Moria Refugee Camp on Lesvos

Moria Refugee Camp on Lesvos
Moria Refugee Camp on Lesvos

Monday 10 January 2022

Who is the Church for?

Throughout my years of Reader ministry and my administrative work for the Church of England, my passion was that the Church was there for people who were not members.Those who thought of themselves as 'members' were part of the Church with a job to do of simply being there for others. For me the job was not winning people to the faith; faith is vastly more complex and elusive. It has been described as a gift; one which for me has proved elusive. Yet I know people to whom it had been given and fully respect that.

Two recent articles offer food for thought.

Simon Jenkins, quite rightly, loves church buildings, and we have many wonderful examples. His anxiety is that dwindling congregations simply cannot carry the burden they present. Alternative uses are needed. 

Rowan Williams takes a different tack and explores the needs we humans have for connections. He sees science as a place for conversation to understand our place in the world. Art opens door to experiences which are not our own, uncovering connections where we have not expected them. Religion is about the 'other' who claims our attention, our contemplation and our active generosity. The 'other' may be found in every human being as vehicles for God's presence. 

Williams doesn't bang the drum for christianity, as might be expected from a former Archbishop of Canterbury. Instead he stands as a friend to those of us who seek understanding of our lives.  

So, back to The Repair Shop and those looking down from above. Who can say yea or nay to that? What is abundantly true is that memories of those whom we love are precious and sometimes painful  A few benefit from the repair of loved possessions. Perhaps others can benefit from the space a church building can offer. For some it may be a half-remembered faith, for many it may be a question that can never be fully answered. 

Friday 24 December 2021

The grace of God has dawned upon the world with healing for all mankind

The grace of God has dawned upon the world with healing for all mankind. (Titus 2:11-14)

I wonder what the dawn was like that first Christmas morning. Who saw the dawn this morning?

To us the dawn is a rare thing to see and of no great importance. The contrast with even fifty years ago is stark. Shepherds would long for the dawn to make sure their flock was safe. In the war with the blackout people longed for daylight which the dawn brought. 

And there is something very remarkable about dawn. You can have yours eyes pealed looking for it, you can often be misled by what seems to be light but is perhaps only a cloud moving, but eventually you see the spreading and growing light in the eastern sky - and you then know that dawn has broken; but only after the event.

What did the shepherds feel that first Christmas dawn? Tired I should think being up all night being visited by angels and go off to a stable to visit a new born baby. But they were also confused - what did it all mean?

Very much like the dawn, the significance of that birth only became clear much later - as the light from Jesus spread through the Gallilean countryside as he walked about that hot dusty countryside with his friends - it was only then that people realised the kind of dawn that had broken that first Christmas day.

St Paul tells us that what had dawned was the grace of God. That remarkable theologian, WH Vanstone, pondered what this meant and he found that the words the 'grace of God' appear no where in the Old Testament, but that the New Testament is positively littered with them. He looked at what the word grace meant in the language that was used 2000 years ago.

It is actually a very special word because it means something for both the act itself and the way in which the act is received. The single word embraces both the welcome thing that happens and the response which it naturally and inevitably evokes.

In the Old Testament we hear much of God's goodness. We hear and respect virtues - speaking of someone as just, kind, loving or merciful is a sign of our respect for them. But just because we respect these virtues doesn't mean that we always enjoy them. Forgiveness can so often be taken as condescension. Kindness can be oppressive - The old story of the worthy parishioner who is always doing kindnesses to people: and how can you tell the recipients of the kindness? You can tell them by their haunted look. Virtuous people sometimes have a habit of taking over the person they are helping. The virtue of love too - when love is not met by a loving answer it is painful to the lover, and threatening to the beloved. These are all divine virtues rightly respected but not necessarily always attractive.

Grace, by contrast, is the manner in which those virtues can be expressed - the grace of God wins from mankind our response of gratitude and joy - it is kindness ,but with seeing things from our point of view; it is being tactful, being considerate, 

It is the new thing that is shown in and received from Jesus Christ.

And if we look at the way Christ loved, not just in his death but in his everyday dealings, we find a graceous love. He doesn't seek to possess or control - very much the opposite he lets everyone make and then learn from their own mistakes. He has no magic wand, all the time he leads us to make our own journey  - he teaches in parables rather than setting out a list of rules so it is up to us to discover the truth. When he forgives, he doesn't make the sinner feel small but gives them something to do, welcoming them back to work. The story of Zacchaeus the tax collector expresses this; Jesus didn't say to him I forgive you for your misdeeds or I will forgive you if you apologise, no Jesus healed and saved Zacchaeus by asking a small kindness - hospitality for the night.

Jesus knew what it is like to be human, he knew the mix bag that we are - good sometimes, bad or silly or unwise at others. The grace of God that dawned was the realisation that the God who created us does see things from our point of view - loves us in a way the only response to which is joyful gratitude.

Sunday 12 April 2020

Imaginative Hope - 2020

Imagine a charismatic young man who questions the status quo; who champions the poor, sick and disadvantaged. Imagine that many people follow him for he has given them hope that there is a better way. Imagine, then, how the establishment might view him. Imagine that they take their resentment to the ultimate conclusion and have him murdered in the cruelest and most cowardly way possible.
Imagine then that the body was buried but somehow was taken from its burial place.
The world then (for the imagined story is 2000 years old) was a place where the very air you breathed was laced with religion; it was the accepted world order. It had been so for the young man and for his followers and so it is not surprising that the absence of the body and the whole story of his life was reinterpreted in religious terms. I wonder too whether, when you really want to believe something, it in some way becomes true. The encounter on the road to Emmaus may perhaps be an example.
Could this be the story of Jesus? And if it is, is that it?
At heart there was what some people call the Nazareth Manifesto:
"The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favour."
I just wonder whether the reversal of the world order, of which the young man spoke, is possible? Perhaps now, with the world turned upside down, its time has come for 'imaginative hope' to take the words of the Archbishop of Canterbury in his sermon for Easter, 'we dare to have hope in life before death'.

Sunday 8 March 2020

Easter 2020

Easter presents the greatest challenge to faith, surely as experienced most by the first followers of Jesus, yet it contains too the rock upon which faith is built; or so they say.

There is a prayer I used to use as a Reader which went something like, ' I believe, help thou my unbelief'.
These two states live together.
Giles Fraser's article in today's Guardian ( articulated this conundrum very well. He did not, though, grasp what to me is an increasing crucial distinction between faith and religion.
Philip Pullman's excellent short book, the Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, explored, through a fictional account of the gospel stories, how Jesus was in effect stolen from ordinary people by men of religion. Jesus was and is a man for all people, not just the religious or righteous. So it is a tragedy when good people turn away from religion to atheism abandoning Jesus on the way.

Thursday 26 December 2019

Half-forgotten faith

I wrote this in January 2012.
I assisted with Communion on Christmas Day and witnessed an astonishing variety of half-forgotten devotion. This is not to belittle. We had people from so many traditions, but I would swear much half-forgotten in the rush of the modern world.
It is in this half-forgetting that I have found signs of hope. Half-forgotten also means half-remembered; it means that once there was something. Perhaps it is to these who once were here, to whom the cathedral should direct its attention? If they were here once, then why not now? It is perhaps a good question. But there is more.
My sense on Christmas Day was of the importance of the sacramental act in which they were participating in their half-remembered way, rather than the meaning of any finely crafted words, and they were finely crafted. Yet at Christmas perhaps more than any time, words are part of the half-remembered act: ‘In the beginning…’ goose bumps rise on my arms as I write. Half-remembered words which have a deep echo in the hearts of those who once were here.

Prime Ministers and Church

I posted on Facebook a short piece expressing my sadness that we now have Prime Minister who does not see fit to go to Church on Christmas Day. Some people agreed; one, however, preferred this to the hypocrisy of someone attending without believing.
This got me thinking, yet again, about what we mean by faith.
I have no doubt that some people are the recipients of a 'gift of faith'; they just have it. They have placed their trust in Jesus Christ, and live out their lives on that basis. There are then those, and I was one, who longed for such faith, but could never quite grasp it. I tried every which way, not least by attempting to create an intellectual framework that would justify belief. I failed.
There is more. I have previously written about those who come to Christmas Day Eucharist with a 'half forgotten' faith. A friend expressed is slightly differently as being 'hard wired' with a belief system that had been taught from the cradle and which is there for life, however much the owner may intellectually dismiss it.
There are many more who will speak quite happily of a loved one, who has died, looking down on them. Just watch any edition of BBC's Repair Shop where treasured possessions are brought back t life. Such a belief in Life after Death was a comparative latecomer to Judaism in the centuries before Christ's birth, but it was embraced by the early Church.
A church at Christmas is a meeting place where all these people can come together for their disparate purposes. It is a gathering where the individual is not centre stage, and where a group of otherwise unconnected people can spend an hour thinking (or praying) about those others who are less fortunate. It gives space for contemplating big questions. It can be a space where people gather around a shared ethical framework.
I would have thought that this is just the place for a Prime Minister.

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