A Covert Reformation?

Just a reflection: With thanks to J H Newman… a new tract for these times?

I am just a fellow priest like you, so I am not going to broadcast my name, in case my person distracts from the subject matter itself. But I must speak, because there is something very wrong going on – but no-one is speaking up.

Do you disagree? We all look to one another’s interests and yet remain unmoved. We all complain about the state of the church in various ways, and yet day by day watch its decline as though the problems were a world away. So let me try to goad you from your easy chair, and from the pleasant, stipended and supported sanctuaries with which we’ve been blessed; to take a look at the state and future of the church of England in an attitude of concerned responsibility; and aware that WE, the body are responsible for the health of the body – and that it may be time for a serious workout.

Firstly, I want to say – don’t blame the bishops. Don’t blame ministry division. Don’t blame the church commissioners. We are no longer a feudal society – 800 years of Magna Carta have had their effect. Do not expect dictatorial leadership and we do not exercise cringing obedience – indeed we could perhaps afford to offer the hierarchical authorities more obedience without seeming spineless… but it is not that – like all modern ‘freeborn’ we expect to have freedom of expression and freedom to question and be guided by our own vocations – but unlike our head and Shepherd of the shepherds, Christ, we do not seem to expect the same freedom of self-sacrifice and self-offering; the freedom to exercise humility and to pay a price for our faith.

So let me come to the subject which leads me to address you. Should the Church so far be guided by Economics, Government and Society, in order perhaps to retain this time its temporal honours and substance, as to cast off Christ crucified, and turn aside from the way of the cross. On what will you rest the claim of respect and attention which you make upon your flocks. Shall we continue to eat curds and clothe ourselves with wool as we diligently ‘hatch, match and despatch’ the wandering sheep – but care little where else they wander or to what purpose?

Gone are the many secular advantages of birth, wealth, connexions… and now even of wealth. You have been till lately been upheld by your service to society, by your after-school clubs, toddler groups, support meetings, elderly care and charity sales; by your voluble charity work, all worthy outworkings of a deeper vocation… but should these outward and visible signs be now the entire justification on which Christ’s ministers depend? Is not this a serious theological question?

We know now how miserable is the state of religious bodies dependent on the support of the State; a lukewarm spiritual death more to be feared in eternity than the fate of religious bodies persecuted by the State. Look at the Dissenters on all sides of you – how they and we now find ourselves subject to the same confusions and the same pressures – torn between a desire to hold our former place, as more encroachments and concessions are made to Society’s expectations; and a desire to move to higher ground. We know now and formally accept, that the Spirit enlivens other churches too – and that their ministers continue to challenge their people. And yet they too struggle to speak outside Society’s expectations, and rely upon a good name for good works to preach the Nazarene crucified. What is it therefore that we are ALL afraid or unwilling to concede, in order to respond in truth? More and more the people choose their own prophets; and they invariably choose within a narrow parameter fixed by their own falling expectations; and funded as far as possible by someone else’s sacrifice.

If our spectrum of influence is to depend on a combination of cautious middle-class provision, well-healed appearance and olde worlde charm; or conversely upon a vibrant and marketable spiritual prosperity, a clan of self-help gurus and a justifiable funding stream with evidenced outcomes… then where will be the awkward truths? How can we “keep the pattern of sound teaching, with faith and love in Christ Jesus” if our influence is to depend simply on our popularity or usefulness? Is it not our very office to oppose the world, can we then allow ourselves to be conformed to it?
Are we to endlessly offer signs to the dissenting tribes or to preach reasonable and logical things to the dwindling ‘Greeks’ of popular academia; are we to endlessly prophecy peace when our nation’s children go in search of war? To make the Christian way of life easy and accessible to the indolent and indifferent; and offer alternative worship, exotic liturgies and successful speakers to the wealthy and hard of heart? To slip out of touch entirely with the humbler people, who even now would follow Christ out onto the hillside for a meal of loaves and fishes… because they have nothing to do and little to eat? Surely it must not be so; and the question recurs, on what are we to rest out authority, when the State or wealthy Society deserts us?

Christ has not left His Church.
There are some who rest their divine mission on their business credentials; others, who rest it upon popularity;  still others, upon the length of their publisher’s list. But we still have a claim to something beyond worldly credentials or temporal preference. Our apostolical descent, by the empowering gift of the Holy Spirit. We have been faithful and diligent, in carrying out the prayerful discernment of God’s will; in gathering together in prayer and worship – for the reading and consideration of God’s Holy Word; and we have not been hasty in the laying on of hands. Long debated and long prayed over has been the journey to our present priestly ministry; and now it is at risk.

We have been born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God. The Lord Jesus Christ gave his Spirit to his apostles; they in turn laid hands on those who should follow, praying for the gift of the Holy Spirit to empower them. At our priestly ordination we receive authority from God to preach the gospel of Christ and to minister his holy sacraments; we are to pray earnestly then and at all times for the gift of the Holy Spirit to empower us for this task of service, which is too great for us to bear in our own strength… Do we seek now to act in our own strength, or under another authority, or strengthened by another Comforter?

Are those high churchmen who mistakenly fear that ordination is not what it was, so blind to the movement of the Holy Spirit that they would simply relinquish baby and bath water; as though the church of Scholastica and Benedict, Hilda and Cuthbert, Blessed Mary and Beloved John, had somehow ceased to be full of the glory of the Lord and as though holiness was therefore not worth pursuing?

Can those academics who delight in the Scriptures have so little hope for our future understanding, that they will abandon the future generation of teachers to a new dark age – only without, as had the centuries of ill-educated friars – the basic training in daily prayer upon which they utterly relied?

Are all the carriers of the crosier so distracted by our present and future state of impecunity; that they feel the bar must be set lower, education and transformation reduced, the world’s ways embraced and the weak and foolish things of the world rejected, in place of the world’s better value choice of the strong and wise, and ‘talented’? Do they expect God no longer to exalt the humble and meek, and to send the rich empty away? I am certain that is not the case.

Or is it simply that recent issues which have occupied our theological focus for so very long, and which are so very secondary to the Gospel; have left us all weakened and insecure in the crucial message which we have to share?

My dear brothers and sisters, for one week forget the parish share, return to God in prayer, seek him with your whole heart; return to the creeds – make your mind up to believe in them – and if you do not yet, to seek to do so with your whole mind rather than admit yourself a liar at your ordination; place your trust in God and not a pension plan; and remember – whether you are fortunate to receive a stipend, or whether you are noble enough to support yourself; you are called to holiness of life and chosen as a whole person, not just 40 hours a week.
We may be called to give up all that we have on earth, but we will not be called to give up our heavenly hope – wait not for the times. Do not be compelled by the church’s lack of funds and the World’s disinterest, to take up a life of holy poverty, to live humbly and honestly. Change now, before you are forced, both as seeking true integrity, and to ensure a serious audience amongst your people.

A notion has gone abroad, that if we cease to balance our books – the church will cease to be. That unless we fill the buildings on a Sunday, the people are without God and without faith. They have been deluded into a notion that present palpable usefulness and produceable results, are the tests of Divine commission. Enlighten them in this matter. Magnify the Lord… and seek to serve Christ in faithful prayer and loving service. DO NOT SEEK SUCCESS, SEEK YE FIRST THE KINGDOM OF GOD AND HIS RIGHTEOUSNESS.

 

 

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Mission and Ministry

As the final months of my curacy approach, it is very like being right back at the start of the discernment process…

I’ve come a long way, and worn through a few pairs of shoes, and once again it is time to try and discover where God may be calling me to live and serve and learn next. Who knows, you may even be a potential parishioner!

I’ve been having conversations with people in the parish, about my strengths and weaknesses, and about where God may call me and my family. And a fairly simple pattern seems to be emerging: I am an encourager – I am hopeful and joyful in my faith and that is infectious; I am a good communicator; and I engage easily and naturally with people on the margins of church and social life.

I sort of hoped for a very specific set of strengths and weaknesses that might draw me tidily into a particular ministry, but the fact is I’m just a person who loves God and loves People, and loves to provide a safe space where people can begin to explore their relationship with God and grow in confidence in living out that relationship in their wider lives: basically I reckon I’m a general ‘parish priest’ type. No unusual specialisms, no preference for an age range or locality, just a pretty good ‘all-rounder’.

Which is no use to me  as I try to work out what exactly to do next!

Oh for a nice clear vision of ‘the man from Macedonia’ (Acts 16:9) calling out for help.

Well actually I have had a dream in the last couple of weeks – one of those sort of dreams I have to take a bit more notice of: I was in a flat – I think I had offered to kind of babysit or keep an eye on some youngsters – and more and more children and babies were dropped off at this flat – all under the age of about 14 – and many with parents only just in their twenties till the flat was full. So these young parents were dropping their kids off at this flat and heading out for an evening of social activity – and I somehow was left very faintly in charge, though largely ignored. And as the sun set, this band of children just started to sing, led by the eldest children – it was like a hymn, like a tradition, kind of liturgical but so vague and emotional that it seemed totally agnostic, an unknowing hymn… and they sang with a lot of emotion – But all the words they sang were simply, ‘Where is he? Where is he? Where is she? Where is she?’

It was so intense and sort of sad that my heart burned within me and I thought – ‘They don’t know! They don’t know who to sing to!’

… I suppose I could use that as a starting place…

But as far as the ‘dream’ location went – all I could gauge was that it was a built up area with a lot of young families and not much childcare! Which could be all sorts of places. It certainly didn’t have a name neatly built into the dream to clarify.

Still , for discernment, that’s as good a place to start as any, and a lot better than starting with clerical ambitions or desires for fancy housing I reckon. Speak up please God – give me a few more directions!

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A Merry Dance?

Right since the beginning, well at least since they were kicked out of the synagogues, the gatherings of followers of Christ have tried to organise themselves, and often made a bit of a hash of this.

I’m always cheered up to read the New Testament Epistles, full as they are of advice to badly behaved elders, confused and nervous leaders, and argumentative groupies… whether it’s what to eat or wear, or how to organise a gathering and a Eucharistic meal; quite often through the epistles it’s basic reminders we read, that the Gospel is all about Jesus Christ – his crucifixion and resurrection, and our salvation through him… and not about more rules upon rules upon rules.

Fast forward two thousand years and we’re in the same place. The Church has quite a few organisational groups, with a variety of ministries in each, and a lot of rather anxious people in charge, trying to remember that it’s all about Jesus.

In a few months time, I will reach the point of my curacy where I can begin to start looking ahead to where I and my family are supposed to go next. I’m already spending a lot of time soul-searching and trying to separate things I rather fancy myself doing, from things I’m really gifted for.

‘You need to be thinking about where do you want to go?’ so said a diocesan advisor.

But the trouble is I’m no good at all at vaguely ‘wanting’ things… until I see the thing I did not know and know I am meant to want it wholeheartedly… I don’t project any desires or plans into the future, I just wander along in the moment, considering the problems thereof sufficent unto the day, and spiritually following my nose, until like that lovestruck cartoon skunk, Pepe le Pew, I happen upon my desire. Then I’m unstoppable.

Pepe le Pew

If I wanted to be a bit more biblical I suppose I could refer to the Song of Songs… ‘on my bed night after night I sought him whom my soul loves; I sought him but I did not find him – I must arise now and go about the city; In the streets and in the squares I must seek him whom my soul loves’…

I certainly don’t think I’m going to get a clear vision that fits with the modern advertisements for roles within the church: ‘I think my beloved is waiting for me to go to a small town in Werthingtonshire with a large modern rectory, enthusiastic team of lay assistants and an Average Sunday Attendance of 135 people’… that’s not going to happen. I’m never going to look at an advert for a church and think – ‘there’s a hole the shape of me – I’ll send them a CV and tell them why I’m right for the job.’

Because I’m not! I’m a sinner who relies upon Christ and who is impelled by the love of Christ to simultaneously go searching for him in the streets and in the squares – even if it gets me beaten up by the watchmen… and also who is drawn, by a sense of kindred-spirit and mercy, to share with fellow wanderers and sinners – the good news that the lover whom they seek has a name, and that name is Christ.

I am more than faintly suspicious of anything that smacks of ‘successful ministry’ – though I admire immensely those many friends in ministry who work bloomin hard and who manage to do a reasonable amount of stuff to the glory of God, and without giving up or being disgraceful. But I admire most, those many revered and saintly people of years gone past who were misunderstood and even rejected by their contemporaries, for not ‘keeping with the programme’.

But I’m not stupid – I don’t think that I’m special in feeling this way… in fact pretty much all the ordained people you talk to (including some brave bishops) will admit that being officially in the Church – is perhaps the greatest test of faith in Jesus Christ you’ll ever have – and sticking it out is… well… the way of the cross.

Why?

Well in my experience – you never face much spiritual resistance and trial unless the thing you are doing is worth doing, and the time you are tempted most to chuck in the towel, is probably an important moment to stick it out and stay put. So the church must be doing a lot of things right actually… it’s been ‘dying’ since the very beginning, ‘For your sakes we are killed every day’… but it has also been resurrected in every generation… because though we may not all speak the same language, and we may have some pretty wacky turns of phrase or traditional forms… we may at times and in some places be out of step or limping (we are a company of sinners in need of redemption after all)… still in our heart of hearts we are in love and we’re not going to stop being in love, or trying to follow in the dance, even though our Lord and Lover has lighter feet than we do.

 

 

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God is with the suffering

God is with the outsider.

For a long time, gods were emblems of tribes and groups – totems who represented strengths and fears of a community; in wartime they provided a common figurehead to fight under, and in peacetime they provided a common focus for fear and awe – to whom fealty was due to preserve the peace… Such were the nature of the manmade gods.

The God of Abraham and Isaac, the God of Jacob… the one true God himself, is rather different. Even before Jesus Christ walked the earth, God revealed himself to be a defender of the outsider – forgiver of sinners and protector of the widow and orphan; God has always identified with the human outcast and underdog.

Not for nothing are the heroes and patriarchs of the Old Testament taken from those displaced or rejected by human society… from the barren and wandering Sarai and Abraam (later Sarah and Abraham); to the  exiles Jacob and Moses…

King David – the youngest child of a family, not even called in from shepherding to join the family feast – HE is the one chosen by God. And then Jesus… with nothing to commend him physically, he identifies with the sick, the stranger, the despised foreigner, the sinner and the rejected. Of course there is room in his forgiving heart for the social climber and scribe as well – providing they are ready to repent… but it is most clearly the outsider and the oppressed who has the Lord’s heart.

And yet for some wicked, unknown reason – people still don’t get it… it is not enough to sit inside the comfy circle of society and have passing pity on the outsider or the oppressed. If you want to be where God’s heart is – you need to get up and go outside the circle – and identify with the oppressed and rejected, the weak and afflicted.

And right now – in the relentless and largely random bombing of Gaza by heavily armed and fortified Israeli troups…

If you don’t know, or your heart is unmoved to prayer, then search images online  with the phrase “who can save children of Gaza”; I don’t dare post the images of war here – they are too distressing – and might appear merely sensational but I include an image of a sculpture of Christ whose wounds, though neat and clean by comparison,  remind me of the current pain of Palestine.scarred Christ crucified

I don’t know that it will do any good for me to say this – it certainly doesn’t redeem me-  I am not a doctor or a soldier or a politician, so I cannot help in any practical way. I am not advocating violence to overcome violence, or retribution to fight against injustice. Only expressing horror; and praying for peace, and praying too that those who are suffering now, will not do what I would undoubtedly want to do if I were a mother in Palestine – and that is to find someone responsible for the suffering of my children and make them understand, without mercy, what they had done.

I don’t know how God judges – but I have always believed it was with complete truth and simultaneously complete love for humanity… but to see even partial truth and feel even partial love in this case is so painful that I cannot imagine that those in power and responsible for decision-making in Israel right now will escape eternal destruction – I can’t see how, to hold in truth in one’s arms the blackened corpse of a baby, and to feel the reality of its little life, and the reality of a mother’s love – and to have been the one responsible for this and so many other innocent lives needlessly destroyed… I can’t see how one could survive that. Pharoah, Herod, Caesar, Nero, Hitler… the Israeli Security Cabinet…  I really don’t know when I look at these images, will anyone speak in your defence on the Final Day… and, when you finally know and understand fully, just as you are fully known, then will you even WANT them to?

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Agape Meal Reflection

“I have eagerly desired to share this Passover with you”

last supper

That was what he said, and he meant it –
round the table, there was peace, contentment,
so many friends gathered together – and once again their host was a stranger-
-delighted to be asked, eager to please
and blessed, by being able to give something to Jesus
…Of course, there were really NO strangers at this meal –
– that was His way. Something about his presence made everyone friends, family, equal. In the same way that something about His presence made everyone aware that they did not quite understand Him.
***
He was one of the Twelve. Specially chosen.
When Jesus had begun to choose, he had been desperate to have his name called – who wouldn’t?
This charismatic teacher and healer, He could change the world –
– and yet, when his own name had been called, he had found himself among tax collectors and fishermen –
a motley crew with nothing obvious in common…
…he had spent many hours and days since, wondering why he had been chosen over others.

And they had basked in the warmth of His presence – and watched amazed, as the Lame stood up to walk and the Blind saw, and wept with delight.

There had been stranger lessons too –
the teacher’s lack of deference to some respected leaders, and his concern for the poor old women, lepers, and street urchins. It seemed to make no sense.

Outside one town He fed a multitude and they were ready to crown him King,- but then he hid himself away.

Covert encounters with people like Nicodemus, and with Jairus’ family, raised questions.
-What happened in that room with the little girl? First there were mourners wailing and then they began to cook, as for a feast…

It wasn’t what he’s expected when he became a follower. Or when Jesus called him out as one of the twelve.

 

They could have changed the world,
they could have raised an army and taken the city –
heck, they could have taken over the whole Roman Empire!

But now here they were again,
just another meal, bread blessed and broken, and random strangers laughing and smiling like friends, and everyone resting,
just resting in the light of His presence –
as though nothing else in the world mattered…

He had thought this man would change the world, and had relished the thought of serving at his side –
But now-

MY GOD, he makes no earthly sense…

Beaming with delight, even at the simple servants.
Gulping down the wine as though there were no tomorrow –

LORD ALMIGHTY, how could He have ever seemed like a second Moses –

***
“Judas”,
he is startled now as Jesus meets his gaze –
“Your thoughts are elsewhere. Here –“
the teacher hands him a morsel of bread from his own dish
“- Go then, do what you must”.

***

[This reflection formed the ‘sermon’ at yesterday’s Holy Week Agape Meal in our parish]

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Great Expectations

Not sure why I called this reflection ‘Great Expectations’ – though there are a lot of expectations on a parish priest – and there is a drowning in Dickens’ book of the name…

In the Orthodox Church, and in the ancient church (so the writings of the church father Cyril of Jerusalem says) as part of the rite of Baptism and Chrismation, the catechumens… those who are choosing to enter the faith of the Church – faith in Christ, are breathed on by the priest or deacon.

In the Bible, in the Gospel of John, Jesus comes to his disciples after the crucifixion and resurrection, and after showing them his hands and sides, with their injuries, he tells his disciples to go out and tell and then he breathes on them and says, ‘recieve the Holy Spirit’ (John 20:22)

It’s not the first time God breathes into man… in Genesis 2:7, it is part of the creation story, that adamah, the man formed from the earth, is breathed into by God and becomes a living being. (Genesis 2:7)

The name for Spirit in Hebrew, one name, is Ruach… the holy spirit, the breath of God.

When did you last allow God to breathe into you?

 

 

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Been a long time…

It has been a long time since the last post. That title, by the way, is a quotation from the immortal song, ‘Little Donkey’!

Soon the vicar in charge of this parish where I am training, will be leaving for a new post elsewhere in the diocese… more responsibility for him and also for me, as I look after the worshipping community during the vacancy of six months or so.

It used not to be called a ‘vacancy’ when a parish was without a priest, but an ‘interregnum'; that means, ‘between kings’ (!) so you can see why they changed it. The disciples in this parish are a wonderfully gifted and committed group of people, but in a funny way I find myself like young Captain Horatio Hornblower, left to steer a ship full of very experienced sailors older than me, just because I am called to the helm.

Actually helmsman rather than captain is about right, as Christ is our Captain – but it was the image of the young sailor propelled into a position of responsibility that sprang to mind.

Ioan Gruffudd as C.S. Forester's character Horatio Hornblower in the ITV series

Ioan Gruffudd as C.S. Forester’s character Horatio Hornblower in the ITV series

I’m hopeful there will be significantly less violence, cannonfire and drowning in the Parish than in the naval escapades… but we have a similar number of buttons on our uniforms.

So I have been very busy.

In fact I didn’t realise HOW busy until last night I cast my mind  back over the last two weeks and then realised as I went more carefully over things day by day that in fact I was looking back over the last ONE week…

Last Tuesday I was so tired of dealing with a cold, and so tired of thinking about all the things I would have to sort out, that I was too sleepy and befuddled to do anything on my midweek day off… and felt pretty grumpy that I’d wasted it. But by the end of Thursday, life was looking great as the parish’s Church Council had met for a great prayerful meeting and formulated a mission statement for the future.

“Engaging with all; Growing through prayer; Sharing Christ’s love”.

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