Monday, 26 January 2015

If I were an Archbishop...A Daydream about the Laying-On of Hands on this Historic Day

Today, the part of the Church of God that I call home, the Church of England gets its first female bishop. I've enjoyed reading Tweets of people setting off for York Minster, some to wear church robes during this historic ceremony, some wearing waterproof mascara, some wearing both. It is a wonderful day for Libby Lane,  for the people of Stockport who, I am sure, are getting an excellent person as their Bishop, and for all, Christian or otherwise, who will be heartened, inspired and influenced both by this day and by Libby Lane as she lives out her episcopal calling.

During today's historic service, the hands of the Archbishop of York, and those of other bishops, will be laid on Libby Lane as a powerful sign of the handing-on of the sharing of episcopal ministry that goes right back to Jesus himself. Recent events, though, have made the laying-on of hands a less straightforwardly joyful celebration than it ought to be.

So, I got thinking...what if I were an Archbishop? (I won't be; I'd have to live to be at least 185 to reach that level of seniority!) What arrangements might I make for the laying-of hands for my bishops?

So here's what I might be inclined to do, were  I an Archbishop. I'm not going to talk you through the whole service, because that would take too long. Firstly, though, it's important to say that I'd have a child serve as my deacon throughout the ceremony. I'd ask someone old enough to be a communicant, to take the diaconal role seriously and to do it in a dignified manner. I wouldn't mind if it were a boy or girl. This would be important to me as an enactment of the church's commitment to the younger generations. (At this point I should say that if I were an Archbishop, my arrangements for the ceremony would be anything but a whim; rituals encode reality, so I'd think carefully about the reality that I would want to affirm and confirm through the rituals over which I presided.)

For the laying-on of hands, firstly, I would receive a blessing from a curate in my diocese. Then I might have all of the bishops under my care receive a blessing from me, as a sign of their episcopal ministry. (This would be important because as well as conferring identity, rituals confirm identity, so it seems to make sense to include a ritual action in the ceremony that confirms the episcopal identity of bishops before making a new one.) Then, in a characteristically Anglican and ordered manner, I'd send the bishops to various places around the cathedral, out to the edges and into the midst of the people. I'd get a really nice bishop to go to the very back, open the cathedral doors and invite in those outside, maybe those who didn't get a ticket or who are just interested in what's going on inside.  (This would be important because bishops are often thought of as shepherds, to round up the flock at times as well as caring for them.)

Then I'd invite everyone, and I mean everyone, to come forward to form a chain of hands to lay on the new bishop. Yes, I'd lay my hands on the candidate's head, and my young deacon would be right at my side, hands on the candidate too, and the hands would stretch out and out and out and in my most wonderful  daydream, would fill the cathedral. There would be the clerical hands of priests and deacons, the long-suffering hands of those who care for loved ones and have done for long years, the small hands of children, the beautifully-manicured hands of county ladies, the frail and paper-thin hands of the elderly,  the dirty-fingernailed and hardened hands of the homeless. There would be, in amongst all these hands, episcopal hands, asylum seeking hands, Muslim hands, Jewish hands, all sorts of religious hands, maybe even atheist hands, gay hands, straight hands, faithful hands, doubting hands, fundamentalist hands, Green Party supporting hands, UKIP hands, county councillors' hands, musicians' hands, factory workers' hands, headteachers' hands, lollypop ladies' hands, recognised hands and unknown hands.

Each hand would have a story to tell, a perspective to bring, a need to express, a hope for the world. These hands would not need to be theologically learned (although I'd hope that what with all those clerics around. some might be), ritually pure or in unimpaired communion. They would be the hands of the people whom this candidate would them go on to serve as their bishop. These hands would be the hands of the diocese, representing as truthfully as possible the demographics of the people who call that little part of England home, all saying together that this new bishop is their bishop, whom they welcome and accept. (This would be important because in Anglicanism, priests are to care for all who live in their patch, not just those who go to church. The same is true of bishops.)  

Then, and this is where my extravagance of daydream meets the limitations of my practical know-how, I'd somehow get everyone whose hands have stretched forward as part of this ritual chain of laying-on of hands, to have the image of their hands photographed, and I'd get my creative colleagues to compile the photographs into a montage to go in the bishop's study or chapel, as a reminder to her or him of the people whose hands conferred on him or her the identity of a bishop. My hand, as Archbishop, would be somewhere in there, and the hands of all the other bishops, too.  It would be important that they were, because hands too would have been laid on me and on the other bishops, and hands laid on the people who laid hands on me, and so on. . But how easy would it be to tell, looking at a montage made up solely of human hands, which are which? And would it matter, anyway?        

Wouldn't that be wonderful?


Wednesday, 14 January 2015

'The Day of Small Things' is Not to be Despised: Because Bullets are Small Things, Too

Okay, so it's a tricky-to-translate verse. But Zechariah 4:10   is clear in intent, if not in exact wording: small things, or small beginnings, are easily overlooked, easily patronised, easily marginalised; yet small things are no less important or meaningful than big things.  The Bible is, I think, on the side of the small things: the mustard seed, the widow's mite, the cloud as small as a persons hand that brings the longed-for rain that Elijah foretells.

I don't know about you, but I've felt somewhat overwhelmed by big things this last week as I've read the news. Euopean anti-semitism, Islamophobia, jihadism, the ominous rise in fascist politics, the shocking massacre in Nigeria, the unfolding horrors of South Sudan, the ongoing awfulness in Syria and Iraq...The weight of the world's sorrows and scandals can seem too heavy to bear sometimes.

I am glad that the Bible is on the side of the small things. Because everything is, when you come down to it, a small thing. Blaming a particular group of people for the world's ills is a small thing; it might be just an off-the-cuff remark. Listening to an articulation of an extremist ideology is a small thing; it might be the flick of a television channel. Turning away from the needs of the most vulnerable is a small thing; it might be doing nothing at all (after all, what could be easier than that?) Loading a bullet, I'd imagine, is a small thing, not that I ever have or would do such a thing. Pointing it at someone's head is, in and of itself, a small movement of an angle.

Life is made up of small things. Small, repeated, learnt things that over time accrue significance, confer meaning and shape identity. And this, I think, is why we cannot afford to despise the day of the small things: because bullets are small things, too.

And because life is, inevitably, made up of small things; because  we ourselves are made up of small things, it is our task to allow these small things to speak of peace, of love, and of hope in a world desperately crying out for those things which are beyond size altogether.

On of the small things I do is to host a little inter-faith group at home, in my relatively small village. The handful of us, with our Sikh and Christian and Hindu and Muslim and Jewish identities sit and eat each other's cooking and hear each other's stories and ask each other some pretty searching questions about what it means to be a person of faith. Then we share out the leftover cakes and bakes, and each one of us takes home to our families a little taster of our inter-faith friendship. It's a small thing; it might be a slice of cholla  or a Diwali sweet or a mini Stollen bite.  Yet these little morsels of friendship and understanding are every bit as significant as a bullet or an extremist podcast. The small things we share in our inter-faith teas are, I believe, the antidote to the small things that gradually add up and become the big things on our television screens. The small thing we do to love and to accept each other cannot be overlooked or patronised or marginalised; its significance cannot be measured. It night be a smile or a chat at the school gate or a refusal to blame a scapegoated people. It might be the flick of a television channel or an off-the cuff remark. It might even be doing nothing at all.

We cannot afford to despise the day of small things, because life is, inevitably, made up of small things; because we, inevitably are made up of small things; because in doing so, we despise life altogether. We cannot afford to despise the day of small things because if we do, we fail to see that every small thing has within it the capacity to swell and expand, for good or for evil. We cannot afford to despise the day of small things, because bullets are small things, too.


Sunday, 11 January 2015

'Je suis baptisé’: A Sermon involving transgender, mental illness and Charlie Hebdo.

May I speak in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’

‘Je suis Charlie.’ If I’d said this a week ago, you’d have thought that I was either mad, or helping my children with their French homework. To be honest, this time last week, I had never even heard of Charlie Hebdo. The news of the deaths of twelve cartoonists from Paris, closely followed by an attack on a kosher supermarket just north of Paris has shaken and chilled people deeply. The brother of one of those killed, Malek Merabet said this at a press conference: ‘My brother was a Muslim, and he was killed by people pretending to be Muslims. They are terrorists, that is all.’  A Muslim friend of mine posted a cartoon on social media which depicted gunmen shooting through the open doors of the Charlie Hebdo offices, straight through the open back doors to a mosque behind the cartoon offices, with bullet marks hitting the mosque and a stream of blood running through the office door. We are all victims of terrorism, the cartoon seemed to say, Muslim and non-Muslim alike.

I don’t know how you felt as you watched the news unfold this week, whether you felt outrage and fear, disgust or maybe even repulsion at the cartoons for which this satirical magazine was notorious.

Sometimes what is needed is for all of these overwhelming, unsettling and chaotic emotions to be scooped up and gathered together into one phrase that speaks of redemption and meaning in the midst of pain and panic. ‘Je suis Charlie’ started appearing on Twitter feeds just hours after the attcak, and by Friday, the Arc de Triomphe was lit up by the slogan ‘Paris est Charlie.’ Variations started to appear; ‘je suis Ahmed’, and then, after Friday’s attack, ‘Je suis  Juif.’ I am a Jew. The desire to stand together found expression in a statement of identity – I am Charlie, I am Ahmed, I am a Jew.

This is so insightful, this instant response to tragic brutality which realises, straight away, that what is at stake here is the articulation of identity. It’s about the articulation of a Muslim identity, which, in the strongest language says that the acts carried out by the terrorists this week are not Islam.  And it’s about a western liberal pluralistic identity, which in the strongest language possible says that for freedom to be real, cartons like those drawn by the Charlie Hebdo artists must be allowed to be published.  

What this says to me, and there is so much more that could be said of it, is that we live in a world that is deeply ill at ease with identity, both at an individual human level and at the level of defining groups and societies. We live in a world in which the word ‘Muslim’ is fought over and contested. Who is a real Muslim, and who is someone pretending to be a Muslim? Who gets to decide who is and who isn’t a real Muslim? I don’t know if any of you have ever been on the receiving end of similar unease within our Christian community, whether any of you has ever been told that you are not a real Christian, because of some belief, conviction or association. It happens, believe me.  In this way, the events of the last week are symptoms of a much wider spread disease which affects so many in our world. Who are we? What is our identity?

This isn’t just some abstract introspection for those who have time and luxury to ask philosophical questions that are unrelated to the everyday world. As we’ve seen this week, lives are at stake. People die in identity wars. And as I say, this is not just a problem with people who would call themselves Muslims. Last month we read about the tragic suicide of Lizzie Lowe, a 14 year old girl from Manchester who took her own life out of fear that her family would not accept her emerging homosexuality.   If only she had told us, her family said, she would have received a wealth of love and acceptance.  Sadly, this story was followed by the death of another teenager, the American transgender girl, Leelah Alcorn, whose suicide note makes harrowing reading. You might well know of other areas in which identity wars are being played out with sever casualties. The question of who we are is not a hobbyist exercise for those who enjoy a bit of naval gazing, it is intrinsic to life itself. As I say, people die in identity wars.     

This is why I am so cheered that this week, after such awful news from France, the church celebrates the baptism of Christ. Jesus emerges from the waters, and the voice from heaven sounds out ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’ It is in baptism that we hear, clearly and definitively, who we are. Whatever other identities we inhabit, whatever other words we might use to describe ourselves, we hear, undeniably and irrevocably, that we are the beloved children of God, and that he delights in us. No other identity can compete with that, or can eradicate it. Christ claims us as his own in baptism, as our liturgical words affirm. We are his, and because we his, only because we are his, we can be ourselves, too. We are his, and because we are his, no-one else can have the final say on who we are. Christ claims us and names us as his own; our reading from the opening chapter of Genesis reminds us that it is God who names his creation. God called it day and God called it night and so on. Just one of many reasons who no person can have the final say on who anyone else is; why no person can judge, finally, another. It is God alone who names us and claims us as his beloved children, in whom he delights.   

There’s a lovely story about Martin Luther, the great sixteenth century Reformer, who, when he was holed up in Wartburg Castle translating the New Testament into German, was assailed by doubts and dark moods. I guess these days we would say that Martin Luther suffered from some sort of mental illness. (This book certainly bears out that statement.) His response to this was to shout, so that his shouts echoed through the castle turrets, ‘I am baptised!’ He saw it as defying the demons, asserting to them in the strongest terms possible that the darkness had no claim on him, because Christ had already claimed him as his own. Luther was a great one for saying not ‘I was baptised’, but rather ‘I am baptied.’Baptism, he saw, is an ongoing reality in the lives of the baptised. Maybe some of you might see a parallel with marriage, not saying ‘I was married on this particular day however many years ago’, but rather, I am married, and that reality defines and shapes my life daily. 

For Christians to live as beloved children of God, whose baptism shapes the daily reality of the lives 
– I can think of nothing more powerful in our world.  

In baptism, we know who we are.    We are told, once and forever, that we are the beloved children of God, that God is deeply pleased with us. Jesus hears this from heaven, and we hear it with him. As Gregory of Nazianzus said in the fourth century, ‘Christ rises from the waters of baptism, and a drowned world rises with him.’ I love that: a world drowning in violence and pain and insecurity rises with Jesus as he takes up his destiny to save this world by living, every moment of his life on earth to heal, to love, to teach and ultimately to sacrifice his life for each person in this drowning world.  

So I’d like to suggest that the final word for us Christians this morning is not ‘Je suis Charlie’, or any of the other variations that have been coined this week. Rather, ‘je suis baptisé’ – I am baptised. Here we are claimed by Christ. Here we know who we really are.And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’

I am baptised. Amen.   

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Who's Around the Edges, and What Can They See? A Thought for Epiphany.

When I was studying Theology at Oxford University (I know, that sounds like a not-so-stealth boast, but stick with me, it's intrinsic to the plot...) my co-conspirators in theological conundrums and I used to drive from our college to the centre of Oxford, which took about twenty minutes. We'd always park in the same car park, and walk up across the Magdalen Bridge to the Examination Schools for lectures, or wherever our tutorials happened to be, often nipping into the cafe for a brain-quickening espresso to kick-start the theological thinking. Most days, a little straggly group of people, mostly men, almost certainly homeless, sat around the edge of the car park by the public toilets, with cans of their own brain-altering liquids, laughing and chatting.

There were days when I was very tempted not to turn up to my class or lecture, but to wander over, buy them a beer and put to them whatever theological question was on my academic plate that week. 'Hey, what do you think of the idea that God changes?' 'Listen, what do you reckon that faith really means?' They looked like a friendly enough bunch, and after all, they just sat around drinking and talking all day. That must give them loads of time, I thought, to question, debate, discuss - all the things that we students were striving to do in our essays and verbal sparring bouts.

I'd love to be able to tell you that one day I did just that and had a profound theological conversation. I didn't; I was too timetable-bound and, if I'm honest, a bit too timid. But I noticed them, around the edges of a car park which itself was on the edge of the High Street; I realised that being around the edges gave them a vantage point from which they probably noticed all sorts of comings and goings, and that their lifestyle on the margins of society might give them insights emerging out of all those hours of chat which those of us who were rushing from lecture to class to tute probably hurried past without a moment's thought. Okay, they were probably talking drivel most of the time - let's face it, most of us do - but who knows what gold there might be among the dross?

Noticing who is around the edges, and wondering what they might be seeing, what they might be hearing and thinking and responding to is, I think, incredibly important for Christians. In classrooms and at parties, at conferences and in workplaces, in church buildings and church communities, there are people who, for whatever reason, whether permanently or temporarily, whether physically or metaphorically (or both), find themselves around the margins. They might feel uncomfortable being there; they might make everyone else feel uncomfortable, like a gang of drunkards in a car park. They might speak a lot of blether, or they might not speak much at all, but they might have a wisdom to offer that comes out of the unique, and often incisive, perspective that margins allow.  

Two thousand years ago, on the very edges of the map of places which people expected to be part of God's purposes, three men (if tradition is to be followed) noticed something odd in the sky, and responded, bringing with them to the infant Jesus wisdom that his own people had failed to notice. They brought gold, frankincense and myrrh, intuitively seeing in the portents of their own tradition that the baby was a priest-king whose death would be, literally, crucial. God was making himself known at the very edges; wisdom was found on the margins. Epiphany is all about the people on the edges; it's all about the edges themselves becoming wider and wider so that the circle of our vision of God's presence in the world widens and widens. After all, if God is a circle whose centre is everywhere and whose circumference nowhere (I could have had a good chat with the car park gang about that statement), any talk of edges is illusory nonsense anyway. Epiphany should remind us of that  next time we see those people standing around the edges of the room, or on the margins of society.    

One of my regrets about my time in Oxford is that I didn't throw caution to the wind one day, and spend a few hours with the car park gang. Maybe it would have been an embarrassing disaster; maybe the gulf between me and them would have been untraversable. But maybe, just maybe, I might have learnt something from them that the books and the professors could never teach me.  Walking across the car park would have been risky - but isn't Epiphany all about risky travel, and finding Jesus at the journey's end?