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.