Moria Refugee Camp on Lesvos

Moria Refugee Camp on Lesvos
Moria Refugee Camp on Lesvos

Tuesday, 8 January 2019

What is faith?

What is faith, what is religious experience?

Is it the flood of tears that met me on the way back from Launde all those years ago after the exploration of the passover and the eucharist? Was it then those with whom I shared the experience; were they special?

Is it Sunday evening in Kirby Bellars church with Graham, Malcolm and me robing to the smell of the portable gas fires after which we would say Cranmer’s words and read the King James Bible and offer our gloss on it to the faithful few?

Is it Sunday morning at Portloe with those faithful and questioning Christians who would want to argue the toss rather than accepting whatever I said? Was it Ruan, Wartnaby or one of the churches in the Vale where the speaking out of the liturgy week by week offered a transfusion to replenish that which dispels into daily life? 

Ironically is my faith too grounded in church? Is my experience of the Christian life too church centric? The awakening in Thrussington over twenty years ago by that retired priest whose name is lost in time, whose words are lost so that all that remains is the man in his cassock. Which brings me of course to the other man in the cassock whom I met in Philleigh and whom initially I thought of as too much caricature, but who possessed a deeper understanding of our faith than anyone I have ever met.

This then was shattered by the institution of the church which acts in so secular a way. It demands power and obedience. It ignores love and strives only for success.

Jesus failed. He was nailed to a cross. That we can find in this, victory is the Christian ability to turn things on their head to deny entirely the things of this world and to think only of a better realm. Is this realm to come? That is the question: in some sort of life after death for the individual, or at some future time in human existence? 

Does this look in the right direction? My Jewish friends find refreshment in the faithful acting out of the forming events of their religion or race. This is not to knock, but that is what it is, a devotion to what has gone before. Is it then some Christian ritual which, by its intricacy and method, can draw from self a response.

A little while ago I heard the suggestion that it all about hard wiring. Those of us brought up with church and Christian teaching cannot totally let it go; it has become part of our DNA. Or is it something else, in us but apart from us?

The journey goes on.

Good Friday 2016 saw me in St Nicholas Newport Lincoln after Jane’s lunchtime lecture on Macbeth. Jane was at her most brilliant digging as she always does into the air the writer was breathing. The Hermeneutic Tradition fed the English Renaissance through people like Francis Bacon who were breathing into the same air. Shakespeare would pick up the ideas and thinking. He added these to stories handed down through the ages, for example of witches - who in Elizabethan times were still being burnt. Jane explored the psychology of just what it was that entered Macbeth and indeed Lady Macbeth.

This links to the account of the passion, certainly through Luke who talks of Satan entering Judas.

So to St Nicholas and the liturgy of the passion. We heard a prophetic reading from Isaiah, a short passage from Hebrews and then the St John passion. This was followed by a long period of prayer when we admitted to the wrongs done to Jesus. I visualised the children drowning in the Aegean, the woman who went alive into the furnace at Auschwitz, the airmen who died on the long march and the crew who died in bombers. The long list of those innocent who have died or suffered as a result of man’s sin.

I wonder whether Jesus died for them, the sinned against, to be alongside those who suffer? 
With thanks to Jim Newton

The hijacking of Jesus

They have taken my Lord…and I know not where they have laid him

These well known words of Mary are of course words of Easter, and now we are approaching Advent, so why?

The ‘why’ is serendipitous. Last year Maggie told me of a review she had heard of a Man Booker Prize shortlisted book, I promptly added it to my birthday list and my daughter, Jo, duly gave it to me. I started to read it, but failed to get into it; I put it down. This September I took it up again and have found it revolutionary, or do I mean revelatory?

Colm Toibin’s immensely moving book, the Testament of Mary, seeks to tell the story of Jesus from the point of view of his mother. From this vantage point we are shown a number of the events familiar through the Biblical accounts, principally the Wedding at Cana and the Raising of Lazarus, though nothing can prepare us for the account of the crucifixion. A mother witnessing unbelievable agony in her son is an image for which we cannot prepare. In the book it is short and sharp and stuns.

Whilst this image is central, the theme of the book is that Jesus, a good man, has been ‘hijacked’ by those who want more. They form an hysterical group around him and egg him on. The chill in the story emerges with grey shadowy men who seek to control Mary into her old age. They want from her an account of what happened that fits with their agenda. She resists. Everything seems to be orchestrated by men in power, essentially weak men who exert control through fear.

As she approaches her death, these men tell her what her son has achieved. Phrases which might be recognised as articles of faith are trotted out and fall flat in the context of what Mary, the heart broken mother, knows. She concludes, that, no, it wasn’t worth it.

The whole book is powerful. There are passages which strike strong chords with ‘middle C’ of my previous post. The scene where there are men in hierarchies who demand to be listened to - surely a deliberate construct of the author, but one which seems to fit. The painstaking but angry work of the fictional ‘gospel’ writers as they wrestle with the difference between what Mary remembers and the theme they are determined to project.

The book, as did Philip Pullman’s The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, again poses the question of whether the man we know as Jesus was hijacked by the religious men of his time, as, I might suggest, he is perhaps hijacked by the architects of great churches, composers of the great choral works, painters and sculptors, even preachers who use his stories to perfect the composition and delivery of ten minutes of thought provoking Sunday morning prose (present company excepted!).

Monday, 24 December 2018

Christmas 2018

Christians are taught that it is Easter and not Christmas that is the major feast in the calendar, because it was at Easter that Jesus rose from the dead to save mankind.
If I step away from the theology and dig, if not deeper, then certainly in a different direction, I am drawn back to Christmas as the birth day of an exceptional human being, perhaps the exceptional human being. The historical Jesus was by any measure remarkable. He did ‘love his neighbour’, he did welcome the outcast and stranger, he did live an exemplary life. He walked the walk.

So, it is with a mixture of joy and challenge that I, and perhaps other people of any belief and none, can celebrate this, his birthday.
The crib in Lincoln Cathedral just by the altar, just where it should be

The nave is ready to welcome all to explore this mystery that has troubled humankind for two millennia 

Wednesday, 23 May 2018

Michael Curry at the Royal Wedding

Bishop Michael Curry’s address at Meghan and Harry’s wedding said nothing new; it said nothing that is not in the mainstream of Christian belief.

So, why are commentators going on about it? Why are they saying that nothing like it would have been heard before in St George’s Chapel?

I think the answer is simple. None have been brave enough, committed enough to tell it as it is. God is Love; they are synonymous. The power of love can overcome all. It is at the heart of the Christian faith: the victory of love seen most vividly in the metaphor of the death and resurrection of Jesus.

If that is the case, why then do I have bookshelves crammed with explorations of theology?

Is it that they are an excuse for not saying it as it is, for, if you do, if you say that the power of love overcomes all, there is no longer an excuse for not doing something about it.

Meghan and Harry have shown in their lives so far, a passion for the outcast. The articulation of the power of love will surely drive them onward and upward.

I don’t think that this leads to piety with all its ‘spoil sport’ connotations. It leads to a life full in every sense.

It does beg the question of why we listen to sermons rather than getting on with the job?

I add a postscript, and deliberately a postscript.

Michael Curry’s presence and that of a British gospel choir said something with I dearly hope will be huge about inclusivity. People of colour have lived in these island probably for eight centuries if not more. That some have now been at the very focus of national celebration is both wonderful and dreadfully overdue.

Why a postscript, if it is so important? Because it should be ordinary; because in good places it is ordinary where people, irrespective of colour or any other difference, live in harmony.

Love has the power to make this the norm.

Tuesday, 8 May 2018

God?

Simon Jenkins' article on Quakers and the report that some see belief in God as a barrier, and my godson's observations, prompted me to think further on my journey of faith.

As I have written before, I don't need the concept of God in order better to understand life or the universe. I fully understand that previous generations did, but I don't.

I do however value the life, death and teaching of Jesus.

I see the world as a miracle. A flower, a tiny insect, even a leaf take the breath away and this is a very long way behind human intelligence. It is all incredible, hence the adherence of previous generations to the idea of a creator. But it is credible, albeit not yet fully understood.

The world though is populated by human beings who are hopelessly flawed. The delicacy of creation is totally vulnerable to the idiocy of mankind.

This is where, for me, Jesus comes in. Follow his life and teaching and the world becomes safe for all, or nearly all: for them, the natural world is still capable of awful disaster. Mankind can nonetheless revere and cherish its environment and love its neighbour.

Is it naive? Of course it is, but that only makes it harder, not impossible.

As I have also written before, Christianity hi-jacked Jesus and shrouded him in religion. Jesus himself spoke in religious terms, but this is hardly surprising since Judaism was the very air he breathed. It is not though the air we breath and so we should be free to follow him without the trappings of religion.

I wrote about valuing the life and death, as well as the teaching of Jesus. Valuing his life is about valuing the stories in the gospels, with what I term the Pullman caveat. I have written about Philip Pullman's book The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ in which he seeks to separate the two. I value the good man.

But, I also value his death. This is where it gets flimsy. I have read or heard the accounts of the passion of Jesus many times. They are intensely moving and rich in metaphor. I value them in the way they speak of that which is beyond reach.

Sunday, 1 April 2018

A Reflection from stir up Sunday 2017

I went to a service in Portloe on Sunday, some six and a half years since I took my last one there before moving to Lincoln. Much has happened and the time has come to stand back and reflect.

My five years in Cornwall were in a sense steeped in religion. I was a very active Lay Reader taking services most Sundays. I took school assemblies and certainly put energy and structure into the school's Friday visit to Veryan church. I visited the elderly and loved them very much. I took funerals. In my studies, I more than touched on theology. I made a very dear friend in Peter Durnford and we had many conversations about faith. We took services together, which was wonderful.

I put myself forward for ordination and spent time with Julia, the DDO, exploring and searching. I went to a selection conference and was turned down. I was about to try again when I was approached about taking the job of Chapter Clerk and Chief Executive at Lincoln Cathedral. I am certain I was right to take it, since living in Cornwall was not good for Maggie and me, being so far from our family.

As I reflect on my time in Cornwall, I feel positive about my work with older people. On many occasions, as I would take Holy Communion to them in their homes, I would become aware that they were reciting from memory the words from the Prayer Book: something deeply engrained from happier times, perhaps.

I also feel positive about bringing school into church, but I do worry. We tell the children the bible stories and they believe them like all the stories they hear. As they grow up they realise that, like those other stories, they were not true in any literal sense and the stories and all that went with them are consigned to what was once the nursery floor. I hope that something stays that will itch from time to time and prompt a little quiet reflection.

There were three quite distinct congregations in each of the three villages. One was simply but fiercely determined that the church would keep going. Another was confident in its place. A third was prayerful and enquiring. All, I am sure, were a force for good.

Lincoln Cathedral was a huge challenge and more on that elsewhere.

I tried to exercise a Reader Ministry in Waddington, a funny old C of E congregation. One man, whose name I forget, said to me after one service that I preach very well, but 'you don't really believe it'.

He was right.

I didn't; I don't believe as required by the 39 Articles. My world is explained without a god. The stories in the Bible are just that, stories, but like all good stories they hold meaning for those who would listen. I shudder at many bible passages, at the words of hymns and prayers.

I went to morning prayer ever weekday in the cathedral and there read much of the Bible. I was struck by how I would pray and so place into someone else's hands all the problems of the world. I put my energy into the institution and the building, really as I had done during my years as Diocesan Secretary.

Once I had left the cathedral, I didn't go to church for ages, but then started going occasionally to St Nicholas, with Hugh its wonderful priest. It didn't work. I didn't fit and, however good Hugh was, belief eluded me. I stopped going.

CompasssionateLincoln, a short time in Lesvos working with refugees and efforts to keep the Drill Hall open have become my exercise of christianity. Doing rather than praying. It feels better.

So at Portloe on Stir up Sunday, the new vicar, Phil, preached on Matthew 25:31-46 speaking of doing and of people, not of buildings or institutions. Doing fulfils both the doer and the done to. He read George Herbert's poem Peace with its organic link into the eucharist. He didn't labour judgement, but confession mattered.

I am drawn to a passage from Luke 17:21, words use by Eric Liddell in Chariots of Fire, 'the kingdom of God is within'. Can I say that what matters is inside each of us, how we use it and not laying it off to some all-powerful being outside us?

As is obvious, I am still on a journey.

Christian doubt and St Mark

This Easter morning, I ate a meal of bread and wine (and fish) with about fifty people on Pendower Beach on the south Cornish coast. I had walked the mile to the beach and had listened to the dawn chorus. We watched the sun rise over the Nare Head.

A few years ago I would have been swept up in the greatest of the Christian festivals. Now I doubt.

I wrote on Good Friday how that for me is the most significant day in the Christian year. Easter Sunday with all its rejoicing just jars. Good friends post on Facebook, Alleluia Christ had Risen. I love them for it. I just no longer know what it means.

St Mark, who wrote the earliest of the four gospels may have had a similar difficulty.

I wonder if I am alone in valuing the way St Mark approaches the Easter story.

The women go to the tomb early and find it open. They see a young man who tells that the Jesus is risen and that they should follow him to Galilee.

St Mark then tells us that they go away terrified and bewildered; more than that, they tell no one of what they have seen. And that's it.

Yet, possibly like St Mark, I don’t walk away. The life and death of Jesus is abundant in significance, relevance and meaning. It is the rest that I have trouble with. I guess I am with Philip Pullman, but not entirely.

The life and death of Jesus hold an imperative to us who inhabit the world. We must love our enemy, we must care for those left out, we must tend our planet.

Happy Easter!
The sun already up! A few years ago.