Sunday, 26 November 2017

The Prince of Love: A Story-Sermon for Christ the King

Once upon a time, there was a prince who had everything his heart desired: a splendid palace to live in, whole suites of rooms within the palace, books and musical instruments and sporting equipment and as much delicious food as he ever desired, cooked by his own chef. Not only that, but the prince was a popular, good-natured young man who had many friends with whom to play sports, discuss the issues of the day and laugh deeply. Only one thing was lacking. The prince’s heart yearned for a woman with whom to share his life, a love who would one day become his bride and stand by his side as his queen. Although the prince danced beautifully at balls and charmed young ladies with his witty anecdotes and respectful conversation at dinners, his heart remained untouched. No-one sparked the love which was his greatest desire. ‘Never mind’, his father would say. ‘You will know your love when you see her. You don’t need to rush. Don’t stir up or awaken love before it is ready.’  

The royal palace was several miles away from a large, bustling city.  Often he rode his carriage down to the city, and as he gazed from the window of his carriage, he would see the people going about their daily business; buying and selling things in the market place, washing and drying their clothes, trading and travelling and taking and laughing: living their everyday lives, with their challenges, joys and problems. One day, the prince’s driver took his carriage through a rather poor area of the city. The houses were tumbledown and leaky, with too many people squashed into small rooms. As the prince looked out of the window and surveyed the poverty of the people who would, one day, become his subjects, he happened to catch sight of the most beautiful young woman he had ever possibly imagined. He took a sharp intake of breath. Stunned by her beauty, he asked his driver to pretend to be lost so that he could drive around a few more times, just to see her again.

That night, as he sat in the splendour of his rooms, his heart beat faster. He had to see the young woman again. So he made up excuses to go back to that poor district, in the hope that his carriage might cross he path. And, yes it did, and yes, every time he saw her, his heart beat faster. He had never thought that he could be so captivated by love. He memorised the colour of her hair, the upturn n of her smile. And as his love for her grew, so did an uneasy feeling in the pit of his stomach: how would he, how could he, get to know her? If he were a poor young man of the city, he would live in the same street as her. He could bump into her and strike up a friendship. And maybe then… But he lived in a palace outside the city. He could, of course, get straight out of his carriage and stride straight up to her and ask her to attend the winter ball with him.

But his heart grew even more uneasy. If she knows of my wealth, he reasoned, I will never know whether she truly loves me, or is in love with my riches. If she know of my royal birth, I will never know whether she loves me, or the thought of one day being my queen. The prince wanted above all things to be loved, for himself. He wanted to marry for love, not to make a political alliance.

He thought through his options. He could, of course, do what they do in the stories and go about the city in disguise. He could exchange his well-made, handsome clothes with the rags of a peasant and turn up in her street, claiming to be a traveller in search of board and lodging in exchange for menial work. Then he could get to know her, little by little, and then in time, once he had proposed to her, he could take off his disguise and then she’d know the real him, the prince who had won her heart not by power or wealth but with love and kindness.

But then, he pondered, as he thought on, would she feel cheated? Could he lie to her? Could any happily married life start off on so great an untruth?

As he ruimnated, an idea came to him. It would be the riskiest, maybe the stupidest thing he had ever conceived of in his life. But, it might just enable him to win the heart of the only woman he ever wanted to marry.  

He went to see his father the king, and after a long conversation, he went back to his rooms. After some time he emerged, dressed not in the well-made, handsome clothes of a prince, nor in the rags of a pauper but in the everyday clothes that the people of the city wore. He took a bag, packed with simple provisions, and got, for the last time, into his carriage where his driver took him to the edge of the city. He bade his driver a fond farewell, and walked the rest of the way.

Days, weeks, months and years passed. The prince found that living in the city, working, as he did, as a carpenter, was a good life, even though there were times when even the foxes had holes and the birds of the air had nests but he himself had nowhere to lay his head. But he gathered friends around himself – he was, after all, a good-natured young man and he told his new friends stories of a wonderful palace ruled by a kind and wise king. His friends wondered sometimes where this kingdom was, or if it were even real at all. He said that he’d take them to there to live with him too, but they wondered how their friend, who looked so ordinary and talked in such down-to-earth ways, could make such rash promises. But they too were captivated by the truth and the heart-thumpingly 
challenging love with which he spoke.

And, happily, as time went on, as he worked in his carpentry shop and spent time with his friends, he did, really, fall in love – not just, as it happened, with the young woman whose eyes had caught his heart – but with all the people of the city, with the stuff of their daily business; buying and selling things in the market place, washing and drying their clothes, trading and travelling and taking and laughing: living their everyday lives, with their challenges, joys and problems. As he lived among them, his love for them grew and grew, even though there were times when he found himself impatient at their slowness to understand him. The prince’s love for his people burned within him as he shared his wisdom with them, used his powers to healthier illnesses and his voice to silence their oppressors. It was a love that would come with a cost – a greater cost than the prince had ever known – but that’s another story.   

Meanwhile, in the palace, the father watched, proud and pleased. His palace, one day, would at last be full.  

(This is based loosely on, but changed quite significantly from a parable by Soren Kirkegaard)

Sunday, 1 October 2017

If Only...A Sermon about Regret and Hope

The readings for this sermon are Isaiah 48:12-end and Luke 11:37-end. 

If only.

They have been called the two saddest words in the English language, words that glance back over the shoulder to what could have been or what still could be, words that are heavy with wistful yearning - if only, if only, if only…

History is full of ‘if onlys’, too. If only Archduke Franz Ferdinand hadn’t been assassinated... If only Princess Diana’s driver in Paris in 1997 hadn’t been drunk…If only 9/11 hadn’t happened…

I don’t know if you have your own personal ‘if only’, too. If only I hadn’t done this….or if only I had said that….if only I hadn’t had that experience as a child…if only I’d worked harder at school. Hindsight, as they say, is 20/20 and we look back on our pasts with a clarity that often we lack at the time. Our regrets might be to do with things that happened that were way beyond our control, or things that we wished we’d done differently. The American writer Maya Angelou said, looking back on her very difficult early life, “I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.”

When we think about regrets, we are thinking about the way we wish things had been; we are looking back on what was not. Regret is the very opposite of hope, because hope looks forward to what could be whereas regret looks back at what was not and now never can be. So what do we regret most, as people? The poet Ted Hughes says ‘The only thing people regret is that they didn't live boldly enough, that they didn't invest enough heart, didn't love enough. Nothing else really counts at all.’

This chimes in with a study that palliative care nurse made of her dying patients. When they looked back at the end of their lives, what did they regret the most? The top 5 regrets are as follows:

I wish I'd had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.

I wish I hadn't worked so hard.

I wish I'd had the courage to express my feelings.

I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.

I wish that I had let myself be happier.

The Bible has its own ‘if onlys’, its own regrets and harsh lessons learnt. Of these, the hardest and most enduring is the Babylonian exile. Nearly 600 years before Christ, having settled in Jerusalem and established the first Jerusalem Temple as the glad place of worship for God’s people, the children of Israel suffered the humiliating and traumatic experience of being forcibly removed from their homeland and taken to Babylon as slaves. It’s a story that echoes down the ages all the way back to the story of Joseph in the book of Genesis – a favoured son whose father gave him a coat of many colours and whose brother pushed him into a pit before selling him as a slave to Egyptians – and echoes down to this very day, a day in which human beings – precious children of God – are bought and sold as slaves and trafficked across the globe to work in factories, homes and brothels. This slavery, the Babylonian exile, brought with it a loud chorus of if onlys.

We hear some of these in our reading from Isaiah. ‘O that you had paid attention to my commandments! Then your prosperity would have been like a river and your success like the waves of the sea.’ If only, if only, if only…we hear the voice of God groaning through the words of the prophet. If only you had drawn near to me…if only you had realised how near I am to you…if only you had trusted that my love for you is endless and goes with you wherever you go, even through the darkest of nights, even to slavery in Babylon…if only you had believed in me, trusted in me, more.       
But the story doesn’t end there. Just like the story of Joseph doesn’t end with him being carted off to slavery in Egypt, the story of the people of Israel doesn’t end in Babylon. The prophet Isaiah looks with the eyes of faith and sees a new future waiting to come to birth. He says ‘The Lord shall perform his purpose on Babylon’ and he speaks boldly to the enslaved people of God: Go out from Babylon – declare this with a shout of joy, ‘The Lord has redeemed his servant Jacob!’  The prophet’s words were to come true - the new conqueror of the ancient world, the king of Persia, Cyrus, eventually issued a decree allowing all slaves to return home to Israel. If you go to the British Museum in London, you can see this decree which has been painstakingly preserved.

The if only of the exiled slaves became the shout of joy of the redeemed homecoming people of God. God take the if only, and transforms it into a new future. Regret of the past becomes hope for the hope for the future, because that’s what God does: he takes our regrets and he transforms them into hope. He turns our lives inside out and upside down so that what has not been and now never could be gives way for a new thing that could be and with the help of his spirit, will be. As the prophet Isaiah says in another place, ‘God is doing a new thing.’ Because God is always doing a new thing, we don’t have to live with regrets; we can place our regrets tenderly into his hands and find in his gentle embrace the possibilities of a new start and a new hope. Jeremiah, another prophet of the exile, put it like this: ‘For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans to prosper you and not to harm you; plans to give you hope and a future.’ 

We hear something of the if only in our Gospel reading, too. All the way through the story of Jesus’ life we see the heartbreaking irony of the Pharisees. The Pharisees were the God squad of Jesus’ time – the ones who wanted to be the holiest they could be, as holy as the priests in the new Jerusalem temple which God’s redeemed homecoming people had built when they returned from Babylon to Jerusalem. The Pharisees were the ones who watched every word, every action, to make sure that God’s commandments were never broken – and yet these were the ones who failed to recognise God himself living and breathing among them.

Again, we hear the plaintive cry of the voice of God – if only, if only, if only…if only you would stop obsessing about the details and look at the bigger picture….if only you would allow your hearts to be warmed and maybe even to burn with the love of God, with passion for justice and mercy. If only you would take as much care of your souls – that part of you which is on the inside which no-one can see except God himself – as you do of the outside appearance. If only you would learn the truth of what the voice of God to another prophet, the prophet Samuel, had said all those generations ago, ‘people look at the outward appearance but God looks on the heart.’ If only you would give your hearts in love to God and to your neighbour. If only.

If only. As that same God looks on our world today, I wonder what that cry sounds like? If only you humans would see the value of your worth in my eyes. If only you would stop striving for things that can never make you happy. If only you would look beyond your natural differences to see each other as brothers and sisters in the same family of God. If only you would stop fighting. If only you would trust in my love for you all.  If only you would believe in me, trust in me more.

The remarkable thing is that God’s if onlys are not the same as our if onlys. God is always doing a new thing, so God’s if onlys are God’s deepest desires for us humans, and for the world which he created in love, to become all that he knows we can become. God’s if onlys are words not of regret, but of hope, because God believes is us so much more than we could ever believe in him.
So we come tonight with ourselves as we are, with all our if onlys, all our regrets. We come with our faith and our prayers, feeble though they may be, and we place ourselves once more into His hands, where our if onlys become His if onlys – where our regrets become our, and His, hope. Amen.

Friday, 15 September 2017

Stay True: Spiritual Advice for the C of E from the Fashion World

(Image from WerbeFabrik on Pixabay)

Spiritual counsel can come from all sorts of places; sometimes the best spiritual counsel comes from the supposedly least likely places. My morning routine involves driving my teens to the school bus stop; on the way there, we listen to Radio 1's Breakfast Show, and on the way back, I have Radio 4 (although the teens are adamant that I have to wait until they are out of the car before I switch over). This morning, having waved them off, I caught the end of an interview with someone who works in the world of high street fashion, for a well-known shop which I've mooched around with my daughter on many occasions. I was fascinated by the terminology; this is a shop which was once a 'disrupter' of the fashion industry, by producing must-have items at high-street prices, feted by celebrities and distrusted by high-end designers. Now times have changed, and this shop is adjusting to having become 'establishment' whilst facing its own 'disrupters', online outlets which can copy any garment bought from the high street and have it dispatched to a teenage bedroom within three weeks.

As I say, I was fascinated. I found myself thinking of 'disrupters' in Christian history, those who blew apart given norms and mores, and challenged the 'establishment' church of its day: this autumn sees the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther, the great German reformer's 95 theses, which disrupted medieval Christianity with what turned out to be global and lasting repercussions. From the Hebrew prophets to the charismatic movement, the Judeo-Christian tradition has never been long without its disrupters; in fact, it has needed, and needs still, those who see new possibilities  and long-lost minority reports within the ancient faith, new and newly-recovered ways of living and communicating and challenging the world on the basis of that faith in such a way as to make that faith truer and stronger and more vibrantly alive than the 'establishment' of any given day. The problem is, of course, that today's disrupter is next week's establishment, and that what is radical and new now might lose its vitality just as quickly as a designer knock-off dress. The God who is always doing a new thing, the Spirit which blows where it wills, the Son who walks an unknown route and calls us to follow; no wonder we humans are always at least three steps behind the God who is the ultimate, divine disrupter.              

So for us Anglicans, every bit as 'establishment' as Gardener's Question Time and Grimmy's Breakfast Show, are we condemned to lose out to the religious 'disrupters'? Much is said, rightly, about the decline in churchgoing and in identification with the Church of England. The fear that we Anglicans might go the way of Chelsea Girl and Woolworths hovers just beneath the surface of many PCC meetings and national headlines. 'Woe to the those who are complacent in Zion', as one disrupter put it many centuries ago, a call that echoes down the ages to our own time and place. But, as I mentioned, spiritual counsel can come from all sorts of places, and sometimes the bets spiritual counsel can come from the least likely of places. So what do you do, the fashionsta was asked, when you can't compete with the new disrupters? The answer was wise, and simple: Stay true to who you are, and stay true to who you are for.

We Anglicans are pretty simply in terns of who we are, and who we are for. One of our straplines puts it like this: 'A Christian presence in every community.' We are Christian, no more, no less; we are for everyone who lives in each community we serve, regardless of age, social status, ethnicity, sexual orientation, family set-up, or even religion. We are here, in each place, to say to people, n whatever ways are meaningful, that there is joy and peace to be found in knowing the love of God through Jesus Christ. This is who we are, and this is who we are for. May we stay true to ourselves and find within that commitment to staying to true, the life-giving disruption of the Holy Spirit, maker us ever truer to ourselves and our people.  

Sunday, 3 September 2017

Life is Like a Butterfly: A Sermon

I wonder if you’ve hear the story about the children who, one hot summer’s day, went down to the meadow and played at the water’s edge with their fishing nets as their parents watched. The afternoon was so beautiful, the water so sparklingly clean, the grass so green, and all around them darted dragonflies and butterflies as birds chirped. If only we could hold on to this moment forever, they said to each other. Then, an idea came to them and they took their fishing net and caught a beautiful white butterfly. You can’t do that, their parents said, the poor thing will die. But the children so wanted the butterfly to stay with them forever and live in their bedroom that when their parents weren’t looking, they snuck the butterfly into their pocket. By the time they got into their bedroom, the butterfly’s wings had folded neatly, and very gently, the children placed the lifeless butterfly on their shelf.    

Wanting to hold on to the good is such a profound natural human impulse. The 1970s hit song ‘I Wish It Could be Christmas Every Day’ expresses something of this – we want the good times to last, and in those really special moments when everything feels just as it should be, we want life to be like this all the time. Children getting ready to go back to school after a long summer holiday might well be feeling something of the ‘back to earth with a bump’ feeling we get when a good time comes to an end. I wonder if Moses looked back on the burning bush, later on in his life, and wished that that moment could have lasted forever.

Maybe this is how Peter felt when Jesus started talking, ominously, about his coming death. Peter had given up everything to follow Jesus and thrown himself wholeheartedly into the life of a travelling disciple with this wonderful man who healed the sick, performed miracles, spoke wisdom and truth even when it made him unpopular to do so, and told mysterious, compelling stories about the kingdom of heaven. And now, just at the point when Peter has got to know Jesus so well and love him so much that he feels he would do anything for him, Jesus says that it all has to come to an end. It was such a natural human response from Peter. No, Jesus, that can’t happen. I won’t let them kill you. I’ll defend you. We can carry on doing this forever, this travelling and healing and teaching. I don’t want this to end. I don’t want to lose you.

The Gospel is full of moments like these, moments when our natural human responses clash with the strange, counter-intuitive work of the kingdom of God. The truth is that the only way that Peter can truly know Jesus for who he is – the very God himself, walking on earth fully human and yet fully divine, alive so fully that even death itself cannot keep him – is for Jesus to die and be resurrected. More than that, the only way that Peter can know who he himself is – this rugged, impetuous fisherman with a tendency to act first and think later – is for Jesus to die and be resurrected. The transformation in Peter as he stands up on the Day of Pentecost to tell people from all over the known world that all of history, everything that had happened, was leading up to the moment when Jesus was raised from the dead, is Peter coming into his own for the first tie, reaching his full height as an apostle whose impetuous folly will turn to bravery as he does indeed go on the travelling and healing and teaching, with the Spirit of Jesus within him in a way that he couldn’t have dreamt possible in those early days.

The only way, Jesus says, is to live is to lay down one’s life. The only way to live is to deny oneself, take up one’s cross, and follow Jesus. If we can do this, and go on doing it day after day as Luke tells us in his version of the same story, we will live more fully and deeply than we could possibly know. The only way to live is not to hold on tight to life, and especially to those moments when life feels perfect, but to let those moments pass, to go on finding God in the ever-new moments of each day. If we are not able to do this, we might find ourselves a little like those children, with nothing to display but a dead reminder of a beautiful, living past. 

One rather blunt saying goes that the difference between tradition and traditionalism is that tradition is the living faith of the dead, and traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. If we hold on to moments in the past, even profoundly beautiful and spiritual times, we are in danger of what Jesus warned of – of losing our lives even as we try so hard to hold on to them, as the present day and God’s presence in us eludes us as we continue to look for him in the past.     

So what might this look like, this life of taking up our cross and following Jesus? The reading we heard from Romans gives some definite answers as to what kind of a life Jesus calls us to. It is, you may not be surprised to hear, a life that is sometimes counter-intuitive; a life of not taking revenge, another perfectly natural human impulse, but of leaving room for God to respond to evil. It’s a life of letting go of the natural human response to get your own back on those who hurt you open heartedness to others, of hospitality which can mean so many different things both in and outside the home.  It’s a life of choosing in each and every moment to put others and God above your own needs, and finding in each and every moment that putting others and God above yourself is the best thing you could ever do for yourself anyway, that far from losing out, you win more than you thought possible.  This is what a Christian life should look like, and it’s this life to which we should aspire. It’s not easy – as I say, it’s deeply counter-intuitive – which is why we need the help of God’s Spirit and God’s people. But this is what life, lived to the full, looks like.  As we into this new season, let’s each take time to search our own hearts and to find the parts of us that, like Peter, try desperately to hold on the moment which so quickly becomes the past, and let’s ask God for his help in trusting in the eternal, ongoing, ever-new life of God in us and among us, always doing a new thing, always bringing new butterflies to birth for us to enjoy as they sweep by our lives. AMEN.                   

Sunday, 12 March 2017

Another Plea from Me to the C of E: There is no 'mutual flourishing', just 'flourishing'.

Image: 'Christ Healing the Sick' by Christian Wilhelm Ernst Dietrich (1742). Picture in public domain, downloaded from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

I'd hesitate to say that I've just celebrated an anniversary, but it's true that I have just passed a strange sort of a milestone in my life. It was twenty years ago last month that I was diagnosed with Crohn's Disease; by the time I sat in a consultant gastroenterologist's hospital room and listened in dazed silence as I was prescribed steroids and signed off work, I had become so weak and ill that I could barely eat and couldn't walk far without keeling over in stomach cramps that shot pain into every nerve of my body. The diagnosis was both a relief and a shock; within days, the steroids had started to do their work and for the first time in over a year I could feel my body strengthening, but at the same time, the prospect of adjusting to a future of hospitals, medication and pain management, and more than that, adjusting to the knowledge that my body had developed in such a way that my immune system was compromised so as to lay me open to other illnesses, everyday and more serious, was profoundly unsettling for a twenty-three year old who had just accepted a job offer in Japan.

As a Christian, my own instinct and that of my church was to pray: for relief, for healing, for hope for the future, for a sense of what God might be doing in the midst of such confusing and painful circumstances. Over the years, those prayers have continued, and I have experienced more moments of grace than I could ever remember; moments when peace has flooded my sore and exhausted body, moments when I have been given the strength to do things that seemed beyond me. Since my diagnosis, I've trained and worked as a secondary school teacher, I've trained and and am working as a vicar, and I've birthed and am bringing up two wonderful children. I've travelled to some fabulous places, spent a year working with a Christian charity in South East Asia (my consultant: 'Whatever you do, don't eat the street food!') and earned three degrees and a teaching qualification. However, even with all these moments of grace and great opportunities that have come my way, there is no getting away from the fact that Crohn's is, pardon the pun, a pain in the backside. Twenty years later, I am still negotiating pain, exhaustion, medication, and hospitals. I am well most of the time, but never by accident. I am incredibly grateful for all the good in my life, for the strength that each day brings, and for the spiritual solace that physical illness has forced me to seek out, but the honest truth is that I wouldn't wish this on anyone.  

As my life, and my prayers have continued, I have slowly started to ponder the complexities of auto-immune diseases such as Crohn's. Auto-immune disease occurs, I have learnt, when an overly vigilant immune system reacts against, and attempts to reject, one of the body's own systems (in the case of Crohn's, the digestive system), behaving towards the bodily system in the same way that it would towards dangerous pathogens intruding from outside. The problem is obvious: a digestive system is not a pathogen. It is, in fact, essential to life and health. I've come to think of auto-immune diseases as a kind of hyper-allergy; an allergy not to some external, otherwise health-giving stuff like peanuts or eggs, but to part of its own intrinsic self. You can avoid nuts; you can't avoid your digestive system. And what starts in one system can easily spread to other parts of the body as the immune system's defense instinct runs riot through bones, causing arthritis, and in my case, my eyes. The effect of having a hyper-active immune system that fights off bits of itself like some misguided comic book superhero is not, as you might be excused for thinking, that the body becomes super-charged; rather, the opposite: a body that spends all its energy mistaking parts of itself as threats and engaging in a bizarre, anarchic, intra-corporeal civil war, doesn't have much left over once all the internal fighting has been accounted for. No wonder I am exhausted so often.

The church, St Paul writes, is the body of Christ. 'We who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another,' as the words from Romans 12 which are paraphrased in our Anglican Communion service remind us every time we break bread together. It's so easy to hear these words as idealistic pie-in-the-sky, or as florid rhetoric, but for me, this is spiritual reality. If I have any identity in Christ at all - if my faith means anything - it is because I am part of something bigger than myself, something to which I have something to give, and something from which I gain life itself, something without which I am not really fully myself. Our highly individualised, cult-phobic culture might find this idea alarming or, as I was called the other day, 'hopelessly sentimental', but ultimately, Paul's either right, or deluded, or deluding. These words either mean something or they don't.

Now those of you who follow church news and are given to an allegorical frame of mind might see where I'm going with this. I wrote a blog post this week after Bishop Philip North withdrew his acceptance of the Bishopric of Sheffield, citing 'highly individualised attacks' in a heart-rending statement. In my post, I suggest that the only way that the church can move on from this painful flare-up is to learn to trust. Yes, that might sound facile or 'hopelessly sentimental' in the highly-charged atmosphere of mistrust which this situation exemplifies. Yes, 'trust' is a contested concept and a debased currency in our culture which has so badly abused the trust of  so many, as sickening stories of systemic child abuse sadly spill out. Yes, trust involves risk; yes, trust is scary because it is, in fact, the opposite of protectivism and therefore trust must be considered carefully. However, all this nothwithstanding, my twenty years of Crohn's Disease teach me that a body whose physiology is such that it mistrusts its own internal systems is a body in desperate need of learning to recognise, and trust itself; without such self-recognition, healing is impossible (fascinatingly, talk therapies have been recognised as contributing significantly to the wellbeing of people with auto-immune conditions). An immune system so alert to danger that it turns on itself is an immune system which is, ironically, incapable of protecting the body from real pathogens. While the bizarre, anarchic intra-corporeal civil war rages on, life and strength leak out and sickness creeps in.

The question, then, is this: how do we discern what is intrinsic, life-giving and health-inspiring to the body of Christ, and what are the intruding pathogens? The answer, I suggest, is this: that which is made out of the same stuff as the rest of the body. Not that which does the same thing, or behaves in the same way, because as we all know, the human body is full of internal variety, but that which is made out of one or other of the same organic substances that create a human body. The body of Christ has ways of deciding this; its own lab, if you like, for testing  and approving that which is life-giving and that which is a danger-posing pathogen. That lab is, of course, the church's processes of discernment, and in particular the Synodical-governmental and episcopal-leadership processes which agreed, three years ago, that women bishops would be a healthy growth for the overall church whilst also promising space for the members of the body for whom this move would not promote wellbeing.

Now without wishing to be flippant, I know far too much about the careful balancing up of contra-indications in medicine, and the considered risks that medics make in prescribing treatments that will be likely to benefit the patient as a whole, but could damage essential parts of the body (I have spent most of my adult life making these calculated risks and taking particular care of the bits of me that might become damaged by my medicines). Back in 2014, these members of the church body who could not benefit from women bishops or women priests were recognised as parts of the body, and were promised particular care. The appointment of +Philip to Sheffield seemed to re-affirm the recognition of his place in the body, and that of his fellow traditionalist Anglo-Catholics with him. His withdrawal of the basis of 'highly personalised attacks' indicates that maybe what might have happened in the last few months is something not unlike a flare-up of an auto-immune condition in which the body goes into hyper-drive to protect itself from something which is, actually, itself. If I am a member of you and you are a member of me, then a highly personalised attack on you, or me, is nothing other than an ecclesial auto-immune disease.  This is why the language of 'mutual flourishing', while clear, is slightly unhelpful; if I am a member of you, and you are a member of me, there is no such thing as 'mutual flourishing.' There is only 'flourishing.'

In order to flourish, bodies need to be checked over and tested (I am currently undergoing a raft of tests to 're-stage' my Crohn's Disease); the allegory might hold that healthy debate within the body of the church could perform an analogical function. So my second plea to the C of E is this: please let's find ways of talking to each other in such a way that recognises each other as members of the same body so that we can work together to 'strengthen what remains' (Revelation 3:2) and fight off the true dangers that threaten our wellbeing. We can only do that if we trust each other. No more misguided comic book superheroes; we've got some real work to do if we are going to be Christ's hands and feet on earth. Let's not waste our energy slowly killing ourself.        

Friday, 10 March 2017

A Plea From Me To The C of E

I can still remember the light of optimism in his eyes. 'It feels really different this time', he said, smiling. 'It's a different conversation altogether.' It was summer 2014, and he had just come back from another round of discussions at General Synod. After the bitter disappointment we had both shared in November 2012, when the motion to allow women to be nominated for consecration as bishops had fallen so narrowly, this optimism was both intriguing and genuine. What wind of change had blown through Synod, I wondered, a wind both strong enough to change the direction of the church and gentle enough to do so without blowing people and communities off their feet? 

His eyes shone as he explained. The terms of the debate had shifted altogether, if not logistically then relationally. Synod had somehow, along the way, stopped talking about 'protection' for those who could not, in all conscience, accept the ministry of ordained women, and had picked up the vocabulary of 'trust.' It had spread, he told me. Once one person had said that maybe we should trust each other as siblings in the family of faith rather than seeing each other as threats from which to be protected, a way had opened up that had simply not been there before. People had relaxed in their seats. People had started to talk more expansively, more openly, even with a little humour, about how the good ship C of E could chart its course. Trust meant that the storms at sea seemed navigable after all. Most profoundly, trust quietly, persistently, neutralised the need for protection; if I trust you, I feel no need to protect myself from you. 

Trust was the beautiful grace that the Synod of 2010-2015 found, and how I wish it could be bottled and given away free on street corners. Trust could open up all sorts of possibilities in our defensive, protectionist world. Walls would come down, or not be built. 'Not so among you' said Jesus when his folly-ridden ambitionist disciples asked him who would be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. The terms of debate shifted then, too, from success to service, from competition to compassion. Whatever winds of change blow through our secular world with its politics and power-plays, among God's people a micro-climate of grace can, and must, blow freely, and from us, blow into a world in such desperate need of grace. Trust was strong enough to change the direction of the church and gentle enough not to blow people and communities off their feet. 

Three years later, and the political winds of change have blown. The social and political breezes leading to Brexit and Donald Trump's presidency were not yet gusting when trust blew through Synod. The storm winds were raging in Syria, and those of us who follow the global political forecast were deeply grieved, but in 2014 'the refugee crisis' had not yet hit Europe and the Jungle was still where ill-advised celebrities ate testicles. Since then, the chill winds of protectionism have swept in; some of us might feel that some of these currents are necessary. However, 'not so among you' said Jesus. May the church not be swept away with the prevailing winds of its culture; may it be guided and warmed by a micro-climate of grace. 

Three years later, and the Bishop of Burnley has sadly withdrawn his acceptance to be Bishop of Sheffield after a flurry of public critique, questioning how he can possibly be the bishop of a diocese in which one third of the clergy are women when he does not believe in the validity of women's ordination. Rhetorical questions have hung in the air like accusations. How can an ordained woman flourish under his episcopacy? How can he reconcile his position with his theology? How can he represent Christ to a world, and in particular to the city of Sheffield in which women play all sorts of prominent roles in all sorts of areas? The implicit answer has echoed over the whole barrage: he can't. It's just simply impossible, however good a Christian, inspiring a clergyman or decent a chap he is. 

I'll be honest, and tell you that my overriding response to such question has become, increasingly, one of irritation. As soon as Bishop Philip's acceptance of the role as Bishop of Sheffield was announced, he issued a statement saying that he would be a 'bishop for all' and was looking forward to meeting with the ordained women of Sheffield and getting to know them in a special meeting which he was prioritising in his early days as a new bishop. Why, I found myself thinking as I heard yet another person ask how an ordained woman can live with a bishop who would not ordain her, do we not simply trust him when he says that he values all that ordained women do in the Church of England? Why do we not trust that he has worked through the complexities of his theology and public role in his own heart and mind, and has come to a place of peace that he can live this vocation with both ecclesial and theological integrity? Why do we not trust that God will use this particular man, with his deep spirituality and passionate care for the poor, to bring about a deeper still trust between traditionalist Anglo-Catholics and the wider Church? Where is trust in all of this? Have we reverted to a defensive protectionism that construes the pressing need as the protection of women from traditionalist Anglo-Catholics? 

As I pondered the transformative power of trust in general, in this particular situation, and its recent track record in doing good in and for the Church, the Bible story that emerged in my mind is one which I've puzzled over and which has not always sat entirely right with me. It comes at the very end of John's Gospel, after the resurrection, after the miraculous haul of fish, and after the tear-jerking (for me, anyway) forgiveness and re-calling of Peter. Peter turns to the Beloved Disciple and asks Jesus what sounds like a perfectly relatable question; 'What about him?' In response, Jesus tells Peter to mind his own business. 'What is it to you?' is Jesus' rhetorical question. 'Follow me.' It's one of those moments when Jesus is unexpectedly curt. 

As I say, this moment in John's Gospel has puzzled me; what could be wrong with concern for others? The last few weeks, though, have shown me the enormously liberating power of not solving other people's theological problems for them, but trusting that they, and God, will or have already done that between them. Yes, being a bishop with oversight of ordained women and not believing in the sacramental validity of women's ordination is a theological problem, but it's not my problem. What is it to me? My task is what it has always been: to follow Jesus. This does involve solving people's theological problems, as a vicar of a parish in which my own bishop has given me a share in the 'cure of souls', and anyone who knows me know that I enjoy nothing more than a good theological conundrum. It's liberating to know, though, that my task is not to solve the whole world's problems, or even the whole church's problems, but to focus my time and energy where I have committed to serving. Most profoundly, my task is to trust that as I work through the complexities of my life with the wind of the Spirit guiding me, so others are doing that too and that together, God will lead us all into a deeper, richer, fuller life of his Spirit. For that to happen, maybe we need to hear Jesus' words, 'What is it to you? Follow me.' 

So where from here? Bishop Philip has withdrawn, and all sort of cross-currents of opinion and response are swirling around. All I'd like to add to the flow is a plea that we do not revert to protectionism. It'd be understandable; all sorts of individuals and groups within the C of E might feel the need to protect themselves right now. Please let's not do that. Please let's stay open to each other; please let's pray for each other and offer friendship to each other as we all, in our own ways, follow Jesus. Please let's choose trust over protectionism, openness over defense. Trust is strong enough to change the direction of the church and gentle enough not to knock us all down. I we trust each other, we will feel no need to protect ourselves from each other. We'll expand, relax. We might even laugh a little more. Who knows what might become possible if we trust? 

Let's trust.  




Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Touching the Dust: A Sermon for Ash Wednesday

This sermon is for an Ash Wednesday service at a senior school. The Bible reading is John 8:2-11

Aisha was thirteen. Already in her young life she had suffered more than anyone should ever have to cope with – she was always in trouble at school and found it difficult to make friends, and then, on the way to visit her grandmother she was attacked and raped by three men. When her aunt took her to the police station to report this as a crime, she was told that the fault was hers. On October 27th, 2008, she was taken, screaming and crying, to a stadium where, in front of an audience of a thousand people, she was stoned to death. Some of the people who attended her killing tried to save her, but they were met with gunfire, which killed an eight year old boy who got caught in the crossfire. Two innocent children, two young victims, died that day.

Amnesty International responded with this statement:  "This was not justice, nor was it an execution. This child suffered a horrendous death …This killing is yet another human rights abuse." The Global Campaign to Stop Killing and Stoning Women, which had been launched just a year previously, implored its members to write to leaders, begging them to take action so that no such violence should never again be meted out on girls and women.

Nine years later, The Global Campaign to Stop Killing and Stoning Women has become ‘Stop Stoning Women’ and is linked with similar organisations such as The Women’s Islamic Initiative in Spirituality and Equality, and Amnesty International continues its work. But the reason these organisations exist is because the stoning of women is still, in 2017, legal in ten countries.  

Phew, you might think, thank goodness the UK isn’t one of them.

Well yes - and no. Take Sarah Lynn Butler, Tyler Clementi, Ryan Halligan, Hannah Smith, Ronan Hughes, Jessica Logan, Grace McComas, or David Molak. Not names that you might recognise, but all British and American young people who took their own lives after being the victims of cyber bullying. We might not pick up stones and boulders in the UK, but the words we type shielded by the anonymity of our computer screens can be every bit as deadly.

We live in what is increasingly recognised as being a culture of shame and bullying, of ‘trial by media’ and ‘the court of public opinion’ as celebrities from Taylor Swift to Sam Smith are shamed for being too fat, too thin, too masculine, too feminine, too sexy, too sexless, too stupid, too elitist, too old, too young, too anything. “We smack each other in the press and we don’t print retractions” says U.S. Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical, Hamilton.

Even national treasures like Sir Ian McKellan are not immune from public shaming; Ian McKellan, who marches at Pride and is a Stonewall Schools Ambassador was asked in an interview whether he regrets waiting until the age of 49 to come out as gay. “You know”, he said, “When I was growing up in 1950s England... Homosexuals were shamed publicly and imprisoned.”

I asked my fourteen-year-old daughter to name me a celebrity who has been publicly shamed. ‘They all have’ she replied instantly.

So why do we do it? Well, it might be that this shame culture is the shadow side of the public honouring of people which is also a feature of our society – we’ve just had a glittering array of such honouring in the season of awards ceremonies such as the Grammys, the Oscars and the Brits. Any sociologist will tell you that honouring people and shaming people are two sides of the same coin.

But that doesn’t explain why we do it.

I think the answer is simple: because it feels good. For just the briefest of moments, it makes us feel superior; it narrows the gap between us and the impossibly high pedestal on which we place our contemporary idols. Whatever our defects and deficiencies might be, at least we’re not them; at least we’re not the soap star who’s let herself go or the singer with that terrible fashion faux pas or the politician with the unfortunate turn of phrase.

And of course this happens in local communities too. However subtly we do it, we are tempted to shame each other, because it makes us feel better about ourselves, the pack mentality of the stone-throwing crowd giving us a momentary sense of belonging and acceptance. But it’s a false acceptance, because deep down, we know that the crowd could turn on us at any moment.  It’s our own deep insecurity that leads us to shame others.  If only we knew that we were created by God, known by God, accepted totally by God, loved extravagantly by God, we would not feel the need to shame each other.     
So we come to another shamed woman who is to be stoned to death in our reading from John’s Gospel. Stoning was, in Jesus’ day, part of the Law of Moses – Sharia Law is not the only legal system to include stoning – so the trick question put to Jesus is this: are you going to keep the law, or condone a violent murder? Jesus comes up against such trick questions all the way through his life – but here, it’s not just about quick-witted intellectual fancy footwork; a woman’s life is at stake. In response, Jesus says nothing. Instead, he stoops down, and writes in the dust. What does he write? One ancient manuscript suggests that he writes a list of the sins that the men have committed; but we don’t know if that’s true.

Maybe the point is not so much what he writes, but the physical action that goes with it. He stoops down, he touches the dusty earth with his finger, and in that motion God himself, in the fully human and fully divine person of Jesus, physically connects with a violent and vengeful world, a world that shames and shuns and slaughters. That’s the heart of the Christian Gospel right there.

The Hebrew word for ‘dust’ is ‘adamah’, from which we get the name Adam, the Bible’s first human. Jesus reaches down, touching the dust, touching our humanity. He does the one thing that the crowd can’t do – he connects with his humanity.  And when Jesus does speak, his words are transformative. What about you? Jesus asks, turning the to the accusers. Can you connect with your humanity? With your fragility and your fears? With your sin and your shame?   

This is exactly what Ash Wednesday invites us to do; to connect with our humanity, to recognise ourselves as human, as mortal, as imperfect; as too fat, too thin, too masculine, too feminine, too sexy, too sexless, too stupid, too elitist, too old, too young, too anything – and to find in that connection with ourselves the free and full forgiveness of the God who created us from the dust of the earth and loves the very dust of our humanity so much that he stoops down to touch it – and us - time and time again.

There is nothing more liberating that this life could offer. In those words, ‘you are dust, and to dust you shall return’ we don’t hear condemnation but acceptance. We don’t hear hatred or shame, but love and recognition. Like the woman in John’s Gospel, we are free to go and sin no more; to become more liberated of all that would shame us in the secret places of our own hearts.

In this service of ashing, you are invited to connect with your humanity, and to know God’s love for you and in that love, a freedom to become more fully the person God created you to be. As we do this together, we connect with our shared humanity, and we find the freedom to overcome the vengeful violence of our shame-addicted society; the freedom that allows each one of us, in all our flawed humanity, to thrive.  Amen.

Monday, 27 February 2017

Vintage pop, controversial bishops and Alexander Hamilton

'There's always something happening, and it's usually quite loud': Vintage pop, controversial bishops, and Alexander Hamilton (just another month in the Church of England)

February 27, 2017
The Church of England has certainly had more than its fair share of column inches in the British press this month; firstly, over the General Synod gathering which rejected a report on sexuality which had been written by a group of bishops, and then, just when the dust had started to settle, Martyn Percy, the Dean of Christchurch Cathedral in Oxford was reported in the Guardian to have suggested that the man who will be the next Bishop of Sheffield, Philip North, should step down, not for any scandalous reason but because Philip North has never been anything other than honest about his view that women should not be ordained. I can't help thinking of the line from the vintage pop song, 'Our House': 'There's always something happening, and it's usually quite loud.' Truer words were never spoken of the C of E! As you can imagine, and may well have seen, there was a huge outcry in response, from those who agree with Martyn Percy, those who agree with Philip North, and those who agree with neither Martyn nor Philip.

I find myself in the latter camp; strange, you mind think, for someone who is a woman vicar. How can it be, you might wonder, that in this day and age the Church of England can have bishops who don't agree with women being ordained alongside bishops whose job is to ordain women and, of course, ordained women?  And how can an ordained woman be relaxed about a bishop who doesn't believe in the ordination of women? What rabbit hole have we fallen through here? Surely the Church made its mind up on the issue of women priests in the 1990s and on the issue of women bishops more recently, the people spoke through the representative channels of Synod, action was taken as a result of those votes, and that's that?

Well, in true Anglican fashion, yes and no. The Synod did thrash out all the ins and outs of ordaining women, the vote was (very narrowly) in favour of women priests and yes, obviously, many women have been ordained as a result of that vote, myself included. However, what didn't happen in the 1990s or since then, was for the Church's representatives to say to those who voted against women's ordination anything along the lines of 'We won; you lost; get over it; the people have spoken.' Quite the opposite; those who voted against women's ordination were recognised as part of 'the people' and therefore, the next problem on the table became how to honour the consciences of those who had voted against women's ordination, which, after all, had the weight of most of Christian history behind it. In this spirit, provision was made for those who had voted according to their consciences, and those in pews up and down the country who would agree that women shouldn't be ordained, and although some clergy did choose to leave the Church at this point, others didn't: hence Philip North and those who share his convictions. 

It'd be disingenuous of me not to admit that this way of knocking along together isn't complex or bruising for some of us, sometimes. It is, undoubtedly, easier to get on with people who think like oneself, but for me, knocking along together despite differences without for one moment caricaturing or trivialising those differences is worth the complexities and bruises, because to me, it is the way of being together that is most authentically Christian. The Madness song 'Our House' is a song about family, and the Church is family. After the February session of General Synod, the Archbishop of Canterbury issued a statement calling for a spirit of 'radical Christian inclusion.' I see the consecration of Philip North as living proof that this radical Christian inclusion might just be more than a slogan; radical inclusion (although I'm not a great fan of the word 'inclusion') means recognising the Christian least like me as my sister or brother, and doing unto him or her as I would want to be done unto myself. This, I believe, is close to the heart of being a Christian. 

It's much more intellectually honest, too, to own our differences and own each other despite our differences than to pretend that we all think the same. Our current household obsession is the hip-hop musical 'Hamilton', based on the life of the Founding Father Alexander Hamilton who, as the writer, Lin-Manuel Miranda put it, 'caught beef' with just about every other Founding Father before being shot dead at the age of 47 by his nemesis, Aaron Burr, in America's most notorious duel. (This seven-minute mash-up is great!) Aaron Burr, an endless equivocator who is 'not particularly forthcoming on any particular stances', runs as President against the brash Thomas Jefferson, who hates Hamilton ('he knows nothing of loyalty / smells like new money, dresses like fake royalty. / Desperate to rise above his station, / Everything he does betrays the ideals of our nation'). A 'key endorsement' is needed in this tightly-fought electoral battle and Hamilton, having been knocked out of the political running due his 'torrid affair', shocks the voters of 1800 by endorsing not Burr, whom he has known since teenage years but Jefferson because 'when all is said and all is done, Jefferson has beliefs. Burr has none.' Burr's last words in the libretto are poignant; 'I was too young and blind to see...the world was wide enough for both Hamilton and me'.

I'm with Hamilton on this one; I'd far rather have leaders with beliefs, even those with which I disagree, than leaders without beliefs, both in secular life and in the church. And I'm glad to say that the Church of England is wide enough for both Philip North and me. After all, duels are so eighteenth century.