futile as human hate. The suffering made for and by human kind in Rwanda, in Auschwitz, in Guantanamo, will not be blamed or redeemed or transformed. The love and courage of lone voices raised in protest will not be praised and valued. This young man, dying a stone’s throw from the noisy city, is deluded and his cry that God has forsaken him is no more than a fragment of the terrible truth, for there is no God and he was never the beloved son.
There is another option. There is a God, who sustains the whole world. He is a God so hugely bigger than our hearts can truly grasp that he has created a world where suffering and pain is, in one shape or another, the lot of us all. Yet we are not alone in that suffering, for he is in it with us. This same God is here in agony in this young man, suffering just about the worst that human kind can devise. He undertakes this willingly in order to bring about the paradigm transformation. His anguish will bring back purpose. He will give value to the pain of all sufferers by offering them a sea change from victim to health giver. He will transform not just the terrible hurt of the crucifixion, but every other hurt into which he is allowed. In his own way, he will change everything.
He will judge the oppressors and condemn their acts by his very conversion of them from destruction into new birth. He offers to all the opportunity for meaning in every action, calling them a possibility at once joyful and intimidating in its vast scale.
Today is a pivotal day. We stand before the cross to make decisions.
Hope is more terrifying than despair.
When many years ago I stopped being a research mathematician and began to study theology, one of my few regrets was that my new discipline was much poorer than my previous in handling contradictions. For mathematicians to discover a contradiction is a delight; it sends us off in a fresh direction; makes us examine our underlying axioms; leads us to a deeper understanding. By contrast I have found theology sees contradictions as difficulties to be explained away, tests (like the queen in Alice) to prove our ability to place faith above fact, or embarrassments to ignore.
At the heart of the accounts of Holy Week in the Four Gospels lies just such a contradiction. Whilst the common account in Matthew, Mark, and Luke has Jesus sharing the Passover Meal tonight with his disciples, St John has tomorrow’s crucifixion taking place at the time when the Passover lambs are being slaughtered. Even a longstanding vegetarian like me knows that if you are going to eat meat you kill it beforehand, not the day after. I’ve read some bizarre suggestions that maybe for some long lost liturgical reason Israel celebrated a double Passover that year, but mostly, this bare-faced contradiction at the heart of the central narrative of Christianity has been ignored; and by ignoring it theology fails to ask the vital question of what our Gospel writers were doing that led them to offer such irreconcilable narratives.
To Matthew, Mark and Luke this is the Passover meal that inaugurates a new Exodus. The journey will take Jesus and the disciples not through the waters of the Red Sea, but the deep waters of death itself on their way to the Kingdom that Jesus proclaimed as their new Promised Land. Written at a time when Church and Synagogue were finally and irrevocably splitting from each other they want to make the point that God’s new covenant is with the Church, the whole Church and nothing but the Church. It all fits with the theology in which Jesus adds to, and completes, what the Old Testament began.
John is scarcely on the same planet.
The whole of his Gospel to this point has been about what he calls “signs”. Signs are things that point towards Jesus, so that looking in the direction to which they point we see the one who, raised up high on the cross, brings salvation to all who look upon him. In John’s theology the big stories of the Old Testament are themselves no more and no less than earlier signs pointing to the same, single central focus. The great Old Testament covenants, with Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses and David, are (some implicitly, some explicitly) subjected to this overreaching theme — all point to Christ on the cross. What neither the sacrifice of Isaac nor the yearly sacrifice of Passover lambs could achieve is now being accomplished through the sacrifice of God’s own son, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. John’s church is not the sign of a new covenant but the sign of the only covenant, to which all that appeared before was no more than pointing towards.
All that follows, to the end of time, points equally to the only place where salvation is to be found, Christ lifted on a cross. And all church practice: liturgy; ethics; liberating engagement; pastoral ministry stands or falls by whether it lifts up the eyes of the people to the crucified Christ.
In the mathematical world we have learned to live with contradictions such as the perplexing behaviour of light — which sometimes acts as a particle and sometimes as a wave — recognising that each formulation carries an essential part of the whole truth; a truth that our limited imagery cannot fully capture in one form. The Passover story alerts us to the fact that faith contains its own integral contradictions. Explaining, enjoying and learning from them is the way to a deeper and fully balanced faith; a faith that will then be equipped to manage contradictions in moral teaching and ecclesiology as well as in doctrine. And so guard us against the fundamentalisms that are the all too often consequence of pursuing a single logical and consistent system.
There has been a desire amongst many Christians, at least since the time of the Reformation, when the full Gospel story became available in the vernacular, to re-create the Last Supper as faithfully as possible. The intention was to be more faithful to the Lord’s command to ‘do this in remembrance’.
Alongside this was surely a feeling that it must have been wonderful to be in the presence of the Messiah on that night, listening to his words, and receiving the bread and wine over which he had said the blessing.
But if we look at the occasion it appears in many ways to have been a most uncomfortable evening. It opened, in John’s Gospel, with Peter’s refusal to have his feet washed. He almost prevented Jesus from completing this invaluable sign to his Church. Next came the moment, brought to life by Leonardo’s painting, where Jesus announced to his disciples that one of them would betray him. They all look around, wondering who has been accused. That moment was beautifully portrayed for me this year in a children’s passion play. As Jesus began to walk around the table, saying ‘It is the one to whom I give this piece of bread’, one of the disciples leapt up and fled from the table saying ‘I’m not really hungry. Don’t give it to me!’ An uncomfortable moment indeed for all. In their drama, when Jesus gave the bread to Judas there was a visible loosening of tension in the other disciples as if this idea had been going through all their minds. The departure of Judas only made the occasion worse, as everyone was filled with foreboding. Perhaps the party would be broken up in minutes.
Luke’s gospel has another tension: the dispute which broke out among the disciples about which was the greatest. Perhaps it was this rivalry which led to the sign of the washing of feet.
As we look at the way the evening unfolded, we find the disciples so wrapped up in their own personal agenda that they were hardly able to grasp the significance of what was happening. Few of us can ever have attended a dinner party among friends which actually turned out to be so difficult.
Their dispute, the anxiety not to be found in the wrong, Peter’s protestations and denials all add to make this a most painful but memorable evening. Clearly this memory of the disciples’ selfishness and lack of care stayed with them. Along with it was no doubt a profound regret that in Jesus’ hour of need they had not been able to rise selflessly to the occasion and give him their support.
Certainly, in our remembrance of the Last Supper, we would not wish to recreate the feelings which were around then. Fortunately, from the very first the Christian Church has not sought to replicate that Supper. Our holy day is Sunday, not Thursday. It is the day the witnesses to the resurrection found that the risen Christ came to them, offering from the first Easter Day the opportunity of forgiveness and a vision of their life and communion together.
They had been waiting for him. He promised so much. And he arrived, waving to those who greeted him so enthusiastically (especially the photographers and the press), and rode the beast through the great city. Some had got ahead of themselves: they were already disenchanted, already crying ‘crucify’ — or at least ‘get the bankers!’ — but for most, the hope was there, the hope of a saviour, come at a time when the old ways, the old certainties, could no longer be sustained. Surely, with his coming there would be the promise of restoration: we would again feel comfortable with ourselves, assured that our lives would again be blessed and fruitful.
Well, so much for last week’s G20, and the arrival of Barack Obama. This week, of course, it’s a different story, a different arrival. The expected Messiah comes on a donkey, and it takes a while for the mood of the crowd to change. But the fearfulness with which we seem to live because of the global economic downturn, and the hopes invested in the meeting of world leaders last week, above all in the new US President, provided a strange parallel to what might have been the mood of an expectant, fearful, hopeful Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.
Will we be as disappointed as those Jerusalem crowds in the outcome of last week’s deliberations? Will we turn on the politicians, the people in whom we invested those hopes, and demand reparation — not perhaps their lives, but at least their seats and their expenses, as compensation for not setting all right, not returning us to the ever-increasing affluence to which most westerners and some in the developing world have become accustomed?
In some churches, when the passion narrative was read last Sunday, the congregation will have given voice to the bystanders, the crowd. We, the gathered company, are asked to see ourselves as the fickle ones, now enthusiastic, now hopeful for the wrong things, now condemnatory. And if we are the crowd on Palm Sunday, so perhaps we should, as the spectators of the G20, ask what responsibility we have, what part we play in bringing ourselves, our economy, our environment to its current state — and ask ourselves too, just what our Easter hope is, this 2009.
In the time before America became part of me, while I was still alive to its idiosyncrasies, I would marvel at its culture of memorial. The trail of all of our shared history marks places by events or the people that shaped them. In Europe this has mostly been the prerogative of royal houses, and it is part of the founding character of the United States that anyone’s life can be commemorated. I used to like walking over a crossroads named after an infantryman or a schoolteacher, the subtext was that people of all stations in life build our quality of life, not just those of high social rank, and so it had more of a chance of remembering talent or virtue than most of the royal or aristocratic memorabilia back in England.
But the relentlessness of it would chafe. You couldn’t just drive on an interstate in New York, it had to be the Governor Thomas Dewey Freeway, you landed at John Wayne airport on Orange County and even the swings and slides in my local park would forever immortalise Hiram J Hackenbacker (or whoever’s) whose playground it would become. At worst, you could not pray in the National Cathedral in Washington DC without considering the family names of benefactors etched in huge serif upper case stone letters, a perpetual obscenity which violates the first rule of religious philanthropy: that you are only giving back to God what is God’s in the first place.
When you consider the high reliance America’s public sector has on private philanthropy you have to ask why this arrangement is so dependable? Any dime-store psychologist will tell you that it is about the need for significance and about the fear of death and oblivion. It is a way of making sure that you have not been overlooked, it is a way of buying good memory, it is a way of immortalising your name, just in case God doesn’t deliver. It is the final testimony to the supremacy of the individual, there is no common achievement, no civic good.
It is also driven by fear, the fear of being nothing, the fear of being forgotten.
Today we rehearse a story whose power lies in living where this fear has no power. It is not a story without fear or despair. It is the sense of loss, betrayal and abandonment that makes it an heroic story. But the events of Holy Week have at its centre a man who is not driven by the fear of death. As difficult as the journey becomes, there is an underlying persistence to the end. Jesus may be the central figure in the Holy Week story, but it is not about him, he points to something beyond himself, his words and acts are testimony to God’s purpose, not his immortality. He walks towards death as if its horrors were a mirage.
We can’t begin to engage with this imaginatively unless we can conceive what it would be like to live as if our deaths were behind us. Imagine if your death were not somewhere in the future, but in the past. Think of what could be set aside.
Concerns about status, rivalry, family feud, affronts to dignity, seeking justice for a wrong done, needing to be noticed, given our proper regard, even the need to be memorialised. All these things would melt away along with all their imperatives, that intensity, because they are driven by the fear of death. With our deaths behind us, all these melt away and look trivial, even frivolous.
The Last Supper is not Jesus’s attempt at memorial, it is framing his death in a way that invites his followers to emulate, to live as if their deaths are behind us and mortality an illusion. This is the power we see unfolded in Holy Week.
It is fulfilled after Easter Day. The resurrection stories in Christian sacred texts are about a man walking among his friends whose death is behind him. He is walking a new life. He doesn’t go back to Herod or Pilate or the high priest Caiaphas or Judas Iscariot for revenge, or even vindication. He returns to the life-enhancing business of meals with friends, and his presence a testimony to their never having to fear for themselves, an invitation to put the fear of death behind them.
Paradoxically, this life becomes one of the most remembered in history, but the power of its message remains confined, hidden even from many of his followers, and seen only by those with eyes to see.
So we rehearse the final days of a man walking towards his death, surrounded by the wreckage of a world financial system, driven by a few who are compelled to acquire, profit, and rob in the futile cause of being significant, and trying to stay their mortality. This week, the way ahead is in their midst.
For all of its beauty and joy, this world is founded on pain and loss. Darwin is not a challenge to Christian belief because he shows how species arise over time (rather than being created at one fixed point) but because he makes it impossible to imagine a time before death and pain entered the world. They have been the constant companions of creation, in all their nastiest forms. Even creationists cannot believe that Adam brought death into the world.
Whatever the theological problems this raises, the solution does not include running away. The Israelites in the desert tried that, and died. The cure they were offered was staring at the very thing they feared. They were to stare hard at the serpent death which terrified them so, according to Rabbi Arthur Waskow and Rabbi Phyllis Berman in Red Cow, Red Blood, Red Dye: Staring Death & Life in the Face.
For Christians this becomes even more poignant. For us it is Christ who becomes the serpent on a pole. Looking at him, we see what horrifies us; agonising suffering and bloody death. It is easy, with practise, to become complacent about it, seeing new life springing from this agony. We do not serve our God well by doing so.
The serpent in the wilderness was offered to allow the people of God to face their terrors. They looked into the pit of the image of death. Christ offers us the image of our worst imaginings, and of all the suffering of nature. Every meadow pipit pushed out by the baby cuckoo, every caterpillar split open by the parasitic wasp who has eaten though it, each is summoned up in the image of the creator of them dragging out a slow death from suffocation. Lifted up so, he draws all to him.
Somewhere in this, I feel, lies something of a solution. It is far from an intellectually satisfying solution. Yet it is played out again and again. Suffering can demean and destroy, and yet on occasion individuals can transcend themselves through it. These last months have seen the suffering of the Cameron family and of Jade Goody. The circumstances are totally different, yet, yet… The extraordinarily moving exchange in the Commons between two bereaved fathers, both knowing the constant anxiety of having a child with a life-limiting disease was a moment of reality in the too-often artificial rhetoric of that cold institution. Jade Goody’s decision not to hide her slow descent to death has opened up conversations about facing death over the whole country.
I am not speaking of the general need to address urgent problems, true as it is that we must. There are many issues on which we are out of time, and running faster will not serve us. Unpleasant truths about the thoughts of those who are our co-religionists. Painful realisations about the financial state of many of our congregations. Nasty facts about the age structure of those congregations, and just why they are so structured. Not to mention the now fast-ticking bomb of ecological disaster.
All this is true and urgent, but it is only a weak reflection of the story of the bronze serpent and the man on the cross. That promise is about facing the terror of pain and death in the word, and being blessed in the facing of it. That story underlies all the other terrors we need to deal with, and if we do not face it, we cannot face them. We need to turn and face that serpent because only by looking steadily on its face can we hope to gain healing for our other ills.
According to the official Vatican newspaper, the washing machine has done more to liberate women than anything else in the 20th century. One has to ask where the Vatican gets the information on which to base this kind of conclusion. This is particularly necessary in the light of the public admission that a failure to read the news meant that the Pope committed a major blunder in readmitting to communion someone who denied the Holocaust, Richard Williamson. At least the Pope responded on this occasion to the worldwide outrage which his action had caused.
No such response has come from the Roman Catholic Church to the story that a nine year old girl has been excommunicated. The Brazilian child had been abused for years by her stepfather. She went to hospital to investigate a pain and was found to be four months pregnant, carrying twins. Fearing for her life, doctors gave her an abortion. The response of Cardinal Giovanni Batista Re, who heads the Pontifical Commission for Latin America, was that the twins had a right to life and that the mother and those involved in the abortion should be excommunicated. The Church said nothing about the man who raped the girl.
Punishing a nine year old child in this way when she needs all the love and support the Church can give is barbaric. Brazilian authorities, in a country which only allows abortion in exceptional circumstances, had made the reasonable judgement that this case was one in which the mother’s life was the prime concern: it is likely that neither mother nor the unborn children would have survived if the pregnancy had gone much further. But the Church gives the impression that the men in charge will not engage seriously with women’s issues. They imagine that they want washing machines, rather than protection from unwanted pregnancy. They ignore the fact that many people in the world still do not have access to safe water for drinking or washing, and that it is generally supposed that women will be responsible for fetching the water from a contaminated source when there isn’t a clean piped supply. For such people there are many more things that could make life easier than having a washing machine. It is only when there is a power supply and piped water that the machine is usable at all. But the availability of safe contraception requires no great infrastructure to be in place before it can benefit every woman on the planet who needs it. Protection from unwanted pregnancy and from AIDS are part of a woman’s right to life. In a world where men still take advantage of women physically and emotionally it is wrong that the Church seeks to deny them any defence. Rape is a moment’s madness for the man, but can have lifelong consequences for the woman. Requiring women to live with the consequences of being violated is wrong. The support that they need after such an attack should include the ‘morning after’ pill or other means of ensuring that the woman is not required to bear the child of the man who raped her.
Unfortunately in the Roman Catholic Church the fact that the rules are made only by unmarried men means that issues are never examined from a woman’s point of view. It has been necessary for people to formulate a deliberate feminist theology just to attempt the redress centuries of imbalance. If, in the light of the controversy of Richard Williamson the Vatican is seriously interested in looking at the internet to discover world opinion, it might be helpful if some serious attention were paid to women’s issues. It would be good to start with examining why a nine year old child can be excommunicated rather than supported by the Church after being raped.
I have been thinking about money. First, a few snapshots:
February’s General Synod had two goes at the Financial Crisis. I was impressed that the debate wasn’t defensive about the impact on the church, but speaker after speaker said that the church needs to stand alongside those who are affected by debt and repossession, and we heard about some good projects.
Then last week, I was at the Archbishops’ Council’s Finance Committee. It was the most interesting and lively Finance Committee I have been to. It was as if the financial crisis had shaken things up and created a new freedom. Someone said, ‘does this mean that we can do things differently now?’ It left me hopeful that good things will emerge from these difficult times.
Last year, one of my churches closed for worship and began the process of merging with a neighbouring parish. The crisis was triggered by money worries, though the causes went deeper. The PCC made its decision prayerfully and responsibly. It was a huge achievement.
I am working temporarily with another pair of parishes, and people are complaining about the parish share. There is a huge amount of ignorance about the purpose of the parish share. Telling them it contributes towards the cost of ministry doesn’t help much, as the benefice has been vacant for over three years, and they think the money would be better spent on maintenance for crumbling buildings.
Each deanery in our diocese is developing a deanery plan. One angry response criticises the process for being driven by money rather than by God’s will. If we pray and do what God wants, we will not lack resources, the critic says. Human, secular ways of planning will fail.
None of these images will surprise you — they are all familiar expressions of the Church’s sometimes uneasy relationship with money.
Just a few thoughts — and I am sure you will offer more:
Money is a language. God will speak to us in whatever language we are able to listen. If there is a crisis with money, what is God saying? When I consider the Financial Crisis on a theological level (and of course it can and must be read on other levels as well), I hear a condemnation of our society’s love of money and insatiable appetites that must be satisfied now. We do need to repent and rebuild our infrastructure on better values.
Money also asks questions of the church about its priorities. In a crisis, money tells us that we can’t do what we thought we wanted to do, and maybe we need to go back to think and pray about what it is that we are called to do in this place, at this time. It may be that we need to do less of something that is good in order to do another thing that is better. It may be that we need to close some churches to make space for fresh expressions. Sometimes we need the challenge that money poses to look again at who we are and what God wants of us. Mostly what I see in the church, particularly at local level, is people avoiding those questions. There is such fear.
But the wrestling is important. When we allow ourselves and our churches to be challenged, I think we shall emerge with new values, new understanding and new vision. We should welcome the opportunities to wrestle with plans that explore our relationships with money and weigh our priorities in a prayerful way. Money in itself is not evil, but we do need to bring it before God.
This week saw the tenth anniversary of the landmark report into the death of Stephen Lawrence. Stephen, a young black man, died at the hands of racist thugs on a London street and the Metropolitan Police at the time failed to investigate the crime properly. To mark the occasion some 300 or so of us, including Stephen’s mother, Doreen Lawrence (a tireless campaigner), three cabinet ministers (Home Secretary, Justice Secretary, Communities Secretary) and senior police officers and officials spent the day conferring on the interaction of police and race in Britain. If you want news reports or copies of the politicians’ speeches you can Google them, but it seems to me there were two unresolved tensions underpinning the event worthy of TA reflection.
The first is that secular society finds it hard to manage the tension between acknowledging achievement and recognising that where we have got to is still far from good enough. Ministers and Chief Constables rightly drew to our attention that the majority of the report’s recommendations have been accepted and implemented; for example there are many more black and minority ethnic police in Britain than when Stephen was killed and open racism is much harder to find among serving officers. By contrast comments from the floor suggested that the scarcity of BME faces among the senior ranks of the 43 constabularies and the huge disproportionality in “stop and search” practices means that little has changed in the underlying culture of British policing. One sounded complacent, the other incapable of recognising as progress anything less than total success. I was left feeling that what was missing was the ability to bring together repentance and thanksgiving, without denying the force of either, that is a hallmark of Christian liturgy. My impression was confirmed by the final speaker of the day, an evangelical pastor, who did hold the two together. Do the churches have something to offer here? If so, how can we make it accessible?
The second tension was between those promoting the “single equality” route to engaging with diversity and the advocates for separate treatment of distinctive strands. Here I am firmly in the former camp. I understand the concerns that those working primarily on race and racism express, that as soon as race is linked to something else the attention moves over to the something else and race gets marginalised. Against this however are a number of telling arguments. Individuals do not engage with the world separately as black, or muslim or female or gay or disabled or young, depending on the particular moment and cause. We always engage with our whole identity, and with all the aspects of that identity that make us diverse beings. The cutting edge of equality and diversity work lies in the interplay between the strands. Being black and female, I am sure, is not simply an amalgam of being black and being a woman; engagements that separate gender from ethnicity treat black women poorly. The same applies, I suspect, to being gay and muslim or young and disabled. For me as a Christian from the Anglican tradition it’s particularly important that the church operates a single equalities methodology lest we end up using different standards, even opposed standards, by which to engage with different aspects of diversity.
Stephen Lawrence had the ambition and the capacity to be an architect; nobody knows what buildings he would have erected had he enjoyed a full span of life. Instead his monument is the sea change in equality and diversity work that his murder and the subsequent enquiry provoked. It’s an edifice that is still very much “under construction”.
Today many of us will have some ashes smudged on our heads, reminding us that we are going to die, and asking each one of us to turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ. How should you react? How should you react if someone were to say to you that you’re going to be turned to ashes, that you’re all going to die? And why does thinking about your eventual death help you to turn away from sin? I mean, if you are going to die, perhaps you should get some serious sinning under your belt, or maybe even some serious sinning below your belt!
So why the stress on death? Why does the Church want to remind you that you’re going to die? Isn’t the Church supposed to be spreading good news, emphasising new life in Christ, emphasising eternal life? Why death?
The simple answer is that Jesus emphasised it again and again. You’ll remember the saying, ‘If anyone saves his life, he will lose it; but anyone who loses his life for my sake will save it’. Or again, ‘If people try to make their life secure, they will lose it; but those who lose their life will keep it.’ Or, ‘Those who love their life will lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.’ Our baptismal liturgy echoes much the same theme: in baptism we literally drown and are reborn — we die to sin and come to real life. And Jesus’ own life is very much the story of someone who had to let go of his own life for others. And for that reason, we are told, God raised him to new life. Had he clung to life, we wouldn’t be here today.
Given the radical centrality of this death-life connection, it’s a bit odd that Christians have kind of sidelined death — or at least they have sidelined it theologically — for several thousand years. Death, they said, was a result of sin, original sin. Prior to Adam’s and Eve’s sin, there apparently was no death. Prior to Adam’s and Eve’s sin, we’re told, no one died, no one had deadly diseases, no one hurt themselves when they fell off cliffs or high trees; no one was devoured by lions; deadly cancer didn’t exist; birth defects didn’t exist. Death only came into the world when sin entered the world — a teaching based not so much on Genesis, which is ambiguous on this point, but on Romans 5, which could (and probably should) be seen as St Paul’s using physical death as a symbol for spiritual, even eternal, death.
I must say that I took such an approach myself for quite a few years. I thought to myself that, if death were an evil (and it does seem pretty nasty), then God couldn’t be the cause of it. After all, God wouldn’t, God couldn’t, create anything that wasn’t good; therefore death couldn’t possibly be part of God’s original plan; it couldn’t be part of God’s original creation. Someone else must be to blame.
But that’s too easy. Human beings have always been finite, which is to say we are and never have been in-finite: we’re not and we’ve never been God. No doubt death has a lot to do with sin, with the evil we do to ourselves and to one another; and it is probably the perfect symbol for understanding what sin does to us; but death is an inherent part of our being finite creatures. Death is and always has been natural — as natural as living. If you’re biological, you will die. Physical death is not a punishment in and of itself. And our finitude, our being finite beings — this is a universal and good aspect of all of creation: it’s not an evil to be explained away. We don’t need to make excuses for God: God created a finite universe.
The thing is, because we wrote off death as something evil, we rarely bothered to ask whether there is anything good in death. We rarely asked why God made a universe where all living things inevitably die, where even non-living things — all of them — inevitably lose the battle against entropy and die out too. But what if death cannot be written off? If God created death, as it were, shouldn’t we be asking why? Could it be that, in being created in the image and likeness of God, our living and our dying are both — somehow — in the image and likeness of God? Could it be that there is something about our having to face death that reveals something about God?
If, like me, you’ve had family members who have died recently, then these questions are not just theoretical questions, but exquisitely painful questions, especially as you watch death slowly overtake the body of a loved one, as you wrestle with the God who created the universe, knowing full-well that people would invariably die — and die often in the most horrendous and painful circumstances, leaving the survivors to experience the soul-numbing pain of separation.
And yet Jesus realised that clinging on to life is futile: ‘If anyone tries to make his life secure, he will lose it; but those who lose their life will keep it.’
This is a huge paradox, but Jesus is surely right. If you consider your own death, as you are asked to do today, you can either descend into moroseness (or a whole range of neuroses) or you can discover an unusual kind of freedom. If we’re all going to die anyway, then perhaps nothing has any real meaning at all. That’s certainly one way of looking at things. But if we are going to die anyway, then we ultimately have nothing to lose: we can live life to the full, we can take real risks, we can live radically, love radically, risk courageously: you can even dare to love your enemy. And if that’s true for each of us, just imagine what a community of people who thought that way could accomplish.
All of this cuts to the very heart of Jesus’s teaching: God is so trustworthy that you can choose to do the right thing, you can dare to love sacrificially; because, in the end, you’re going to have to trust God anyway: death ensures that. And Jesus’s own death and resurrection — these are God’s way of assuring us that such trust is not in vain.
There is this strange sense that we do have to let go of life, let go of our fear of losing life, in order to live life. And that’s not just a nice, theoretical, paradoxical sort of maxim. No, we actually have to do it. We have to let go of life physically. I’m well in my fifties now, and I can already feel it happening bit by bit. We’re talking about real death here. We have to live life facing death. In the face of death, we discover that we can’t cause ourselves to continue to exist. We face the fact that we can’t save ourselves. We realise that we are creatures — finite creatures — not gods: we can’t even claim our own lives as our own. If we are to live again, as Christians hope and believe, then such a life is not something we can give to ourselves.
And what does this reveal about God? Well, it reveals that all love, even or especially divine love, involves a dying to self; it involves a giving of self. Love demands that we not cling to life and hoard it as some possession. In the Trinity, the Father gives of his very own life to the Son. The Father does not cling to life; instead he shares it completely. And the Son does not cling to his equality with God, but empties himself, as we can read in Philippians 2.5, and offers his life, his Spirit, back to the Father. And this shared Spirit is offered to us, not as something we can own, but only as something we can share. And that emptying, that embracing of death, even death on a cross, that sharing of life itself — that is the Christian image of the costliness of love: not just for Jesus, but for the Father as well … the Father who shares infinitely in the pain of his Son’s having to let go of life, and yet the Father who also knows that Jesus’s faith was well-placed, that God indeed is in fact ultimately trustworthy, that death is not the final word. Love is the final word.
As I alluded to earlier, I realise that some of us have faced and are facing the deaths of loved ones. No doubt you are already anticipating the pain of loss: Do you dare love him or her so much as she dies? Do you dare believe that love makes sense in the face of death? If not, then nothing would make any sense at all. Nothing would matter in the end. But we know that things matter, because we do love, and we choose love. That’s the choice. That’s what Jesus was asking us to do: choose life, choose love, choose God. And the power of that radical choice comes to the fore when we confront death, as we do symbolically in the ceremony of the sprinkling of ashes.
The overnight snow has cleared, and I am sitting in the study, looking out on the rather scruffy greenery of the garden. As with many clergy houses, the surrounding garden is unusually large for the locality. It’s much admired by visitors, especially congregation members, not because it is in any sense a model of horticultural achievement but just because it is a green space. And a green space is defined as good, to be enjoyed, a source of spiritual solace.
Talking recently with someone who has moved from working in the inner city to a parish in the depths of rural Essex, we fell to wondering about the default position which gives a spiritual value to the ‘natural’ world, but not to that which is evidently made by human hands, or indeed, by machines designed by human brains. Go into a religious bookshop, and look at the shelves of popular devotional material: most will have covers which show flowers, sky, mountains, woods, sea, even deserts. Any human beings shown will be almost certainly be in rural settings, whether the domesticity of the English countryside or something wilder and apparently more challenging. A very few might be consciously grittier in their approach: urban spirituality, talking of God in the city, is rough, tough stuff, edgy, about stories of poverty and survival.
Intentionally or not, the visual code being used implies that the natural world is of God, and good, offering us an unmediated access to the divine, and that what is the product of human activity is and does none of these things. This of course ignores the fact that so much of the landscape in which we operate is shaped by human intervention: very little certainly of the English countryside is ‘natural’, a wilderness unspoiled by people’s demands upon it. More importantly for my purposes, working in an urban environment, is the implicit message that houses, roads, factories, shops, bridges, railways are always to be seen as second-rate in the spirituality stakes. And, by extension, the people of the city need to get into the green world of big skies and empty spaces, because there they can pray, reflect, contemplate, in ways which are otherwise closed to them.
Perhaps this is part of a peculiarly English cultural obsession with the countryside: just as, if you make sufficient money (or so it was in the past, when people did make money), you move to the country, whether to a stately home or a comfortable bungalow, so if you are spiritually successful, you seek out the fields, the forests, the mountains. But the Christian story famously begins in a garden and ends in a city, and yet we constantly hark back to Eden rather than look forward to Jerusalem. Why are we so unwilling to explore a sense of God amongst the cars, the bricks, the concrete, the bus stops, and the busyness? Why do we not honour as God-given the human creativity which gives us the North London Outfall Sewer, the exuberant decoration of late 19th century terraced housing, the entertainment of one of our local covered markets? And why, when we do try to do it, is the attempt so often disastrous? I recall with pain, many years ago, singing ‘God of concrete, God of steel…’
I can’t answer the questions, but I’m off to look for signs of the Kingdom on the London Underground.
Some years ago, some villagers in my parish, faced with the closure of their small church, rallied and organised themselves to see what could be done to make it viable. A retired civil servant listed the various tasks which he had arranged to be done, and he had achieved a great deal. He said that the practical tasks were within his ability but he couldn’t help with discussions about the nature of the universe or of God. I was taken aback by his view that our primary task was to conduct philosophical discussions, like early twentieth century French philosophers, and that anyone would want to join a church where this was being done!
The nature of God as a philosophical problem has never really engaged me, it belongs to the world of crosswords or sudoku. I appreciate the skill these things take, but I really don’t see the point. I can say that God has these qualities, say green eyes, and someone can say God has brown eyes. At the end of the day, so what? Who cares?
Now if I say that my green-eyed God revealed to my green-eyed people that the land you are standing on was given to us from the dawn of time, suddenly it matters. If I go on to say that you can remain on this land we’ve been given, but you won’t have the same employment opportunities, or your children won’t have the same life-chances as green-eyed people, it matters even more. You don’t have to go far with this idea before you begin to see resonances in nineteenth-century plantations in the deep south of the United States, twentieth-century unrest in Northern Ireland, and the ongoing wound which is Israel/Palestine. The list goes on and throughout history that engaging God in the cause of our tribal identity not only diminishes God, but gives us leave to commit all sorts of acts in the name of our tribal God.
If we believe we act in the name of the purposes of our God, then anything which opposes us is heresy. It might not make a difference if we have no power to act on what we believe other people to be. When Hitler wrote Mein Kampf, he described Jews as a disease, as germs. The idea remained for a few years, until he had the power to do what you do with disease or germs, which is eradicate them. If we feel our God is not acting quickly enough to eliminate those who believe heresy, or other religion, then if we have the power, we might help things along a bit and begin to try to eradicate these people. If the weapons we have are powerful enough, we may even eradicate ourselves in the process, but if we believe we are going to heaven, then we might go ahead anyway.
Jesus taught his disciples to pray ‘Our Father’, which implicitly identifies a shared God, a God of all. To see God in the face of your enemy is a much more difficult task than it is to simply write her/him off. To share God with your enemy means that you may have to acknowledge your kinship with someone whom you might find it easier to condemn. It may be that some of the evil characteristics your enemy has may also be in your own soul, but it is easier to put them out on someone else. To begin on the journey of understanding the God of everyone, we have to begin by seeing why we are compelled to make our enemy less human than us. This may be through fear of what lies within each of us. In other words, the path to reconciliation may begin with self-knowledge, of owning up to the darker characteristics of ourselves and our tribe.
Two months ago I was in a group of professionals involved in my community. I asked the question why our work hurt so much? It was the policeman who answered by saying that, to do his job properly, when he puts a prisoner in a cell, he has to understand that if his own life had been just slightly different, he could be that prisoner. He said he has to see himself in the face of the other. I had a similar experience a week or so later when I caught one of our heroin addicts trying to force a money box in church. I didn’t have to think for long to see how my life could have ended up like his.
So it matters very much what we believe God to be like. At worst, it can send us on holy war, whatever our religion; at best it can lead us into a path of self-discovery, with the possibility of learning that we all might be more alike than we are different, and all children of the same Spirit of Life.
I recently attended a discussion on biblical inerrancy. More precisely, the gathering in question consisted of a number of people who hold firm to the view that every part of the Bible is a literal and accurate historical document, containing teaching that cannot be questioned, and some other people whose views varied from those who valued the Bible as a holy scripture without buying into the idea of the book as a literal record of all it contained, to those who didn’t think much of it at all.
But actually no, this is not going to be a post about inerrancy or the little battles between the fundamentalists and the rest. My point here is a different one. During the conversations (or maybe I should say declarations, there wasn’t much give and take) every so often someone would quote from the Bible. And what struck me was that people were quoting from different versions and translations, some of which were familiar to me and some of which definitely were not. One person used the following quote: ‘Those who want to come with me must say no to the things they want’. I guessed that this must be from Matthew 16, but the particular form of words was entirely new to me. By googling it later I discovered that it was from a version called ‘God’s Word’, which I suspect is a paraphrase rather than a translation.
Whatever views we may have on the relative merits of this or that version of the Bible, what strikes me is that we no longer have a common language for scripture. It is not just that we have our own preferences in terms of the style and language of different translations, we also have versions that base themselves on a particular theological outlook that has helped to fashion the text (such as the New International Version).
When I was growing up there was only one Bible I would come across — the Authorised Version. At that time the New English Bible had made an appearance, but (at least in the circles I moved in) it was not normal to see it used in worship; it was more a study aid. And so my generation of young people had a significant fund of biblical passages which we could quote easily from memory.
Nowadays that is not so. Clearly part of the reason is that our society has a much more tenuous relationship with organised religion than it did back then. But I suspect that scripture is something less direct for us because, when we hear it, it can take any number of quite different forms. For a while I had begun to think that, perhaps, the New Revised Standard Version might become the dominant Bible, but I suspect this is not happening, and if I am honest, I have to admit that I am going off it somewhat; it, too, has too much of an agenda.
Maybe I am being nostalgic about something that had to come to an end anyway and that cannot be restored. But at least part of me regrets that we have lost the idea of scripture as a common property that is not just somewhere in the background but that is part of us and is, in large passages, remembered by us. I think we have lost something.
It took my daughter, who tells me she no longer believes in God, to pick up on the unthinking and unchristian words coming out of my mouth. I was deploring the death of ‘innocent civilians’ in Gaza. Of what possible relevance was their innocence to the value of their life? she enquired. How many in that literally bloody mess could possibly refrain from hatred of Israel, and the desire to break its iron grip? How many who were offered the chance to strike at Israel would resist the temptation, and how could peace ever be reached while we took this into consideration. Guilt and innocence are too often mere matters of chance in such a situation.
And she is right. The sight of children killed by adults is an outrage and a horror. That does not mean that there are clear divisions into guilty and innocent. The secular world likes the idea that some are guilty, some innocent, and it has responded to the outrage of Gaza with a concept of ‘proportionality’. Gaza is wrong because it is disproportionate. A disproportionate number of the innocent are suffering. No Christian believes themselves innocent. Each believes they must offer unconditional forgiveness to those who injure them, that they must forgive and rebuild relationships of all kinds on the knowledge of this guilt in themselves and others. Our faith offers a way out of conflict by accepting pain and allowing it to die with us, or rather to die in our God. We are committed to a path where we suffer and forgive, and leave justice to God. There is no proportionality in such a path. There is no proportionality in God’s love for us, either.
Proportionality ought to be a taboo word to those whose founder roundly condemned seeking an eye for an eye. Proportionality is another word for a childish desire for ‘tit for tat’. I am liable be told that this is high minded nonsense, and that in international situations we must lay to one side our faith and our ideals, and be practical. I make two answers.
The first is that ‘proportionality’ is doomed to failure. While extremists on either side can derail any possible peace process by a single act of outrageous violence, which is liable to create a proportionate response, there can never be peace. Peace can come only when one side, or better, both sides, can swallow outrage and not react to it.
The second, I make in the words of President Obama, in his inauguration speech. ‘We reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals.’ He is right. If our ideals are true, and if our faith is right, we cannot expect any other path to succeed. We Christians have to believe, and I write ‘have to’ advisedly, that Jesus’s core teaching is right for us, and for everybody. If this is God’s world, where we are to work his will, no other path will arrive at his destination. The only safety lies in our being prepared to offer his advice to others, and to live it ourselves.
Baroness Vadera was asked whether she thought there were any ‘green shoots’ in the economy; a phrase which effectively shot Norman Lamont during the last economic recession. Well, Lamont had seen signs of hope, and the Baroness gave a clear example of positive news, even on a day when the job losses were huge.
We cannot live without hope, and the very fact of life itself is proof of that. The life we have on earth is not just bound to repeat the past, and run down and decay, deteriorating from an original perfection. Rather, new life emerges, new life evolves, and possibilities arise which the past could never have foreseen.
For the Christian, this hope is exemplified in the recognition that in Christ there is a new creation. What emerged from the shameful death of Jesus Christ on the cross was unimaginable, even to people who might have professed a belief in a final resurrection. Belief in the resurrection of Jesus did provoke outrage. Many people, including St Paul himself before his conversion, were filled with fury at the claims of Jesus’s former disciples, and both James and Stephen were put to death. But those who continued to live in hope triumphed in spite of the odds against them. In the Easter season we sing ‘Now the green blade riseth from the buried grain’. We are people who believe in green shoots.
So, as a Christian, I will see signs of hope even in the present situation. First, and most importantly, house prices are readjusting to the level at which ordinary people might reasonably expect to be able to buy a home. It may not look like an investment, it may not yield great profits, but it will be a place for people to call their own. Too many people have been shut out of the housing market for too long by inflated prices and by the greed of buy to let landlords who have taken so many properties at the lower end of the market out of the reach of first time buyers.
Next, we shall all have to learn to spend just what we earn. For home owners this has been difficult. There has been the temptation to finance large items by re-mortgaging homes which have appeared to be rising in price, and having unaffordable treats on the back of an unsustainable bubble of debt. Instead of re-mortgaging for the holiday, the car, the new kitchen. people will need to learn to make their demands more reasonable, and cut the new suit according to the cloth in hand.
The banks and investment bankers have taken a battering. We have seen that the emperor had no clothes. The rich were creaming off not only their profits, but helping themselves to money which in the end did not exist. The result of this exposure may be a society less driven by greed, and one which sees the value of work rather than gambling huge sums and rewarding the lucky. Perhaps people will choose careers on the basis of the good that they will do rather than on just the money which might come flooding in. At one level the result of all this is a recession. The estate agent, the holiday company and the kitchen fitters will see a reduction in their business that may well be permanent. The car manufacturers are already feeling the pinch. In sectors of the economy in which much of the spending has been supported by large scale re-mortgaging there may never be a return to the levels of activity which we saw until eighteen months ago when the credit crunch hit first the U.S.A. and then the rest of the world. On top of this has been the problem that we have wanted cheap goods, particularly clothing and electronic goods. Once, as in the proud days when Marks and Spencer’s sold home produced clothing, we paid a fair price and the producers received a living wage. But now the producers are unseen, their employment conditions are questionable, and we import with little to offer in return apart from the opportunity to help finance our own debt. This is a nettle which the U.S. economy must grasp first, but all western economies must also face.
The huge hike in oil and commodity prices last summer finally persuaded people of the seriousness and the sense of the green agenda, with the need to consume less oil and, on the way, protect the future of the planet. It has forced a change in attitude.
And then for Britain and the U.S. in particular there has been the enormous cost of funding wars which have stretched not only our troops but also the government purse beyond the limit for far too long. This legacy of the Bush and Blair administrations is not sustainable in the long term. Perhaps it has taken until the money ran out of everything for the voices of reason and morality to be heard in relation to our spending on war.
It may be that those who started these conflicts could look back and see that previous wars, in the Falklands, or removing the Iraqis from Kuwait, had looked short and, in balance, profitable. These wars gave the opportunity to showcase new technology that the world would want to buy, and the major arms producers saw an increase in sales when the superiority of high tech forces over those more traditionally armed was made apparent. But Afghanistan and Iraq have not lent themselves to such displays of superiority. Baghdad did not need to be razed to the ground before the western forces moved in. No-one was impressed by the destruction of the city’s infrastructure, and people are even less impressed because preparations for peace were so inadequate. The death toll is what commands the headlines today. Our continued presence in the Middle East, and our financing of Israeli aggression in Gaza have the effect of driving desperate people to take desperate measures. War mongering breeds extremists. Our Foreign Secretary now declares that the ‘war on terror’ was a mistake. I am reminded of the medal won by my grandfather which bears the inscription ‘Afghanistan N W F 1919’. He was firmly of the opinion that we had had no business there and that no conventional army could ever win there. I don’t think things have changed.
So, are there ‘green shoots’? Yes. The American people voted that they didn’t want more years of the same. They wanted change and the election of Barak Obama is surely a sign that the Americans have hoped for something different. That deeply religious nation has expressed a wish for a more compassionate Christianity, rather than the values of a gung ho cowboy who saw himself as a crusader. I pray that the green shoots may herald a new creation, a new attitude, and a determination not to repeat the mistakes, financial and moral, of the first years of the 21st century.
Whenever we see righteous indignation, especially in the media, alarm bells should go off in our heads, and we should reach for at least one pinch of salt with more on standby.
This week Prince Harry has been brought to book by some of the press. While in military service in Afghanistan, he called one comrade a Paki, and said another looked like a raghead, (an American epithet for anyone wearing a keffiyeh, the traditional Middle Eastern headdress and protection from sun and sand). I’ll set aside the fact that some of these newspapers are quite capable of name-calling themselves, when the occasion demands.
Name-calling has less to do with the person or group that is being called names, and more about the name-callers. When I went to school in the 1970’s, branding people Paki’s was wrong, but routine, and you had to be quite resolute to avoid being caught up in it. The Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi kids in my school were no better or worse than the rest of us. Being a minority, they probably conducted themselves better than we did.
What drove the name-calling was not whether these minorities deserved it, it was about scruffy working-class Birmingham kids seeing a group they felt they could finally feel superior to. There was a bonding to be had here which was very alluring. If you joined in, then you were part of a group, you belonged. This is why it didn’t necessarily have to be South Asians, it could have been any easily identifiable group, the key was the name-callers belonging together as a group.
Princes don’t belong, by definition, they are always out-of-step with the rest of us. This doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t want to, it is a basic human need. We should not be surprised if they occasionally do things which are gawky, or ill-judged. We should certainly be more compassionate than some of our newspapers. Whatever Prince Harry takes from this episode the hard lesson is that, even among his fellow soldiers, someone in that fellowship was going to betray him, to send him the message loud and clear, that he did not belong.
An advertising campaign on buses declares ‘THERE’S PROBABLY NO GOD. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.’
The creator of the advert, Ariane Sherine, says it is a counter campaign to one run on buses in June 2008 which had Bible quotes on them such as ‘Jesus died for your sins’ and a URL for a web site which included statements saying that ‘All non Christians would burn in hell for eternity in a lake of fire’. So she decided to design an advert with a positive message which said the opposite.
It poses a serious question to Christians about the image of our faith which we wish to present to the world. We are familiar wayside pulpits; posters with bible quotations such as ‘The wages of sin is death’, and we have to ask ourselves whether people put out this kind of message just in order to feel smug, rather than to attract an outsider to a living faith in Jesus Christ.
Coincidentally, The Daily Mirror carried a story today about a priest who clearly was sensitive about the message which his church projected, and replaced a particularly gruesome crucifix with a cross.
He said ‘It was a scary image, particularly for children. Parents didn’t want to walk past it with their kids, because they found it so horrifying.’ The sculpture was a brilliant piece of work. When it was conceived in the 1960s the majority of young people in Britain would have attended Sunday School, and would have been able to place the image in context. There was in the thin figure with protruding rib cage, a disturbing reminder of the images of inmates of Belsen. People might have understood that this Jesus showed God identified with the worst suffering that humanity can inflict, and sharing in human pain. But a church which always proclaimed Good Friday and never Easter might be open to misunderstanding. Replacing the crucifix with a cross has been a move towards a message which many Christians would find more appropriate. Removing the crucifix and having nothing to replace it would certainly have conveyed the wrong message, and the newspaper article is unfair in declaring that it been ‘unceremoniously yanked’ from its place.
One of the early campaigns from the Churches Advertising Network was judged to be controversial because it went rather further in removing a crucifix. At the time the most common Christian advertising in the week leading up to Easter had been a small poster produced by the Knights of St. Columba with a silhouette of Christ on the Cross and the words ‘THIS IS HOLY WEEK’. The criticism was that the Network’s advert had ‘dropped the cross’ completely. Instead it declared ‘SURPRISE! said Jesus to his friends three days after they buried him…’ But the campaign was for Easter Day, and a number of those within the Christian Church who during Lent had complained about ‘dropping the cross’ actually admitted that when it came to writing the Easter sermon, the campaign was right on target.
However, the evidence for this final statement is somewhat anecdotal: very little research has been done about the image which Christianity presents to the world and the impression which it has on outsiders. This is worrying in a faith which has mission at its heart. We don’t have evidence about what actually keeps people out of church rather than welcoming them in. But the ‘THERE’S PROBABLY NO GOD’ advert should make us think about the way we appear to outsiders. The creator of the campaign was very clear about the way Christianity appeared to be presented to her, and she was clearly not alone. With no organisation, donations of more than £140,000 have made this as visible as the largest Christian campaigns, such as those which advertised the Billy Graham missions or the Alpha Course. It really has struck a chord with very many people who probably see religious people as killjoys, for this is what the advert says. The author goes further in seeing Christians as people who worry and threaten those who do not subscribe to their faith.
This presents us with a clear challenge to present a positive image of faith. It ought to be obvious. As the Westminster Confession states ‘Man’s chief and highest end is to glorify God, and fully to enjoy him forever’. Real enjoyment is at the heart of faith.
But in our presentation of the gospel we easily slip into trying to motivate people out of fear rather than love. Some presentations of the gospel go so far as to portray the atonement as ‘cosmic child abuse’ to use Steve Chalk’s phrase. And to outsiders it must appear that we reserve a special hatred for religious believers whose faith is closest to our own, but who hold differences of opinion on matters which are not even touched on in the Creeds.
The advert is surely a wake up call to all religious believers. Our response might begin with a heartfelt cry, ‘There IS a God!’ for it is this realisation which frees us from worry and leads to real joy.
Epiphany gives us three stories of showing forth, when you bring the Eastern and Western traditions together, three stories in which the nature of Jesus is revealed in surprising and unexpected ways.
Today we start with the story of the wise men following a star to find the new king. The first visitors to the infant Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel are the wise men. Whoever they were, they were Gentiles. So, even though Matthew puts Jesus very much in a Jewish framework and his infancy stories are about portraying Jesus as the new Moses, Jesus is manifested first to foreigners. And that says that Jesus is for us too, all that he was, all that he did, all that he taught, was for us, for those who come because they have enough wisdom to follow the light and make the hard journey to come and kneel before the true king.
Then we get the story of the baptism of Jesus. The accounts show God proclaiming that Jesus is his son, and he is the Beloved, and God the Father is very proud of him. In all four Gospels, the baptism manifests Jesus’ divine origins.
And the triptych is completed with the story of the wedding at Cana, when the wedding feast, the messianic banquet, is enlivened by the new wine. Jesus is the one who transforms the ordinary water of our worship into better wine that you have ever tasted. Jesus brings in the kingdom of God which is fulfilled in the heavenly feast.
Three images, three stories which proclaim Jesus and make him known; three stories which shape what we think of Jesus and how we relate to him. All of them would have shaken the assumptions of those who first heard them.
But of course, Jesus is made known in so many other stories, in the lives of the apostles and other saints, in the gifts and kindnesses of humble folk, in the pursuit of justice and reconciliation, every time we present the word made flesh, every time we follow the way in faithfulness, proclaim the truth and reveal the light.
For example, in 2009 falls the 200th anniversary of the birth of Darwin and the 150th anniversary of the publication of The Origin of Species. There is an extensive programme this year to celebrate Darwin, including a series on BBC Radio 4 this week. I would argue that the search for scientific truth reveals Jesus, the Logos at the heart of creation, in whom all truth resides.
This works if you make the framework big enough, if you believe that this is God’s world and everything about it reveals God in some way.
So I invite you to open your eyes and ears today and look for manifestations of Jesus all around you. And allow yourself to be surprised.
Until Francis of Assisi came along and subverted it all, the most popular scene in Christian art to be drawn from the infancy narratives was the adoration of the magi. The reasons, as often in church history had less to do with theology or devotion than with more earthy matters. Art was, by and large, commissioned by rulers, and such men had a natural interest in having the infant Jesus portrayed as a king among kings. Even in pictures of the mother and her child we see no vulnerable human baby but a miniature sovereign, often with crown and sceptre, enthroned on Mary’s lap. The message was clear, if Jesus is like your earthly king then your ruler is like Jesus – treat him accordingly. Maybe it was under such pressures that legend had transmuted Persian astrologers into royalty in the first place.
The irony lies in that, in doing so, the church had made a bulwark of human authority out of the very tale that was intended to subvert it. For each of the three gifts offered by the magi strikes a blow directly into the heart of the traditional imagery it employs. Gold for a ruler; incense for a divinity; myrrh for a death, as the hymn puts it, Jesus is greeted as “king and god and sacrifice”, but each of them is the very opposite of what it seems.
Centuries earlier prophets had cautioned the Israelites about kings, warning that they would rule over them more for their own personal benefit and aggrandisement rather than for the wellbeing of the people. By that first Epiphany in Bethlehem a thousand years had proved it all too true. As Herod accurately observed, Jesus was there to undermine and supplant his authority. But not simply to supplant in name, replacing one tyrant with another as the devil would tempt him thirty years later. Jesus offers a new way of being king that has its roots in service, in love, in self-emptying and will blossom in healing and in teaching. Meanwhile each earthly empire, from ancient Rome via Victorian Britain and the Soviet Union to 21st century USA, remains satanic; serving the powerful and their interests before anyone else.
Likewise, Jesus seeks to deconstruct our familiar notions of divinity. He brings no set of dogmas for unthinking assent; no comprehensive list of unchallengeable moral precepts. He comes instead with a fund of simple stories and a natural critique of all that passes for human behaviour. He lays down not “what” to believe and to do but “how” to live and “why” it matters. Arguable as to whether it’s enough on which to pin a couple of creeds and a handful or so of sacraments, it’s the very opposite of the efforts his followers continue to make to separate, exclude and anathematise each other.
Finally he turns the whole concept of sacrifice on its head. Instead of the one to whom sacrifice is to be made, God becomes himself the victim. It’s a notion so challenging to conventional wisdom that, from catholic Eucharistic theology to the concept of substitutionary atonement beloved of the more firm Protestants, many Christians have sought to restore the natural order rather than root themselves in the one who gives himself not simply for us but to us.
So, as metaphorically we travel with the magi today on the final leg of their journey to Bethlehem, remember this: Epiphany is startling. It overturns what society, secular and religious, is comfortable with. It’s as shocking as the notion that God should be revealed as a Jewish baby to the gentile followers of religious practices condemned by the Old Testament.
Christmas is the time of year when, due to various bits of travelling and visiting, I get to sample services in churches I don’t otherwise attend. Over the past three or four years during the last week in December, I have attended services in places like Santa Barbara, London, Hull, Mullingar (Ireland), and others, and the denominations have included not just Anglicans, but also Presbyterians, Methodists, Lutherans and Roman Catholics; in addition to my own ‘home’ parish of the St Bartholomew, Dublin, where I will always be for the Midnight Mass (which indeed is so described, unusually for Ireland).
In these visits, I have been able to observe two things. First, there appears in some clerical circles to be a growing level of discomfort with the Incarnation — one member of the clergy suggested in a sermon that the Incarnation as a theological concept is ‘a disaster’. I might be tempted to explore that a little further, but perhaps that is for another time.
My second (and for this piece main) observation is that the idea of a liturgical church is under threat. And no, I am not talking about the Methodists and Presbyterians particularly, but the whole experience across the denominations. Of course, as my own wandering attendance around Christmas shows, services at this time of year tend to have an above-average number of visitors and strangers in the pews some of them on a break from their normal places of worship like me, and some making their annual or suchlike visit to a church, any church. It is quite possible that clergy faced with such congregations feel that they must offer them more easily digestible fare. At any rate — server and liturgical pedant that I am — I have tended to find plenty to make my hair stand on end.
Of course the polite thing to do is to show no sign of noticing anything untoward, and that’s the route I follow. But I nevertheless find myself sinning gravely by allowing my mind to drift into a state of irritation. I need to get a hold of myself.
But I do wonder whether the idea of Anglicanism as a liturgical movement is coming to an end. The movers and shakers of the new fundamentalist Anglicanism growing out of places like Sydney do not, I think, bother their heads much about liturgy. And every so often when, in various discussion groups, I raise liturgical issues, someone will invariably pipe up and say that liturgy simply does not matter when set against hunger, starvation, dictatorship and other evils. It is, I have to admit, easy to be bullied into submission at such moments.
And yet, it seems to me that liturgy matters. It is there at the moment where we come to worship God, and how can we say that how we address and speak with God doesn’t matter. It is how we in part express our faith, and it is how we allow God to touch us. And when it ceases to be familiar to the people, a lot of what we believe in theology can also become distant.
When I first became a liturgical Anglican, it was universal in churches I would attend for Christmas to bow, genuflect or kneel at the ‘incarnatus’ in the creed. Right then, it is a meaningful way for us to express something about the Incarnation. But, it seems, not so much any more. I notice that fewer and fewer people do it, even amongst the clergy.
Maybe I am just too old-fashioned. Or maybe, we are losing our way just a little.
In my childhood, a shadow lay over the days after Christmas, the shadow of the thank-you letters. Until these had been written, to grandparents, godparents, uncles, aunts and family friends, we were not free for untrammelled enjoyment of our new acquisitions. I still have one contemporary and a god-child who are exemplary in writing their thanks, but it’s a practice which has very largely disappeared, at least among my friends and family. Maybe it went with the general decline in letter-writing, but it doesn’t seem to have been replaced by text, email, or even phone calls. I don’t doubt that those to whom I gave presents are, on the whole, pleased that I did so, but gratitude, it seems, is now to be assumed, not expressed.
There seems to be a parallel withdrawal from an articulated sense of gratitude within our collective church practice. Explicit thanksgiving to God is, of course, part of our liturgies; it is vocalised at the beginning of the Eucharistic prayer and is the very heart of that prayer, and it is part of our post-communion response. I can’t, however, remember the last time I said in public worship any form of the General Thanksgiving, so painfully learned at school, and Common Worship has specifically omitted thanks to God from the forms of intercession. A number of our local leaders of intercessions still use the introductory form from the Alternative Service Book: ‘Let us pray for the church and the world’, they say, ‘and let us thank God for his goodness’. Nine times out of ten, however, we are drawn, often eloquently and movingly into the needs of the former, but the latter, the thanksgiving, is entirely absent. When, from time to time, we open intercessions to all comers, so that we can pray with them for whatever they wish to bring before us and before God, we rarely move from need to thanksgiving; just occasionally voices, mainly from Africa and the Caribbean, will be moved to recount and give thanks for God’s blessings.
The absence of gratitude can be seen as a healthy development within the wider culture, the growing understanding of the essential value of each human being and their corresponding entitlement to freedom, justice, education, work, family life etc. Much that was once seen as a generous gift, from those who had to those who had not, is now accepted as a matter not of grace but of right. A properly less deferential society may also be a less grateful one, and if thanks are to be offered with a tugged forelock, then there is little to mourn in their absence. Also at work is a theological change, a move away from a strongly interventionist understanding of God; if the parking place is available by chance rather than as a response to prayer, we are less inclined to offer thanks to the deity who might lie behind the chance.
But to live thankfully, and to articulate those thanks, need not indicate either deference or a god of the parking spaces. Grace said before a meal reminds us of those on whom we rely for the production and preparation of our food, it reminds us of our interconnectedness and interdependence.
‘Thank-yous’ for the presents we received at Christmas brings to our minds those who have invested time and thought and money in us, even when the investment (like so many this year) may have been misdirected into something which seems to have little intrinsic worth. Becoming conscious of occasions for gratitude prompts us to emphasise relationship rather than autonomy; gratitude demands an object outside ourselves, an other who has played some part in our lives. Practised as a habit, gratitude makes us aware of how we are linked to our neighbours and ultimately to God.
So, Pollyanna-ish as it may seem, I bid you, as you say good-bye to the Very Bad Year of 2008, and look forward to the gloom and despondency of 2009 — count your blessings!
The man, the man, the armed man,
The armed man
The armed man should be feared, should be feared.
Everywhere it has been proclaimed
That each man shall arm himself
With a coat of iron mail. (attr. the court of Charles the Bold, 1433-77).
The warmongering Charles the Bold of Burgundy, in between skirmishes and battles, presided over a remarkably musical court, one of whose members penned the song ‘L’homme armé’. The tune caught on, appearing in dozens of mediæval mass settings, but so far as I know, no-one had the brass face to use the words in a religious context.
I admit to being underwhelmed when I first heard Karl Jenkins’ ‘The armed man — a mass for peace’, probably because it was being hyped to death by Classic FM (note for colonials — a radio station specialising in lifestyle music for the moneyed middle classes) in ‘lollipop’ snatches designed to calm gridlocked commuters. But I came to realise he’d done something rather clever: by creative use of text and intertextuality — including the Ordinary of the mass — he’d managed to take the uncompromisingly military ‘L’homme armé doibt on doubter’, ‘The armed man should be feared’ and so subvert it that by the end of the work it became an impassioned plea for peace, doubtless leaving Charles the Bold (who, it should be noted, died in one of his own battles) gently spinning in his grave. Subversion, a leading up the proverbial garden path, is perhaps a more fruitful way of bringing about change than reaction.
For Christians, this can hardly be a surprise. The ‘crux gemmata’, the ‘jewelled cross’ demonstrates one way in which we have subverted the Cross, transforming its original power as an instrument of Roman oppression into a symbol of honour and glory, and some recent studies place the stone crosses of the Anglo-Saxon period (e.g., at Ruthwell) in the same ‘crux gemmata’ tradition. The art of the early mediæval period, with its ‘Christus Rex’ symbolism points us in a similar direction, as do the various forms of the Rood poem and Venantius Fortunatus’ ‘Vexilla Regis’.
It is suggested that the devotion to a tortured Christ begins only in the writings of the ninth-century Candidus of Fulda, which devotion opened the way to a literalistic, rather than a subversive, reading of the Cross (and which, we might argue, facilitated the penal understanding of atonement, not to mention Mel Gibson’s profoundly unbiblical gorefest). The tortured Christ invites pity and shame; Christ subversive on the Cross takes us somewhere else, ‘leading captivity captive’.
St. Mary’s Barton backs on to an artesian well, the sort of ‘holy well’ which historically (and currently, at places like Walsingham, Lourdes and Madron) has been associated with healing and the like. Of the mediæval chapels within our building, the oldest dedication is that of St Thomas of Canterbury, victim of twelfth-century power politics, whose feast we celebrated a couple of days ago. This juxtaposition of a martyr’s altar and a site with connotations of healing echoes the cult of Thomas evidenced in the Canterbury Tales — where a story of the violent is subverted into one of healing and hope and wholeness.
Christianity as revolution has been a theological platitude since the 1960s (‘Sing we a song of high revolt,’ gets the blood fizzing, to be sure, but most western Christians are still wealthy and white, which rather gives the game away). But there is good reason to think that our current context, our common societal mental matrix, is no longer centred on revolution but subversion, the undermining of the powerful by means of their own tools. Entering a new year intent on subverting the world for God might be a Christian vocation with much deeper roots than that knee-jerk counter-culturalism so often offered us as the Good News.
Each year in our town we seem to find more and more Christmas Concerts on the social calendar. One of their consistent themes is to try and answer the need to return to a sense of Christmas being a special feeling and, inevitably descends into sentimentality and schmaltz. This derives from the sagging momentum of the German-style Christmas imported by the Victorians and, behind that, an awe-and-wonder reading of the sacred texts of Christmas.
To rescue Christmas from this increasingly wearying regression, we need to look again at the sacred texts in a way that invites us to be partners rather than spectators. Spectators see stars and magi, prophecies from long ago, squadrons of angels in the heavens and at the centre, a birth which is miraculous because it did not require the conventional preliminaries. All we can do, in the face of stories like this, is to exclaim that God is clever. Faced with our own inability to recreate such signs of wonder, our faces are pressed against the window of supernatural pyrotechnics and we come away empty-handed.
The stories of the supernatural birth of Jesus take on a different light when we consider them as part of a literary genre of the ancient world. There were many and various such stories, none more famous than the story of Augustus Caesar, born to his mother Atia and the god Apollo. Typically such birth stories came at the conclusion of the telling of the great deeds of an individual which must have been conceived in no less than the heavens. Augustus had brought the end of civil war and the longest period of peace that could be remembered. Although the Pax Romana was only felt if you were Romana, leaving the peasant classes impoverished, nonetheless it did not stop him being entitled Prince of Peace, while the coins of the empire styled him Son of God. When his biographer, Suetonius, concluded the story of his life he appended the story of Apollo coming to Atia in the temple and impregnating her. Ten months later, Atia’s husband dreamt he saw the sun rise from her womb and indeed the new Caesar would be born of Atia and the God of Light and be proclaimed Light of the World.
At the end of Augustus’s reign, there began the life of another man whose followers felt his life was patterned after the way of the heavens, Jesus of Nazareth, a Jew. Not the heavens of the brute force of Rome, but the heaven of a God who had made a good earth and had promised a land to a nation in which all should enjoy its fruits. This man met violence with peace, met poverty by organising people to share food, and met sickness with healing. This, said his followers, must surely be what a god does. On the day this man rode into Jerusalem, to the acclaim of crowds, the Roman authorities took one look at him, decided he was trouble and executed him, in the manner where they put dissidents on public display to warn others what happens when you cross Rome’s rule.
But his followers continued to experience his presence and the movement spread. In time his story was written and, quite late on in the process, stories of his divine conception were told. His destiny was described in terms of heroes of the past, Matthew used the stories of Moses, Luke the story of Samuel, and the titles Lord, Son of God, Prince of Peace. In other words, these birth stories were treason; if you said Jesus was Lord, you were saying that Caesar wasn’t.
We need this view of divinity now, as never before. The majority of our world is malnourished, and since 1945 we have come to the end of being able to use violence as a solution; we need this view of the sacred which is non-violent before we go up in a nuclear flash.
Christmas is not about trying to explain wondrous events, as if they literally happened, in the vain hope they can be repeated in our own day. They are narrative aids, both to subvert the birth stories of the leaders of empire, and point to a much more important truth that the life of this man is the pattern for how humanity might shape itself to become like the realm in the heavens, the Kingdom of God on earth.
an imaginative meditation for Christmas Day
I wept the day I gave birth. In the middle of all the joy, I looked and I wept. What I had called into being, I had also called into pain. The nearest, dearest, first, who opened his eyes wide and flung out his arms, he would carry the worst of the suffering. I had longed so for joy and companionship, but looking, I could see I had made pain. I had made struggle, and growth. I had begotten a child in my own image. I had created pain, for without pain, no one could be my companion.
I rejoiced the day I gave birth. I looked and my heart was filled with pride and joy. Those tiny sparks, reflected flickering lights, were crammed with courage and joy despite the darkness which surrounded them. I saw them struggle to live and to love, and, miraculously, even to give birth and to create. I saw love reflected in a thousand ways, in a myriad of broken miniature mirrors, and to me each of the tiny reflections seemed more beautiful than the original, lived as it was in partial darkness and unknowing.
And as I looked I saw the first in all his glory. My heart stopped at the beauty and the courage of him, at the love which filled him to the core, such love that it pulsed out of him, and all the flickering lights grew stronger, and the reflection grew and dazzled until the darkness began to roll back.
His eyes sought mine, and he called out to me: ‘Father, glorify your name.’
I caught his meaning, and my heart broke and reformed and joy filled me, oozing up to cover the pain, bright and overmastering. I looked at true beauty in wonder, and the wonder was that all of this was my own image. ‘I have glorified my name, and I will glorify it again.’ I answered.
My favourite Radio 3 programme is Late Junction. Last Thursday, on the last programme of the year, they played the Carter family singing “No Depression in heaven”. This song from 1936 is suddenly relevant again in our current economic gloom, and depicts the great depression as a sign of the end times and heaven as an alternative to hunger and want. The chorus goes:
I’m going where there’s no depression
To a lovely land that’s free from care.
I’ll leave this world of toil and trouble.
My home’s in heaven. I’m going there.
You can hear it in a number of places, including here.
Heaven, God’s space, is imagined as a glorious place where there is no recession, no investment scandals, no crisis in banking, no defaulting on loans, no large-scale redundancies. Heaven is shown as quite separate from all of this.
Though it is — in some way — a theological reflection on economic crisis, I suspect it is not the reality check that the Archbishop of Canterbury was looking for.
There is an otherness of heaven, but it doesn’t stay “out there”. The message of Christmas is that heaven comes here and enters in to our space. Heaven doesn’t remain apart from the toil and trouble. Rather God breaks in to all the mess and is born as a vulnerable baby in the middle of it all.
Heaven is what happens when we let God in. It’s not that God is going to wave a magic pantomime wand and sort out the problems, but God will stand with us in the misery, inspire us to help those who are in depression because of the Depression, and give us the tools for making the moral and economic choices for remaking our world.
We need to start again, with the baby in the manger.
The Pope, speaking on issues of sexuality, argues from the position of an organisation which has a vested interested in preserving a traditional totally male hierarchy. It reflects a view, now not universally accepted, that women have no voice and no vote, where husbands take over the property and the rights of wives, and in which the woman is ceremonially handed over from her father to her husband at her wedding.
Women’s emancipation in society has been one of the chief causes of a serious rift between Church and State in many countries where the ministry of Churches has remained restricted to men. Even formerly Catholic countries now describe themselves as having a secular constitution, and signs of the rift are most noticeable in areas relating to human sexuality:
It would be difficult to cite any other area in which Church and State have been more out of step with each other.
This unfortunately gives the impression that the only morality of interest to the Church is sexual morality. Indeed, it would now appear that the last time the Church could ever claim to lead a moral crusade to promote human equality it was over the ending of slavery, some two centuries ago. Since then it has been the State which has been in the forefront of promoting the dignity and equality of all people, whilst the Church has maintained its traditional inequalities by arguing for an opt-out from national legislation.
Clearly Church and State perceive society very differently. The State sees all people as having an equal and valid contribution to make, whereas the Church, in preserving a traditional male hierarchy, has a structure which appears more primitive and tribal.
Homo sapiens evolved the capability of operating in larger units than any other large mammal. As this happened the pattern of a clan under the headship of a dominant male required some adjustment.
With children taking many years to come to maturity, grandparents became important in helping them acquire the skills they would need for survival. And it was no longer only the breeding couples of this largely monogamous species which held the fabric of society together. A significant contribution has always been made by those who did not marry. Those who did not have the constant responsibility of feeding and rearing their own children had time to develop skills and enrich the community in other ways which would make them valuable to the whole group.
Such people were not perceived as a threat to married couples. The man who did not covet his neighbour’s wife has always been less of a danger to society than the heterosexual man who might want to tempt her away. The reason for having strict marriage laws is not because of what gay people might do, but in order to protect couples from heterosexual predators. It would therefore appear that once again the Pope has shown that the Church is out of step with society in its understanding of human sexuality. There is no danger to the species from gay people whilst 90% of people are attracted to the opposite sex. Gay people have never posed any threat to those who wish to live as heterosexual couples. They simply accept this as a valid lifestyle for those who wish to enjoy it.
Society in Britain, North America, and much of Europe is happy with this situation and has framed legislation to protect the rights of all people. By contrast the Pope is the personification of a wrong human ecology; one which fails to give rights to all people. And people wonder, seeing the Church of England’s hesitation over the ordination of women to the episcopate, whether having an Established Church which retains such an outmoded view of women has anything to commend it.
As Mary makes her weary way to Bethlehem the Christ within her is about to face one of the most dangerous moments of his existence. For both mother and child the journey from womb to outside world in first century Palestine comes with a high mortality risk; their fates entwined together, either might kill the other.
St Luke gives few insights into the unborn Christ, telling us briefly of how John the Baptist, himself yet unborn, leaps in Elizabeth’s womb when Mary visits. But that account, taken with the story of Gabriel’s visit, is enough to establish that the Son of God did not take on human form at any point later than conception. It’s not a point I’ve heard dwelt on by preachers and theologians, and liturgically it all gets lost in the joy of Christmas when we gaze in awe at the infant in the manger, yet the nine months of Mary’s pregnancy matter.
The Early Fathers had a knock down argument for the necessity of the incarnation; “What has not been assumed (by God) has not been saved”, they stated. The salvation of humanity could only be accomplished, and was fully accomplished, by true God becoming truly human. Christ became first a single vital cell, then a rapidly dividing clump of cells, then embryo and foetus. Just as the creed affirms that at Easter Christ descends to hell to save the dead, so, in these nine hidden months God works the salvation of the many that will never see the light of day: the miscarried; the aborted; the stillborn.
At the same time he himself is being fashioned both by God and Mary. A recent academic study found that human metabolism is fixed before birth, so that, inter alia, mothers who diet during pregnancy are more likely to have children with a lifelong tendency to obesity. How Mary has lived during these nine vital months will affect, indeed quite literally shape, her son for the whole of his life. She is no passive incubator of the divine child but fully part of his formation. He shares not just her genes but the consequences of her actions. We, who share her flesh, are both active in the drama of salvation and shapers of the living Christ that is revealed to the world.
In little over a couple of days the full joy of Christmas will be upon us; for today the task is to pause, and be with Mary in her pregnancy, and all that it means for us.
Over the past week, I spent a few days in the United States of America. In America, they know how to do Christmas in style. Yes, I know, it’s not Christmastide and all that, but of course all the Christmas decorations are up, and every PA loudspeaker you encounter is belting out either Christmas carols (more likely than not as interpreted by Bing Crosby), or else 1950s Christmas-and-snowflakes-themed songs. And I don’t care whether that’s cool or not, but I like it, even a lot.
While in California I went to a local crafts market, and enjoyed the products on offer, and bought a few of them. But there was something that caught my eye in particular: a small business selling what I might call unusual greeting cards. The first one I saw had the following happy exclamation on the cover: “Here’s your f***ing Christmas card!” And the second continued with the theme: “Happy F***ing Holidays.”
Maybe I should have been scandalised, but in fact I burst out laughing and bought a few of both, already forming a plan as to who would be worthy recipients. At least one of them was a member of the clergy, by the way.
Of course I am not suggesting that we should move over to a rather coarser, or for that matter more cynical, view of the season of the Incarnation. But equally, the Incarnation is not some kind of celestial bubble wrap that protects us from the shocks and prods of “real life”. When God became man, God did not come into a world of sweet fairy tales, but into humanity as we know it with all its edginess.
Of course, we are now in Advent, a season in which to prepare and reflect. So whether your kind of Advent is the experience of quiet and penitential reflection, or the in-your-face call to repentance of John the Baptist, or joyful anticipation, it may be good to remember that the season that follows may have its harder edge for some people, and that our preparations should also anticipate that. I haven’t sent the cards after all, but as I write I am looking at one of them, and I find that it’s a useful aid to my spiritual life at this time of year. Just for once, at least.
Talking to a young Nigerian woman this week, I asked her what she thought of the approach to Christmas in our part of east London, and how British celebrations contrasted with those in her home country. ‘It’s very quiet,’ she said. ‘In Nigeria, there would be people out dancing and singing, wherever you go.’ There’s a climate issue here, of course. As I write, the rain pours down out of grey skies, and shoppers scurry along the high street, heads down under their umbrellas. Any carol singers, let alone dancers, aren’t going to receive much notice.
There’s also an underlying question about the balance of public and private in our observance of the festivities. We lead our public life in the run-up to Christmas (and in the days immediately afterwards) on the high streets and in shopping centres and retail parks. Those are our places of encounter with the stranger, with those who are in some way not ‘ours’. We all share in the queue for the till, we compete for the bargain or for access to the mirror, we mutter apologies as we take each other’s space. Occasionally we will pause together, our attention taken by some religious, civic, or commercial offering for general consumption: the Salvation Army band or a school choir if we are lucky, the mall grotto or recorded carols and a mechanical Father Christmas if we are not.
There are halfway houses between this public life and the privacy of the home. They are the places where we are part of an extended group, drawn together by common interest which takes us beyond the domestic circle. Parents and carers gather for the school nativity play; we still have very traditional nativity plays in multi-cultural East Ham. For those who work together, there is the office Christmas party, or its substitute. Every club, be it Rotary, bowls, line dancing or the Women’s Institute, will have its Christmas do.
When it comes to Christmas Day, however, the gears change. Just look at the TV advertisements: Christmas is a private event which happens in a purely domestic setting and is just for family, or at most for friends so close that they replace family. We close down, retire behind our front doors, and hide, safe from the threat of the unfamiliar. Even the pattern of churchgoing increasingly conforms. For all but the hard core, the religious bit of Christmas is something to be got out of the way before the day itself. Crib services and Christingles on Christmas Eve are the great growth area, especially for the very occasional or once a year churchgoers; and even for the faithful and observant, Midnight Mass means that church is done virtually before the feast day begins. We, too, have our ‘common interest’ event before the festival.
Does this domestication have its roots in the Reformation, with Luther’s reinvention of the family as the location of everyday holiness, and the loss of the Catholic tradition of the public and communal? Are we re-engaging with the domesticity of the Jewish Sabbath? Does it derive from the breakdown of shared culture in a post-industrial and multi-cultural society? Can we blame this, too, on late capitalist consumerism?
Whatever the underlying reasons for this pattern, it is worth noting that the most significant group for whom Christmas is experienced in public, as a time of consorting with strangers in a place not their own, are those who have no home, or for whom there is no family provision. The centres provided by Crisis, the church and charity Christmas lunches for the elderly and lonely, these are the places of the non-domestic, unprivatised Christmas.
When I get home after morning service on Christmas Day, like most clergy I shall shut the door with relief, and relax in the company of my family. But niggling somewhere will be a question about the contrast between that pleasurable experience and the story of good news announced noisily and very publicly with a choir of angels and a star, and a stable whose door seemed to be perpetually open to those who wanted to come and see.
Ten bridesmaids took their lamps… (Matthew 25.1-13)
Among the Advent stories of the need to keep watchful, this one adds a different twist. All ten fell asleep, but some had taken the precaution of providing themselves with more oil.
It isn’t surprising they slept. After many generations, we are still waiting. Our grandparents knew the value of keeping the reserve of oil; they had lived through wars and depression, and recognised a need for caution. But their attitude has gone out of fashion. It’s as though the bridesmaids woke up one morning and decided that their wedding garments were now seriously out of fashion, and that it would be fun to trade some of that carefully stored oil for a brand new outfit.
We did save once. And for a time when interest rates reached double figures our savings appeared to be capable of giving almost instant gratification to our desires. But then interest rates fell, and only property seemed to be climbing in value. We stopped saving, and tested the inflated value of our homes by re-mortgaging to give ourselves a treat; a holiday, a car, a new kitchen, or just the brand new outfit in order to keep in the fashion.
The building societies found that the savings had dried up, so they had to look for funds elsewhere to satisfy the inflated demands of their clients. And now the lamps are going out for lack of oil. We can’t go back to the banks. They have no more funds, and besides, our houses aren’t worth what we once claimed.
We are told that, in desperation, people are looking to churches for a way out of the dilemma, or at least for some relief from their pain. But the one who said ‘Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth’ is not likely to feed our addiction to consumerism.
Fortunately, all we face at the moment is a credit crunch which might bring us to our senses, rather than the appearance of the bridegroom heralding the end of the age. So there might, in this Advent season, be time to reassess our priorities. We might learn to wait, this time for something really worth waiting for.
There is an old saw which says that God invented humanity because God loves stories. In the tradition of the Hebrew people, there was a prohibition against rendering their God in the plastic arts and so they went to town on narrative and thoroughly delighted in it. The Hebrew sacred texts are story and counter-story describing worlds and the God who is active in those worlds. If you are familiar with the world painted by the Deuteronomist, that you get what you deserve, and God rewards the righteous, then the Book of Job comes alive as a counter-story, protesting that ill-fortune falls on the righteous too, and the reasons are hidden in the depths of God.
The Christmas stories are counter-stories. They are stories which are holding out for a God and a world which will work differently to the one in which the storytellers live. Matthew uses the Moses story, and Luke the call of Samuel, to tell their listeners that the God who was present in these classical tales is present in Jesus of Nazareth. We know that the Christmas stories are counter-stories because they use words for Jesus of Nazareth which the early audience will have associated with Augustus Caesar. Caesar was Son of God, Prince of Peace, and our Christmas birth story writers are saying that Jesus is these things, in other words, Jesus is, Caesar is not. Caesar’s Roman Peace is fine if you are Roman, and so long as Caesar has the biggest army. The peace of Jesus of Nazareth is about seeking out those who do not benefit from Roman peace, and including them at life’s table. Our Christmas stories are asking us whether our God is more likely to be found in a Roman palace, or a cow’s feeding trough.
All of this is commonplace for first year students in Biblical studies, I’m saying nothing new. But over the last several years my worry has been that we have lost our grip on the power of story. When you clear our public spaces of religious stories (particularly those pressed into the service of worldly interest) you are not left with a pristine post-Enlightenment space. The power of stories is that they are ways of inviting us to consider who we might be, they invite us to make lives in the worlds they describe, and they invite our loyalty and our resources. This is too much power to be left unfulfilled.
Into this space come the storytellers we know, news organisations, spin doctors and advertisements, each seeking to frame the world and our place in it. With the technological gap between generations, the worry is that our children are being formed by stories told by Nintendo, Sony and the like. After school our children step into virtual worlds which are laid out before them. They can progress through these worlds with the purchase of each upgrade, and they are being encouraged to acquire skills which will help them be promoted through the moral universes the games companies have described.
All of this goes by stealth because this happens unsupervised. Work-weary parents may even be grateful for the diversion. Narratives are being quietly assimilated, and these are shared in the schoolyard, and young friends measure each other by their skill and knowledge in worlds barely guessed at by those who have the care of developing the next generation.
We need to dispense with the tinsel-and-teatowel Christmas and recover its visceral power in the world where the story was first told, a world which was about brute force and malnutrition. We need to rediscover the power of telling stories of a God which runs counter to the prevailing values of the day.
If we can recover Christmas as a counter-story in its own day under Rome, we might want to start telling new counter-stories about the God we believe in, in our own day, to the Playstation generation.
On this day in the year 1637, a man reported a vision that he had seen. ‘I have been at a great feast,’ he said, ‘O, magnify the Lord with me.’ One of his hearers asked him, ‘At a feast?’ and he replied, ‘Ay, at a great feast. At the great King’s feast.’
These were the last words of Nicholas Ferrar, who died at Little Gidding shortly after midnight on Monday 4 December 1637, just as Advent Sunday had ended.
In Advent the Church traditionally focuses on ‘coming’. Perhaps primarily we think of the birth of Jesus at Bethlehem, but the lectionary reminds us of other themes too: the role of John the Baptist; the prophets; judgement; the kingdom that is to come.
Ferrar’s vision of a feast was and remains one of the central images of the coming kingdom — a time of plenty, a time when all shall be welcomed to eat at the table in God’s household. It’s an image that Jesus uses frequently in his parables about the kingdom, and it is an image that comes to us from the Old Testament prophets. Isaiah foretells that God ‘will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-matured wines’ (Isaiah 25.6).
In Isaiah this is all seen as part of the time when God shall rule the earth from Mount Zion, and the poor, the humble, the downtrodden will be raised up to a place of honour. Death itself will be swallowed up for ever, and God will wipe away the tears from the people’s eyes. Isaiah’s prophecy was made at a time of great difficulty for the people of Israel and it proclaims his belief that, however bad things looked, the God of Israel would remember those who were faithful.
Isaiah, moreover, proclaims his great idea that the God of Israel was supreme, the only god, and that God is a lover of justice and mercy, rather than an unfaithful tyrant. Jesus develops the idea further: he does not simply talk about feasting in God’s kingdom; in addition he actually sits and eats and drinks with the underclasses and the unclean, declaring by his actions that their sins are forgiven (because they needed no further ritual cleansing) and that they are favoured by God. Jesus’s respectable contemporaries were scandalized by this behaviour, but it is all too easy for us not to see the scandal, and even easier for us to pay lip-service to looking after those less favoured by society in our own day.
Nicholas Ferrar and his family, living a quiet and godly life at Little Gidding, did not forget the poor and needy. They welcomed into their household a number of poor widows, they provided alms and education for many, and Ferrar, utilizing his training in medicine, ran a dispensary for the neighbourhood. And we too, each of us in our own lives, can perhaps take some simple and practical steps to alleviate the suffering around us. In this way, as well as by prayer and faith, we will help to realize God’s kingdom here on earth, and proclaim the Advent hope to the world. That is our challenge this Advent.
Today at Little Gidding, a service of Holy Communion will be celebrated at the tomb of Nicholas Ferrar to honour his memory and his example of spiritual determination and faith in an age of great trouble. In the eucharist we enjoy a foretaste of the banquet in God’s household. May we, with Nicholas Ferrar and all God’s holy people, sit at the great King’s feast!
The Independent reports on the plan to exhume the remains of Cardinal Newman from a grave in which he was buried at his own request beside a priest, Fr Ambrose St John. The intention in moving his remains is to allow them to be venerated in a more suitable place, Birmingham Oratory.
The issue touches first on what we consider Christianity to be. Is it based on the bodily resurrection of Jesus, his appearances, an empty tomb with no bones remaining, and communion with the living Lord through the sacrament of the Eucharist in which we share his body and blood, or is it based on a cult of the bones of good people?
If we believe in ‘the resurrection of the body’ what is communicated by the tearing apart of the remains of saints limb from limb and sometimes slice by slice so that parts can be taken to different places for veneration?
I can venerate Newman by continuing to draw inspiration from his writing and his life without the need to be close to his mortal remains, just as I can be a Christian without the need to visit the Holy Sepulchre.
I have led pilgrimages to the places where saints lived and worked, in particular to places associated with St Teresa of Avila and St John of the Cross, and find the same is true. I may be inspired by the context in which saints lived and worked, particularly at a place like the Convent of the Incarnation in Avila. But Teresa’s body isn’t there. The place remains an inspiration just as the Birmingham Oratory is one without needing the bones of Newman. It was part of his life, and the life can still inspire.
The removal of Newman’s remains raises another issue. Cardinal Newman wrote shortly before his death: ‘I wish, with all my heart, to be buried in Fr Ambrose St John’s grave — and I give this as my last, my imperative will.’ If the Church values the inspiration of Newman, his wishes should not be set aside. Moving his body against his stated wish is not an honourable way to venerate him. When he stated his wishes for his burial he knew all about the ways in which the deceased are venerated within his Church, and deliberately chose not to be buried at the Oratory, which others may have seen as an obvious choice.
The Independent article highlights the reason for Newman’s choice of burial place; his close affection for Ambrose St John. If Newman is to be reburied, then the remains of the other member of the Oratory should also be moved back to the place where he also served. These men were united in life and in mission, and they should be united for eternity. More importantly, if we wish to remain close to Newman’s heart, and treasure his memory, then our faith, like his, should be in the presence of the risen Lord.
‘Since Christmas a day: and the day of St Stephen, First Martyr.
‘Since St Stephen a day: and the day of St John the Apostle.
‘Since St John the Apostle a day: and the day of the Holy Innocents.
‘Since the Holy Innocents a day: the fourth day from Christmas.
‘To-day, what is to-day?’
So wrote T S Eliot at the start of the second act of his play Murder in the Cathedral, written for the 1935 Canterbury Festival, and first performed in the Chapter House at Canterbury, just a few yards from where, on this day in 1170, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket, was killed.
The murder, or assassination, of Thomas Becket within his cathedral church shocked the whole of western Christendom. Within three years he had been canonized, his name added to the roll of saints of the Church, and King Henry II forced to do penance for his role in Becket’s death. From Iceland to Italy there are churches dedicated to St Thomas of Canterbury, and relics, statues and images from just a few years after 1170.
The cause for which Becket died, however, is not one that today we necessarily regard as unambiguously right. As Eliot has the assassins remind his audience, the rule of law that we treasure as a great protection was begun by the reforms of Henry II that Becket stood against. ‘Remember,’ says the Second Knight in his speech to the audience, ‘remember that it is we who took the first step. We have been instrumental in bringing about the state of affairs that you approve.’ On the other hand, the rule of law that Henry II was introducing was harsh, whereas the rule of the Church, which Becket wanted to encompass as many people as possible, was more lenient.
And yet we cannot easily regard the murder of Becket as justified, even if we can agree with some of the sentiments Eliot has the knights express. The end does not justify the means. The powerful cannot go around murdering those they disagree with, whether they be political rivals or obstacles (as Becket had become to Henry II), or the weak and impoverished (as the boys of Bethlehem were to Herod, or indeed today). The prophets of the Old Testament remind us of this too: we see David brought to book by Nathan for arranging the death of Uriah, the husband of Bathsheba (2 Samuel 11, 12); and Elijah foretells disaster on the house of Ahab for his complicity in bearing false witness against Naboth and causing him to be executed (1 Kings 21); and there are plenty of other examples.
The very rule of law that Henry II wanted to introduce requires that arbitrary exercise of power is not allowed. The murder of Thomas Becket reminds us still that the rule of law (tempered by equity and mercy) is fundamental to the Judaeo-Christian tradition, and that it applies as much if not more to the rich and powerful and to the rulers as it does to the dispossessed, the powerless and the ruled. Those in power must always be held to account for their treatment of those who are in their power.
‘To-day, what is to-day?’
‘Let our thanks ascend
To God, who has given us another Saint in Canterbury.’
‘Blessed Thomas, pray for us.’
Today, the fourth day of Christmas, the Church remembers an incident recorded in Matthew’s account of the birth of Jesus. The evangelist tells us how Herod, warned that a ‘new king of the Jews’ had been born in Bethlehem, gave orders for the massacre of all the boys aged two years or under in and around Bethlehem. The evangelist notes that this is a fulfilment of the words of Jeremiah. Later legend puts the number involved in the thousands, or even in the hundreds of thousands, though it has been estimated that the likely number of boys of that age in a town the size of Bethlehem might have been around twenty.
Scholars doubt the historical accuracy of this story, and we do not need to take it literally to commemorate today all who are wrongly persecuted and betrayed by those who should be protecting them.
The young boys in the story know nothing of Jesus, nor indeed of the politics and powers of this world. They cannot by any stretch of historical or theological imagination be described as Christians. Just babies or toddlers with a few words, they are the epitome of powerlessness and vulnerability, still dependent on others for all their needs. Primarily they depend upon their parents, but secondarily they depend on their neighbours, and on the earthly powers-that-be for protection from the evils and disasters that can strike at any time.
And despite their ignorance of Jesus, the Church has from ancient times commemorated them: a reminder that God’s love is for all; a reminder of the sufferings endured by so many; and a reminder of our responsibilities towards those who depend upon us, and those who are weaker than we are. And a reminder too of the need to hold the powerful to account, and to ensure, so far as we are able, that they too remember their responsibilities to the weak and powerless, and not abuse their power for their own ends.
It is a sad fact that such abuse of power and responsibility not only still exists, but also that it is not just confined to the obviously evil. From terrorists exercising power without responsibility, not caring about the suffering of the innocent, through politicians convinced of the ‘greater good’, to religious leaders who fail to use to the utmost their moral power and influence, we still see connivance, deliberate and thoughtless, in the persecution of those who have every right to expect the protection of the more powerful.
The best way in which we can commemorate this feast today of the Holy Innocents is to speak out against and to work towards the end of the tyranny of evil. Not just this day, but every day.
‘In the beginning was the Word’. So begins the gospel according to John, and it is John that is commemorated today: John the apostle, and John the gospel-writer or evangelist — perhaps the same person, perhaps not, but apostle and evangelist commemorated as one today.
In this prologue to the good news of Jesus of Nazareth, the evangelist writes in poetic language and connects the eternal Word of God with this living person, Jesus of Nazareth, whom he had known.
In the beginning was the Word
The universe is something that we observe, and in particular something that scientists observe and try to understand. And one of the things that they observe is that there is something about the universe that tends towards what might be called ‘creativity’. At one level this can be explained as a result of electro-magnetic and nuclear forces acting at infinitesimally small distances or of gravity acting over unimaginably large distances. It is these forces that create galaxies and stars, that cause the creation of the elements within these massive stars and the dispersal of these elements around a galaxy to enable younger stars and planets to be formed. At another level it is the creation of localized negative entropy systems (though there is net gain of entropy in the larger closed system) which enables life to exist here on Earth.
This ‘creativity’ seems to be built in to the universe that we inhabit and observe, and to the scientist this can be described by formulations such as the weak anthropic principle (that if the universe were not pretty much like it is then we wouldn’t exist and so wouldn’t be here to observe that it is like this).
In the biological and social spheres we can observe similar tendencies towards creativity — in biological reproduction, and in the care that we as humans try to take towards the young and to those responsible for them, and towards each other. And we see it in our own attempts at creativity — in the arts and in the sciences.
As Christians we can associate this ‘tendency towards creativity’ with the divine creativity. In John’s gospel, following the lead of Greek philosophers, this creativity is called the Word, (the ‘Logos’ in Greek), and the writer reminds us that everything was made through this creativity, nothing was made without it, and that it was there from the very beginning. This can be compared with the poetry of Genesis, in which it is similarly the word of God that brings the universe into existence.
And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us
And then, says the evangelist, ‘the Word became flesh and dwelt among us’. This creativity, this divine spark, was uniquely focussed in a particular human being, the human being we know as Jesus.
This creativity is revealed in Jesus to be at one with the divine love — love for the creation, love for our fellow creatures, and love for the divine creator. This profound religious truth is revealed to us in the incarnation, in the message of Christmas, and recorded for us by the evangelist, John. And as we struggle towards understanding we can understand too that the creativity and love that is at the heart of our own human existence is also part of that divine creativity, the divine inspiration or inbreathing of the Spirit of God.
We saw his glory, such glory as befits the Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth
The glory of God, the glory of creation, is revealed in human love, shown to us in the life and teaching of Jesus who cared about all who suffered, and shown to us today by all who follow that same path.
‘Good King Wenceslas looked out,’ we sing in the popular carol, ‘on the feast of Stephen’. Today is the feast of Stephen, perhaps the most under-observed feast in the calendar. Its proximity to the feast of the Nativity is intended to honour Stephen, the first person to suffer death for their faith in Jesus of Nazareth — but in practice this proximity means that most people, even seasoned churchgoers, are taking the day off.
Stephen, though, deserves more than a passing commemoration.
Stephen was a Greek-speaking Jew, described as ‘full of faith and the Holy Spirit’. In the earliest period of the development of the Church, when it had become too large for the Twelve to manage by themselves, he was chosen as one of seven men to look especially after the Greek speakers in the Church, and particularly to ensure that the widows received their share of daily bread.
The initial description of the role of Stephen and his six fellows is a servant ministry, and although not described as such, they are accounted as the first deacons.
But Stephen and the others were not limited to ensuring that the widows received their daily bread. Stephen did great wonders and signs, and disputed with other members of the synagogue. And so he was brought before the Council, and stoned to death.
In the Acts of the Apostles the author tells us two more things about Stephen. First, Stephen is given a lengthy speech in which he describes the great sweep of Jewish history, from Abraham onwards, all pointing towards the birth of Jesus, and in which he criticizes the leaders of the Jews for resisting the Holy Spirit, persecuting the prophets, and not keeping God’s law.
Secondly, the description of Stephen parallels that of Jesus in many ways: being filled with the Holy Spirit; seeing the Son of Man at the right hand of God, as Jesus promised he would be; commending his spirit to Jesus, as Jesus commended his to the Father; kneeling as Jesus did in Gethsemane and asking forgiveness for his persecutors.
Witnessing to Jesus by acting like Jesus in every way is thus seen by the author of Acts to be essential to the Christian life.
On Friday the local ecumenical act of witness, packed in between Sainsbury’s and the gates of the market, featured a gospel group, the accents of the old East End, prayers led by a Nigerian nun, songs in Urdu, and a Portuguese version of ‘Jesus, name above all names’. It was very wet, and mildly chaotic.
Nothing wrong with any of that: indeed, there was much to welcome in a gathering of such diversity bearing witness together, and it certainly illustrated the variety of Christian communities in this part of east London. But I came away to prepare for Stations of the Cross in our own church and on the way I was talking to a friend. The two of us found ourselves struggling with the inability of some of our brothers and sisters to stay with Good Friday; they had raced ahead to Easter, to the triumph and the alleluias, while we were still focussed on crucifixion, on suffering and on death.
Different traditions work in different ways. But I think there was something deeper and more subtle at work as well.
Every couple of months, in our Sunday eucharist, we change the way in which intercessions are offered. Instead of one person coming forward to speak on behalf of the rest, we invite anyone from the congregation to offer prayer for a person or place or situation who or which is a cause for concern or gratitude. What we hear is a very powerful statement of the pains and needs of the people present, their families, the situations they have left behind. What we very rarely hear, although they are always invited, are words of thanksgiving.
Perhaps we are a people who understand Good Friday much better than we do Easter. Suffering, grief, loss, these are familiar states. Any priest or pastor, looking round her or his congregation, will know a fair number of those who are struggling – and know that there are more whose struggle is hidden. Here, amongst the 60 or so who will gather on a Sunday, I can recognise those whose lives are shadowed by untimely death, sometimes violent, by poverty, by worries over residence qualifications, by domestic violence, by imminent or recent bereavement, by poor health, mental or physical.
So, when we say or sing or even shout our ‘alleluias’ today, what are we saluting? And what relationship do those ‘alleluias’ have to our intercessions? We are not, of course, acknowledging the disappearance of suffering in each of these lives, and in the world to which this congregation is so well connected. Nor are we rejoicing in a facile conviction that our own contributions to injustice and pain have suddenly disappeared. But those prayers of intercession come from a heartfelt need of God’s love and support – and a deep, absolute, trust that it will be found. And I think it is that trust which we will celebrate. It is a trust, articulated or not, in the eschatological promise, in what J D Crossan describes as ‘the Great, Divine, Clean-Up of the world’. The promise of another way, which is not just for the hereafter but which is already being followed. The way of violence, of damage, of exclusion has been challenged – and the heart of our resurrection belief is that the challenge has been triumphantly, mysteriously successful.
There is a stillness to Holy Saturday which is quite unlike any other time of the year.
The quiet between Christmas Day and new year’s is an exhaustion, not least from trying to keep events focussed on God’s place in the stories, amidst the corrosive demands both of an hysterical marketplace and childish sentimentality. This season of the year has a different quality of quietness, though it also has its subversions, more subtle and more insidious than Christmas. Two years ago, one made its way to the movies
Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, was a depiction of the last 24 hours of Jesus’ life. The script was based on an 18th century work, a transcription of the meditations on the passion by an Augustinian nun, Sister Anne Emmerich. It was a brutal, savage depiction of an idea that Jesus suffered because God demanded his life in compensation for the affront of human sin.
It was the latest and very gruesome incarnation of an old thread running through Christian theology, from Ambrose to Anselm and beyond, that only the violent sacrifice of a perfect and sinless Jesus could appease a God whose honour had been offended, and whose anger had been aroused by sinful human beings.
On both sides of the Atlantic, churches block-booked entire cinemas. The faithful were told that this movie showed how it really was, this is what people on the edge of Christian faith need to see, in order to turn to Jesus. The problem was that, for many, it backfired. Whatever the film evoked in our feelings for Jesus, it did not instill any sense of gratitude to God. While one could believe in a divine father who might demand such things of his son, one could not love such a God, who emerges as brutal, affronted and barbaric.
Once you begin to believe in a God who demands compensation, you inherit a spirituality which is always demanding that we give more to assuage our sense of imperfection and failure to live as we feel we are required. This may be why churches which espouse such an understanding of God and sacrifice, also have large incomes.
There is another view of what Jesus accomplished, but it is not so straightforward, does not slot neatly into a Christian basics class. In the sermon we call the Letter to the Hebrews in the Christian Canon, the writer is addressing a congregation creaking under the demands of a compensation demanding deity. The writer describes Jesus as a great High Priest, one who walked as we do, experienced life as we do, endured the same trials as we do but, in all he did, he stayed on track. He did not allow the dark powers to set the terms of engagement. Unlike the War on Terror, in which we have mimicked and multiplied the violence of those who provoked it, Jesus did not return evil for evil, he never compromised his humanity.
The writer to the Hebrews describes Jesus’ last days in terms of offering himself as a sacrifice in the temple of God, not as one taking the punishment necessary to appease an angry God, but as a whole human life fully lived and uncompromised, life as it was created to be.
It matters what we think Jesus accomplished on Good Friday, because from it we decide what God demands us to be and do. Mel Gibson and those who think like him can only deliver us into the hands of a vengeful God, whose demands lead to a relationship between father and son which scarcely bears contemplation. The writer to the Hebrews presents us with a Jesus who is able to let evil pass through him, and not knock him off his course; a Jesus who, in the midst of suffering, cries out, “with prayers and supplications … to the one who was able to save.”
There is a stillness to Holy Saturday which is quite unlike any other time of the year, it is a lull before the end of the story, Jesus’ story and our story. For Jesus it will be the empty tomb, but the writer to the Hebrews tells us that Jesus calls us his brothers and sisters so, in the stillness, we contemplate what is possible for us to follow his way to become fully human.
As we come before the cross today, we inevitably ask “Why did Jesus have to die like this?” Yes, the incarnation, accepting human life, brought with it the inevitability of some kind of death. But did it have to be the kind of death portrayed all too vividly in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ?
Our founding myth tells of the first death, the murder of Abel, at the hands of his brother Cain, and its message is remarkable. Both brothers had offered sacrifices to God.
The Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.”
History, they say, is only told by the victors. They make excuses to prove their own goodness. They affirm the righteousness of their cause in destroying those who opposed them.
But the Bible starts on the other foot. There is, of course Cain’s excuse that his resentment has made him think that God regards his brother’s sacrifice more highly than his own. But it is clear in the telling that he is only trying to justify his own envy. God’s judgement is that he is called to overcome temptation and not yield to the sin he has in mind.
Scripture reveals that murderous envy is the founding sin of humanity. It is this which will bring about the death of God’s Son. It is so universal that it is central to every tragedy, from Greek myth to Italian opera. It has been present in every good night out at the theatre for millennia. And because the tale is so well told, it seduces us into believing that this is how life should be.
The tragedy opens with the introduction of a great hero. But quickly, the person most to be admired, the person everyone would like to be, becomes the person most envied. And the tragedy provides an outlet for the envy felt by the audience. We know that the hero will die. A fatal flaw is discovered in the hero’s character.
We could turn the biblical story into a classical tragedy, starting with the line
the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard.
In a Greek drama we could explain the murder by playing on the capricious favouritism shown by the gods. But the Hebrew scripture, more faithfully to God’s eternal plan, simply reports the sin.
Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell.
In the universal human tragedy, the envious must have their revenge. Shakespeare’s famous line from Julius Caesar “et tu, Brute” reveals that the closest of friends shares in both the murderous envy and the violence.
As the Psalmist says
Even my bosom friend in whom I trusted,
who ate of my bread, has lifted the heel against me.
Once the sin of envy takes hold, everyone in the theatre, whether Greek, Shakespearean, the New York Met or the courtyard of Pilate’s house joins the mob baying for blood. They know how tragedy ends, and even the disciples cannot resist. The Roman governor who correctly deduces that Jesus has been handed over because of envy has to go along with the wishes of the mob, because their lust for blood is getting out of hand. If they are refused their victim, they might turn on Pilate himself. They have come to see a tragedy. Caiaphas the high priest had predicted “You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.”
It still happens. In the wake of 9-11 the President of the United States found himself at the head of a nation demanding retribution. Like Pilate, he knew that he had to find a victim, or he would be driven out of office. His victim, the man he envied, was in Iraq. Saddam remained confidently in place years after George Bush senior had been consigned to history. Bush envied his long term hold on power, he envied the oil revenues, he envied the richness of this culture which so evidently despised the West and he envied the loyalty of the Iraqi army to their leader. As in all tragedies, Bush would start a lying rumour about the man he envied — links to terrorists, weapons of mass destruction — it didn’t matter what. So long as people would join him, then the victors would be able to write their own history afterwards, a history in which they would declare that God was on their side. Blair and Aznar were willing members of the cast of America’s tragedy.
But violence breeds more violence. Iraq has no government. It is on the verge of civil war. It has been bombed into third world status. The liberators have been revealed as persecutors. And for Bush, the impresario of the theatre of death, the only remedy is seen as inviting the world to watch another tragedy, this time with Iran as the envied hero who has to be murdered. Where will it end?
We should have learned from the tale of Cain and Abel. The writing was on the wall from the first murder in scriptural history. We should have learned that envious murder is a sin. Envious murder is not an art form to be celebrated, or a way for people and nations to relate to each other. The foundation of every tragedy is a lie. Surely, when we see what art is displayed in the cause of tragedy, Satan’s greatest victory is the lie that the mob is right in murdering the person they envy.
So the eternal Word of God, through whom all things came into being, came in person, in the hope that even though those who claimed to be his own people might reject him, some of them might actually perceive that there was a different way. Life, not tragic death, was its foundation.
Even his disciples couldn’t believe he was serious about the consequences of his mission. They couldn’t see that his goodness would arouse such envy. All too soon they found themselves sucked into it. But on the way they discovered just enough to be able to recognise a different way, and that when sin has done its worst, God’s plan of love and justice is ultimately accomplished for all humanity from Abel onwards, in the resurrection of the dead.
“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”
Maundy Thursday is a turning point.
Up to today Jesus’s ministry has continued — preaching and teaching, proclaiming the kingdom. But after today the pace quickens considerably, with his arrest, trial and death before another 24 hours have passed.
Maundy Thursday is a turning point too in the story of the relationship between God and humanity.
Throughout his ministry we see Jesus acting out the very message that he was proclaiming. He tells his listeners that the kingdom of God is at hand, that it is among them — and all the while he is doing the things he is talking about. He proclaims that in God’s kingdom the blind will see, the lame will walk, and the sick will be healed — and he goes around restoring sight, raising the paralysed, curing the sick; he proclaims that the kingdom is like a feast to which all will be invited — and he goes around eating and drinking with everyone, from members of the Council to the outcasts of society and the ritually impure, in their ones and twos and in their thousands.
Jesus is not just proclaiming the kingdom, he is also living it: he is inaugurating it and embodying it. And he draws his disciples and others into this realization of the kingdom, above all when they share a meal together.
And then in the last meal before his death, Jesus does something new.
Earlier in the week we saw Jesus’s challenge to the sale of sacrificial animals in the Temple, a challenge to the Temple cult and the covenant which underpinned it. The time of the old covenant is past, and now Jesus inaugurates a new covenant.
In the Temple a person would offer for sacrifice an animal with which they had virtually no connection.
Jesus, however, takes in his hands something which every household would have, a loaf of bread, the work of human hands. As he has eaten with his friends throughout his ministry, so they are to remember him when they break bread together. And it is not an animal that he will offer for sacrifice. This bread, he says, is the body which is his sacrifice. This cup of wine, he says, is the blood of his sacrifice. Jesus’s new covenant between God and humanity, a covenant of fellowship with God in his kingdom, is inaugurated.
Jesus has taken ordinary bread and ordinary wine and declared that these are the sacrificial objects which his friends can offer. This gathering of friends is the temple and this table is the altar for the sacrifice. Forgiveness is offered, and its acceptance is signified by fellowship with Jesus. There is no need any more for the Temple in Jerusalem with all its failings. And at the same time, this meal is itself an enactment, a part, of the feast in God’s kingdom.
And there is one more thing to come.
Before another day has passed Jesus himself will be hanging from the cross, his broken body and out-poured blood now once and for all identified with the bread and the cup. To the remembrance of Jesus’s table-fellowship is added the remembrance of his cross and passion.
Together, identification and remembrance form a sacrament: in remembrance we make present the once-and-for-all actions of Christ at the Last Supper and on the cross; and in identification we can truly see the bread and wine as one with the body and blood of Christ hanging on that cross. In the sacrament the sins of the penitent are wiped clean. And together we proclaim and feast in the kingdom. Here, then, is the sacrament of Jesus’s new covenant.
And yet this is a sacrament that in our human failings manages to divide the followers of Christ. It divides us in our theology and understanding of the sacrament, and it divides us into groups that forbid sharing the sacrament with others or won’t accept it from others who are willing to share. So, our prayer today should echo some more words of Jesus on this day: May they all be one, that the world might believe (John 17.21).
Handel’s Hercules, recently staged at the Barbican in London, was designed as an oratorio to be presented during Lent rather than an opera. After the great success of the Messiah, Handel had turned increasingly to serious religious works and away from opera.
The original story by Sophocles tells of Hercules’ tragic death after returning from successfully completing his twelve labours. In Greek myths great heroes are always envied. They become scapegoats who have to be sacrificed to restore harmony in the community. The envious mob, the audience at the drama, justifies the killing of the hero, by revealing his fatal weakness.
Hercules returns victorious from his labours with a captive princess, and his wife poisons him out of jealousy. In the Greek tragedy the hero has indeed been unfaithful to his wife, and this proves to be his undoing. His wife has a cloak which she thinks will restore the love of someone who has strayed, but in fact it is soaked in poison. So, according to Sophocles, the flawed hero gets his just deserts, and those who envied him feel justified in wishing him dead. The wife, who does not realise the cloak will kill Hercules, is found to be innocent.
Handel’s drama is retold as a moral tale suitable for Lent by a clergyman, the Revd Thomas Broughton. As in Messiah, the hero is portrayed as an innocent victim of envy who does not deserve to die. The jealousy of Hercules’ wife is without foundation. The story will reveal her sin as surely as scripture reveals the sin of those who crucified Jesus.
In Broughton’s story, Hercules is not unfaithful. He wants his son to marry the princess, and his dying wish is fulfilled when they accept each other. When Hercules dies he is welcomed into heaven by the immortal gods who know his innocence, whilst his jealous wife, realising the enormity of her sin, goes mad. The story has been rewritten with a Christ figure, and also a Judas.
Handel’s oratorio wasn’t popular. Perhaps the audience didn’t like the story Thomas Broughton was telling, because it points the finger at our murderous envy of heroes. His Lenten drama called the audience to the virtue of emulating our hero, rather than to the sin of envying him. And emulation, whether it is described as ‘taking up our cross’, or as ‘the imitation of Christ’, is our calling.
Airline passengers arriving in Dublin will, as they leave the airport, pass a billboard poster advertising the Airbus A350 airplane. I have observed this several times and remain unsure of what it is there for. I don’t suppose we are being invited to consider purchasing one of these quality items. But maybe some bright spark at Airbus Industrie SA thought it would make a neat and rather exclusive gift; and in that case the decision to put up the poster around the Feast of the Epiphany (which is when it first appeared) made some sense.
Perhaps it is still possible to take the currents and rhythms of modern life and set them into the context of the church year. The Wise Men did not turn up in Bethlehem bearing the gift of an intercontinental jetliner, but even in our secular culture we have heard the references to gold, frankincense and myrrh enough to feel that what they did bring still has a contemporary resonance, and we can track the Christmas narrative into today’s world, including the world of commerce.
But is that true of the Passion and — if we can mention it gently during this week — the Resurrection? Dublin airport is still advertising the A350 today — so you have not missed your chance to take the special offer — and inside the terminal building the shops and other outlets are full of suggestions for gifts and delicacies ‘for this family season of giving’ (as one poster there suggests). I remember Dublin as recently as the mid-1980s, when you would in Holy Week hear only sombre music on the radio and see edifying black and white films on the television. Now all is changed, and Holy Week has become another great shopping opportunity, with Good Friday now one of the most lucrative days in retailing outside of the pre-Christmas season. Conversely Sunday and Monday will be rather quiet, and in Ireland there will only be a rather smaller number of people preparing for what for them is one of the absolute highlights of the year: the Irish Grand National at Fairyhouse on Easter Monday.
As Anglicans, we believe that the Passion and the Resurrection are indispensable ingredients of the Christian narrative, and complete the story of the Incarnation. Is this a message we can no longer communicate to the wider world, leaving what is left of Christianity in the sentimental state to which it is consigned by the makers of Christmas cards?
In fact, religion as a Disney product doesn’t work. We understand the ups and downs of life, and the story of the Passion has its own resonances in today’s world of famine and terror and tyranny. The planes that brought you to exotic holidays also destroyed the World Trade Centre on 9/11. In Ireland specifically, Easter has a strong historical association with passion and redemption, from Easter 1916 to the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. All these associations are still there, but the church has become bad at prompting them in the public mind.
I fear we have become bad at ‘doing Easter’, and sometimes are uncomfortable with the Passion. This Good Friday, as on every Good Friday, I shall find myself moved again as I approach the great Cross during the Liturgy of the Passion. Maybe I shall make just a bit more of an effort not to come to that alone. I don’t necessarily mean that I shall ask my secular friends to accompany me — though perhaps I should — but I shall bring into church with me just a little bit of the world of Easter eggs and special April gifts, and the world of all those travellers on the A350, and maybe I shall take back out with me just a little bit of the Cross, and the great gift of Him who hung thereon.
After his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, Jesus visits the Temple.
His reaction is one of anger and violence. In the first three gospels, he upsets the tables of the money-changers and those selling doves. In John’s gospel (where this event is strategically positioned at the very start of Jesus’s ministry) he expels those selling cattle, sheep and doves, together with their animals.
It is hard to say if this is a minor skirmish or a major disturbance, but what is clear is that Jesus had issues with the way that the Temple was being run.
The Temple cult, with its associated priests and other officials, was the religious establishment of his day. The sacrifice of cattle, sheep and doves was at the heart of the covenant relationship between God and his people, the Jews. A Jew handed over one of his own animals for sacrifice as a sin-offering, or as a thank-offering for blessings received. In making a sacrifice of his own goods, the faithful and repentant Jew was freed from his sins.
Animals brought for sacrifice had themselves to be pure, free from any defect. Many people in an urban and agrarian setting were unable to provide such animals, and so they could buy them in the Temple forecourt. The purchaser laid their hands on the animal, symbolically taking ownership, before the animal was led away behind the scenes to be sacrificed by the priests.
The buyer thus had little contact with the beast or the sacrifice, despite the requirements of the covenant and the Law.
Jesus saw the relationship with God as being centred around the things that are important to us, everyday meals and deeds and friendships, frequently with the ritually impure. As the psalmist had sung ‘You have no delight in sacrifice; if I were to give a burnt offering you would not be pleased. The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart you will not despise’ (Psalm 51.16, 17).
Jesus’s challenge to the establishment is clear, and that challenge echoes down to us too. Established opinion can be comfortable, and cosy, and we can justify to ourselves the decisions we make as being in line with the received view — whether that is the received view of society or the received view of our fellow believers.
Jesus’s action in the Temple makes a dramatic break with the past. We can see it as symbolic of the ending of the covenant, the covenant to which the Temple cult with its animal sacrifices bore witness. The old establishment, with its comfortable certainties, is no more. Its time is past, and a new covenant between God and all humanity will soon take its place — even the outward form of sacrifice will barely endure for another generation before its destruction by the fire of the Roman invaders. We shall see, later in the week, what Jesus puts in its place.
Fancy some high-class works of art to enrich your Holy Week? Then pop along (as I and a dozen other Bishops on CME did last week) to the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square. Almost every scene has been depicted. In loving detail the great Masters lay before us the Last Supper, Gethsemane, Jesus before the High Priest, and on through to a wonderful image of Christ rising from a sarcophagus clutching a flag of St. George â€“ making him look like a rather dishevelled member of the Barmy Army after a particularly heavy Ashes victory. But somethingâ€™s missing. And that thing is today â€“ Palm Sunday. Liturgically itâ€™s a major part of the Easter Drama, pictorially it has vanished off the radar.
Iâ€™m sure there must be some depictions of Jesus triumphal entry into Jerusalem — and I expect the anoraks among aficionados of this web site to provide us all with hyperlinks — but by comparison with the other major events of Holy Week and Passiontide they are few in numbers. Why?
My suspicion is that Palm Sunday is uncomfortable for Christian art because it is too near the bone. Central to it are people who greet Jesus enthusiastically , scattering palms. And five days later, when he failed to conform to their expectations, they are ready to assent to his crucifixion. The betrayal of Jesus by the Jewish authorities, by Romeâ€™s officers, by the Jerusalem mob and even by his immediate disciples is something we can distance ourselves from. But betrayal by those who cry â€œHosannaâ€ and welcome him into their lives as a Saviour, well thatâ€™s much harder to push away.
Today weâ€™re forced to think about the equivocal nature of our welcome to Jesus. We let him into our lives and into our faith but on our terms. He mustnâ€™t bring children or those with learning disabilities with him, as they might disturb the peace of our worship. He can help us say our prayers but mustnâ€™t make any major demands on our money. Heâ€™s welcome to chide us gently about some of the minor sins we commit, but he must restrict his real challenge to other peopleâ€™s temptations. And he must be prepared to stand shoulder to shoulder with us in the battle to save the church from those dreadful liberals, conservatives, homosexuals, misogynists, radicals, evangelicals, charismatics, Nigerians, Americansâ€¦
To paint the Jerusalem welcome is to depict ourselves, and to draw attention to the conditionality and ambivalence of our faith. No wonder many churches have moved the focus of their Palm Sunday Services to an overview of the whole Passion Narrative, we can lose ourselves among Peter and Judas, Caiaphas and Pilate.
St Francis of Assisi recognised that he would never fully welcome Jesus until he had embraced those he most feared and despised — lepers. He could then go on to welcome Lady Poverty and, in due course, Sister Death. Today you and I are given the opportunity to face a similar challenge. Or we could find some less threatening picture to look at.
Some opposition to women priests appears to centre on the fact that Jesus was a man, and possibly also on the “Fatherhood” of God. The argument assumes that representing Christ at the Eucharist requires a male person. I doubt whether Jesus would have supported the line of reasoning. Matthew 22.23-33 has a story in which Sadducees, who do not believe in the resurrection ask, mockingly, about who will be married at the resurrection to a woman who has had seven husbands on earth. Jesus’ reply is “You are wrong, because you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God. For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven.”
Artists have traditionally followed this guidance by depicting angelic beings without beards or breasts, with no (female) head covering and with clothing which does not denote the sex of the wearer. Depictions of cherubs, sometimes with all the sexuality of the Roman god Cupid, owe more to classical taste than to scripture. Portraying sexuality in angels is mistaken.
Thus Orthodox ikons of the Trinity, which illustrate the appearance of God to Abraham at the Oak of Mamre (Genesis 18) show three angels with wings. The angels look like triplets. They are beardless. The three persons are distinguished mainly by the green robe of the Holy Spirit, and the deacon’s stole on the shoulder of Christ, denoting that he “took the form of a servant”.
Western pictures by contrast might show an old man with a long beard, the young man on the cross, and a dove somewhere between them, with no discernable relationship between the three persons. No doubt it is this somewhat dysfunctional looking image which provides preachers with such a difficult task on Trinity Sunday.
The Orthodox show three beings in fellowship, and the relationship between the persons is devoid of any sexual expression. Christ sits behind a table which clearly also represents an altar on which the Eucharist is presented. He wears his humanity in the deacon’s stole over one shoulder, but the masculinity of Jesus during his life on earth has given way to a depiction in which he is “like the angels in heaven” who “neither marry nor are given in marriage.”
One might then argue that whilst the priest represents the humanity of Christ, what is represented is not just the Jesus of Nazareth who died on the Cross, who was male. Rather, the priest must also represent the risen Christ of the upper room, of Emmaus and of the shore of Galilee, who is “like the angels in heaven” and, mysteriously, difficult even for his closest followers to recognise.
The sex of the priest who represents Christ our great high priest at the Eucharist is then immaterial. The priestly function is not a sexual one, but, in representing Christ who is risen, “neither male nor female”.
In his advent letter to the Primates of the Anglican Communion, Archbishop Rowan Williams offers his advent hopes for individuals, societies and the Church. For the last of these he gives us just two themes – reconciliation and renewal. Being a sucker for alliteration, I would like to add a third – readiness – to make a new version of the “3 R’s”. I have been trying to reflect on these hopes through the season.
I rather regret that in recent times it has become unfashionable in Advent to preach on the “Last Things” (Death, Judgement, Hell and Heaven). Indeed, instead of looking forward to eternity, we are now asked by our lectionaries to look back (to the patriarchs, prophets, John the Baptist and Mary). To be frank, I don‘t think looking at the past is much help in terms of any of these three “R’s”. So let me suggest an Advent alternative.
From this perspective, reconciliation is about recognising that those we are in dispute with on Earth are also those with whom we hope to spend eternity. Despite the old joke (told at some point against most Christian denominations) there is no walled-off enclosure in heaven reserved for those who don’t think that anyone else is up there. In eternity, those with whom I have fallen out now, and to whom I may have behaved uncharitably, will be closer to me than the nearest human being in this present life. The Advent call to the Churches for reconciliation is therefore not so much “unity in diversity”, as “unity in eternity”.
Renewal also has its Advent dimension. We are to breath new life into our earthbound church so that we anticipate something of eternity. Taking just one example, it’s a call to make sure that the heavenly dimension is not absent from our liturgy and worship. And if that seems a rather too obvious thing to say, it is not that uncommon in my experience to find church services that appear to value matey-ness above mystery. A worship that is anticipatory of eternity will speak powerfully to our emotions, to our intellects and to our aesthetic senses. All too often we settle for being gently entertained.
Finally in Advent we are called to readiness. We are invited to prepare ourselves for a God who acts, not capriciously as did the Greek and Roman deities, but with a consistent and loving purpose moving ever towards the ultimate and complete fulfilment of his will. To be ready means to be prepared to wait. To wait for a God who may act sooner or later than we expect. It means to travel light so that, at any point, we are prepared to drop anything that holds us back from responding to where God is. As Archbishop Rowan has said elsewhere, the task of the Church is to notice what God is doing and join in with it.
In the final days of Advent maybe we can move beyond the remembrance of things past, so beloved of our current lectionaries, and begin to look forward. And as we do so, may we look forward both to that great breaking of God into the world that we call the incarnation, and that even greater breaking in of the world into God that we call eternity.
Two news stories have caught my attention in this first week of Advent, and provided contrasting commentaries on the theme of the season.
The first was the kidnap of Norman Kember and his fellow ‘peace activists’ in Iraq. The outline of the story, westerners abducted, lives threatened, is both familiar and shocking, as is so much news coming from that country. The details, as they emerged, tell a less common story. After years of commitment to peace and reconciliation - and a history of opposition to the invasion of Iraq - Norman Kember decided that demonstration, meetings, the Greenbelt peace tent, weren’t enough. ‘I’ve done a lot of writing and talking about peacemaking. I’ve demonstrated, you name it, I’ve been on it, but I feel that’s what I’d call cheap peacemaking.’ He presumably knew the risks he ran in going to Iraq as a westerner, a professing Christian, and operating outside the protective structures of the occupying forces. Prophetic wisdom, or wild folly?
The second story was the Adair Turner report on pensions, which has prompted discussions ranging well beyond the issue of state pension provision. Without doubt, the discussions are much needed, and any outcome will require wisdom and foresight in planning for a future which is sustainable, in which those in greatest need can be supported, in which skills and gifts are used for the common good, and a proper balance is found between rest and continuing productive economic engagement. Sadly, much of what has been said and written has focussed either on individuals or on a sense of unfairness which reminds me of my own childhood dissatisfaction that my brother had a Christmas stocking until he was 13, while for me the cut-off point was 10!
Both stories, for me, echo the Advent theme of preparedness. Norman Kember has left behind security, certainty, physical well-being, and stepped into a world where he must have been prepared for the worst to happen - and it has. The discussion over pensions is a search for the very opposite; it is about preparing for security, for assurance, for the certainty that each of us will be able to live in at least moderate prosperity for the later part of our lives.
I’m 99% sure that I shall be looking for a secure pension in a few years time, not abandoning all assurance in the pursuit of peace. But I found myself wondering whether the Advent call to readiness was really about investing in pension plans; I suspect Norman Kember’s attentiveness to the people of Iraq is closer to the watching and waiting required.
The 300 page report Women Bishops in the Church of England? spends far too long in skirting around peripheral issues, and in failing to address the central point.
If we start with scripture, it must be with Paul — ‘There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.’ The Church made excuses for not eradicating slavery for centuries, and has made similar excuses for not recognizing the equality of women with men. Certainly there is a complementarity, and the other scripture texts point to that. Men and women are very different. But, for the Church of God to be whole, just as in a human family, the roles of both mother and father need to be present. The Church has too long presented itself as a single parent family in which men ruled, and the women were grudgingly accepted as housekeepers.
It is very evident that clergy chapters throughout England, which were once boys’ clubs, have been enormously transformed by the presence of women as equal partners in ministry, and indeed, as leaders of the group in the role of rural dean. A great deal of the posturing about different styles of churchmanship has been tempered, and there has been a more gracious acceptance of those who are different, yet labouring in the same field.
Yet this has been achieved at a very high price in England; allowing a polarization about the ordination of women that has enabled those opposed to become caricatures of their churchmanship in the cosy clubs of traditional Catholics and Evangelicals. These boys’ clubs have become entrenched in their views, and have moved further out of touch with the mood of the nation as a whole. They define themselves by their opposition to women priests and bishops, and undermine their notable work in former times at home and abroad, working in slum parishes here, and ending slavery around the world.
The presence of large numbers of women in public life is slowly having a civilizing influence. Public policy and the conduct of parliament is being transformed. And in many parishes the presence of women priests has brought enormous change and new ways of working. The Church of England’s report needed to look carefully at the way in which the presence of women in public life has made a difference today. Ignoring this is a major omission, and a refusal to see the benefits of making the change. It looks as though the Church doesn’t even yet believe in women having the vote.
We know the arguments about the priest or bishop being an ikon of Christ. We need to see women in that role precisely because we need to show both men and women that the Church believes we are all one in Christ, and that it is humanity, not just men, who are made in the image of God.
The Civil Partnership Act, which will allow same sex couples to register a civil partnership, will come into force at the end of this year. The House of Bishops of the Church of England has issued this statement on the subject.
The tone of the statement, and the speed with which it was issued, suggests that the bishops were fearful of the growing rift with some parts of the Anglican Communion about the issue of homosexual relationships.
Peter Selby, the Bishop of Worcester, has distanced himself from the statement, saying that a previous commitment to ‘listen to the experience of lesbian and gay people’ has not been honoured. He maintains that the new Civil Partnership Act should be regarded as ‘A source of delight, not fear’. He notes that although the General Synod in 1997 urged ‘deanery synods, clergy chapters and congregations to find time for prayerful study and reflection on the issues’ about homosexual relationships, in fact little discussion has taken place. We have been very shy of raising the issues at all.
Our local deanery synod and clergy chapter in Cambridge recently shared in some most fruitful discussions on the subject led by the vicar of St. Mark’s, the Revd Dr. Sam Wells. (He is now Dean of Chapel at Duke University) For many people this provided the first opportunity to discuss issues about homosexuality in a Christian context. For the clergy it opened the door to further preaching and discussion and this has been widely welcomed.
The Bishops, in making their statement, had been anxious to preserve what they saw as a world wide Anglican consensus on an issue which is proving divisive. But no worldwide consensus exists. Whilst in Europe the rights of homosexual people are increasingly defended by law, in many other parts of the world, notably in parts of Africa and South East Asia, the opposite situation prevails. We have a responsibility to work within the laws of our own nations as far as conscience allows. The Anglican Church does not make the law, either here, or in any other country.
In Britain the Civil Partnership Act could not have been passed unless those framing the law were convinced that what was being offered was right, good and proper. It has been done after listening to the experience of lesbian and gay people, and coming to an appreciation of their place in society. The government has clearly gone ahead of public opinion, but that is not unusual. All of society, not just homosexual people, has suffered in the past because people felt afraid to be open about their relationships. A dozen years ago even MPs were taunted just for being gay, and the Church remained silent and afraid to discuss the issue.
The Church is not being asked to allow such partnerships to be registered in church in the way that a marriage can be registered by a priest. However, these partnerships will be ‘legal, decent, honest, truthful’, to quote the line used by the Advertising Standards Authority.
Since heterosexual couples, dedicating the rest of their lives to each other, may do so with prayer in church, even if they are not married in church, then we might consider giving the same opportunity to same-sex couples.
We shall need time to appreciate the significance of the act. Some analogy with marriage has to be made, particularly in the way that the public declaration of a partnership means it should be respected by all. The partners promise to be faithful to each other, and society, represented by the witnesses, promises to respect the exclusivity of their relationship. Surely this ‘strengthens society’ as we affirm in the marriage service. More than this, as Peter Selby says, it should be ‘a source of delight’.
It is worth noting that he is not the only senior churchman to welcome the new legislation. When it came to the House of Lords eight of the Bishops who are members, Chelmsford, Manchester, Norwich, Oxford, Peterborough, St Albans, St Edmondsbury & Ipswich and Truro, took the trouble to be present and vote in favour of the measure.
It is encouraging that they felt able to do so. Perhaps the statement subsequently made by the Bishops was hasty. We might need to do some more listening, and see how the new act works out in practice.
I arrived for a six week visit to our sister diocese of Peru about 10 days after the London bombings. A few days later a second set of bombers attempted, but failed, to set off four more devices. Everywhere I went I met huge outpourings of support for Britain. And the accompanying message was always, “We know what your country is going through. We have experienced terrorism here too”.
The effects of the Shining Path violence are still evident in Peruvian society. For about a decade the rural hinterland of the country was especially unsafe. Over that period millions flocked into the shanty towns or “pueblos jovenes” that surround Lima, mostly living in shacks made of matting. Economic life stagnated. Businesses failed. The Anglican Diocese itself almost collapsed totally as foreign personnel (especially targeted by the guerrillas) were withdrawn and Peruvian nationals with saleable skills headed north, to the USA or elsewhere. Priests told me of messages pushed under doors threatening to burn their churches down. Then, in the late 90’s, the government of President Fujimori (himself now in exile after fleeing corruption charges, but planning a new presidential bid next year) broke the back of the Maoist movement and Peru began to enjoy the peace, stability and economic growth that characterise it today.
Everyone I met had their stories of suffering from the Shining Path period. It was good of them to empathise with the present London experience, if somewhat overgenerous – it is unlikely that Britain will face anything remotely resembling the sustained attack on its structures and economy that Peru went through.
About a month into my stay, by which time I had been joined by 16 fellow members of the Diocese of Worcester, we were invited, with the permission of the prison authorities, to spend a day as part of our hosts’ long standing ministry to women prisoners. Sentences are undeniably harsh by European standards, particularly for women, and it is not uncommon to spend well over a year in custody awaiting trial. But the regime itself in some ways compared favourably. There are real efforts to teach skills, and mothers can have their children with them up to three years of age. The prisoners make craft goods which are then sold outside with the money returning to the producers to provide funds for extra toiletries, food etc. There was good access to outside telephones lines, though medical assistance is not as readily available as in European penal institutions. Much mirrored the conditions of life in the poorer areas of Lima itself.
With the exception of telephone kiosks the same seemed to apply in the maximum security section we visited after lunch. We were allowed, even encouraged, to take in a modest amount of cash with which to purchase handicrafts from the prisoners. There were few prison officers but the women told us there were no problems with violence. One block brought out guitars and sang songs to us and we replied with the “a capella” version of the 23rd psalm we had practised for such eventualities. Then they began a dance and invited us to join in. The women told us of how dramatically their conditions had improved in recent years. We were introduced to a tiny baby conceived during a conjugal visit to one woman from her husband who is a prisoner in another jail. We watched some of them making sculptures from clay and painting. And we learned that visitors are permitted for most of the day. Some prisoners told us that they are currently awaiting retrials because the law under which they had been convicted had been ruled unconstitutional. Then they began to speak of how they cared for each other because they were all members of the same party, and how their leader was prevented from mixing with the other prisoners. Suddenly the lack of religious pictures and scriptural passages on the walls (unusual for Latin America) struck home – these were the Shining Path members we had heard so much about on the outside.
One of the hardest things that Britain has had to cope with in these last few weeks has been the very normality of the lives of those who detonated bombs in London. We want the perpetrators of such atrocities to be radically different from ourselves, creatures of utter evil whose lives are depraved in every aspect. However, even allowing for some wrongful convictions, and for some whose offences may have been entirely non-violent, I can’t escape the fact that, in Peru, I have been dancing with terrorists. And that they were without exception pleasant, friendly, appreciative individuals.
I need to hold on to the fact that well-intentioned and caring individuals can commit appalling atrocities in the name of some cause deemed high enough to justify it. The original aim of Shining Path – to present a solution to the poverty and inequality rife in Peru by promoting a society based on the radical equality that underpins communism – is not of itself evil; indeed it has much in it that is laudable. The use of violence as part of the means to overthrow despotic regimes is the story of the liberation of Africa (and elsewhere) in the 20th century. Somewhere Shining Path lost the balance. It terrorised the general population more than it pressurised the government. And maybe it was ill-fated in presenting a communist solution at the very moment when that political philosophy was collapsing across the globe. It never succeeded in breaking out from being a small vanguardist force. Its attacks on Peru’s economy did not persuade the mass of the people that capitalism was the prime problem. Part of the tragedy of the recent bombings in London (and before that in Madrid and elsewhere) is that it is hard to see any realistic link between the political goals of the bombers and their actions.
It was a thesis of the French existentialist (and erstwhile international goalkeeper) Albert Camus that to understand all is to forgive all. For Christians I suspect that has to be a statement more about God than humanity. To understand is not automatically to forgive. Or maybe to forgive is not to exonerate from the consequences of a person’s actions. I’m glad, not least for the sake of the many friends I have made in Peru, that the Shining Path terrorism is a thing of the past, and that those who led it on its violent course are largely now behind bars. But I’m grateful that I was allowed, briefly, to see not only the scars that Peru bears from its history, but the humanity, the normality, and even the face of Christ, in some of those who bear responsibility for it, and who now serve out their sentences. And that the Anglican Church continues to minister in such places.
I’m writing this piece some four weeks into a stay in the Diocese of Peru. It’s my first lengthy opportunity to spend time in a part of the Anglican Communion in the global south.
Part of coming here has been not only to see what a sister diocese is doing but also to gain some perspective on my own ministry and priorities, and to see the life of the Church of England from a different viewpoint. The reflections are obviously my own, and equally obviously carry all the naivety that goes with only a month’s exposure.
Being Anglican in this country that is neither English speaking nor a former part of the British Empire is about having a faith that has both the liveliness of some of the more recent Pentecostal missions (usually imported from North America) and the sacramental underpinning and liturgy of Catholicism. There is evidence that this wasn’t always the case. At some points in the past British missionaries have used South America as a place to export both very partial styles of churchmanship that were marginal positions at home and their personal disgruntlement with British Anglicanism too. Mercifully this is no longer prevalent.
To what feels now a very healthy mixture is added a real imperative to work among the poor in both the expanding metropolitan areas and the remote, highly underdeveloped, rural regions. A generation ago, in the time of Gustavo Guttierez, there was much impressive work done by the Roman Catholic Church in taking up the concerns of the marginalised in the urban “pueblos jovenes” or shanties. Sadly, this seems to have been lost through the consistent policy of the previous pope in imposing conservative bishops on the dioceses. Several of the Anglican clergy are themselves former RC priests.
After very difficult times in the period of the Shining Path guerrilla movement Peru has enjoyed more settled years of late. There is evidence all around of the economy growing. The Lima shanties that Henri Nouwen described twenty years ago are now graced by solid houses and tarmac roads. Further out onto the slopes of the mountains new developments of basic shacks repeat what he then described, but the evidence is of communities over time becoming established and gradually edging from grinding poverty to relative poverty. The pattern is similar elsewhere in the country.
This mixture of civil stability and growth is providing a solid foundation on which the church can expand. What a small body such as the Anglican diocese, with no more than a dozen or so churches and a handful of missions in development, can achieve is necessarily limited, but it is being done with real passion in schools, churches, children’s homes, medical clinics, employment training projects and canteens. New church missions are being planted in the most recent and poorest areas, whilst in more established ones existing work is being expanded. Priests and lay workers are being trained in the diocese, and a new seminary to open shortly in Lima (there is already a part time one in Arequipa) will at last allow potential clergy to be trained in a fully Anglican environment. Parish mission teams come from North America and beyond. They experience a week or so in the life of the church here, and help with the practical work of the missions. In many cases when they return home they continue to offer support to the ongoing work.
The church here knows how important it is to be a member of a wider communion. A very significant proportion of time and energy goes into welcoming visitors from other parts of the world. As a small and relatively recently established church it knows how much it benefits from being part of a communion that has many millions of adherents across the globe, and from the insights and experiences of Anglicanism that they bring. I’m sure that many Anglicans here are scarcely aware of what they have to offer in return, not least as a church that is discovering and delighting in an identity and pattern of mission that many of us elsewhere simply take for granted. Moreover, if being deeply, loyally Anglican mattered less then decisions taken by provinces in the global north could be more easily shrugged off.
To be human is to prioritise. There are only so many battles that can be fought at once and only so many areas in which the church can deepen its life. The priorities hare are pretty hard to argue with. They are to build the church, especially in the poorer areas, through good liturgy, lively worship, social action and Christian teaching. And to build it in ways that are coherent with indigenous culture and sustainable into the long term; avoiding overdependence on the particular gifts and preferences of the small number of overseas personnel that might be working here at any particular time. In Peru at least, the increasing role of women as sole providers for their families, and the presence of a small number of women deacons, suggests that the ground is being prepared for future debate about gender inequalities in the church and beyond. However any idea that the church here either could or should get itself into a position to open up a wider debate on sexuality issues is pretty far fetched.
Earlier this week I stood overlooking the Colca Canyon as a Peruvian Anglican priest pointed out the remote villages, with neither electricity nor roads, on the opposite side. It takes him several days to complete a circuit of them on foot. It took the pair of us six hours and one breakdown on a rickety bus to even reach this point. It took as long with two breakdowns to get back again. It’s a long way geographically from a diocese in Central England where I can be in any of 280 church buildings in less than an hour from home. And some of the pressing issues may seem very different too. But what I am experiencing here is both prayerfully thoughtful and essentially Anglican.
Some small Parisian boys, back from their Saturday morning at the pictures almost half a century ago, were anxious to know the formula spoken by a cowboy holding a gun when he required someone to raise their hands in the air. The films had sub titles, rather than being dubbed, and the boys were convinced that there ought to be a definitive, universally understood expression. To their way of thinking, saying “Stigamup”, or something like it, usually guaranteed that in the lawless western frontiers of the USA, an unnecessary shooting was often avoided. Whilst the first application of this expression would be in their games, maybe they were thinking that, were they ever to travel to the wild west, they would need to recognise the one phrase which demanded instant obedience.
Just as everyone understood the culture of American Westerns, in which the law was that of the gun, so people knew that in Britain, the law was represented by an unarmed officer of the Crown in a dark uniform, with an immensely tall, distinctive hat.
On my way to Paris, I had arrived at Euston station in the early morning on a postal train. The tube hadn’t started running, so there was nothing to do but wait. Two dishevelled, unshaven men asked me my business. They presented me with their police warrants as proof of their good intentions. Presumably they were wondering whether this schoolboy had run away from home.
I didn’t believe them. What could a police warrant mean to me? They declined my offer to verify whether they were who they claimed to be by going with me to the police office clearly visible on the station. So, after a few more questions which I refused to answer, they left, as they said “in order to preserve their anonymity”.
It is perfectly possible that a visitor to London today would still expect the capital’s police to be identifiable. A real Bobby still has a tall hat. Armed police on television are in uniform, and guns are carried with a prominent swagger. With this level of understanding by the public, any first encounter with a plainclothes officer could give rise to misunderstanding. He might be regarded as a potential thief or a mugger, which is exactly what I thought of the men who approached me. To an innocent person, an armed man with no uniform would appear to be a criminal.
Our police have obviously little idea of the huge change in culture that would be required before someone with a gun but no uniform might, on shouting “Stigamup” get the same response as that seen in old western films.
Nor do the police appear to understand the gulf in perception which being on an anti terrorist mission puts between them and the ordinary public. Statistically, our experience of the police is not about terrorism. It is confined to speeding fines and parking tickets. Our thinking and that of the police are worlds apart.
It also appears that, if the word “terrorist” appears, normal behaviour by the police is suspended. Actions can look like the result of an adrenaline fuelled high rather than following from a proper assessment of information. “Intelligence” in the case of the shooting of Harry Stanley in 1999, for carrying a chair leg in a carrier bag, or in the case of the death of Jean Charles de Menezes, was woefully inadequate. The fact that the latter was killed by a hail of bullets adds to the impression that adrenaline had taken over from reason in the minds of all the officers involved. Long hours, no leave because of the current emergency, and a constant feeling of being under pressure can’t have helped.
It is difficult to see how such mistakes can be avoided, when the gap in perception between an ordinary innocent person going about their business and the police officer, pumping adrenaline and believing himself to be on an anti-terrorist mission, is so high. If Harry Stanley was shot for having an “Irish” accent, when he was clearly Scots, and a Brazilian gets shot for appearing middle eastern, the potential for further cases of mistaken identity is enormous.
What makes things worse is the attempts to blacken the name of the innocent victim. We’ve heard that he was in the country illegally, that he was fiddling with wires, that his jacket looked as though it concealed a bomb. All of this and more now seems false, and the police hadn’t even checked to see how many flats lay behind the shared entrance.
Half the population of London — that is anyone other than a white Anglo-Saxon, must feel that they are under suspicion. They must feel threatened by both terrorists and police. In the heat of the moment they won’t know whether someone in plain clothes with a gun is a police officer or a terrorist taking hostages.
It is hard to know what a Christian, particularly a white Anglo-Saxon one should do. Certainly we need to put ourselves alongside those who feel afraid. Do we need to show our solidarity with those who may be targeted by looking like them? Should we darken our complexions, dye our hair black, and for good measure adopt at least one item of middle eastern attire? Perhaps then at least, travelling around London, we might be able to experience the hostility and alienation currently felt by many Muslims. Or do we wear and wave a Brazilian flag, as the sign that the man who was killed was our brother and our neighbour?
It is even harder to know how the police should behave. But surely there is a case for continuing as normal, for engaging people in conversation in a way which does not immediately look threatening. We know how to respond to “Excuse me sir, just a routine enquiry.” We don’t know how to react to guns, and the police appear dangerously unaware of that.
It isn’t easy to know what to do in the face of a terrorist threat. But when we kill innocent citizens, the terrorists are the only people who win.
A couple of weeks ago, I visited Little Gidding. Not for the first time, and not, I hope, for the last, either. But it was the first time I had been in about five years, so it was good to be back.
A long time before, back in 1993, at the dawn of the popular internet, I wrote a piece about a visit to Little Gidding for an Anglican email list. (You can read a copy of that piece here.) At that time Little Gidding was the home of a small community, as well as a wider group of Friends, but in the intervening years the community disbanded and there was some dispute over the future ownership of the community buildings. But now the dispute has been settled, the Friends of Little Gidding have been reconstituted, new wardens installed in Ferrar House, and the ministry of hospitality continues.
So, on a lovely Sunday afternoon we headed up the A14, across the A1, turning off at Leighton Bromswold (to pay homage to George Herbert) and on to Little Gidding. The ‘dull facade’ looked almost beautiful in the late afternoon sun, the noticeboard (new since our last visit) slightly detracting from the composition. Inside, the sun shone brightly through the clear glass and the stained glass of the windows, and the old familiar place looked just the same. This is the place where the Ferrar family, led by Deacon Nicholas, came to say their prayers, morning and evening each day, the centre of their spiritual life. This is the place, hallowed by their community, where ‘prayer has been valid’, this is the place closest to us, now and in England.
Nicholas Ferrar lived in a time of increasing prosperity, with the foundations being laid for the later British commercial and imperial greatness. Ferrar himself came from a wealthy mercantile family, involved in foreign trade and the settlement of English colonies in North America.
It was also a time of religious turmoil in England. Just five years before his birth an attempted invasion by a foreign power aiming to overthrow Queen Elizabeth I and her protestant government had been foiled by a combination of the heroics of Sir Francis Drake and the stormy weather. When Ferrar was 12 a conspiracy to blow up the Houses of Parliament and to kill the king and his government was only narrowly averted, thanks to careful intelligence and leaks from the inside. And not long after his death England erupted into civil war.
Ferrar’s response to this, like that of his contemporary George Herbert, was to live a quiet and godly life. He abandoned the pursuit of worldly wealth and status for a life of prayer and contemplation, in a community of family and other associates. But this was not escapism. Rather, it was an engagement in real life, an engagement with ordinary people and their everyday concerns, as a teacher, as a healer (Ferrar had studied medicine at Cambridge, Padua and Leipzig), as a counsellor. He and his community were consulted by the poor, by the politically active, and by the great and the good — right up to the king himself.
Although Nicholas Ferrar died in his 40s on 4 December 1637 and his community survived only another decade before it was ransacked by the victorious Puritans, and dissolved a further decade later at the death of Nicholas’s eldest brother John, his example still shines as a beacon of sanity in a complex and sometimes frightening world. A life of caring for ordinary people, of ministering to their needs, physical, intellectual and spiritual, a life of quiet, undemonstrative prayer and study, is one that we would all do well to emulate. ‘It is the right, good old way you are in,’ Nicholas Ferrar said to his brother, shortly before he died; ‘keep in it.’
The revelation that those who carried out the suicide bombings in London were British citizens is a shock. It would have been far easier to be able to regard the terrorists as people from out there, people who were totally different, people with whom we had nothing in common, and for whom were needed have no fellow feeling.
But we have been here before, and we need to learn from our history. This year marks the 400th anniversary of the Gunpowder Plot, possibly the most audacious acts of terrorism ever planned. It was planned by Englishmen. It was planned not by the poor or the dispossessed, but by people who largely were privileged and comfortable.
At the accession of King James VI of Scotland to the throne of England in 1603, those who wanted to worship as Catholics had hoped that the new king would be more sympathetic to them than Queen Elizabeth had been. At first James had appeared to favour them, but the Puritans objected to the new relaxed attitudes. James brought back the fines for those who would not worship as Anglicans, and expelled Catholic priests and Jesuits. This intolerance proved to be a breeding ground for extremism of the most audacious kind. And this was within the hearts of Englishmen who loved England. Like the men who successfully bombed London last week, they were indistinguishable from the rest of the population.
Today we have to learn from history. 400 years ago a religious war was beginning in England. The Puritans were determined to get the king to treat Catholics so harshly that they didn’t feel they had a future in England. The Gunpowder Plot led to more repression, partly to the Civil War, certainly to Cromwell’s hated campaigns in Ireland. In the city of Drogheda he ordered the death of every man in the garrison, describing this as “a righteous judgment of God upon these barbarous wretches”. In Wexford he slaughtered townspeople and garrison alike.
The legacy of the response to the gunpowder plot has been severe repression and hostility particularly in Ireland which has continued until our own day. It has set the native largely catholic population against the immigrant ruling protestant class for generation after generation. The two communities have been unable to trust each other, and the reason both catholic and protestant terrorists were able to function was that on both sides they knew no-one in their own community would betray them.
Today we stand at that same point in relation to the recent bombings in London as people stood on November 5th 1605. And today we have to reach out and acknowledge that people of Muslim faith have a legitimate and valuable part to play in British society today. We cannot afford to reject people of good will. We need them on our side if good is to triumph.
The Bush administration in the USA with its war on terror has been just as misguided as that of Oliver Cromwell. Its indiscriminate bombing, destruction of infrastructure and failure to establish a rule of law which could be trusted, its treatment of prisoners and detainees have all made things infinitely worse since 9-11.
Jesus tells a parable (Matthew 13.24-30,36-43) which is appropriate to today’s situation. An enemy comes by night and sows weeds in the field. The slaves of the household are up in arms, and want to rush into the field and gather up the weeds. But Jesus says “No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them.”
Our danger is that we could, as in the heavy handed and intolerant response to the gunpowder plot 400 years ago, rush in and make things infinitely worse, alienating good citizens of Muslim faith here, and breeding terrorists across the world. We have, fortunately, the good example of the dignified and appropriate response of Spain to the Madrid bombings as a much better example to follow.
The parable of the weeds sown in the crop has an important lesson. We are to live with those who are different. We do not know, and we do not decide which of us is ultimately the good seed which God will harvest at the end of the age. He sends his angels to do that. But we trample down those who are different at our peril, for in doing so, we spoil the good crop, we spoil even ourselves. We find our good intentions turned to hatred and our zeal to oppose what is wrong carries us away in a fury of righteous anger. And we become like an Oliver Cromwell, trampling on the whole of Ireland, turning people against each other for generation after generation.
Our task is to produce the good seed for the harvest, so that at the judgement we will be those whose response to God’s grace will find its fulfilment in his kingdom.
Some myths of course we haven’t believed for a long time. Few of us really thought that Britain was somehow exempt from terrorist attack. Nor did we seriously expect that on each and every occasion security forces would be able to prevent an atrocity before it happened. But the myth that many of us held until this week, and which we have now painfully had to relinquish, was that terrorists are radically different from you and me. As I write, the backgrounds of the four suicide bombers are beginning to become clear. From what we can tell at this stage these were ordinary young British men. Born and brought up in this country, educated here, from unremarkable law abiding families. Outwardly at least their interests were the same as those of many of their age and sex.
Chillingly, that closeness is not defined to their backgrounds. For those of us of religious conviction it is equally present in their motivations. Christianity is founded on the story of a man who gave up his life for the sake of others. Faith relativises death in two ways. Most religions declare it neither to be the end nor the most important factor to be considered. I guess that the bombers were like us too in wanting (and this is rightly especially prevalent among young adults) to feel that they were part of something huge – even the outworking of God’s plan itself. The motivations of the original crusaders (who detonated the first suicide bomb a thousand years ago) are not so different from those of these young men.
It’s only after having recognised our similarities that we should go on to focus on the differences. I am helped enormously by the comment of a brother bishop some years ago. He drew an illuminating distinction between “theologies of life” and “theologies of death”. Both are present in Christianity. Both have their place. And in any one of us both will be operating at the same time. One or other however will be the dominant.
Theologies of death focus on temptation, sin, the battle between the divine and the demonic. The central symbol is the cross with Jesus hanging bleeding on it. The world is the entity that nails him there.
Theologies of life by comparison focus on love, forgiveness, the rich abundance of God’s creation. The cross remains the central symbol but here it is empty. Christ is risen, gone before, leading his people. The world, and the rich diversity in it, is itself a pointer to God’s glory.
Those who detonate bombs killing themselves and innocent travellers are operating from within a theology of death. We are closer to them than is comfortable whenever we allow our faith to be more rooted or expressed in what we oppose than in what we affirm. As the scriptures reiterate again and again the mission of Jesus was to bring not death but life. If we are to seriously distinguish ourselves from terrorism it is a theology of life that must predominate, whatever the particular matters being debated.
Faith leaders are rarely to be found with rucksacks full of explosives strapped to their backs but when we propound theologies that place God’s creation under the control of the devil or we declare humanity to be utterly depraved and make that the lynchpin of our position we are ultimately providing the ideological underpinning for actions that in themselves we rightly abhor.
As we await news of the G8’s deliberations, it was good to receive, as others must have done, letters from Tony Blair to all who had contacted him about the MAKEPOVERTYHISTORY campaign. It read like a ringing endorsement of our participation in the march around Edinburgh last Saturday.
As soon as we discovered that a cheap flight from Stansted would allow us to join the demonstaration, visit my sister in Edinburgh and get back in time for the Sunday services, we had to go. Initially the organisers had hoped for 100,000 people, double the number that had gone to make a human chain around Birmingham in 1998, appealing for the relief of debt as the jubilee year approached. Certainly our government had welcomed that human chain as a sign that the G8 needed a new agenda.
This time the numbers and the organisation proved far greater. Where Birmingham had a static human chain, Edinburgh the chain was a march which went on for hours. By the time we completed the circuit there were still so many people waiting to begin the march the whole queue was at a standstill, three hours after the first people had begun.
Initially the crowd met in the Meadows, where two stages with giant screens were set up. Images, speeches and music underlined the message of why we were there. Glorious sunshine, and colourful banners added to the enjoyment of the occasion. The rival attraction of watching the Bob Geldof concert either at home or on a large screen somewhere had obviously not diminished the crowds.
Compared with Birmingham, the police presence and the vast number of barricades, looked like complete overkill. On Princes Street, the main thoroughfare of the city, the width of the road filled with four rows of barricades was greater than the width afforded to the marchers. But why? The joyful crowds were adequately marshalled by a large contingent of trade unionists in yellow vests. Under their guidance we were held back at the start and then allowed through a fairly narrow gap, about ten abreast, for the march. Above us, across Edinburgh Castle on its crag, was a huge MAKEPOVERTYHISTORY banner.
One wag with a megaphone yelled out “Call this a march? It’s only an amble. Step it out as if you mean it!” He then turned on the megaphone to give a brief imitation of a police siren.
Amongst the sea of white clothing, a few anarchist troublemakers in black with hoods and faces covered stood out so much that they were easily rounded up by police before any problems could be caused.
The day before, preparations being made in the shopping centre were hugely varied. Some places remained open, and we were certainly grateful for the opportunity of a late lunch. Thousands more marchers must have appreciated the fact that most eating places were open. But apart from the demonstrators, Edinburgh was extremely quiet and many people must have gone on holiday. Some shops were closed, and had signs in the window saying “Closed — so that our staff can join the march”. Others were boarded up, some in order to remain open behind fortress like entrances, but the majority were closed. Perhaps Saturday, for the police and for those who boarded up their shops, was only a seen as a prelude to protests by violent protesters.
But for all who dressed in white and joined the march, it was a great and purposeful day, helping to set the world’s agenda in a way which meant that the poor could no longer be ignored, and that justice needed to be done. The city’s transport coped well, and there were no problems in making return journeys. Indeed, we were at home in time to see the conclusion of the Hyde Park concert.
The Co-op Bank does not want to hold an account for Christian Voice. The Bank is taking this stance because of the organisation’s attitude to homosexuals. It says ‘99% of Christians would not support the level of discrimination against homosexuals urged by Christian Voice’
In an interview on BBC Radio 4’s ‘Today’ programme Simon Williams for the Bank said ‘They are extreme views. They are not mild views… They simply do not fit with our ethical policies… such as… “Homosexual policemen are corrupted by what they do. How can they investigate cases of corruption?”’
Having seen the Christian Voice web site, which has a large section devoted to the participation of police in gay pride marches, it does appear that Christian Voice has an obsession with homosexuality which seems unusual. They do not, for example, suggest that divorced police officers should not investigate matrimonial disputes, or that police officers who commit adultery should not investigate cases of corruption. And whereas they may consider that homosexual activity is a crime against God, it is not, like adultery, also a crime against the spouses of those who engage in adulterous relationships.
It looks as though homosexuals are being singled out for hatred as the Co-op Bank say.
The Archbishop of Canterbury referred to this kind of behaviour in his presidential address to the Anglican Consultative Council on 20 June 2005. He said:
We are always in danger of the easiest religious technique of all, the search for the scapegoat; Paul insists without any shadow of compromise upon our solidarity in rebellion against God, and so tells us that we shall not achieve peace and virtue by creating a community we believe to be pure. And these words are spoken both to the Jew and the Gentile, both to the prophetic radical and the loyal traditionalist. The prophet, says Barth, ‘knows the catastrophe of the Church to be inevitable’ and he knows also that there is no friendly lifeboat into which he can clamber and row clear of the imminent disaster.’
‘We are all butchers pretending to be sacrificers. When we understand this, the skandalon that we had always managed to discharge upon some scapegoat becomes our own responsibility, a stone as unbearably heavy upon our hearts as Jesus himself upon the saint’s shoulders in the Christopher legend’. Not Barth this time, but René Girard, the French philosopher (A Theatre of Envy: William Shakespeare, p.341), once again paraphrasing Paul’s central theme.
I’d like to ask why Christian Voice should particularly choose to scapegoat the gay community. In one sense, the question has no rational answer. It is as incomprehensible as the idea which erupted in many parts of Europe in the middle ages that Jews took Christian boys to sacrifice at Passover. Both are just examples of a group finding solidarity in turning their corporate wrath on to a scapegoat. We can possibly appreciate how people in the middle ages might have perceived those of different faith or customs to be a threat. But what threat could a homosexual person possibly pose to heterosexual people? The gay man is not going to steal my wife, and I know that sex with any other person, male or female, breaks the marriage vows which I took before God and in the eyes of the state.
So is the problem for Christian Voice precisely that the gay man does not want my wife? He doesn’t envy me for having an attractive wife, or see me as a rival for someone he desires? Reading the Archbishop’s references to Girard, is the perceived problem about gay people the fact that they seem often so envy free in comparison with those whose role model is the dominant male? Is that why they are victimised?
Or is it particularly for men who see themselves as dominant, a fear of being raped? Often they are the people who maintain that the Church must be led by men, and that women should “submit” to their husbands. Such men enjoy dominance, and see that view supported by scripture. For such a person, homosexual rape is the ultimate humiliation. This is the story of the men of Sodom in Genesis 19 and one can see how repugnant it is. But Lot’s solution ‘Look, I have two daughters who have not known a man; let me bring them out to you, and do to them as you please.’ is even more horrific: he appears to treat his daughters as property which he can give for anyone to abuse.
Within a Christian context the situation in Uganda where in 1885 King Mwanga had three pages dismembered and burned for rejecting his homosexual advances is almost equally well known. The young men are rightly regarded as martyrs.
Homosexual rape is an extreme example of male domination, with a specific intention of humiliating the victim. Of course, fear of this kind of activity should give men an insight in to the horror which any woman has of being raped, and this danger is much greater than the danger to men. It is at least arguable that throughout the Bible what is condemned about homosexual activity is that it is not seen as an act of love but of repugnant male violence by a dominant person against an unwilling, weaker sexual partner.
But a loving partnership of two people of the same sex is completely different from that. For, just as one would hope that in a marriage the partners should seek each other’s greatest good and happiness in their sexual activity, one would suppose that the same intentions would be present in a homosexual couple. The law provides protection against rape both for homosexual and heterosexual couples, even where the latter are married. It is for the individual to judge whether sexual activity is consensual or abusive.
To my mind that should be the limit of the church’s concern about homosexual couples. After all, in Britain today, we have far more unmarried heterosexual couples, and they aren’t the recipients of abuse and hatred all the time from ‘Christian Voice’.
In my view the Co-op Bank was right to draw attention to the bigoted homophobic victimization of the gay community by ‘Christian Voice’. Would that others might adopt a similarly ethical stance.
Just after reading the ARCIC Report on Mary I attended a lecture in Cambridge on “The Bible and the Emergence of Modern Science” by Prof Peter Harrison, of Bond University, Australia. It marked the conclusion of a series sponsored by the Templeton Foundation.
Prof. Harrison began by referring to C P Snow, and to the way in which scientists and theologians didn’t understand each other. Then, going through a history of the way in which scriptures had been interpreted, he pointed out that, alongside the literal meaning of any text, the words of scripture were also read in a variety of allegorical senses until the end of the middle ages. Medieval works on natural history exhibited the same kind of interest in allegory, with mythical beasts sitting comfortably alongside animals which could be observed.
At the Renaissance, with the coming of printing, and modern vernacular texts of scripture, the Reformers discarded the allegorical meanings in favour of literal meanings. So whilst allegorical commentaries on the Song of Songs had once been popular, in Reformation times it became far more important to explore the literal meaning of what Paul wrote to the Romans.
This critical approach to biblical texts gradually spread to other fields of learning. Prof. Harrison demonstrated that some books on natural history in England in the early 17th century continued to describe mythical animals long after biblical scholarship in reformation countries had pointed the way towards seeing literal meanings as being of prime importance. Eventually, science based solely on observation and experiment began to flourish unimpeded in England, Holland and Sweden, where allegorical meanings of scripture had been discarded. But in Catholic countries, scientists like Galileo were severely constrained by the church establishment.
Prof. Harrison concluded his lecture by returning to C P Snow and to the continuing problem that theologians and scientists can still use language and assign meanings to words in different ways.
In my view the new ARCIC document illustrates the same difficulty. There is no problem with the literal meaning of the gospel texts. Whilst we acknowledge that the title “Mother of God” may be a poor translation of the original Greek term, 16th century reformers, and Anglicans today are in agreement about the way in which this title is understood. The problems centre on those interpretations of scripture in which Anglicans would argue that a more than literal reading haws been applied.
The report acknowledges the problem, saying
In the following paragraphs, our use of Scripture seeks to draw upon the whole tradition of the Church, in which rich and varied readings have been employed. In the New Testament, the Old Testament is commonly interpreted typologically (By typology we mean a reading which accepts that certain things in Scripture (persons, places, and events) foreshadow or illuminate other things, or reflect patterns of faith in imaginative ways (e.g. Adam is a type of Christ: Romans 5:14; Isaiah 7:14 points towards the virgin birth of Jesus: Matthew 1:23). This typological sense was considered to be a meaning that goes beyond the literal sense. This approach assumes the unity and consistency of the divine revelation.) events and images are understood with specific reference to Christ. This approach is further developed by the Fathers and by medieval preachers and authors.
It sounds like special pleading to retain pre-renaissance allegorical readings of scripture. But, 350 years after the reformers rejected this kind of approach to scripture as a means of establishing doctrine, it is no more possible for Anglicans to go back to the medieval position than it would be for scientists today to write papers on the unicorn or the gryphon.
This has to be said whilst affirming an Anglican defence of the title Theotokos. It is accepted on the grounds that not only is it a definition agreed by an ecumenical council, but also on the grounds that those who arrived at the definition did so on the basis of literal, rather than allegorical readings of scripture. The Fathers understood clearly what they were doing. One might add, for example, that the devotional insights exhibited in St. Bernard’s allegorical commentary on the Song of Songs were never intended to be doctrinal formulations, and were not understood as such. It might therefore be clear that Revelation 12 and 21 or Genesis 3, whilst poetic and interesting, should not be used to illuminate Christian doctrine about Mary as we would wish to affirm it today.
There are, however, dangers in over literalism when applied to biblical texts. The most obvious, as any scientist will report, concern the ways in which some fundamentalist Christians would support a belief in a six day creation, or Noah’s flood, simply because the text says it happened. When we see these texts as illustrations which had a particular meaning for their own time, it is possible to take a rather kinder view of the ways in which Genesis 3 or Revelation have traditionally been read as referring to Mary than would emerge from a solely literal reading.
But, as the report acknowledges, the remaining difficulties concern Marian dogmas formulated after both the Great Schism and the Reformation. The ARCIC 1 statement on the Eucharist said Our intention has been to seek a deeper understanding of the reality of the Eucharist which is consonant with biblical teaching and with the tradition of our common inheritance. That is to say it laid a great stress on the ecumenical understanding of a united church, and tested this faith against a present day reading of scripture accepted by scholars on all sides. As such, the document has provided a firm foundation for further liturgical and doctrinal convergence between the churches.
My fear about the present report is that, by wanting to retain post reformation dogmas of the Roman Catholic Church which are not underpinned by readings of scripture which modern scholars would support, it has not remained faithful to the principles established by ARCIC 1. As a result its conclusions will be of far more limited application. But, from the Anglican point of view, it will remind very many of us of a great deal of doctrine concerning Mary which we can accept, but may in some quarters have neglected.
On this feast of St Alphege, Archbishop of Canterbury and martyr, there is a sharp reminder that the role of a Christian is to stand as a challenge to many of the norms of society, and to criticise authority, whatever the personal consequences.
Alphege, a saintly hermit, was called to high office by Dunstan, and became his successor as Archbishop. He was captured by the Danes, who demanded an enormous ransom for his release. Alphege refused to pay it and forbade anyone from doing so, knowing that it would impoverish the ordinary people even more. He was brutally murdered by his captors at Greenwich on this day in the year 1012.
As we approach a general election, the political parties invite us first to consider our own interest. Who will reduce my tax? -allow me to jump ahead if there is a wait for health care? -secure my pension? -keep England for the English? and so on.
In the days of Alphege ordinary people had no say in the affairs of state, but today we do have a share, both through the ballot, and through the freedom to keep campaigning on important issues between elections. Christians have a responsibility to look at the coming election through Alphege’s eyes, and identify those policies which would impoverish the marginalised, who miss out on many of the good things our nation has to offer.
Beyond casting our votes, now is an excellent time to remind those seeking election of our concerns. We need trade justice, not just a free market. We need to give a welcome to those who need asylum, knowing that those we welcome will enrich our nation as generations of immigrants have done before them. We need to care for children and the elderly, and health provision assigned by need.
The present Archbishop has written to our political leaders about negative campaigning, which appeals only to the greed, the fear and the selfishness of the electorate. He said, ‘Election campaigns can quickly turn into a competition about who can most effectively frighten voters with the prospect of what “The Others” are going to do.’
Surely no party would want to claim that fear, greed and envy were their core values. Wouldn’t the British rather be known as the true heirs of Alphege?
I had a sudden flashback to my childhood, this week. I was standing in front of a schoolteacher, defending myself against an accusation of wrongdoing. There was no point in denial, so I tried to throw the blame, “I only did what Michael was doing”, I bleated. The riposte was instant; no doubt she had used it many times before. “Would you follow him into his grave as quickly?”
Three of the four gospel accounts of Easter morning place someone inside Jesus’ tomb. Matthew and Luke tell us the women enter; John says that it is Peter followed by the beloved disciple. Only Mark has the entire action take place outside. It’s traditional to use these passages to illustrate the emptiness of the grave and to contrast Jesus’ absence from his burial place with his appearances elsewhere over the hours and days that follow.
I’ve no problem with any of that, but it feels as though there is another dimension that has got squeezed out of the picture. Matthew, Mark and John all tell us that the visitors to the tomb hurry or even run away. There is a dynamism, vitality and urgency here that we too easily overlook. Luke expresses the same thing slightly differently by having the first resurrection appearance being to two disciples on a journey to Emmaus.
If we have made the most of these last few days of Holy Week we will indeed have followed Jesus into his grave. And now we need to follow him as quickly out of it! Ironically of course this is the moment when many clergy and laypeople heave a great sigh of relief that the rush of services has come to an end and head off for a few days well earned rest. I’m not begrudging anyone their holidays, but simply noting that whatever momentum we have built up over the previous week will, if we are not alert to the danger, have dissipated by the time we emerge from our post-Easter break.
Whether it is full or empty, the grave is too obvious and natural an ending place. It imparts an inaccurate sense of finality to the Easter story. For the disciples it isn’t the end but the beginning. A new relationship with Jesus beckons them forward. As Matthew puts it, Christ is “going on ahead of them to Galilee”. And Galilee itself is no safe place of rest. It is border country; where unpredictable encounters are always likely; where Jewish traditions vie with outside influences; where the Good News they bring will have to engage seriously with cultures and lifestyles outside of their own.
As they hurry along their journey they will encounter Jesus on the way, in both likely and unlikely places. Their meetings will strengthen them and revive them. So my prayer for us all this Easter Day is that we who have followed Jesus into his grave will continue to follow him out and onwards. And that such rest as we take from our labours will not cost us the momentum that Holy Week has granted us.
Our Lent group this year was partly based on the film ‘The Shawshank Redemption’. In the first session we watched the sequence where the protagonist spends his first night in prison, and one of the other new arrivals is beaten so badly that he dies. It’s an intentionally shocking sequence (though comparatively mild by contemporary cinematic standards) and it provoked a discussion about watching violence. Not suprisingly, given the constituency of Lent groups, a number of people said that would not have chosen to watch it, that normally they shy away from portrayals of any sort of violence.
The depictions are there in abundance, whether fictional or the real thing in news coverage. But we have an option, we can decide not to look, to cocoon ourselves, knowing but not knowing. Films come with category labels, TV programmes are shown before or after ‘the divide’, and the reliable characters telling us about today’s news will warn us when there might be something too nasty to watch: yesterday, the warning came in the context of a report on vivisection.
I’m one of the opters-out. Every time I go to a performance of ‘King Lear’, I look away during the blinding of Gloucester; I scarcely ever go to films which I know to be bloodthirsty; I salve my conscience by paying my subscription to Amnesty International, but I can rarely bring myself to read the stories which come in its magazine.
And then Holy Week brings me up short. From Palm Sunday, with its reading of the passion, through to Good Friday’s Stations of the Cross, I am compelled to look, to follow the story of betrayal, and torture, and death. I can remember, as a teenager, hearing Bach’s St Matthew Passion, and wanting to stop listening, but needing to go on.
A year on from the opening of Mel Gibson’s ‘The Passion’, I still have questions about its particular theology, its way of telling the story, and its implicit claim to a physical suffering beyond that of other human beings, just as I did when it first came out. But on reflection, I respect the need to make us accept the reality of suffering.
Tomorrow I will find my mind filled, as it is every year, by unwanted, undesired images of the world’s major and minor cruelties. Tomorrow, I cannot tuck myself inside the cocoon of film-ratings and warnings to the viewer. Tomorrow, I must look, and know that there will be no easy comfort; for that we must wait.
While watching Bremner, Bird and Fortune on Channel 4, I suddenly realised what it was like to have them shoot at me; or at least shoot at something I care about.
I love the show, if for no other reason than it gives some of our MPs an object lesson in being an effective Opposition. Last week it turned to the subject of God speaking: Mr Blair finds it hard to hear what God says, so he asks Mr Bush who does hear God clearly. So we learn from Mr Bush that God says they should bomb Iraq, and Bremner wishes God would learn from the Archbishop of Canterbury whose practice, apparently, is to say nothing.
I was on board until we got to the Archbishop.
It took me back to a Daily Mail article I was shown a year ago asking what the point was of an Archbishop who did not feel the need to speak on every subject in the public eye. Of course Dr Williams has and does speak on key issues in public life, it is just that he does not do so to order.
It’s a strange feature of our national life that while so few of us attend Church of England services, and yet we expect its most senior figure to come out with a defining word from God to solve a particularly thorny public debate.
It happens personally as well. I was called to visit some old friends last autumn. They had lived perfectly contented lives without any need for dialogue with the Christian faith. They were now in crisis as the husband was dying a nasty and lingering death. They were clearly disappointed that I didn’t come out with a tidy phrase which would have been a ready source of supernatural comfort in their distress.
I know colleagues who do have a stock of tidy phrases for these occasions, but I have never believed you have to take people back to a world of Santa or the Tooth Fairy to be able to talk about God. Losing a lifetime’s love to death is too serious for that. I didn’t do a quick and easy sound bite, because you can’t give a shallow, ready response to profound pain. (Neither can you leave them empty-handed.)
Newspapers are in business to boost their circulations, so that they can charge more for their advertising space. Demanding a comment from a prelate, then and there, is newsworthy. Whether the comment is worth hearing, or whether it is absurd, it makes no difference to the journalist as it will still sell papers. Tomorrow it will be someone and something else, which will be required to be just as instant.
To be expected to respond to complex national issues with deadline-driven instant insight is unreasonable. Just as no course in faith, which will do a dying man or his wife the slightest bit of good, can be delivered in one visit over afternoon tea. But both are possible, all they need is time, consideration, prayer, and silence.
Above all they each need an understanding that any insight about anything, national or personal, is about being committed to a journey of discovery, in which things about ourselves are revealed, some of which will be assuring, some of which will not. Journeys are not all of a fixed length, and the outcome is not always foreseen. Whatever else they are, they are not usually responsive to instant demands for pithy comment.
I’m sorry Mr Bremner, an Archbishop who doesn’t always speak on demand is not a national liability. If anything, he is an object lesson to our representatives of how to manage grave and weighty issues. He does speak, however. As I write this, he is addressing a gathering in East London on the subject of who is raising our children. Whether I will agree with him or not, he will be worth hearing because what he says will be the fruits of a considered and prayerful journey, in a way that a lot of what is passing through Parliament is not.
Silence to a demand is not to say nothing, it may be that the question is the wrong one, or that silence may be an invitation to take a longer and more prayerful look.
Recently, some very striking demographic analysis has been undertaken into Irish population trends. To cut a long story (or perhaps, a rather intricate analysis) short, it has been suggested that by the year 2050 Ireland could have a population of 20 million (rather than the current 5 million or so), and that fewer than 6 million of these would then be indigenous Irish. If the trends on which this analysis is based continue, then Ireland would in just over one generation have been transformed from having the genetically most homogeneous population in Europe to having one of the most diverse. Indeed, the ‘old’ Irish would not even make up the biggest population group: that would be the Chinese.
This is interesting to me not least because, over the past year, I have visited China twice, and so this has caused me to muse how a ‘Chinese’ Ireland might appear in a few years time, and what it might mean — including what it might mean to organised religion. In China, things are changing faster than any of us could imagine in our own environment. Some of it is rampant materialism, but China is not a country without a hunger for something more profound. My guess is that a Chinese population in Ireland will be an innovative and tolerant and energetic population; those already here show all those signs.
So while I have been musing on this, the Anglican primates meeting in Ireland have been dealing with their own intercultural issues. They have had to confront the reality of a western liberal culture coming under attack, and in an elaborate ritual of trying to sit down somewhere more or less on top of the fence have, predictably, failed to be comfortable in this posture. Nobody could, with any confidence, try to predict what the Anglican family of the year 2050 will look like, based on this evidence from the prelates. But there are few signs that anyone is trying to construct a forward-looking vision of an intercultural Christian world.
My own instinct is to say that western liberalism — at least where it stresses the dignity of human lifestyles which do not hurt or oppress — is by now very well rooted in these soils, and will survive the new cultural mix, and possibly even thrive in it. Our new world is about releasing innovative energy, and not about trying to shoehorn all life and culture into a narrow selection of time capsules.
The church may turn out to be relevant to this, or it may turn out to be just a ghost. The time has come for us to assert the right of Christianity to be a signpost to the future, and not just a grim reminder of some of the less pleasant aspects of our past. We must celebrate diversity and renewal, not be frightened by it. It’s time to realise that the place for Christians is not on the fence.
The BBC referred this morning to the “Battle for the political heart of Anglicanism” being fought out at Armagh between the Anglican primates, over issues about same sex couples.
It is fascinating that this is seen as a particularly Anglican issue, when the same difficulties are found in other churches, as a Baptist observer said at the Church of England’s General Synod last week. The reason must lie in the history of the Anglican Church, the close founding link of Church and state, particularly in the way that relations were defined and described in Richard Hooker’s monumental Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity 400 years ago. Since that time, with bishops in the House of Lords, there has been a close correspondence between the laws of Church and State to the extent that it is often difficult to discover which is which. We’re reaping some of the problems associated with this in the upsets over the marriage plans of Prince Charles and Camilla, and it is fascinating to find that European Human Rights legislation needs to be invoked to say they can legally marry in an English register office outside the gates of Windsor Castle.
Whilst the Church of England was little more than a national church (leaving aside the Scottish Episcopal Church and its great legacy to the Episcopal Church of the USA) it might have seemed that laws of Church and State could be seen to correspond. But, with the growth of the British Empire and the exporting of the national church into other cultures, conflicts were bound to arise.
A particular problem was the prevailing polygamy found in of parts of Africa. Whilst Christianity did not allow polygamy, there was a certain tolerance of it for those who were not Christians, and often a blind eye was turned to the ancient droit de seigneur of local rulers to collect a large harem of young women. Things only came to a head when Mwanga, the ruler of Uganda in 1886, wanted boys, not girls, for his bed. The Christian pages began to refuse his advances, so he had them put to death. They included Catholics and Anglicans. On their way to the place of execution, these young Christians sang hymns in honour of the Lord and some were still singing when the flames surrounded them. Since then they have been regarded as founding martyrs of the Christian Church. It is salutary to think, however, that few people would have shed tears over maids in waiting, had the ruler preferred girls. Not surprisingly, the Church of Uganda, in honouring its founding martyrs, strongly opposes homosexual relationships today, as Britain did in the time when Oscar Wilde went to prison.
So long as the Empire continued, many local cultures were suppressed. Today, with the independence of nations which were once British, the differences emerge. Pakistan is a largely Muslim country, competent to make its own laws. In Muslim law it is legal for a man to take four wives. The Christian Church there, whilst holding different views, would never dare to advocate these for anyone outside their own flock. Equally, the Christians there know that the acceptance of homosexual relationships would lead to the burning of Christian churches and the persecution of Christians. The Church is not in a position to advocate different rules from those of the state.
In a worldwide Communion, Anglicans have to accept that we are not in the driving seat when it comes to making laws. There is in Pakistan, in Uganda, and in other places a complete abhorrence of homosexual activity.
Equally, in Europe, it is secular Human Rights law which is in the driving seat, not the laws of national churches. Today the British Navy asks the advice of gay rights groups about the best way to encourage recruitment of homosexual men and women. Gay rights are enshrined in the law of the land. They are seen as just as important as the rights of people of different races, or the rights of women, and all are protected by law.
In much of Europe, in the USA, and in Canada, discrimination against gay people is now being consigned to history, along with slavery and the lack of universal suffrage. It is only shameful that the Church, which was in the forefront of the campaign to free slaves, still treats women and gay people as being less than fully human, with impaired human rights. Speaking out and saying that a faith founded on the incarnation has to be a faith which respects the dignity of all people has required great courage. Fundamentalism still tries to steal the political heart of the Anglican Church. There is a rearguard action against the ordination of women to the episcopate.
In much of the USA, Canada, Britain and Southern Africa, the battle is over. National laws guarantee the rights of women, of gay people and different races. The Church is doing little more than catching up with what governments, nationally and internationally, have agreed.
At the same time it is totally impossible for Anglicans in many other parts of the world to uphold a viewpoint which is so much at odds with their own national culture and laws. Pakistan and Uganda will want to be different. But we need to be grown up enough to accept that.
The Anglican Communion was never intended to be, and cannot be monolithic. We have to accept (Article 34 in the Prayer Book) that there will be national differences. “It is not necessary that Traditions and Ceremonies in all places be one, and utterly like; for at all times they have been divers, and may be changed according to the diversities of countries.”
These articles were honed out of the bitter controversies of the Reformation, out of the martyrdom of John Fisher, Thomas More, Ridley, Latimer, Cranmer and the rest. And in the time of Elizabeth people realised that there had to be an end to blood letting. Christians had to learn to live together in peace, and respect differences of conscience and custom. We need to learn the lesson again.
The season of fasting is upon us. But outward show of fasting is forbidden, both by the prophets and by Jesus. The prophet says “rend your hearts and not your garments” and Jesus says “whenever you fast, do not look dismal.”
We are told “whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you.” The words have an uncomfortable ring in the light of the responses to the Tsunami. Certainly there has been enormous generosity. And, whilst millions of donors have been moved to give quietly, doing what Jesus said, many others were pushed in the right direction by seeing what others were doing, or because others asked them to give. First it was governments, and those league tables which appeared in our newspapers. Initially, only Australia appeared to appreciate the enormity of the devastation. Then, as news of the losses started to emerge, Sweden, finding a huge proportion of the victims were their own nationals, started to give massively. And Britain and all the rest, no doubt as travellers started to come home, began to promise aid on a more fitting scale. Governments, shamed by the unparalleled giving by individuals to charities, promised more.
From then we have had all sorts of initiatives to help people to give and keep giving in the forefront of our minds. There have been fund raising events, sponsored events, appeals by particular personalities and so on. Charitable giving is announced by trumpets. Television programmes, special records, and all the rest focus our giving.
But that always happens. We have “Wear your poppy with pride” for Remembrance Sunday. That’s what we used to do, but now people wear the same poppy, for which they have given no more, with far too much pride for about three weeks. We have red nose day, in which surely those who wear the noses have their reward, lots of fun for the day, having spent not a lot. The “non uniform” days for school children encourage the same kind of mentality. It says “We will give, so long as we get something out of our giving.”
Beyond this, people’s giving to the rich is far greater than our giving to the poor. Sponsorship of the arts, one’s old school or university, is a wonderful way of blowing one’s own trumpet. The lottery, in Britain, has benefited the rich far more than it has helped the poor.
We ought to be able to say that we shouldn’t need fund raising events. We shouldn’t need people to encourage us to give, who perhaps, by making themselves the focus of giving, “have their reward” already from the many people who see them promoting a good cause and respond to that. We shouldn’t need to see our name in lights as sponsors, whether we are individuals or governments. But there is no doubt that if we want help on the right scale, the trumpeting works. And, as charities have reminded us, once appeals in the past slipped out of the news, the promised aid stopped coming.
This time, with the tsunami having woken up everyone to a global disaster, and with many other desperate needs perhaps being neglected as a result, a new approach is required. Our giving should not need to be triggered by events such as this, but should be regular and committed. It should be part of a way of life, for individuals, for all commerce, and for nations. The poor will always be with us, and only a sustained programme of aid on a massive scale will stop the gap between the rich and poor getting greater.
Now might just be the time when governments could say that they are going to raise the proportion of GNP given to relieve poverty, rather than lower taxes for those who have enough. Now might be the time to remove the crippling burden of debt for poor nations. Now might be the time to justice in trade. And it might be the time to do it just because it is the right thing to do, not just because we like blowing our own trumpets.
When I was a medical chaplain I worked with a rabbi, who would stop by my office and tell me a Jewish joke on the way to a meeting. “What is the only thing two Jews can ever agree on?” he would say, “what a third should give to charity.” I’m sure I could come up with a Christian version, that the only thing two Christians can agree on is who a third should, or shouldn’t be sleeping with. The depressing thing about the press is that when the church is mentioned at all, it is usually about the mating habits of Christians, a subject abou which the gospels say very little.
What will be of no interest to the press is what Christians can agree on. When I came back from my post-Christmas break I learned that my congregation had had a retiring collection for victims of the Asian tsunami, raising almost £250, even after they’d already given to the church collection. I thought it was fantastic. Two aid agencies which I know about, raised phenomenal amounts in a matter of days, and this on top of their existing programmes for aid in various parts of the world.
You don’t have to be a Christian to have been moved by the devastation of the Asian tsunami. What is interesting about the response is that there was no question about it: there was an earthquake, a freak wave, communities destroyed, lives lost and help needed, and we responded, immediately.
It was only later on that I began to wonder why many thousands more people continue to die through disease and malnutrition, in countries for which development is impossible because of crippling debt, and trade rules which favour us, the rich West. Are we slower to come to their aid because, deep down, we know that their suffering is a result of a world whose resources are distributed in ways which are always in our favour. A tsunami is ethically neutral, African farmers undercut by cheap European produce is not. It’s easier to give to one than the other because, with a natural disaster we can ask why? without being in danger of finding that the answer might have something to do with changing the way we live.
While we were still making sense of the news footage from Sri Lanka and Phuket, the New Year’s Day episode of the Vicar of Dibley took the 20th anniversary of Live Aid as its theme. The programme included the characters wearing a white armband as a way of introducing the Make Poverty History campaign.
Make Poverty History is a coalition of all the non-governmental aid agencies in the United Kingdom including Christian ones like the Church of England, Cafod and Christian Aid. It is borne of a widely-held conviction both among the religious, and among those who are not, that the human race can no longer live in conditions whereby three-fifths of our species barely lives. The hope of the campaign is that 2005 is the year when we finally come to grips with the problem, both while we have the presidency of the G8 countries, and while we have a Chancellor who is passionately committed to ending poverty.
This is something which Christians should be able to agree on. While sex has a bit-part in the Bible, looking after the poor is a central theme. I discovered this week that one in sixteen verses in the Bible is about poverty; one out of nine in the first three gospels.
Last Advent, when he preached on the Last Judgement, James Forbes of New York’s Riverside Church, was talking about the parable of the sheep and the goats, where those who are not destined for paradise are asked by Jesus what they had done for the needy? Forbes went on to say that, according to this parable, “nobody gets to heaven without a letter of reference from the poor”.
St. Francis did it in his own inimitable style. Faced with trying to discern God’s will at a crossroads he invited his companion to whirl round on the spot until he fell down. The direction in which his body lay was the one Francis took.
Pausing a moment to imagine a Church of England where General Synod was replaced by “Spin the Archbishop”, I want to pose the question of how the church should structure its decision making in order to seek God’s will.
There is a timeliness in asking. Nationally the Church of England must come up with a process that determines whether and how women might be admitted as bishops. Next month the Primates from around the world meet to give their response to the Windsor Report. Last week the ECUSA bishops reminded us all that their decision making structures give greater weight to the views of laity and priests than many other Anglican Churches.
Having signed up to the simple mantra “synodically governed — episcopally led”, I’m beginning to feel we need to think deeper. Are we holding to a model of decision-making fashioned according to the principles of committee government, but living in an era when both theory and best practice have moved well beyond it. Good governance is increasingly built around smaller bodies whose members are expected to weigh a range of viewpoints rather than to press the case of a particular consistency. Individual governors take lead responsibility for aspects of work. Boards concentrate their energies on the key “Mission-critical” issues and devolve other decisions to more subordinate levels. Ironically it is exactly what the Archbishops’ Council should be equipped to deliver — if only it had been given a more appropriate remit.
Alongside governance theory I would also like to lay some theological criticism. A Christian entity that claims the right to determine direction has to be corporately rooted in Christ. In my own Diocese our Synod and Bishop’s Council meetings have improved in direct proportion to the extent that they come together in worship. It is not enough to be individually devout. Decisions need to be taken in a community that is striving to form itself as the Body of Christ through corporate prayer, worship, study of scripture and fellowship. And I suspect that just as there is a size above which a congregation no longer functions as a single body, so too for a council or synod.
Lastly, and I hope still in the domain of theology, I want to raise the importance of trust. Decision making bodies lose their legitimacy once those on whose behalf they function cease to trust them. More positively the baptismal liturgy emphasises that our relationship with God is characterised by belief and trust. Historically democratic governance structures were justified on the basis that the ballot box maximises trust by allowing the greatest number to give or withdraw their confidence. This is not a place to begin a general critique of democracy in the 21st century; but it is important to recognise that democracy is not a “good thing” in itself — rather a means to achieving greater trust in some instances.
So as both the Church of England and the Anglican Communion struggle with some momentous decisions I want to follow the hints in the Windsor Report and suggest that at the top of the agenda should not be “what” we decide but “how” we decide. And to press that the characteristics we are looking for in a good decision making process are the adoption of best practice, corporate holiness and the maximisation of trust.
All three of which are less obviously present in our current mechanisms than they were in St. Francis’s dizzy brother.
Thursday morning saw me in St Martin in the Fields, along with more than 500 other Christian clergy, of varying denominations, plus a couple of rabbis – all were women, and as well as consuming coffee and cake, laughing with and at Dawn French, and listening to the choirgirl and choirboy of the year singing the Vicar of Dibley theme, we prayed, we sang, and then we went off to accompany a delegation to Downing Street and return to Trafalgar Square for photo-opportunities.
It was a stunt, of course. Designed to catch the media’s attention for the makepovertyhistory campaign. Backed by Christian Aid, the Jubilee campaign, CAFOD and other agencies, we were promoting the three makepovertyhistory aims for this year of Britain’s presidency of the EU and chairing of the G8 group: just trading structures, the dropping of debt for the world’s poorest countries, and the creation of more and better aid programmes by the wealthy nations.
Makepovertyhistory is, at least in part, the brainchild of people for whom catching the limelight is their stock-in-trade. Usually I find myself uncomfortable with the harnessing of celebrity and need: Comic Relief, Children in Need, even 20th-anniversary Live Aid make me cringe. And, for me, the makepovertyhistory TV adverts are a disaster area.
So why did I turn out? The aid and development agencies behind MPH have a seriously good track record, they know what they are talking about, and they are the people to whom I turn when I want to know about trade justice, or debt relief, or where and how best to contribute to overseas aid. And the purposes of this campaign move on from bandaging the wounds left by a system which puts so much of the world at a disadvantage while we prosper to addressing the structural questions, just as Jubilee 2000 did when most of us were first alerted to the destructive patterns of debt imposed by the affluent on those struggling in poverty. These are political questions, and the time is right for political campaigning; just watch the coverage of Gordon Brown’s Africa trip for confirmation of that. If turning out with my be-collared sisters can help to turn a wider audience’s attention to the campaign, yes, of course I’ll be there.
Even so, there remained a nagging discomfort about a purely female demonstration. In the Church of England, it has been a long, hard road to inclusion, to the acceptance of male and female as equal vehicles of grace and ministry, a road whose end we haven’t yet reached. Should we not have gone as both sisters and brothers of the cloth? We acted as we did to get publicity, but the fragility of that argument was proved by the day itself: there was some coverage, but the antics of the third-in-line to the throne kept us well down the batting order in the news.
Meeting as women, though, and particularly as women clergy of the CofE, did have a very powerful resonance, which perhaps the organisers would not have expected or even understood. When women were campaigning for admission to the priesthood, and particularly as they waited for the result of the General Synod vote, St Martin’s was one of the places of gathering, waiting, and preparation. Many women present on Thursday found themselves remembering other days in St Martin’s, other times when we sang ‘We are marching in the light of God’. We still spend a great deal of time addressing the wrongs and woes of the church; it was salutary to be addressing, instead, the wrongs and woes of the world.
It was not accidental that a historic peace agreement for Northern Ireland was made a few years ago on Good Friday. To people of goodwill on both sides of the sectarian divide, the ultimately loyalty to Christ, and the significance of the holy day, made a powerful contribution to finalising a deal.
It is therefore tragic that, in this Advent season of looking forward in hope to the coming of the reign of God, a similar spirit could not prevail.
Recriminations turn on the symbolism of photographs of guns. This is claimed to be a “humiliation” of those who give them up.
But surely, it could have been portrayed as a huge victory for both sides. The gun only has the power to destroy. It only has the power of Herod in beheading John the Baptist, or the power of Pilate in putting Jesus to death on the cross.
But what the gun can never yield is the real power to do good for the people, build a kingdom, and build hope. What was on offer in this Advent season was the opportunity to go forward in faith to a new kind of kingdom, with a new law and a new authority, in which people on both sides of a bitter divide could have worked together for the good of all.
It has been made abundantly clear to people on all sides that there is no sharing of that kind of power to do good, unless the power to destroy through the bomb and the bullet are completely renounced. There is no humiliation in publicly giving up the power to terrorise in favour of the power to do good. It is simply a sign of coming to maturity.
A single spoilt child can wreak enormous destruction on beautiful treasures. By contrast a craftsman can spend a lifetime to create works of value and beauty.
What was needed as a symbol of the new spirit of the age was not just photographs of weapons. Rather, it was to see Gerry Adams and Ian Paisley symbolically attempting to beat the guns into ploughshares, or tie broken guns in the shape of a cross. Perhaps it needed that symbol to be set up permanently somewhere as a sign of a new age, and a new kingdom, and a new kind of rule.
The Good Friday Agreement was delivered because people on all sides appreciated the symbolic power of the day. If only the significance of the Advent season could make people appreciate the need to bring in a new kind of kingdom.
The feast of Christ the King, celebrated this year with the gospel story of the mocking of “The King of the Jews” as he hung helpless on the cross, is the proclamation of the kingdom in which death has no dominion.
Human authority has used death as a means of maintaining its power. It has demonstrated that it has the last word by killing opposition.
God’s kingdom has nothing in common with this, and God does not seek to impose his will through death. Instead, through the crucified and risen Lord, “the firstborn of all creation” a kingdom based on love and on life is revealed.
We have been slow to model human society on this. In the early days of the Christian Roman Empire, the ruler was often not baptised until old age, because as emperor, he would have to order the death penalty. There was an understanding that a rule of law based on the death penalty and a kingdom based on love were fundamentally incompatible. Later Christian rulers were less scrupulous, though we have never lost sight of this ideal.
Today in most of Europe the death penalty has been outlawed. We recognise that mistakes can be made. Also, as Christians, we acknowledge that ultimate authority belongs to the God of love, not to a despot who enforces order through the death penalty.
But many countries, including the United States, still appear to celebrate their use of death as the sign of the power of the state. Sometimes it is only too clear that the State does this because it needs to appease what might be greater violence by an uncontrollable mob.
Today in Britain we mark one small move in the right direction. We shall not see a baying pack of hounds pursuing a defenceless fox or deer in future. Glorying in this form of killing has been declared unacceptable.
On the other hand, the decision to invade Iraq, which posed no external threat, and the way in which lives and infrastructure have been destroyed in that independent sovereign nation has appeared to the rest of the world to be a glorying in that very culture of death which Christ came to end.
The rest of the world can see it was only done to put American forces close to the borders of a now weakened Russia, and lay claim to the vast oil reserves of the nation. The number of Iraqi lives lost in the process is so high that we dare not even try to count the losses.
It is time Britain and America, with their long Christian heritage, learned turn away from this culture of death and to follow the ways of Christ, the king of love.
I think that women should be eligible to be bishops in the Church of England, that this is a natural corollary of women’s priesthood, and that it should happen sooner rather than later. As one of the promoters of the ‘Priests for Women Bishops’ petition, I would say that, wouldn’t I?
So why do I find myself so unmoved by the Rochester report? I should be caught up in a exchanges about the theology, the principles, the options. I did try to give the report serious consideration when it came out last week, but it was a very busy week, with lots of not-quite-prepared teaching to be done, and I found my emotions far more caught up in the outcome of the US presidential election than in the reading of several hundred pages of CofE prose.
That the report has been produced means that the issue is being taken seriously, and I welcome that, of course. The timetable for the debate is being respected, and there is no attempt, so far, to lose ‘women bishops’ in the mire of endless committees. That it is so long speaks of the thoroughness of the working party. It also provides a vivid illustration of the diversity of the English Anglican inheritance: at the extremes we have very different understandings of episcopacy, and we have lived with that difference, as with so many others, for centuries.
Once we move from the extended treatment of episcopacy in scripture and tradition, it becomes a ‘what if…?’ piece of thinking. Scenarios are laid out before us (or rather, are to be laid out before General Synod), actions and consequences suggested. At some level, most people who have any interest in the matter will have already have understood how different decisions might play, and I doubt whether the report will do much to change hearts and minds. It was not intended to.
It is a tool for the synod to use in achieving a decision. Clarion calls for inclusion, for justice, for the wholeness of the church will come from other sources: as will those for the preservation of a particular tradition and pastoral care of tender consciences. And so I return to my emotional focus of last week. I can identify some steps I can take to further inclusion, justice, and wholeness within the Church of England; but that’s a small corner of a world which seems dangerously hostile to such a vision.
Writing about the news, this week, of the discovery of a previously unknown human species, dubbed Homo floresiensis, Desmond Morris includes this provocative comment:
[T]he existence of Mini-Man should destroy religion, but I can already hear the fanatics claiming that he has been put on earth by the Devil simply to test our faith.
This seems to me to be something of a non sequiteur, but presumably Morris is referring to the more fundamentalist versions of religious faith, and whether his inclusion of all religion in the comment is deliberate or accidental, it is surely the case that the existence of other human species is something that most Christians have almost taken for granted over the last hundred or so years.
As Morris notes, the intriguing question is whether the newly-discover species would be able to communicate with us in a spoken language:
When it comes down to it, being able to talk is really what defines humanity
and Christians should have little problem with that either. Speech enables us to communicate; speech enables us to think and to apply our brains to complex problem-solving; speech enables us to tell the truth and to lie, to influence and mislead. In short, it is language which separates us from other creatures — in this world, creatures which can speak are creatures which have, in the parable of the book of Genesis, fallen.
Scientific discoveries such as this should indeed be another nail in the coffin of fundamentalist religion, but sadly I suspect that those who deny the possibility of evolution will deny the logic of this discovery too.
That we should accept and even welcome the obvious conclusions about our ancestry does not seem a big thing to me. The message of kingdom of God, proclaimed by Jesus of Nazareth, is neither strengthened nor weakened by such news — it is true regardless.
Update 1 November
Morris’s article referred to above has drawn a lot of comment on the BBC website. The BBC has also published this response by David Wilkinson, lecturer in theology and science at Durham University, and council member of the Evangelical Alliance
A few years ago I had a funeral which involved a burial in an unfamiliar churchyard. The morning October mist was still over the graves and I went quite a way ahead of the procession to find the grave, and to stand as a marker in the cloud to ensure it would be occupied by the one for whom it was intended. As I stood sentinel the quiet was pierced by a scream, and I caught the red eyes of a stoat, his teeth deep into the neck of a struggling rabbit. I took off after the stoat which persisted, eyeing me from behind successive gravestones before vanishing into the mist.
As one raised as an urban kid, my images of rabbits came from the stuffed variety, and the crimson glare of the stoat lent itself readily to looking demonic, which convinced me of what I thought was the right thing to do. I failed the rabbit in the end by not finishing it off humanely, which I would have done if my instincts had been properly country.
Six years later, I am accustomed to being told the name of the chicken I am eating, and am well adjusted to rural life being about the sharp end of life and death.
So when Old Labour is baying for blood in calling for the abolition of the hunt, its instincts are as skewed as any townie who serves food on the table, the provenance of which is lost in a trail that ends on the supermarket shelf.
The ban against hunting with hounds has to be the most misguided and wasteful cause our representatives can pursue. Old Labour is urban, its roots are industrial, just like my own. While the anti-hunting lobby claims to be caught up in the fate of a fox, what is driving it is a deep disdain for the culture of the people who ride with the hounds.
I think, if Old Labour is still wanting to build a new and fairer world, it can be more effectively occupied.
The hunt is only partly about the fox, it is mainly rural ritual. Like any ritual there is a beginning, middle and end, there are conventions to follow, costumes to wear and patterns of deference to observe as you enjoy, for a brief season, the freedom to ride across the land unfettered and free. In the past, the hunt leader was at the head, and those who followed were in their appointed order according to their position in the rural community. The hunt was a ritual rehearsing the social makeup up the community.
The very fact that it is possible to even consider the demise of the hunt is not because we want to be kind to foxes, but because the social hierarchy which it depicts is fading quickly from country life. More often these days, whether you ride at the head or the tail of the hunt, you are likely to be found in your grey pinstripe on the platform waiting for the 0610 to Liverpool Street.
This is the 100th year of the Harley Davidson, the steed of choice for the classic biker pack. Fifty years ago, bikers had the same fantasy of riding free, the road coming to meet you, and an open horizon. The biggest and meanest dudes rode at the front, while the weakest followed behind. These days, the only people who can afford Harleys are middle-aged accountants in mid-life crisis. I’m certain that, after the bike is in the garage, today’s bikers check to see their grey pinstripe is where they can find it when they all stagger for the 0610 on Monday morning.
Old Labour should leave the hunt alone, it is already a changing institution, and can safely be left in the hands of history. In the meantime, Old Labour would be more true to its vocation if it turned to championing the cause of the availability of public services for the rural elderly and poor.
Food stories are a standard part of the news repertoire – and I suspect they have more impact on most people’s daily lives than high politics or war. This week’s (apart from Jamie Oliver’s beans-on-toast) was about the Co-op’s introduction of labels showing the fat and salt content of foods on their shelves. Another prompt to healthy eating. Food, diet, and health are not just news items, they are now part of the entertainment industry. This is the third week of BBC 1’s ‘Fat Nation’ series, diverting us couch potatoes with the progress to virtue of residents of a Birmingham street, as they give up burgers and take up skipping. Part of what fuels all this is a desire for people to be healthy. Discovering that the nation is idle and obese, the government fears for our well-being, and even more, for the cost to the health services in the long run.
If, as Christians, we seek to be good stewards of a divine creation, of which we are part, surely we should wish for ourselves and for others to live healthy lives, in body as in mind and spirit.
But I have a few questions about all this. Two come from the damaging ‘do nots’ of the Christian tradition. We stand in the shadow of the long history of Christian ambivalence towards the body: restricted diet and physical stress have long been used as ways of denying or diminishing our being as bodily creatures, and consequently becoming closer to God. It is a tradition which has been challenged only relatively recently, as we have sought to recover a sense of the goodness of our bodily being.
And then there is another strand in Christian thinking, a strand which we characterise as ‘puritan’, and which tells us that whatever is enjoyable cannot, by definitition, be of God. I’ve caricatured it in those few words, and there is no doubt of the value of setting aside much of what we do and get in a consumer society; but surely we are called to delight in the lavishness of creation, remembering the creator, rather than to withdraw from it as ungodly.
In contrast to these negative traditions, we set images of food and feasting at the heart of our worship: to do so is to speak to a fundamental human need and to use a universal language. But how do words about being called to the heavenly banquet sound to someone on their umpteenth diet? How do they sound to someone with a serious eating disorder, a group whose numbers are increasing as our image of an ideal body becomes more and more distant from the reality with which most of us live.
In my prayers for all those who use our community centre, I find myself at certain times praying for Slimming World and Weightwatchers, for the aerobics class and the line-dancers. And as I offer those prayers, I am increasingly aware of the ambiguities: am I praying for lives of physical well-being to be found through self-dislike and self-punishment, or for a growing acceptance of our different sizes, shapes, and life-styles? I hope I am praying that we are good stewards of ourselves and of each other – but I’m not quite sure what that stewardship involves.
As we await the report of the Lambeth Commission set up to address the crisis over sexuality, it might be useful to look at the rest of the news, and the way the secular world addresses such issues in Britain. The BBC news website has the following
A gay Conservative candidate has survived a deselection vote within his local party after winning support from Tory leader Michael Howard. Mr Howard earlier stepped in after press reports that Ashley Crossley hadbeen the victim of homophobia. He said there was ‘no place whatever for discrimination of that kind’ in his party, in a letter to local Tories.
Whilst the news media are all clear in their reporting of the Tory leaders’ view, what is equally significant is that without exception they all consider him to have acted correctly. Silence, or fudging the issue, would have been seen as reprehensible.
Of course Michael Howard has the full support of the law of the land in taking his stand. Discrimination on grounds of sexuality is wrong. Yet only ten years ago gay members of parliament were still being persecuted in the news media simply on the grounds of their sexuality.
There has been a complete revolution on this issue, one perhaps as challenging to people’s perceptions as was the ending of slavery in the 19th century.
The Church has asked for an opt out clause on sexuality, and this is beginning to look increasingly inappropriate. It is as though the Church were saying, at the point when slavery was outlawed, ‘but Christian clergy may continue to keep slaves’ with some argument like those used in the apartheid days of South Africa, to justify maintaining the status quo.
Lest this example appear unduly offensive, note that it is the South African churches and nation that have been foremost in campaigning against discrimination against homosexuals. They know, from their experience of discrimination, that all forms of it must be eradicated.
So, when the Eames commission reports, the rest of the Anglican Church will need to note that society in North America, in Europe and South Africa, finds discrimination against homosexuals unacceptable. The public, decisive, action taken by Michael Howard, as leader of the Conservatives, and Liam Fox, party chairman, ought to be an example to us all, and particularly to our own bishops. Homophobic discrimination has no place in the Church, and no place in the world today.
I am a conventional bloke really. When I find something that works I tend to stick with it. So when an overseas trip fell through at quite short notice and I decided to book a retreat it was a blow to find my favourite place couldn’t take me. At short notice I found myself heading for the Welsh Coast and a Jesuit-run week.
God was, of course, in all the places I’d expected to find him. There He was in my daily meetings with my spiritual director. He was up on the mountains – even when the fog descended – and on a glorious, almost deserted sunny beach. He was in the faces of my fellow retreatants as we ate our meals in silence. And of course He was there each day in the Eucharist as bread and wine were taken, offered, broken and consumed. None of that was any surprise. I do a retreat most years. Often it is in an Ignatian style and it is always wonderful for prayer to be the constant of the day rather than fighting for its share of space among all the other priorities.
What surprised me was how close I felt to God in a less usual setting. Each evening, after supper we gathered to sit in complete silence for half an hour with the sacrament set out before us.
The Eucharist is a drama. But this was a stillness. The Eucharist is a constant flow of words, music and actions. Here Christ was with us in silence. The time was set aside simply for us to be there with Christ. And to shun our usual responses of word and action in order to enter into a deeper adoration.
For an Anglican this is of course deeply controversial stuff. The final paragraph of article 25 begins “the sacraments were not ordained of Christ to be gazed upon, or to be carried about, but that we should duly use them.” I don’t sit lightly to the Articles of Religion. Not only have I from time to time to assent to their place within Anglican tradition, I also regularly require others to so assent in my presence.
As I know from regular, daily reading of the scriptures, words not only convey meaning but also often hide, confuse or distort it. And never more so than when the writer and the reader live in very different contexts. For the Anglican Reformers the issue was not simply that lay people were gazing at the sacrament but that this had pushed the receiving of communion into a much lower place. People would rarely receive, would often leave the church once the Host had been elevated or even as a devotion go from church to church simply to be present for the consecration. A devotional practice that seems to have more in common with bird watching than genuine Eucharistic devotion.
I felt in my own devotions not a desire to replace the receiving the Sacrament but a delight to find it complemented. My time was not spent gazing on the Host but seeing it as a lens through which to see the One who gave himself for me and for many. A time to pause and be with Him in His self offering and in His passion. Sometimes, as St. Peter articulated on the Mount of the Transfiguration, it is simply “good to be here”. That moment of intimacy with Christ cannot be clung onto, as Peter himself was to discover. But it can be savoured whilst it is there. The sacrament becomes like an Icon – a window onto the Divine – but even more so because its relationship to that which it represents is closer than for any holy picture or religious ornament.
The primary purpose of the sacrament lies in the full drama of the Eucharist. Climaxing in the sharing of the elements by the substantive body of the congregation. The reformers rightly draw us back to this central truth. But at a time when we struggle to resist Forster’s jibe of “poor, talkative Christianity” and in a world ever busier, maybe devotion that brings us into the stillness of the presence of Christ is what many of us need.
And perhaps next year too I should plan my retreat at the very last moment.
In a few days I shall be embarking on a pilgrimage. It will take me to Groszowice, a small town in Silesia in Poland. Like many pilgrims, I shall be looking for the comfort of a church when I arrive, and for some better understanding of who I am and where I am going. I suppose like many pilgrims also, I have no real certainty that I shall get that better understanding, and I am not altogether sure that my journey will give me comfort - but of course I am hoping that it will.
In fact, this is a personal family pilgrimage. My father was born in Groszowice (or ‘Groschowitz’) to a Prussian-Polish family in the early 20th century. In the second World War he was a German soldier, and at the end of the War his family property was confiscated as Silesia was transferred from Germany to Poland in the post-Yalta carve-up of Europe. Unlike some others I have met with a similar personal history, my father accepted this outcome of German fascist adventures and atrocities stoically, and at no point in his later life — lived in Germany and Ireland — did he ever indicate any resentment at the loss of his family possessions. Eventually he returned to visit his birthplace, and expressed satisfaction at how well it had been maintained.
I have never been there myself, but some six years after my father’s death I have decided to visit the place where he was born and grew up and about which he spoke often. I am not a ‘roots’ person, and so in all truth I don’t have any fixed idea of what I shall find. But to my great surprise, I am approaching the visit with rather more emotion than I had anticipated, and the idea of seeing my father’s house, and seeing the graves of his (and my) ancestors is turning this into an unexpectedly sentimental journey.
I suspect that not many of us can approach some lost heritage with indifference. We may neglect and ignore it for a long time, but bring us face to face with it and it will produce a reaction — perhaps one of awe, or of revulsion, or of a sense of loss, or of frustration, or of suspicion, or of love. For myself, I am not yet sure which of these it will be.
By a quirk of recent events, I am travelling to Poland just as a German pressure group is lodging legal claims for the return of or compensation for lost properties in Silesia. I shall have to emphasise that this is not my mission. I am not going in order to claim the heritage as my property. And this has reminded me that none of us should make such claims, because in doing so we trespass on the heritage of others. Our memories must co-exist, as must we.
Many of the squabbles in Anglicanism over the past year or two have been about lodging claims to exclusive heritage rights. Some of these claims are made by people who have not yet made, and perhaps have no intention of making, the pilgrimage to the source. And beyond Anglicanism, groups are placing flags in territories in which nobody should be claiming exclusive rights.
The Roman Catholic church of the perhaps rather short-lived Vatican II era spoke about the ‘pilgrim church’. Many of today’s would-be pilgrims appear to be marching in formation and singing battle songs. Maybe we should all be seeking to go on that great pilgrimage of uncertainty, of not quite knowing who we are or where we are going, of unknown emotions — but knowing that others are on the same journey; different people, different aspirations, but with the same rights. And then maybe we can accept the past as the past, and move on.
When I arrive in Silesia, I shall visit (at his invitation) the Archbishop of Opole (my father would have called it ‘Oppeln’). He has written to me to say that ‘if you grieve at the loss of your father’s posessions, then I can reassure you that, here in Silesia and everywhere else, you are welcome as a family member in our Father’s house.’
As the background to the decision to remove Sadaam Hussain by force emerges, it becomes clearer that there were no grounds on which Britain or the USA could claim that this was a just war. There were no weapons that posed an external threat, and no plans to develop any.
True, Sadaam was a terrible tyrant, but the world has seen plenty of these. They aren’t often removed if the only threat they pose is to their own people, whether in SE Asia, in Africa, or in Latin America. Indeed, the USA has a shameful record of having supported some of these. Sadaam’s government was supported by the West whilst he waged a war on Iran which involved the use of chemical weapons.
We also know that the Iraqi regime gave no support to Al Quaida, and would have suppressed any act of terrorism. So, to decide to overthrow Sadaam in the aftermath of 9-11 now appears completely illogical.
It now looks as though the decision to go to war was fuelled by the failure of the USA to eradicate the sources of terrorism. The most powerful nation on earth simply wanted an excuse to show what its overpowering weaponry could do, and take the eyes of the American public away from the intelligence failures which had both allowed the 9-11 events, and provided faulty information about the dangers posed by Baghdad.
George Bush needed a victim, a scapegoat for his own failures, and found it in Sadaam Hussain. He convinced Tony Blair, but he failed to convince most of the European Union, failed to convince the United Nations, and failed to convince a million demonstrators in Britain.
It was clear from the way the war was prosecuted that this was a piece of scapegoating, rather than a liberation for the Iraqi people. Much of the infrastructure of the ancient city of Baghdad was needlessly destroyed. The army, who hadn’t been seriously mobilised in any strength, was disbanded. The ensuing power vacuum allowed looting and lawlessness on a grand scale, sowing the seeds of strong opposition to the invaders.
The idea of finding a scapegoat was always a mistake. It was an ancient idea of the Jews that once a year, in an elaborate ritual, the sins of the people could be driven out by loading them on to the back of a hapless animal, which was driven out into the desert. Surely a moment’s rational thought is enough to show that a dumb animal cannot carry the sins of human beings. A goat is quite incapable of making people good. It might, given an impressive enough ritual, have convinced people 3,000 years ago. It might have made them feel good about themselves. But today the idea of making a scapegoat of someone is morally bankrupt.
It was wrong for Christian nations to go to war on this kind of basis. As Christians — and the national leaders concerned own to a personal faith in God - we have shamed ourselves in the eyes of both other Christians, and those who hold other faiths. At the time, when the myth of the weapons of mass destruction seemed credible, a million people in our own country demonstrated against what they saw as an unjust war, and a terrible mistake. Today, we have sown the wind, and reaped the whirlwind. We have set nations against us. We have driven willing volunteers into the hands of the terrorists. Though Tony Blair might claim Iraq is safer today, the world, and the West in particular, are surely less safe.
The lesson that needs to be learned is that nothing good will ever be achieved by making scapegoats. It doesn’t remove sin, or ultimately make people feel good about themselves. As Christians we should know that making scapegoats doesn’t work. Forgiveness of sins is the free gift of God through Jesus Christ.
There is a large body of literature which explores ideas of scapegoating from a Christian perspective. Much of it is indebted to the work of Rene Girard, who developed his understanding in the field of literature, drawing significantly on writing as diverse as Shakespeare’s plays, Greek tragedy and modern novels. For an except from Girard’s book I see Satan fall like lightning, see chapter 12 entitled Scapegoat.
I’ve had the same mad conversation no less than five times in the last month, which is enough to suggest that others may not think the idea is so barmy, and that maybe I should take it more seriously than I do.
To backtrack a little, we’re talking about the slow disintegration of the Church of England. This is not an attractive prospect for me, and not only because I have a career and a pension riding on it. I happen to believe in a lot of what the CofE represents, which probably comes as no surprise to even a casual reader, but I am nevertheless increasingly pessimistic about its prospects for surviving in the way we have known it.
Where it affects us is whether we think there should continue to be a local church in every community in the land. In this part of the world we live in a deanery of sixteen parishes. Within living memory, each parish had its own clergyman, and Stansted also had usually two curates, so eighteen full-time clerics for sixteen parishes. These days, for the same sixteen parishes there are five full-time clergy. In fifteen years there will be three full-time clergy for the same number of parishes with increasing populations.
Back in the days when clergy were a less endangered species, it was possible for their church councils to say that, if they took care of the roof, the fête and the flower festival, the vicar could go and visit, do The God Bit and bring people to church. Those individuals who didn’t like franchising their faith to the clergy became Methodists or Quakers but, for the rest, this undemanding arrangement worked reasonably well. Reasonably well, that is, until clergy become thin on the ground, which creates a vacuum.
This empty space, to be fair, has come upon rural churches at a quicker pace than they are used to working; in fact it has come more quickly than any of us would like. Even for the most devout of us, it is one thing to recognise the gap, it is quite something else to fly in the face of old instincts and prejudices and presume to offer oneself to meet the need. In small communities this is an even larger step because, as we all know, there is nothing like a village for remembering the human frailties of its inhabitants ‘til well after they have taken up residence in the churchyard.
So, we must keep the church going, but we don’t quite know how. So we reach for widely held beliefs which are ready to hand: ‘The church is the centre of the community’ is one of these. This belief is held by sane people who hold down serious and responsible jobs. It is a view which only makes sense if the community is all Christian, and the kind of Christian which expresses its faith through formal organisations like a parish church.
The mad idea with which I started is also widely held in all three parishes, and even beyond, as I had the conversation in another diocese last week. It says that, if the parish church can put on social events in church to attract local people, somehow this will encourage them to become active members of the church, and so will stay the process of decline, now that we do not have local clergy to go and round up the lapsed.
Now I have no objection to social events and look forward to more of them in my parishes, but their provision does not address the core malaise of the church. The root problem is that most people, given free choice, do not publicly practice Christian faith. This is not just the much lamented young, it has been true for a long time. People born in the 1920s, 30s and 40s mostly are not regular church attenders for most of their lives. I know this as I bury a good number of them in the course of a year. Their offspring struggle with the language of a Christian burial ritual because it speaks using images and metaphors whose meaning just escapes them. Fewer people in church means that there are fewer individuals who feel a call to holy orders. With fewer in holy orders, there is a sense of communities being beached by the church, and so giving goes down, which in turn means fewer clergy taking on more parishes, which then see less of them, they become disaffected and the spiral goes on. If I were to stay here until retirement, I can quite see my parish growing to include half of the deanery.
There is hope for rural parishes, but the route is not an easy one, and the days of an undemanding faith are over. We need somehow to grasp the idea that people do not become practicing Christians by accident. There may even be some who choose a church because they like the cleric who serves there, but that’s not a true faith as it will evaporate when that cleric moves on and, surprise, surprise, the cleric is not God.
A local church is attractive only if it is engaged in its core business, and this is about ordinary fallible people stumbling around, along with their no less fallible cleric, trying to listen for the echoes of God’s footsteps in their own lives, and then sharing what they find with others. This is how a church is grown, and it doesn’t need a local cleric constantly to hand for that to begin.
A couple of days ago, I found myself on the stage of the town hall in the company of the local MP, giving out ‘certificates of excellence’ to a steady stream of primary school children. Nothing unusual there, you may say. It’s the sort of thing vicars do.
But that’s the problem. It certainly fitted with the expectations of the local vicar with which I grew up, when the incumbent was part of the structure of the community, widely recognised as one of the neighbourhood’s ‘great and good’, a suitable authority figure for school prize-giving, and to be invited to civic events of every kind. He (of course) was there as the representative of the established church (and of the Establishment) in a country which described itself as Christian, no matter how small a percentarge of the population were active members of a church.
On Wednesday, however, I was giving out certificates to children, only a tiny proportion of whom would have any connexion with Christian faith; the great majority with a faith commitment were Muslim. I was part of the presenting team in my capacity as an LEA-appointed governor in a community school. That I also happen to be the local vicar is incidental.
And yet I was wearing my clerical collar, identifiably a leader in the Christian community, and a sign of continued Christian presence in and commitment to a neighbourhood where residual attachment to church and church-going is dwindling rapidly as the population changes.
In this area, there is a shortage of volunteers to take up governorships in local schools. Working for the well-being of the community in which I find myself is a natural part of my ministry, fitting with the long Anglican tradition of service particularly in the inner city. School governorship is a very practical opportunity to use my skills and experience in a field where they will be of value. It also gives me the chance to make relationships with children, parents, and colleagues whom I would not otherwise encounter – and who perhaps would rarely have any occasion to engage with someone who has a public commitment to the Christian faith.
The difference from the old days is that I cannot assume any right to that opportunity or those relationships. The old rules of establishment no longer hold. I must earn my place at the table, by whatever personal gifts I might bring and by an understanding of the gospel which connects to the hopes and fears of staff, parents, children and governors of the school. And I find myself wondering when and if I will be joined on the governing body by the local imam; when will he be the natural person to invite onto the platform, and should he be so already?
Among all the presents I received at my ordination as deacon in 1983 perhaps the most unusual was a poster. It depicted a group of people around a table engaged to varying degrees in some sort of argument. The caption was simply, “God so loved the world that he didn’t send a committee”.
The poster is long gone, but the sentiments are still engraved on my heart. They come bubbling back to the foreground every time I’m confronted with a meeting agenda that looks poorly planned, confused, or lacking in clear purpose. So when the thick wad of papers for the forthcoming Church of England General Synod tumbled onto my doormat, that ordination present came back so clearly into my mind that I could almost describe every face on it.
Now I’m not, and never have been, a member of General Synod. So I need to test my reactions lest they are simply the natural suspicion most of us have towards clubs of which we are not a member. But just maybe the perspective of a non-member may have something to offer.
I don’t see my ordination poster as being an argument for abandoning all committees. There is a lot of work that can only effectively be progressed through a process of debate by duly authorised representatives. But it asks of any piece of committee business some sharp questions. Chief among these is “What will be different after this agenda item has been concluded? Close behind it comes “Is this the most efficient and effective way to achieve that difference?” and “Is the difference justified in terms of the costs entailed?” None of this is specific to General Synod – it applies just as much to a local church council, to a specialist charity and to the board of a multinational corporation.
In the heady days of my youth I was a member of a small Labour Party branch in a safe Conservative area. I still remember the night when, after lengthy debate and much proffering of amendments we voted through our simple and clear resolution to the problems of the Middle East. In terms of impact this item had considerably less than the same meeting’s traditional raffle of four cans of cheap lager. There’s much on the current Synod agenda reminiscent of those old political gatherings.
Worthy motions, that were I a member I would doubtless support, will be proposed, amended, and passed overwhelmingly. Members will feel somewhat better informed (a good thing) and that they have been part of something that will - simply because an august body has pronounced - make a difference (false – and therefore a bad thing).
The age has gone when councils or synods could, by passing resolutions, raise a topic above the threshold of public consciousness. Even Parliament, with all its resources, only influences opinion when it debates a subject already in the spotlight. Like it or not, the media are far more interested in reporting the views of individuals already in the public eye. People can be questioned, they can give a human dimension to an issue, and they can elaborate and go deeper in response to challenge. Whilst Synod members work through their preparatory papers, I’ve just produced a Press Release, in conjunction with other Bishops, on the Arms Trade. I suspect it will get rather more coverage in local media than any of the Justice Issues on the York Synod Agenda.
Emboldened by having removed all the worthy public issues for synodical debate let me turn my sights onto another target – the Private Member’s Motion – and dismiss it with brevity. Frankly, if I can’t get the backing of my Diocesan Synod for my concerns, I shouldn’t be taking them all the way to a National body. Too often they are simply a mechanism by which the disgruntled get to ride their hobbyhorses at everybody’s time and expense.
My final candidates for agenda pruning are those items that may well require general assent, but instead are subject to a detailed scrutiny that is achieved more efficiently elsewhere – indeed often the Synod debate duplicates this. I have yet to encounter a piece of Liturgy that has been significantly improved by General Synod.
In recent times Synod has improved itself by pruning its members. It was increasingly absurd that every single diocese had an archdeacon as a voting member. Indeed it was little more than a “payroll vote” giving the hierarchy a substantial caucus within the House of Clergy – perhaps at times a decisive caucus. Now is the time to take the same pruning shears to the agenda. With the goal being, that if we could reduce Synod to an annual gathering (like the Methodist Conference) or even less frequent (the ECUSA general Convention meets every three years) – it would not only be cheaper and more efficient but might actually attract the wider and more representative membership it so pointedly lacks.
Having no personal memories of D Day, and being required to take a service to commemorate the anniversary, I asked someone who took part in the landings about his memories. Bert suggested a hymn for the service, one that was unknown to me.
Once to every man and nation comes the moment to decide,
In the strife of Truth with Falsehood for the good or evil side;
Some great Cause, God’s New Messiah, offering each the bloom or blight,
And the choice goes by for ever ‘twixt that darkness and that light
Then to side with Truth is noble when we share her wretched crust.
Ere her cause bring fame and profit, And ‘tis prosperous to be just;
Then it is the brave man chooses, while the coward stands aside,
Till the multitude make virtue of the faith they had denied.
By the light of burning martyrs, Christ, thy bleeding feet we track,
Toiling up new Calvaries ever with the cross that turns not back.
New occasions teach new duties; time makes ancient good uncouth;
They must upward still and onward who would keep abreast of truth.
Though the cause of evil prosper, yet ‘tis truth alone is strong;
Though her portion be the scaffold, and upon the throne be wrong,
Yet that scaffold sways the future, and, beneath the dim unknown,
Standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above his own.
James Russell Lowell
Bert had sung this as a schoolboy in rural Essex, and learned it long before he would be involved in ridding Europe of the tyranny of the Nazi regime. The hymn was actually written by an American, who I believe was strongly opposed to slavery, at the time of the American Civil War. Yet how appropriate it was to the conflict in Europe of 60 years ago.
It’s a pity the hymn went out of fashion, for it highlights to a need to remain vigilant in the cause of truth. Significantly, it points out that truth may not always require a simple repetition of an age old wisdom. No doubt Lowell was thinking particularly of slavery, which was accepted as normal in much of the society of his day, when he wrote New occasions teach new duties; time makes ancient good uncouth. But the message remains appropriate to the need to fight against fascism 60 years ago, and to the different challenges and concerns of our day.
They were curiously juxtaposed in Rome last week in the commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the city from Fascism. The occasion had been planned to mark the gratitude of the Italian people, and recall how welcome the British and American troops had been as they arrived in Rome then. But the celebration was also marked by demonstrations against American policy today, highlighting the very different way in which war had been waged in Iraq.
I watched events on the news with mixed feelings. If Rome had not been liberated, there could have been no demonstrations of that sort today. But perhaps it was the moment to point out that ‘new occasions teach new duties’.
The photographs of American soldiers abusing prisoners in Iraq gave me pause for all sorts of reasons, not least because some of the soldiers are Christians.
It has been an interesting turn of events that, while I was growing up, my teachers were predicting the end of religion. Belief in God was a throwback to magical thinking and feudal society, so I was taught. Yet, it turns out these days, religion is as much of a force in world events as it has ever been.
I think that blaming soldiers for abuses is to treat the symptom but not the cause. Soldiers are everything and nothing; we have no idea how they are prepared, if at all, for the complexities of the roles they are expected to fulfil.
What I have found deeply troubling is reading how fundamentalist Christianity has permeated the centres of power in the United States.
The absence of any US commitment to environmental politics, for example, can be traced to a deeply held belief in the current administration that, if Jesus is coming back to judge the world and reduce it to a cinder, why bother saving the rain forest? The same idea of judgement encourages a sense of the world being divided into the saved and the damned, the good and the bad: we are good, and all the evil in the world is out there somewhere.
Once you take on this mindset, then the abuse of prisoners follows from this. The only circumstance in which abuse can be justified is that they are the enemy and they represent all that we consider to be evil. Once you’ve made that decision, the rest is easy, they have no rights, they can be treated however we feel like, they deserve whatever they get, we are the righteous, we are the chosen. It doesn’t matter if you lock suspects up in Guantanamo Bay for two years with no basic human rights.
Keeping all the evil in the world Out There somewhere is very comforting. People have grown huge church congregations by gathering those huddled together, set apart from the evils of the world. I want to take a different Christian view.
Deep at the heart of Christian faith is a view of life from the perspective of the victim. Imagine how Christian faith looks to the prisoner on the receiving end of a GI boot. Maybe two years ago he was on the receiving end of one of Saddam’s boots, now it’s a Christian one. How do we look to them, what must they make of the wonderful new world and values that liberation has brought.
Christianity says that it is possible to do something about the evil in the world. You don’t stop evil by deciding it is only to be found somewhere else, and that its source is somebody else. When Christians gather to worship, we routinely make the space to consider how we look to others, and to allow God to show us the evil within ourselves.
I can say, and I believe, that Saddam Hussein is an evil man, and I don’t expect anyone to disagree with me. But I can keep saying that, and the world doesn’t change, we just feel cosy that the evil is being committed by someone else.
What happens if I ask what an Iraqi prisoner sees when he looks at me, or looks at people who act on my government’s behalf? What does he think of the values of my world, as he sees them acted out on him? What happens if I ask whether there is any truth in what he describes when he looks at my world? And what can I do about it?
Whilst on holiday in Spain I had the opportunity to see what local papers were saying about the recent ban in Barcelona on bullfighting. The very idea that Spain might be banning what the world had thought of as its national sport seemed almost impossible — that is, until you remember what they paid for David Beckham. Maybe bullfighting isn’t the draw it was, either for tourists or locals.
The press began by noting that cock fighting, bear baiting, bull baiting and dog fighting were, like bullfighting, once far more widespread, but across Europe a growing horror of such cruelty to animals had gradually reached everywhere.
The bull doesn’t naturally fight. It’s a gentle herbivore, and, as a domesticated animal, has been bred over hundreds of generations for its gentleness. All idea of fighting is foreign to it. The cows allow us to milk them, and cattle have been our best friends for thousands of years. It doesn’t ‘fight’ at all until lances have been hurled into its back. There is no contest in taking a sword to such a creature. It’s like taking a machine gun to a boy who throws stones.
In Spain, bullfighting had become identified with extreme right wing, oppressive government. It had come to symbolise the oppression of ordinary people, of minorities, of those who were different. So, it was unsurprising that the Catalans, whose language and whose culture had been suppressed in Franco’s time should see themselves as such an minority, and side with the noble, suffering bull, rather than with the murderous weapons of the bullfighter in his suit of lights.
Oppressive regimes glory in portraying punishment and killing as a sign of their power. This is what was at the heart of the circuses of ancient Rome. Ritualised execution in such a state could be the fate of anyone who was different, as Christian martyrs of the first, third or 20th century have testified.
Sports which involve killing brutalise those who take part, and all those who watch.
Now, the Catalans appear to have had enough. In a secret ballot which probably surprised everyone, they outlawed the old national sport. I expect they will be followed by similar votes from people in the other marginalized areas of Spain, and eventually the whole nation will turn against the blood lust of this barbaric sport.
And when they do, we shall need to ask ourselves whether, in order to demonstrate that ours, too, is a civilised society, and part of a modern Europe with decent values, we should ban the sport of hunting wild creatures with dogs.
Today is St George’s Day. Articles about St George frequently begin with words such as ‘Little is known about St George’, and it is true. Probably he was a soldier living in Palestine at the beginning of the fourth century. He may have been a Palestinian or a Syrian, and he was martyred in about the year 304, during the persecution of Diocletian. If this is true, it means that this is the seventeen hundredth anniversary of his martyrdom — an anniversary which seems to have passed unnoticed, as did that of Agnes, martyred in Rome in January of about the same year. Agnes, though, has a shrine and feast day in Rome to keep her cult alive, but George seems to have gone somewhat out of favour. Even this morning’s Church Times carried an article suggesting he be replaced as England’s patron.
George is mostly remembered for the legends that came to be told about him, most famously his slaying of a dragon, and the consequent rescue of a virgin princess. George is said to have been martyred at Lydda, in Palestine, the place at which Perseus, in Greek mythology, defeated a sea-monster, and it seems likely that the legend has been transferred from the pagan hero to the Christian martyr.
This legend, however, serves us well as an allegory of aspects of the Christian faith. George, a soldier for Christ, puts on the whole armour of God: the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, the sword of the Spirit, as Paul writes in Ephesians. Thus armed, he is ready to take action against the dragon, the representative of evil, a deed reminiscent of that of Michael, the archangel, in the great vision in the Book of Revelation. And he does this, not for great glory and honour, but to save the life of an innocent girl threatened by this evil, a girl who has no one else to protect her.
Modernists may mock, or may consider the legends to be sexist or sexual, but here is a parable, an allegory, of our Christian life — whatever our politics or churchmanship: to defend the weak against the onslaught of evil, and to help bring each person that we meet closer to the kingdom of God.
I wasn’t going to see it. It wasn’t that I felt strongly about the movie, one way or the other, it was just not top of my list of must-do’s. It was only when I was alerted to the fact that The Passion of the Christ might be a subject at a dinner party that I thought I might give it a go.
I kept waiting for something to happen. That’s not to say that there was not plenty of action, far from it. I patiently sat and noted the various bits of the gospel stories which Gibson had pressed into service. I flinched a little at the initial bloodletting. Patiently I watched for the androgynous Devil character to develop into significance, but it never quite got there. By the time Caviezel’s Jesus fell a second time, I realised we were doing the stations of the cross, and I wearily ticked them off in my head as they passed across the screen.
At the end I was left with a big ‘so what?’ I didn’t know what Gibson wanted me to do with his tale; I was left with a surfeit of blood and carnage with nowhere to put it. It was beyond me why some of my colleagues had block-booked theatres, to use the movie to encourage people to faith.
The point about telling a Jesus story is that you do so to answer a question, or to raise one. Each of the gospel writers was telling their version of the Jesus story in such a way as to address a particular need of the community to whom they were writing. The question might be about who belongs in the Christian community? or who is my neighbour? Why should we take Jesus seriously? Either way the stories are written in such a way that invites a response. Gospel writers are not simply spinning a tale for the sake of it, they want you to take what they’ve written and do something with it.
The Gospel according to St Mel does none of this, unless having your nose rubbed in the brutality of first century Roman justice somehow makes you want to say your prayers. If the film was created to answer a question it was certainly lost on me.
Gospel writers and preachers know that there is no such thing as a plain vanilla Jesus story. That’s why the four gospels differ in the way that they do. Why they write and preach is because they recognise that people start with real-life questions, and so the story has to be told in such a way that speaks to the real-life situations of their hearers, and all of these are different. They shaped their material in the belief that God meets us where we are. So, don’t send me to a movie, tell me in your own words how you, a person like me, with problems and concerns like mine, has been changed by Jesus. If I can see that it is possible for me as well, then it’s news I can use, good news.
…Mr Crumpler described himself as “passionate” about the Church, which he described as “a superb institution that is not given the value it should be in society”. He will take up the post in May. The post was vacated by the Revd Dr Bill Beaver in 2002, and was frozen while a review of the national communications strategy was conducted on behalf of the Archbishops’ Council. Mr Crumpler… said he had studied the Phillis report into government communication strategies, which stressed the need for positive presentation, openness, and no “spin”.
Some information about these two reports may be useful.
First, the Independent Review of Government Communications, a 40-page report which can be downloaded from here, deals with UK government communications strategy. It was originally set up in the wake of the Jo Moore/Stephen Byers fiasco but later it also responded to the departure of Alistair Campbell.
Bob Phillis, who is the chief executive of the Guardian Media Trust and a former TV executive (with both the BBC and commercial TV companies) chaired a group of media professionals, many of whose recommendations for restoring public confidence in the government are in my view equally applicable to the Church of England. Just try substituting “church” for “government” etc. For example:
R.10 A new approach to briefing the media - We found that the lobby system is no longer working effectively for either the government or the media. We recommend that all major government media briefings should be on the record, live on television and radio and with full transcripts available promptly online. Ministers should deliver announcements and briefings relevant to their department at the daily lobby briefings, which should also be televised, and respond to questions of the day on behalf of the government.
Greater emphasis on regional communication - Research told us the public want information that is more relevant to them and where they live. We recommend that more investment should be made in communicating at a local and regional level and more communication activity should be devolved into relevant regional government or public service units…
and on websites:
R.10.3 Government websites should make all relevant background material available to anyone who wants it.
R.11 Customer-driven online communication
… We recommend that the central government website should be redesigned to meet the needs and perceptions of users, with individual departments only becoming “visible” when this makes sense to the users. Information on local public services should be prominent and easily found. There should be increased investment in websites to reflect the increasing importance of this method of communication.
Turning now to the Review of the National Communications of the Church of England which was undertaken by Mr David Kenning of Bell Pottinger Ltd, this has not been published, but a 35 page summary was posted on the CofE website in Microsoft Word format. That can be downloaded from here. A more concise 8 page version was issued last November to all General Synod members, diocesan secretaries and others, and is reproduced as a web page here. This is worth reading in full. Synod members were told that:
The Council has accepted the general analysis and overall prescription in Mr Kenning’s report.
…The Council agreed that the new Director would need some flexibility over the detailed recommendations in the report. They noted that decisions about the resources devoted to the Communications Unit would need to be considered in the budget round next spring in the usual way.
Translating into plain English, the specific recommendations of Kenning would require a huge increase in the staff and budget of the department. So that’s not going to happen any time soon. The new Director will have to fight for his slice of the cake like everyone else. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing, as Kenning’s emphasis on traditional media seems rather odd anyway. Kenning said:
The Communications Unit should invest in two additional professional journalists - one from the national press (preferably with tabloid experience) and one from national broadcasting (preferably also with national journalistic experience). This would increase the number of press officers from two to four…… revitalising Church relationships with key national journalists, columnists and journalists on a one-to-one basis. These (personal) relationships can only be improved where they are manifestly based on trust and openness. This should be done in the form of a weekly lobby - preferably held away from Church premises. … Hold a separate Thursday lobby for the Sunday press.
Whereas concerning the CofE website, Kenning said:
The Official Website requires full-time dedicated professional support with a recruited or outsourced full-time professional webmaster. Much more use could be made of an improved website (establishing an intranet) for more direct communications between the Unit and the dioceses and parishes…
A careful balance needs to be maintained between the effort devoted respectively to the press and electronic media. The recommendations for the staffing requirements above reflect the optimum balance for each. The Internet has made enormous strides into the national consciousness over the past five years and the next decade could well see it overtaking the established media as a source of information. However, the conventional press and media must remain a priority for the foreseeable future. There is no reason, however, why Church Advocates should not be able to post their views on the internet via webcams [sic] and, on occasions, invite an interactive communication with the nation such as is often conducted by television networks.
Compare this with what Phillis said about the lobby system, emphasising regional media, and using websites. Try looking at the Bell Pottinger website :-)
On the other hand, Kenning accurately portrays the magnitude of the task facing the new director when he lists as a major issue:
A culture of inclusivity and openness - The fortress mentality in the NCIs needs to be dismantled - An entire strategy and programme needs to be put in place to improve and monitor relationships with the national press and broadcast media.
The Church must set about dismantling (the perception of) the “fortress” mentality at Church House in particular, and to a lesser extent at Lambeth. The first and most important area to begin with is within the Communications Unit itself.
This will require a change of culture.
Yes, and this is not a task which a Communications Director can do alone. Kenning also said:
The configuration of the Communications Panel holds the key both to enabling the communications strategy to work and to empower national Church communications as a whole. To date this Panel has been too remote, underpowered and insufficiently representative to do the job properly. It must draw together representatives from the major institutions and key individuals involved in communications.
… I recommend a new, re-configured Panel should include the following:
- Chaired by a media-literate senior bishop representing the House of Bishops with experience of national Church communications and who has a direct link to the Archbishops
- A maximum of two lay members (communications experts) to be elected by Synod
- One person elected from Diocesan Communicators’ Panel
- Director of Communications
- Senior Lambeth communications advisor
- Senior Bishopthorpe communications advisor ??
But the Synod was told that the Archbishops’ Council in its wisdom had:
- created a small task force to support and oversee the work of the Director over the next two years as he or she draws up and delivers a detailed implementation plan for the Review. The need for a Communications Panel will be considered further towards the end of the period. The task force will be chaired by the Bishop of Manchester. The three other members are Andreas Whittam Smith, Jayne Ozanne and Anne Sloman.
So no elected representatives of any kind on that task force, then. And the Panel recommendation has been sidetracked for at least two years. I don’t find that at all encouraging, and don’t suppose many synod members will either.
But, like many others, I do look forward to Peter’s arrival at Church House in May with joyful anticipation.
My current job requires me to take a managerial view of my university. I have been an academic for much (but not all) of my professional life, and this has allowed me to comment, and often comment critically, on how other organisations behave. I have often done so from a perspective of self-righteousness, in that the frame of reference for my criticism was informed by a belief that I was spreading the gospel of openness, transparency, accountability and equity. It’s a potent cocktail, because it numbs the capacity to see error in one’s own analysis.
Now I am in charge of a university, and I see at least some things differently. I recognise, for example, that universities are notoriously bad at modernising themselves, see tradition as noble, dismiss out of hand the possibility that they are bad employers — or worse still, that they might discriminate - and are suspicious of the desire on the part of public representatives to hold them accountable. They also have bits of mystical dogma — sometimes described as ‘academic freedom’ — which can be used to slap down argument when all else fails. And yet, beyond the slogans and the traditionalism, universities are stewards of a great public good: education and scholarship which maintains civilised, cultured and tolerant values. It is just when they become too self-important (which usually happens at times of great stress) that it becomes hard to see these values in action.
It’s probably similar with the church. We have all become a little fed up with the evident failings of the men and women (but usually men) who occupy the major ecclesial offices, and we are critical of the way in which both the mission of the church and its resources have been mismanaged. We become impatient when dogma which an educated person probably started to dismiss as absurd at the time of the Enlightenment still adorn a catechism or two, and we wonder whether this is an organism which can adapt sufficiently in order to survive.
But I am also aware that in the middle of all this mess is the Word, and however we have corrupted it, it is still there. So when I hear some daft new episcopal pronouncement and think I want to leave, I remind myself that the church is more than, and bigger than, what currently irritates me. And so I stay.
But staying should not be a comfortable irritation, in which I shrug off what annoys or offends me and get lost in other-worldly contemplation. Staying means accepting the mission to promote, and if necessary provoke, change — in a spirit of love, tolerance and (properly understood) obedience. It means recognising God in the church and striving to be true to God’s Gospel — an unchanging God who, for every generation, makes all things new.
I’d read the reviews, heard about all the hype, read yards of stuff giving all the reasons for not going to see the film, and was prepared to give it a miss. That is, until local clergy were invited to a free viewing, and a number of us went. Some, fearing it would be too much of a horror movie, stayed away.
Those who went found the film moving, profound, and thought provoking. It may not be one you would advise your elderly, churchgoing granny to see, but for anyone used to adult movies, this is well worth seeing. In Passiontide, the pictures will fill our familiar hymns with deeper meaning, and add a new depth to the Stations of the Cross.
Once, rich visual imagery was available in England as an aid to prayer and meditation. The fourteenth century mystics saw prayer as starting with a meditation on the Passion, not by looking at texts, for the Latin scriptures were inaccessible to many people, but from the familiar picture set up at 10,000 altars and on rood screens throughout Europe. A contemplation of Christ’s sufferings, for the sins of the whole world, and for our sins, was seen as both a road to conversion and the beginning of the life of prayer.
As painting and techniques improved, the crucifixion was depicted with increasing realism, culminating in works such as that by Grunewald.
But printed, vernacular Bibles and the Puritans destroyed much of this culture in Britain, leaving us with whitewashed church walls, and smashed stained glass. The ear, through the word of God, became the prime means of stirring the heart to devotion, and even music for a time was questioned. The result is that we have not understood the power and the place of devotional art.
But, with the rise of cinema and television, the visual arts can now reclaim their former place. With Mel Gibson’s film, the biblical epic has come of age. Raw reality and even savagery are displayed to an extent that makes previous biblical epic films look like chocolate-box illustrations. Yet “epic” is hardly the right word. There is little more than a following of the Stations of the Cross, given that the film only begins in the Garden of Gethsemane. As with any good meditation on the Stations, Mel Gibson introduces other scenes which comment on these final hours. And with these, and with the reactions of the bystanders, particularly Jesus’s mother, we are time and again taken away from the gruesome torturing of Jesus just at the point when it might appear unbearable.
The shifting of scene means that instead of being presented with unremitting gratuitous violence, we see something of the loving purposes of God, precisely at the point when we want to cry out “Why?”
Unless the film had brought us to this brink of feeling that it would be unbearable to go on, we might have come away thinking that this was just one more sanitised view that made the Christian faith just an interesting diversion for children. But this, with an “18” classification, is not a children’s film.
It is a very honest piece of propaganda for the Christian faith, the best that Mel Gibson could devise. In this I would see him as standing in the tradition of great religious artists of the past who have wanted to convey their faith through their art, and express their own Passion for Christ. It is precisely this which has made it difficult for the critics to know where to aim their arrows. The complaint that the film is anti-Semitic, for example, misses the point. Those who condemned Jesus are portrayed as very believable human beings in whom we should be able to identify our own failings. They are only as Jewish as the Virgin Mary. What is depicted is part of the history of Judea, and the history of the world.
There is a great deal to think about in the film. Don’t go alone, and allow yourselves plenty of time afterwards to reflect together on what you have seen.
I’m beginning a round of tours of sites of special interest. Not historic architecture, or places of pilgrimage, or the nature reserves of east London, but places where I can compare my own working environment with other people’s.
In November I took responsibility (no, surely some of the responsibility belongs elsewhere) for a church-and-community-centre, one of a number in the surrounding area, and a hybrid well-known elsewhere. And my tour is of other urban churches which use this combination as a way of adapting the sites and/or buildings bequeathed us by the Victorians, in order to finance our continuing presence in the city and offer service to our neighbours.
I want to learn from the way other people and places do it, but more than that I want to underpin what we do here with some theological thinking. I want, at least, to know what the questions are — which came first, the need for money or the understanding of service? How do we identify the nature of that service — by responding to whatever regeneration pot is best filled, or by identifying the greatest need? What are the ethical issues around competing with other worthy causes for what money there is? Do I/we declare the building a no-smoking zone in the interest of abundant life, or say ‘yes’ to the single mothers and the street people who find it a safe haven? And, biggest question of all, how do the people who worship on Sunday relate to the weekday users?
A lot of the questions circle round the ancient counterpoint of immanence and transcendence — how do we hold the two together, and make evident the holiness both of the day centre for adults with learning difficulties and of our gathering as the people of God?
Answers on a postcard, please!
The parish I am visiting this Sunday have issued a Press Release. It tells the world that among a series of repairs and improvements to be celebrated is the church?s new toilet, and goes on to declare that, ?The facilities will be put to use fully for the first time at a dedication service led by the Bishop of Dudley?.
I will leave it to my readers to speculate on what specific liturgical actions and movements might be appropriate to fulfil this promise. For me though it has served as a reminder of how significant a role the humble lavatory has played in my spiritual and ministerial formation.
Between school and university I worked six months in a labouring job. As the lowest of the low in the factory it fell to me to cover the jobs nobody else wanted to do. So when the cleaner went off on his fortnight?s holiday every blocked pan and overflowing urinal became my personal responsibility. I learned both that no task is beneath me and that even the most unpleasant duties pass. And I came to understand the gospel truth that engaging with the dirt and mess of life does not in itself defile us.
As a young vicar working in deprived urban areas there was a constant struggle to bring resources into the community. Governments attempted to show concern and interest by authorising a whole series of exceptional funds and programmes to combat poverty, unemployment or whatever the latest target might be. Much of it was well-intentioned but the delivery mechanisms were poorly thought through. I discovered that a proposal to improve church lavatories was the ideal quick spend medium sized project that officers badly needed to land on their desks in January ? just at the moment when they were being pressed to allocate the remainder of their budgets. ?Be wise as serpents?, says the gospel, and the new church loo was its practical outcome.
More problematically, I have learned the value of the comfort break in handling complex issues. I?ve long lost count of the number of occasions on which the breakthrough has occurred not at the negotiating table but in the gents? urinal. The psychological change from confronting across a table to standing side by side whilst engaged in a basic bodily function cannot be underestimated. Indeed I am told that a common ploy of industrial arbitrators in the 1970?s was to ply disputing sides with coffee and then call a strategic break. The problem of course is that it is hard to see how to incorporate gender inclusivity.
I could add other examples, but my point is that Christianity is an earthy religion. Our faith takes seriously that we are bodily beings. We follow one who took our flesh, with all its material nature, and we assert belief in ?the resurrection of the body? not the immortality of the soul. In blunt language we are not only Thinking Anglicans but eating, drinking, and defecating Anglicans. The tendency of religious writers and pundits is to over-spiritualise, to speak in abstracts and to attach labels to human beings that emphasise difference rather than commonality.
As a new teenage Christian in the mid 1970?s I was fortunate to come across the meditations of the French writer Michel Quoist. His ability to reflect theologically on the most prosaic and everyday objects and events continues to inspire me today. So I shall perform my liturgical duties this Sunday with gusto. Knowing that dedicating the church loo is no less important than dedicating a new stained glass window. And giving thanks for the ways in which God uses the ordinary stuff of life to reveal the gospel truth.
The potentially global reach of the internet is still quite limited in practice. In November 2003, less than 11% of the world’s population had internet access. 62% of North Americans and 28% of Europeans (58% in the UK) were internet users, while in Africa only 1% of the population had access. In two major African countries with significant Anglican populations, Nigeria and Uganda, the figures were only 0.1% and 0.2%. Within Latin America and the Caribbean the average was 7%, in Asia 6%, Oceania 2%, and in the Middle East 5%, although there were very wide variations between individual countries. The UK had the fifth highest number (34 million) of internet users in the world, after the USA (185 million), China, Japan, and Germany.
The reduction of this global “digital divide” is a major challenge which the United Nations and the International Telecommunications Union is trying to meet. Seven of the ten countries with the largest Christian populations, i.e. Brazil, Mexico, China, Russia, The Philippines, India and Nigeria have low figures for internet use.
Christian usage of the internet reflects the restricted geography of internet users. North American Christians currently dominate, with other English-speaking countries coming second, non-anglophone Western Europeans third, and the Global South is scarcely represented as yet. This balance will not change much over the next decade unless the global “digital divide” is significantly closed. It is not surprising therefore that so far the major Christian voices on the internet use the English language and reflect the theological balance of American Christianity, with strong representation of protestant and often conservative viewpoints. Thinking Anglicans is a small effort to redress this imbalance.
The most detailed survey so far of religious internet use is a 2001 survey of North Americans (see CyberFaith: How Americans Pursue Religion Online for details) which found that 3 million people a day (and in total 28 million Americans) had used the internet to get religious and spiritual information. This was a quarter of all American users and interestingly that was more people than had used internet dating services. 91% of them were Christians, compared to 71% of the American population.
Religious internet users appear to differ from many secular communities in that they do not use the internet much to find a new religious organisation to join, but rather to connect better with the one to which they already belong. Their most popular uses of the internet were to discover more information about their own faith, or about social issues, to email prayer requests, to download religious music, or to buy books or other religious materials. Nearly one-third subscribed to one or more electronic mailing lists of a religious kind. A majority had a favourite website affiliated with their own religious denominational group.
There are huge opportunities for Christians to promote the Kingdom of God via the internet. Thus far only a small proportion of Christian internet effort has been directed to evangelism: spreading the Good News of Jesus Christ to those who have never heard it. Much energy goes to nurture existing Christians in their faith, which is valuable. But far too much internet time is wasted in disedifying wrangles between Christians. This does nothing to further the Gospel, and leaves the potential of the internet for Christianity unfulfilled.
Matthew’s gospel concludes with a worldwide vision for the Christian message — ‘Go, and make disciples of all the nations’. The evangelist celebrates the universal vision first given by Israel’s prophets to the exiles returning from captivity. Matthew responds to Isaiah’s cry ‘Arise, shine, for your light has come’ by telling us that the first worshippers of the infant messiah are foreigners, magi from the East.
The gospel is written for Jews who are being awakened to the challenge of bringing the Christian faith to other cultures. Jewish dietary laws and distinctive dress would not be sustained within a faith which sought to be universal. Perhaps also the threat of persecution under the Roman Empire might have made it inadvisable for believers to parade their faith too publicly by sporting distinctive clothes.
One legacy is that there is no distinctive Christian dress code required by all, akin to the Sikh turban, or the Jewish skull cap. Within Britain we can also point to the fact that for those who want to retain a dress code which identifies their faith, this is accommodated to the extent of allowing Sikh men on motorcycles to wear a turban in place of a crash helmet. The law clearly shows that although the majority see no necessity for a religious dress code, the wishes of those who find this an essential expression of their faith are respected.
The present controversies about dress codes seem to show that the Christian community in many places has little understanding of the value placed on such rules by peoples of other faiths. It is significant that it was the Protestant President of Germany who made the point that ‘If one bans the headscarf in schools as a religious symbol, it is difficult to defend the monk’s habit.’ The comment is a two edged sword. Is he defending distinctive religious dress in a country that has a large Catholic population, or attacking Catholics as well as Muslims?
It is dangerous territory in Germany. Banning Jews from wearing skull caps would be almost as much an act of anti-Semitism as it was to insist that in Nazi Germany they should wear a Star of David. But it is unthinkable that the Pope, on a visit to Germany, would not wear his white cassock. Perhaps the President was saying that this line of argument had no future.
It is easy to caricature the Muslim headscarf as being a sign of the repression of women, or a political statement. Perhaps the opposite view should be heard — in many schools it would be far preferable if all girls dressed more discreetly, instead of following the pressure of advertising to flaunt their sexuality at increasingly earlier ages. Isn’t the modest dress of Muslim girls far more appropriate school wear than the revealing outfits of others? Isn’t there a value for the headscarf wearer in displaying a public sign that she belongs to a faith which prizes faithful marriage above casual sex?
At this time when we celebrate the visit of the magi from the East, we should be building a society which welcomes cultural diversity and allows people freedom of religious expression. With diversity, they bring precious gifts.
My first reaction to the celebration of New Year is to retreat into the role my family describe as “Grumpy Old Man”. As a morning person I dislike the effort to keep awake well past my bedtime in order to simply watch some figures change on a clock — and I resent the expectation that I should do so with a show of bonhomie. I bemoan the way that New Year so quickly takes over from Christmas in the entertainment schedules that determine our popular culture; though I recognise that it allows broadcasters and journalists to put their compilation pieces together before December 25th, and go home to their families. Climbing fully onto my GOM soapbox I suspect that New Year bears blame for pushing the celebration of Christmas into Advent.
So is there anything positive I want to say about this commemoration? Well, yes there is. And it comes in the form of a plea that (as the current adage goes) we do what it says on the tin and let New Year’s celebrations be primarily a celebration in anticipation of the year to come.
Liturgically we make that point by beginning our year on the day when the church remembers the Circumcision of Christ. Efforts to re-brand the feast as “The Naming of Jesus” simply miss the point. Christ is not the last person whose circumcision gets recorded in the bible; that honour goes to Timothy. But he is the last whose circumcision is recorded as other than a piece of political expediency. Just as by his death he will destroy death, so with his circumcision the scripture looks back at the tradition into which he has been born, in order to move beyond it. Our challenge is not to forget the past, but it is also to try not to live in it either.
In different times the church will express this “future weighted balance” in different ways. In my own diocese of Worcester part of it is through our strategic plan, Looking to the Future. It isn’t a clever title, it doesn’t mean to be, but it does seek to determine an orientation towards the church we are, by God’s lead, becoming, rather than what we may formerly have been.
Back in our BC (before children) era Sue and I enjoyed long distance walking holidays. On a trek of well over a hundred miles the landmarks and staging posts became important. Be they natural, like rivers and mountain tops, or of human construction, towns and motorways, they punctuated the journey. They provided space to rest, to look back, and to look ahead. They were the places where we ate and drank, both to replenish our bodies after exertion and to build up energy for the next stage. There was a balance between what had gone before and what was to come, but the tilting of that balance was always towards the way ahead, and the ultimate destination that lay there. New Year is such a staging post, and it calls us to glance both forward and back, but then to set our feet firmly on the path ahead.
So amid all the other ideas you may have about New Year Resolutions let me suggest one more. When you catch yourself looking back in 2004, do so first in thankfulness for the good, then briefly in penitence for the bad. And then take that remembrance and let it strengthen you to face the year ahead, and embrace the new that it will bring.
Headlong into Christmas we all seem to rush, but it is still advent and the hurry, whilst certainly to do with preparation, has little to do with penance. It might not have been the kind of preparation John the Baptist had in mind when he told people, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord’. What preparation though would he be demanding of us today?
John challenged people to prepare themselves but also to look around at those in need and help them. Who are those most in need in our midst? Surely no one these days actually has nothing. Social security provides a safety net. The homeless shelters take people in, and feed them, and even help with clothing. But, do you know, there are actually those who have nothing. There are even people whom the shelters will not take at all? There are those in Britain, not just in major towns and cities but in your town on your streets, on your doorsteps who actually have nothing, not even food, and are hungry?
These people are asylum seekers. They have committed no criminal act. Routinely now, those who through no fault of their own, did not know that they had to claim asylum the moment they got to immigration control, but only found out even an hour later are denied all benefits. They are also prevented from working so they cannot earn their keep, as many would happily do. And these are not economic migrants, they are almost all from countries with which we have either been to war, or which have massive abuses of human rights. (Otherwise we would expect to see many more from the poorer African countries.) Many come highly educated, as many as 30% actually have a degree. In many cases, they cannot even be returned to their countries of origin, because it is not safe to send people back to places like Zimbabwe, Somalia, and Iraq. Their basic human rights were denied them in their home countries and they come here and find that they denied them here as well.
They are expected to have perfect knowledge of how the asylum system works here, before they arrive, even if English is not their first language — not that it gets explained to them at any stage.
So we have people now, without benefits, without work and without shelter, because the shelters only take in those for whom the state will pay for a bed, i.e. people who are British. We have managed to create a whole new underclass in our society, and one which generally gets nothing but vilification and blame from the media, as if they did not already have enough with which to cope.
So if you ask me what I think John the Baptist would be saying, I think he would be talking to us about asylum seekers. We might want to recall that Christ himself was a refugee in Egypt, that his family were even visitors to the town where he was born. And are we not to treat every asylum seeker, every refugee as Christ?
If you really want to help, if you really want to make a difference, then that would involve sharing money perhaps, but more importantly time, that is — getting involved directly; helping groups to distribute food, to dispense advice. But perhaps most important way of all, the way everyone can help them, is by not judging them before they have met them, and attempting to see behind the headlines, the rhetoric and the tinsel to see what life is really like for those who are marginalised on your streets this Advent and Christmastide.
And the latest news from the streets… the government want to take away Christ from his asylum seeking family — all for his own good you understand, because otherwise he would be destitute, too. And immediately with birth we see crucifixion as well.
‘Go on, ask him for something this Christmas’ says the Churches’ Christmas advert.
The baby Jesus, dressed in an unlikely Santa suit, rather than the traditional swaddling clothes makes us think, and will probably cause anguish and confusion to the parents of thousands of children. The Christmas poster from the Church’s Advertising Network has again prompted all kinds of disapproval. Even the least of the criticism complains about the apparent desecration of a beautiful old master picture of the nativity.
But it does its job. It was intended to surprise, and, with gentle irony, make people think about what we have done to the festival which marks the birth of God’s Son. The meaning can be distorted or lost in all the events and all the products which claim the title of “Christmas” but have little to do with the Christian celebration of the incarnation.
The poster, of course, just adds to the confusion. But it’s only intended to point people to the places where the real message of Christmas is proclaimed — in churches of all denominations throughout the land, all marking Christmas in their own special ways.
All churches acknowledge that Christmas began with the best Christmas present in history, God’s greatest gift to the world.
God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
So, for the real message and meaning of Christmas, celebrated in carols, in scripture, in teaching, in drama and liturgy, come to church, and have a real Christmas. Ask him for something.
Having lived for ten years in the North-East of England, I returned to Dublin (which I had left in 1990) just over three years ago. The Dublin I had left was really still a provincial town, and its inhabitants lacked the self-assured arrogance of those of some capital cities. But its community was also still far from being at ease in the modern world: the 1980s were marked in many ways by very public struggles in which the Roman Catholic church fought, and generally vanquished, what people elsewhere took for granted: contraception, divorce, homosexuality.
When I returned I encountered a very different city, and a very different country. The demure city whose pulse was hardly in evidence has become an in-your-face, secular, materialistic community. Churches in urban parishes which had attracted 90 per cent of the population to their Masses are now lucky if the get 10 per cent. A new RC archbishop feels the obvious need to begin his prelature by offering apologies to all and sundry on behalf of his church.
Anglicans have been beneficiaries, to some extent. For the first time in over a century or so the Church of Ireland is growing, and in some parishes it is growing fast. Young affluent-looking families (who will often still be declaring they are ‘Catholic’ on the census form) make the Anglican cathedral or parish church their spiritual home. And why? Because, as one said recently in a TV interview, ‘here is a denomination which understands the new millennium and can combine the spirit of the new age with the best of the old tradition’. And another said that ‘Anglicans manage to be religious without being obviously unreasonable’.
Maybe that’s too rosy a picture, and maybe the more familiar pattern of decline will return. But I don’t believe that a born-again dogmatism — whatever its direction — is a likely agent of continuing growth. Fundamentalists comfort those who cannot quite face the world as it is; but most people whose main instinct these days is to give religion a miss will run a mile if they sense a dogma around the corner. We need to speak a different language — still capable of being expressed in thees and thous, by the way — which engages the mind, refreshes the senses and shows the way forward.
A little over a year ago I began to learn bellringing. The bells at our church had been largely silent for several years, and a group of us decided that if we wanted them rung we would have to learn to ring them ourselves. Under the expert guidance of ringers from a neighbouring parish we started to learn the ropes.
This is no easy thing. As the bell turns full-circle on its wheel the rope goes up and down at a tremendous speed and the beginner has to learn to grab it and release it as it flies past, to pull it at the right time by just the right amount, and to feel what the bell mechanism is doing fifty feet above. This must be done for the safety of the beginner, of the other ringers, and to prevent damage to the bell and its mechanism.
After a few weeks practice this all begins to come together, and you can start to ring the bell properly. Now you must learn to ring with others, hearing the other bells as you ring, so that the church bells sound out together, calling people to worship God, or singing joyously in celebration, or sorrowfully at a funeral. Then the bells speak loud and clear, knowing their place among the other bells, singing harmoniously as they weave complex patterns to and fro.
When we try to follow the teachings that we find in the bible and in the traditions of the Church we can follow a similar path. Here there is a complex of ideas, underpinned by some simple principles, and we have to use the skills that God gives us to understand how to apply these concepts. It is not enough simply to pull on a bell-rope and expect to be able to ring a peal of bells — it takes practice, skill and co-ordination. Similarly we strive to deepen our understanding of our faith, and of the words of the bible, and to work out what we are called to do, and how to do it. The message of the bible is not always simple and its application to the world is not always clear-cut, and if we think it is then we risk becoming at best a clanging noise, and at worst a danger to ourselves and others, as when a ringer loses control of the bell-rope.
But when we have begun to understand the good news of the kingdom of God then we can sing out harmoniously, and proclaim the theme loudly, clearly and joyfully to the world.
Awaiting licensing to a new post, there is one bonus, as I sit amongst the detritus of moving house — I don’t have to preach on Sunday, the day we mark as ‘Christ the King’. I always find these weeks before Advent, which we now call the Kingdom season, difficult. The words given to us to use in worship and in our lectionary readings are distinctly triumphalist. They speak of majesty, power, grandeur, force. How do they fit with the gospel theme of a world turned upside down, a world where the priorities are quite other? The contrast seems all the more striking this year, when the immediately preceding Sundays gave us a whole series of readings from Mark, in which we are told that the first shall be last and the last first.
But perhaps I should regret not preaching this Sunday, and trying to work out my ambivalence about the Church’s season in the light of current events. News coverage this week has been dominated by the state visit of the president of the United States. George Bush’s visit has been an extraordinary mixture of pomp and security. He has been entertained at Buckingham Palace, and protected by enormous numbers of police and security officers; he has addressed the political elite, travelled in a limousine with doors five inches thick, and reviewed a traditional guard of honour. Majesty, power, grandeur, and force.
My questioning is not about the character of American foreign policy under this president, or even about the extent and limits of American power; it runs deeper than that. It is about how the Christian tradition views power and all its trappings. In celebrating Christ the King, it is not enough to imagine a purely virtuous superpower, engaged in promoting universal well-being by using the traditional levers of force and influence. We are called, I think, to something much more radical, to re-imagining the nature and uses of dominion, to losing the triumphalism, and seeking out what it might mean for the last indeed to be first.
Getting to the end
The hardest sentence to write of this article has been this one. Where to begin? What bearing to set off in? The start is determined by the end. I need to know where I want to go, so that I can point myself in the right direction.
For me this isn?t just part of the struggle of writing articles, it is central to the way I live as a Christian. I believe in a God of purpose and of destiny. A God who has clear ends in mind, and who calls me to journey with him towards our final destination. The question of discipleship is one of discovering where I think I am being led, and then trying to take the next step in that direction. Believing, as firmly as I can manage, that God himself will help me to take it. It?s a way of being Christian that makes the basic ethical question one of asking whether a particular action (or inaction) is likely to work towards the fulfilment of the divine purpose, or against it.
The clues to this destination come supremely in the bible, especially in the teachings of Jesus. Sometimes they are called the ?Kingdom of God? or ?Heaven?. They offer a glimpse of an existence characterised by complete intimacy with God, love, and forgiveness. In heaven there will be no more oppression, injustice or prejudice. In Christ there is, we are reminded, neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female. The Kingdom we are told is breaking in even here and now. And it does so when we act in ways that show we are trying to live in it already.
The scriptures give us much more than a glimpse of the destination. They offer the reflections and experiences of others who have sought to make the same journey. As my uncle taught me years ago, ?Learn from other people?s mistakes. You?ll never have time to make them all for yourself.? St Paul in particular gives us lists of the types of behaviour that may help or hinder us on the way.
In the immediate post Vatican II era Roman Catholics built up the image of the ?pilgrim church?. And it is one that has stuck with me ever since. It keeps me from imagining, in some post-modern or ?new age? sense that the only journey is my personal one. My journey is part of the journey of the church, which in turn is part of the journey of the whole creation towards God. Again Paul?s letters provide some wonderful insights into the many ways in which the church lost the path, even in those immediate post-Easter years. And I often find comfort in them when we mess things up today ? the comfort of knowing there never was a golden age.
Because the journey is not simply a personal one, the creation itself matters, and matters deeply. I find myself in direct opposition to those Christians who deduce from their belief in the imminent return of Jesus that we should use up the Earth?s resources, or even hasten the destruction that the scriptures suggest will herald the end time. Rather the whole creation is being shaped by God to achieve its ultimate fulfilment in him. It is not a rejection of the doctrine of the fall, but a belief that God works to restore the fallen, rather than just to pluck brands from the burning. But that does mean that I part company, and pretty firmly, with those of my colleagues who base their theology on what one recently referred to as the ?utter depravity? of our fallen state. And in terms of the subjects that are most controversial in the church at present the primary question I take to the scriptures, reason and tradition is to ask what effect the love two men or women have for each other has on their and our ultimate destiny. Is it something that condemns to hell, or that will need to be discarded on the road to heaven? Or is it part of them that will travel with them and us to God?s Kingdom?
I?ve just about completed my journey through this article. I?ve got to where I wanted to get, and said what I wanted to say. But like most good journeys I?ve found something new on the way. It has struck me how the way I live my faith resonates with how I deal with a new computer or piece of software. In both cases looking for a book of instructions comes last on the list, after I?ve worked out what it?s meant to do and tried to get it to do it. And possibly followed the examples of more experienced friends. So if you?re one of those who reads the manual thoroughly first, and memorises as many rules as you can then it’s highly likely the way we encapsulate our faith is different too. And in that diversity is God?s glory.
Sixth formers, as a breed, generally do not need another reason to disregard the church. If they think about church at all, it is usually as a branch of the National Trust that sings hymns, theme park England, a costume drama and what goes with that is irrelevance, disdain and (this was a new one on me) pity.
We had talked before in class about sexuality and the church, when there had been the leisure to theoretically consider biblical texts and the worlds from which they sprang. This time it was personal, this time it had legs; four of them, Jeffrey John’s and Gene Robinson’s though, to be precise, there were eight legs if you counted their respective partners. It is the partners which fuels the sense of offence and, in the absence of a biblicist African bishop, it was me who was held to account.
Why I was so ill at ease was because, it seemed to me, that this group of young people seemed to be much better informed about both the nature of sexual orientation and the emotional range of affective love than has been evident in the recent public news releases of the church. In the past, the church at its best may have called secular culture into account, or, just as likely, been lagging behind secular wisdom while blindly protecting its own interests. In that classroom, I was uncomfortably aware that these young men and women had not needed to be taught about the values of compassionate and inclusive community, for them it was a given. It fell to me to try and interpret for them what appeared to be blind bigotry, and I did not have the heart to know where to begin and neither did I care.
The problem is that I do not have a position on homosexuality. For me it is personal, it has legs, lots of them. I cannot reduce to an issue my liturgy tutor from university who first introduced me to Thomas Tallis, and showed me what it was like to regard the moods of the day as sacred and a resource for prayer, while taking my friends and me out punting in long ago August afternoons. I cannot clinically debate the man who, when it was discovered I may have to preach for a living, took a clumsy sixteen year old with a stammer and began to train his voice over years so he could speak a complete sentence in public. I cannot weigh the spiritual legitimacy of a man and his partner who had no reason at all to keep an unobtrusive eye on me, when I was recently divorced in a foreign country, looking after my three-year-old at weekends. These are sufficient, but there are many more.
As a pastor I have learned that human communities seldom make decisions on the basis of logical issues. If we have an impasse we tell our stories, we show how we came to believe the way we do. I do not know, but I would not be surprised if this had been the hope of the Archbishop at the recent Primates Summit at Lambeth. But, publicly at least, the heat has gone into an issue, and the way back looks like an increasingly distant hope.
What saved me, before the period bell went, was to convey that the gospel, before it is anything else, is news. We have four gospels in the Bible and a few others outside. Each reflects the retelling of Jesus to different communities with different cultures and interests. These have been with us for almost 2,000 years, but we have not yet taken the hint.
We start with their witness, this is one of the characteristics of a Christian outlook, but we do not stop there. We can consult scripture, but we cannot set up camp there, even if we could. Like the gospel writers, we have to take what we have heard and seen and go and live Christ’s world in this one, by living in peace and justice with my neighbours on this earth, whatever amount of confrontation, struggle, recognition and surrender that may involve.
I am here to write this because some individuals, who have been called unclean by my fellow Christians, took time over me and cared for me. What is more important is that I, in my turn do the same. If I wind up caring for those who are being called outcast, and loving them because they are loveable, and that God did not make a mistake when he made them, then maybe I’m not too far off-message.
I am writing this on the day that Gene Robinson is being consecrated as Bishop of New Hampshire. He will be making history as the first open and active gay man to be made bishop in the Anglican Church. His election and consecration has threatened to cause division not only in his own Episcopal Church of the United States, but across the entire Anglican Communion.
For some faithful Anglicans, today marks the painful end of an agreed understanding of how we should order our lives and our churches. They feel distraught and anxious about the future of our Communion and the future of the Christian faith as it has been taught and handed down over the centuries.
For others, today heralds a time when we step out of the shadows of hypocrisy into the light of Christ’s love for and acceptance of all his followers, including that small minority who are attracted to their own sex. For these believers, the Church has just made a bold and positive stand which will enhance its mission and ministry to the world.
Last month the Anglican Primates gathered at Lambeth Palace at the invitation of Archbishop Rowan Williams, largely in response to Gene Robinson’s election. What they achieved was remarkable: no one walked out and everyone pledged to stay faithful to the process, even though they acknowledged that there would be repercussions when Gene Robinson was made bishop. As in politics, what happens now will have, at least in part, to do with the art of the possible: we are not starting in an ideal world, nor are we starting in a vacuum.
Right before he allowed himself to be arrested, Jesus prayed a powerful prayer for our unity - not albeit denominational, but for all his followers: … “that they may be one as we are one - I in them and you in me - so that they may be brought to complete unity.” (John 17:23 TNIV) This unity was for a purpose, so that “the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me”.
I believe that Anglican unity is a prize worth fighting for, but that unity exists within the context of a greater unity - the unity of all believers in Christ. Even if the nature of Anglican unity changes over the weeks and months to come, we can still claim and stand on that greater unity, which, if we truly believe in the life, saving death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and in the ongoing infilling of the Holy Spirit, remains unshaken. We can disagree with one another, we can even declare ourselves out of communion with one another, whatever that means, but let’s not lose sight of the nature and purpose of the deeper unity that we have in the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord. There can be nothing more important than that.
On 29 October the Archbishop of Canterbury named a group appointed to discuss issues of homosexuality. The day, marked in the Anglican calendar by the martyrdom of Bishop James Hannington, seems singularly appropriate. He was sent by the Church Missionary Society to Uganda in 1884. Exciting Holiness gives the following details of his fate: ‘The King of the Buganda, Mwanga, who despised Christians because they refused to condone his moral turpitude, seized the whole party, tortured them for several days and then had them butchered to death on this day in 1885.’
Rulers with absolute power have always felt free to indulge their sexual appetites, usually taking many wives and ‘concubines’ irrespective of the wishes of the women concerned. But Mwanga was interested in young men, and his committing of homosexual rape was considered shocking. Those who were killed for refusing his advances have been regarded as Christian martyrs. Many African men suffered the fate of James Hannington.
With such a history, it is easy to see how Christians in Uganda would find all homosexuality utterly repugnant, as they continue to venerate the memory of their first Bishop and all who died at the orders of King Mwanga.
Had the King abducted and raped young women, far less would have been said. Indeed, those who introduced the Christian faith had to come to an accommodation with polygamy of various kinds in Africa. To some extent it still continues, and in many parts of the world women are still ‘married’ against their will.
Sexual union should be based on mutual love, care and respect. Christianity has always recognised this as being best exemplified within freely chosen monogamous marriage.
However many people have come to recognise that for those whose desire is for someone of their own sex, the same qualities of mutual love, care and respect can be exhibited. The love the couple have for each other can make them more able to share love, expressed other than in sexual ways, with many others.
This kind of relationship has nothing to do with homosexual rape, just as Christian marriage is not expressed in forcible abduction of young women for sexual purposes.
Today we need to redefine what the issues are. At the moment we risk ignoring the capacity for good in loving homosexual relationships, and also turning our backs on women who are forced into sexual relationships and ‘marriage’ against their will.
One of our hopes when we began ‘Thinking Anglicans’ was that it would include news, comment and reflections on a range of topics. We wrote of a spirituality ‘in which justice is central to the proclamation of the good news of the kingdom of God’. Now that the website has established itself as a centre for up to date news, we intend to expand the amount of comment and reflection.
Beginning tomorrow, we will add a weekly feature called ‘Just Thinking’. Each week one of our writers will share their thoughts with us and remind us of the spiritual nature of our task. The title ‘just thinking’ indicates both the desire to think about our Christian faith, and also alludes to the justice to be found in the Christian message — we must think justly. We hope that these thoughts will help provide us with a more rounded picture, a glimpse of God’s kingdom which we are trying to work towards and proclaim in our different ways.