Thinking Anglicans

Green Shoots?

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.


a woman bishop in England

Martin Beckford reports on Britain’s first woman bishop to take office this weekend.

History will be made this weekend as the first female bishop to serve in a British church takes office.

However the Church of England continues to argue about how and when women should be introduced to the episcopate, while the Roman Catholic Church maintains that only men can serve as priests.

So it has been left to the Lutheran Church in Great Britain, which has just a few thousand worshippers, to become the first to take the radical step.

The Rev Jana Jeruma-Grinberga, whose parents were Latvian refugees but who was born in England, will be consecrated as the church’s first female bishop on Saturday at a ceremony in the City of London…

…A spokesman for the Lutherans said in a statement: “The Lutheran Church in Great Britain will consecrate its first woman bishop, the Rt Rev Jana Jeruma-Grinberga, on Saturday 17th January 2009, in the historic Wren church of St Anne & St Agnes on Gresham Street, in the City of London.

“Her predecessor, the Rt Rev Walter Jagucki, will preside at the service, and bishops and other clergy from Nordic and European Lutheran churches will participate in the consecration.”

More information about the Lutheran Church of Great Britain is here.

More information about UK-based Lutherans generally is here.


Tribal Fellowship

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.


St Albans gets a new bishop

The tenth Bishop of St Albans is to be the Rt Revd Dr Alan Smith, the Bishop of Shrewsbury, Downing Street has announced this morning.

Read the announcement on the St Albans diocesan website.

Watch the YouTube video here.

Listen to an audio recording of his opening remarks at the press conference.

Read four pages from the Diocese of Lichfield site: Prime Minister’s announcement, Tributes as Bishop of Shrewsbury prepares to move to St Albans, Bishop of Shrewsbury excited about his move to St Albans, and another copy of the St Albans press release.

The CofE also carries the press release.

And the original announcement from 10 Downing Street? Well, it has belatedly appeared here.


Anglican angles on Obama's inauguration

Updated again Friday evening

First, there was the invitation to Pastor Rick Warren of Saddleback Church to give the formal invocation at Barack Obama’s inauguration. There was a lot of negative reaction to this, but more recently Mr Warren added his own Anglican angle, as reported by Christianity Today in Displaced Anglicans Offered Refuge on Saddleback Campus.

Wednesday evening update That article was removed, as explained here. The original text can still be found here.

Second, there is the news report that the Rev. Sharon E. Watkins of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) is to deliver the sermon at the national prayer service that is held the day after the inauguration. The Anglican angle is that this service is being held at the Washington National Cathedral.

Third, there is the announcement that Bishop of New Hampshire Gene Robinson is to offer prayers at the Lincoln Memorial concert two days before the inauguration. See also the ENS report: New Hampshire bishop invited to offer prayers at inaugural kickoff event. And there are many links to other reports here.

British reporting of this: Guardian, Times, Telegraph.

Wednesday morning updates

Episcopal News Service has more on the Rick Warren story, at ‘Purpose-Driven’ pastor offers space to dissident Episcopalians.

And Max Blumenthal has written about Rick Warren’s Africa Problem.

National Public Radio has a 5 minute radio interview with Bishop Robinson at Robinson ‘Delighted’ To Be Part Of Inauguration.

Wednesday evening update

A fourth Anglican angle on the inauguration can be found in the Washington Post which reports that Historic Church Will Host President-Elect on Big Day. This refers to St John’s Church Lafayette Square.

Friday evening update
More Anglican angles on the Washington Cathedral service, which will involve both the Bishop of Washington and the Presiding Bishop.

Even more detail on all the participants in that service is provided by ENS here.


another Fort Worth update

The previous one was over a month ago.

The Presiding Bishop is due to attend a special diocesan convention in Fort Worth on 7 February. See FORT WORTH: Presiding Bishop will convene a special diocesan convention. The formal notice is here.

Bishop Jack Iker has sent a letter to the Presiding Bishop, making a public objection about this. (H/T Est Anima Legis)

Also, the Church of England Newspaper reports that Fort Worth bishop demands right to respond to ‘abandonment’ charge. See also here.


A look back at Lambeth

Bishop Nick Baines, who authored a blog for Fulcrum during the Lambeth Conference, and has his own blog here, has written an article, The Lambeth Conference 2008, a review after six months. He says:

It is a review not of the conference itself, but of the conference as reflected in the blog I wrote during it.


columns after Epiphany

Michael Symmons Roberts writes in The Times: dream songs of faith, doubt and the God of rescue.

Barry Courtier writes in the Guardian that Metaphors can provide a useful way of forming an understanding of God.

George Pitcher wrote for the Telegraph that The Horsham Crucifix isn’t ‘horrific’.

Giles Fraser wrote in the Church Times about Being there to pray for the debtors.

Mark Vernon wrote at Comment is free about Darwin’s year.

Simon Barrow wrote at Ekklesia: On not being left eyeless in Gaza.


women bishops update

Updated Saturday

Today, the Church Times reports: Women drafts impress supporters, but not FiF by Pat Ashworth.

DRAFT legislation for women bishops has drawn cautious responses since its publication last week (News, 2 January). There is a prevailing desire not to question what the proposed Code of Practice could do before the General Synod examines it in detail in February.

The response of the traditionalist Catholic body Forward in Faith has been the most uncompromising. While it welcomed publication of the further report and associated documents, the organisation opposes in principle the Code that is at the heart of the proposals.
“We have consistently argued that a Code of Practice (with no transfer of jurisdiction) will not provide the security which tens of thousands of faithful and loyal Anglicans need in order to live with integrity in the Church of England after the ordina tion of women to the episcopate. Nothing in these documents changes that situation,” a terse statement on its website said last week…

The Forward in Faith statement is here.

And there is a Leader: Manchester’s plan.

…Taking the two sides in turn, supporters of women bishops have nothing to fear. This is a big, grown-up world, where every woman priest lives with the knowledge that her orders are questioned by a neighbouring priest or parish. After all, every C of E priest works (or should work) closely with Roman Catholics who cannot official recognise his or her orders; every Christian works (or should work) with people of other faiths who take issue with many of his or her central beliefs. In 21st-century Britain, any Christian — bishop, priest, or lay person — who is surrounded solely by affirming, unchallenging supporters needs to get out more. If women are confident that opposition will dwindle naturally over the years, then they need do nothing but wait.
One might be similarly robust with traditionalists. If they believe in the rightness of their position, it will thrive in the C of E whether hedged about by legal structures or not. The Manchester proposals contain firmer provisions for opponents of women bishops than had been thought, and it is conceivable that agreement might be reached on this basis. But there is a stumbling block. The 15 years since the passing of the Act of Synod have furnished traditionalists with a wealth of tales of pressure and shenanigans in some dioceses. These have brought them to the point where they simply do not trust bishops, or future bishops, to uphold the code of conduct…

Last week, The Times had It’s time to appoint Britain’s first woman bishop, says Canon Jane Hedges by Ruth Gledhill.

And Ruth’s blog asked: Women bishops: what’s the answer?

Jonathan Wynne-Jones wrote It’s time for a truce in battle over women bishops.

Notes of a meeting of Church of England bishops held at Lambeth Palace have been passed to me…


Pittsburgh: moves to claim assets

Updated again Monday evening

The Diocese of Pittsburgh has issued this press release: Diocese Asks Court For Access To Funds.

Request Made In Case Which Defined “Episcopal Diocese”

Pittsburgh, PA – Today, January 8, 2009, the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh asked a court for control of church assets still held by former diocesan leaders who have left the Episcopal Church.

The request was made in the context of an existing court order which stipulated that local Episcopal property must stay in the control of a diocese that is part of the Episcopal Church of the United States.

“We’re not asking for anything the court has not already addressed, or for anything former leaders have not already agreed to,” said the Rev. Dr. James Simons, President of the diocesan Standing Committee, the group currently leading the Pittsburgh Episcopal Diocese.

The original court order was issued in October 2005 as a result of a lawsuit filed by Calvary Episcopal Church in East Liberty. The order prohibits any group that separates itself from the Episcopal Church from continuing to use or control Diocesan property. The order specifically defines the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh as being part of “the Episcopal Church of the United States of America.” In negotiations leading to the 2005 Order, former Pittsburgh Bishop Robert Duncan and his attorneys agreed this stipulation would apply regardless of the circumstances surrounding any separation, even if every parish were to leave…

…Approximately 27 congregations, or about 40% of the Pittsburgh Diocese prior to the October separation, remain active in the life of the Episcopal Church.

The Southern Cone-affiliated body has also issued a press release: New Diocese Attempts to Join Lawsuit

In an expected, but disappointing decision, the newly forming Episcopal Church diocese in southwestern Pennsylvania announced today that it intends to move forward with legal action against The Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh (Anglican) by attempting to claim all diocesan property.

“The document filed today in the Calvary litigation by Calvary and the new diocese created after the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh withdrew from The Episcopal Church is both procedurally and substantively improper. Moreover, it is regrettable that these groups have chosen to pursue more litigation rather than agree to equitable division of the assets.” said the Rev. Peter Frank, diocesan spokesman.

Initial press reports:

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Claim filed to control local Episcopal Church assets

Associated Press Pa. Episcopal church sues parishes for $20 million

Friday press reports

Associated Press Diocese seeks $20M from breakaway Episcopalians

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Episcopal Diocese claims $20 million in schism fight by Paula Reed Ward

Pittsburgh Tribune-Review Episcopal groups battle over assets by Craig Smith

Episcopal News Service PITTSBURGH: Diocesan leaders ask court for access to assets by Mary Frances Schjonberg

Monday update

There is an excellent summary by Joan R. Gundersen of recent events in Pittsburgh in this post: A Pittsburgh timeline.


'There's probably no God'

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.


Colorado Springs fraud case

The Colorado Gazette reports Grace raid affidavit details claims that Armstrong misused church funds:

The Rev. Donald Armstrong funneled money earmarked for “single, unmarried seminarians” from a Grace Church trust fund to pay for his two children’s college tuition, according to Colorado Springs police investigators.

That accusation was contained in a affidavit supporting a search warrant used by police in a November raid on Grace Church and St. Stephen’s and its offices in a next door Victorian home known as the McWilliams House at 601 N. Tejon St.

The affidavit, returned by detective Michael Flynn to the court Tuesday, outlines the 18-month police investigation from May 2007 – when they were notified by the Episcopal Church, Diocese of Colorado that it suspected financial wrongdoing by Armstrong – and Nov. 25, when a judge signed the warrant authorizing the search…

Once again, there is an exhaustive set of links to earlier reports on this story already available at Episcopal Café.

The previous TA article on this case can be found here.


California court rules on church property cases

Episcopal News Service reports:

In a landmark ruling that could have national implications, the California Supreme Court on January 5 upheld an earlier court decision that buildings and property do not belong to dissident congregations but to the Diocese of Los Angeles and the general Episcopal Church…

See California Supreme Court rules disputed property belongs to general church by Pat McCaughan.

The full text of the opinion is a PDF file available here.

There are many more links to related stories at Episcopal Café both here, and also here.


Where Jesus is shown forth

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.


Gregory Cameron goes to St Asaph

The Diocese of St Asaph has elected a new bishop.

See the official Church in Wales press release.

A senior adviser to the Archbishop of Canterbury was today elected as the next Bishop of St Asaph.

The Rev Canon Gregory Cameron, 49, who is Deputy Secretary General of the Anglican Communion Office in London, was chosen by members of the Electoral College of the Church in Wales meeting at St Asaph Cathedral.

The announcement was made by the Archbishop of Wales, Dr Barry Morgan, at the west door of the cathedral on the first day of the meeting.

Canon Gregory Cameron will be the 76th Bishop of St Asaph, an area covering the north-east corner of Wales – the counties of Conwy and Flintshire, Wrexham county borough, the eastern part of Merioneth in Gwynedd and part of northern Powys. His election follows the retirement in December of the Rt Rev John Davies who served as Bishop of the diocese from 1999.

A Welshman who was ordained in the Diocese of Monmouth, Mr Cameron has been involved in the ecumenical relations of the Anglican Communion at global level for the past five years. Previously, he served as Chaplain to the Archbishop of Wales, then Dr Rowan Williams.

Married to Clare, the couple have three sons, aged 11, nine and six…

The first press report is here.


King and God and sacrifice…

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.



opinions before Epiphany

Geoffrey Rowell writes in The Times about Dancing in time to a divinely ordained rhythm of life.

Gerald Butt writes in the Guardian about flying.

Andrew Brown wrote at Cif:belief about Mr Algie’s honesty bucket.

Alan Wilson has written Blowing bubbles in Hard Times?

Giles Fraser wrote in the Church Times Longing for the truth of glory.

Two weeks ago, Jeremy Morris wrote in the Church Times that A learning Church is healthy.

Added later:
Michael Reiss has written in The Times that Darwinian thinking clarifies and deepens religious faith.


A Liturgical Christmas

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.


more on women bishops

The Church Times has a news report: Legislation drafted for women bishops.

Comment is free has published an opinion article by Judith Maltby Women bishops: get over them.

In the press release, Women in the Episcopate draft Measure published, which was linked previously, there is a further link to the December 08 House of Bishops Summary of Decisions document (.doc format) which contains the following:

4. Women in the Episcopate

The House of Bishops considered the draft report, Measure, Amending Canon, Code of Practice and Explanatory Memorandum prepared by the Legislative Drafting Group. It made a number of detailed suggestions for the Bishops of Manchester and Basingstoke to report to the group for consideration at its final meeting. The House welcomed the careful and thorough work that the group had carried out in accordance with the mandate given by Synod.

In discussion several members of the House expressed support for further work to be done to explore approaches for those who could not receive the ministry of women priests and bishops which would either permit a diocesan bishop to confer jurisdiction by operation of law rather than by delegation or would provide a measure of cohesion and assurance through the development of a new, recognised religious society.

The House concluded that it would not be timely for it to commission further work of this kind at this point. It noted, however, that individual bishops would be able to lend their support to attempts to amend the draft material in these and other ways once Synod had resolved to commit it to the revision process. It was important that members of the House played their part in ensuring that the proposals were carefully scrutinised during the synodical process and alternatives duly tested.

The House acknowledged that it would continue to have a special responsibility for seeking to help the Church of England, through the legislative process, come to a conclusion that built trust and enabled as many people as possible, as loyal Anglicans, to remain members of the Church of England, notwithstanding their differing theological convictions on this issue.


review of the year

The Church Times review of 2008 is now available online.

The main news review is here.

There are several other pages, including this press review.