Wednesday, December 6, 2023

Schism in the Church of England - Part 2

Two weeks ago, as some of you may remember, I preached about the impending schism in the Anglican church, over same-sex blessings.  I won’t repeat what I said then – you can look it up for yourselves online.  But just for a little context, let me repeat my main points.

I talked about how the recent decision of the General Synod had led to a stern response from the Church of England Evangelical Council – and some actions on their part which are likely to lead to a permanent schism.  The core issue, I suggested, is the view that different Christians hold about the authority of Scripture.  I said that there are some who hold the Bible in very high regard, and call it ‘the Word of God’.  There are others, like me, who believe the Bible to be an important collection of Scriptures, inspired by God and the story of God, useful for teaching and instruction, but ultimately pointing towards the true Word of God, Jesus.  I went on to suggest that Jesus is our ultimate authority on all matters of doctrine – and that if Jesus was silent on a particular, specific issues (like permanent, faithful, same-sex unions) we would be wise to turn to his more general principles of love, forgiveness, and tolerance – ‘charity’ in other words.

So far so good.  No-one who heard that sermon here in church seemed to have any difficulty with it.  At least no-one tackled me at the door, afterwards, and told me that I was mistaken.  But the same could not be said of when that sermon hit the internet, a few hours later.  Since then, the sermon has been viewed about 3,000 times, and I have been pilloried by a very vocal and angry sub-section of the Christian church.  I have been called a heretic, and godless.  I have been repeatedly commanded to repent of my apostate views.  Multiple single phrases of Scripture have been posted on my YouTube page, intended to imply that I am a wolf in sheep’s clothing, an unworthy teacher, and an enemy of Christ.  It’s been quite a challenging fortnight – I can tell you!

It is clear that I have touched a raw nerve among a certain section of the wider church who cling persistently to the idea that the Bible is the sovereign, immutable, inerrant Word of God.  Why this may be, I’m not certain.  No doubt there are a number of reasons – and each person who has so pointedly struck out at me will have their own reasons for doing so.  For some, it may be a semi-autistic need for certainty – and an inability to live in the grey theological world of mystery, between black and white immoveable statements about the things of God.  Others may be hiding a unconscious belief in patriarchy, or they perhaps have misogynistic tendancies – since the Bible clearly defines the superiority of men over women (for all practical purposes). If we no longer consider the Bible to be the Word of God, this means radically re-evaluating our views about male headship of churches and the family – and that’s a challenge to some people.  Some, no doubt, hold their firm views as a result of the teaching they have received from loved and respected pastors – without ever having tested such teaching against the wider wisdom of the church, through the discipline of theology.  Some people are intellectually lazy, and are quite happy to have others do their thinking for them.

The saddest part of the debate for me is that lack of historical knowledge among my detractors. They do not seem to realise, for example, that the status of Scripture has been a real and live debate in the Christian church throughout its history.  The early church councils and synods wrestled with it, constantly – including centuries-long debates about which books should be considered ‘in’ or ‘out’ of the Bible.  Those debates have continued right through the church’s history – and even today, different version of the Bible, with different books included or excluded, are published by different sections of the church.  

With regard to same-sex unions, my detractors are ignorant of something called ‘adelphopoesis’ – or ‘brothering’.  That was a formal liturgical ceremony in which two people of the same sex could be legally and formally joined together as ‘brothers’ (nudge nudge, wink wink, say no more).  It was a common ceremony up until the Reformation, and shows that historically, the church was rather more tolerant of same-sex unions than many, today, suppose.  

Today, we are invited by the Lectionary to consider St Ambrose.  He was a Bishop of Milan, in the 4th century, who was prominent in the battle against a heresy known as Arianism.  Arianism was a theological view held by many clergy and bishops of the time.  It was centered on a discussion about the divinity of Christ.  Essentially, Arians believed that Jesus was the son of God, begotten by God, but not God himself.  He was not, in other words, a member of the Trinity – but rather, a created being, through whom God then brought the world into being.  Arianism is strongly reflected in Islam, in which Jesus is highly venerated, but not treated as God.  Muslims reject the concept of the Trinity.

It was – and remains - an important distinction – especially in discussions around the exact purpose of the Crucifixion.  If one believes that God himself went to the Cross to redeem us, that’s a rather different picture from the idea of God sending his son to the Cross.  If it is God who hung on the cross, taking upon himself the sins of the world, then we know that we have a God who loves us literally to death.  But if God only sends his son, as a ransom for sin, then God is open to the accusation of being some kind of distant deity, and angry judge who needs appeasing, and at worst a cosmic child-abuser.  

These were vital issues for the early church.  They argued about it constantly.  Various edicts were issued by Bishops and Emperors for the burning of books on Arianism, and even the execution of anyone found in possession of such materials.  And it is a debate which still rumbles on in theology today – especially (as I’ve already mentioned) in the treatment of the divinity of Christ by Islam, but also by Unitarian Christians.  

Doing theology seriously, you see, requires us to live in the grey world of mystery.  As I’ve often stated, our tiny brains are simply not up to fully comprehending the mystery and majesty of God.  Any of us, at any time, might consider that we’ve reached firm and unassailable knowledge about God.  We may be utterly certain that we are right about, for example, the authority of the Bible.  Or we might imagine that we have completely comprehended God’s opinion about same-sex unions, or the divinity of Christ, or the efficacy of prayer.  But serious students of God, who’ve read the history of the church, and thought hard about the theological questions of the ages, soon come to the conclusion that all our supposed knowledge is provisional.  At any moment, the Holy Spirit is likely to shake us out of our certainty, rattle our complacency, and knock down the ivory towers of certainty that we love to battle over. 

We can never stop peeling back the layers of knowledge about God.  That’s part of the great beauty, and also the deep frustration of theology – once called the Queen of the Sciences.  And its why, despite the slings and arrows hurled at me by people lucky enough to be completely certain they are right, I will continue to call myself an honest and continual seeker after Truth.  And I hope you will continue to seek that Truth with me.  Amen.


Wednesday, November 22, 2023

Schisms in the Church of England - on the Feast of St Clement of Rome

Texts:

A reading from the 49th chapter of the First Letter of Clement, Bishop of Rome, on the nature and character of Love.

Who can explain the bond of God’s love? Who is able to recount the greatness of its beauty? The height to which love leads is beyond description. Love binds us to God; love hides a multitude of sins; love bears all things and endures all things. There is nothing vulgar in love, nothing haughty. Love has no schism, love creates no faction, love does all things in harmony. Everyone chosen by God has been perfected in love; apart from love nothing is pleasing to God.  

(1 Clem 49.2-5)

Luke 14.7–11 – on practicing humility.

When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honour, he told them a parable. ‘When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honour, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, “Give this person your place”, and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place.  But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, “Friend, move up higher”; then you will be honoured in the presence of all who sit at the table with you.  For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.’  

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On Sunday last, I invited us (among other matters) to think about where authority lies, in the Christian Church.  There is, you see, a great divide in the church.  On the one hand, there are those who believe the Bible to be the Word of God (to be treated as authoritative, straight off the page, in all matters).  On the other hand, there are those like me who consider the Bible to be an important collection of Scriptures, inspired by God and the story of God, useful for teaching and instruction, but ultimately pointing towards the true Word of God, Jesus.  On Sunday, I argued that all matters that divide Christians today should be held up to the light of Jesus.  His views are the most authoritative, and only when He speaks on a given matter should we assume that God is speaking.

So, on matters about which Jesus is silent, – we are wise if we keep largely silent too.  I’m thinking about such matters as same-sex marriage, female priests, transgender politics, capitalism versus socialism and a great deal more besides.  But, if we are compelled by events to offer an opinion, we are wise if point people to matters on which Jesus was anything but silent – such as the principles of love, faithfulness, tolerance, judging-not, welcoming all, forgiving all, loving our neighbour, caring for the downtrodden, and the breaking down of barriers between people of different opinions on religious matters.

Where we think authority comes from really matters.  It is hugely disappointing, therefore, to hear that some of our brothers and sisters in the Anglican church are taking authority into their own hands, at the present time – based on their own understanding of the Bible as the Word of God.  Last week, as you may have heard, the General Synod voted, by a very slim majority, to trial services which could be offered to same-sex couples after a civil marriage.  Despite the careful, prayerful thinking of Synod on this matter, people in the church who think of the Bible as the Word of God are not happy.  Some spoke at the Synod, and called the proposed trial ‘blasphemous’ – because, in their view, it contradicted the ‘clear teaching of Scripture’.  

The Church of England Evangelical Council has seen fit to establish alternative arrangements for oversight by bishops (for those clergy who are unhappy about Synod’s decision).  They are also establishing a fund into which evangelical churches are being encouraged to pay their parish share – instead of to the Dioceses in which they live and work.  These actions will create a fracture in the church.  This is not the Anglican Way.  The Church of England has always been a place where Christians of different traditions and quite marked differences in theology have nevertheless been able to remain together under one roof – sharing our resources, to enable the weakest churches to survive, and the Kingdom of God to thrive.  

The question of where authority lies has been a running sore in the life of the church, throughout its history.  Today is the feast-day of Clement of Rome, an early Bishop or Rome who is believed to have been, effectively, one of the first Popes.  We don’t know much about Clement, really – but we do know that he had occasion, in the closing years of the first century, to write a stern (and very lengthy!) letter to the church in Corinth.  The church leaders in Corinth had been deposed by their congregation.  We don’t know why, but Clement ascribes the sin of jealousy to the troublemakers.  We can only guess at what the actual issues were.  Clement’s letter to the Corinthians reminds the congregation that their leaders were in fact appointed by the Apostles of Jesus, and he demanded that they should be re-instated.  In other words, Clement appeals to the authority of Jesus – not the Scriptures.  

In his letter, Clement cries out in frustration, using words that resonate in the present disputes of Anglicanism.  He says:  Why do we tear and rend asunder the members of Christ, and stir up factions against our own body, and reach such a pitch of folly, as to forget that we are members one of another? (1 Clem 46.7).  Instead, in the words of our first reading today, Clement appeals to his readers to mark the characteristics of Christian love for one another:  “Love has no schism, love creates no faction, love does all things in harmony.”  (1 Clem 49.4)

In our Gospel reading, Christ himself gives a passionate and graphic plea for humility.  He uses the illustration of a banqueting table – but what he is pointing to is the necessity of humility in all things.  I passionately disagree with my brothers and sisters who would place the stricter teachings of the Scriptures over the loving and generous teachings of Jesus.  But, in humility, I have to acknowledge that I may be wrong, and they may be right.  For we only see through a glass darkly (as St Paul said), and none of us really knows the mind of God.  So the last thing I would seek to do is to separate from those with whom I disagree.  Rather, with St Paul and St Clement, I would prefer to exercise the kind of love that bears all things, hopes all things and endures all things, for the sake of fulfilling Jesus’ prayer, in John 17, ‘that they may all be one’.

God preserve us from those who would allow honest, prayer-soaked disagreement over matters of human sexuality to further divide the church.   God forbid it.  Please. Amen.


Saturday, November 18, 2023

Be Prepared - Part 2

 Readings: 1 Thessalonians 5.1-11  &  Matthew 25.14-30

A week is a long time in politics, they say.  And it’s also a surprisingly long period between sermons, I find!  I wonder how many of you remember what I said last week?  Even I had to go to my blog and look it up!  So, for those whose memories are as short as mine, let me just remind you of the main points. 

Last week, I asked you to think about the promised return of Jesus.  I suggested to you that rather than him returning on some future date (on a cloud with lots of angels and trumpets) that in fact Jesus has already returned, that he is returning all the time, and that he will continue to return in the future.  I suggested that much of the end-times narrative of the Bible is, in fact metaphorical – and that what the Bible is really saying is ‘Be Prepared’!  (You might recall the picture of me in my Cub Scout uniform).  Be prepared, that is, at all times and in all places, to join in with Jesus’ activity in the world today, here and now.

I had a wonderful example of such preparedness, this week. I am currently supporting a Christian family in Pakistan, who reached out to us, to St Faith’s, through the internet.  They are moving to Havant, to take up work in the care sector – because, God knows we need more care workers in the UK.  There are lots of political issues that their decision raises – about the funding of our health service, stripping other nations of their health-care workers, and all the rest.  But that’s for another day.  The reality, for this particular family, is that right now they need help to acquire some accommodation, and all the furnishings they will need to set up home.  I have been praying for guidance as to how to help them.

Yesterday, I wandered into church and came across someone (who will remain nameless for now) who is in the process of clearing out the house of her recently deceased mother.  The kind woman asked me whether I knew of anyone who could make use of some of her mother’s things – such as bedding and the like.  So I told her about the family from Pakistan, and how they were due to arrive in Havant in a month’s time, and that they will have only the clothes in their suitcase.  The kind woman then said that she would start sorting out things that the family will be able to use in their new home (whenever we can find one for them!) – like kitchen equipment, bedding and towels and all such things.

What a brilliant example, of being prepared to respond in situations when Jesus is working!  Kindness and generosity, in the face of worry and anxiety on the part of the Family, is a brilliant example of God at work.  I feel privileged to be in the nexus of God at work in their lives, and honoured to have ‘been prepared’ to take the leap of faith to support people I’ve never met.

A week is a long time in the Church of England too.  Especially, I suggest, for members of the General Synod who met this week in London.  The Synod was grappling with the vexed question of issues around the marriage, or blessing, of same-sex couples.  A compromise has been reached, which (as is the nature of most compromises) has left both sides in the debate unsatisfied.  I won’t go into the details here – you can read all about it in your own time.  But I would like to make a couple of observations, which I hope will be generally informative.

The first relates to this morning’s gospel reading.  You’ll know, of course, that a talent was a coin, at the time of Jesus.  Today’s gospel is therefore, on one level, about how we invest our money in the work of God.  But, by serendipity, the fact that coins were called talents means we also have the opportunity to think about the talents, abilities, and innate human qualities that each Christian brings to the task of building the Kingdom.  In ‘being prepared’ to join in with the action of Jesus, each of us brings the person we are, the person that God has made us to be.  Whether we are English, or Pakistani (for example).  Whether we are rich or poor.  Whether we are differently-abled, or typically healthy.  And, for the purposes of discussions about same-sex marriage, whether we are straight, gay, or any of the spectrum of genders and preferences in-between, we come as we ARE.  We come as God made us, and how life has shaped us.  And we bring ourselves, and the talents we have been given by the master, to the task of building God’s kingdom.  Jesus receives us as we are, and welcomes ALL to his table.  Jesus welcomes EVERYONE to the feast, and to the holy task of Kingdom building.

And finally, to those who want to hold on tenaciously to the Bible’s so-called ‘traditional’ views of marriage, even to the point of driving a split in the Church of England, I want to say this:  please be very careful about the weight of authority you assign to the ancient Scriptures of a middle Eastern tribe of between two and three thousand years ago.  As I’ve said before from this pulpit, shockingly, the Bible is NOT the word of God.  Rather, it is a collection of writings, from a wide variety of authors, written across a number of centuries which all point to the true Word of God, the Logos himself, Jesus.  Jesus, in the words of the letter to the Hebrews, is the ‘author and perfecter’ of our faith.  He is the light of wisdom in the darkness of human ignorance. 

On the topic of homosexuality, Jesus said not one word.  But he did speak of the Kingdom principles of love, faithfulness, and preparedness to move where the Spirit is leading.  He specifically did not want us to be shackled to ancient Scriptures, but rather to him – the God who fulfils the Scriptures.  What does it mean to fulfil the Scriptures?  I think it means that all Scriptures need to be held up to the Light of Jesus.  If Jesus said to act this way, or that, even when such action appears to contradict the Scriptures, then we follow Jesus’ lead, not the dead letter of an ancient text.  Take for example his teaching on revenge.  The Hebrew Bible specifically teaches ‘an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth’.  But Jesus quotes that Scripture, and then says ‘But I say, forgive your brother, constantly’. 

So to any who would invite me to place religious dogma over Jesus clear instruction to love and serve one another, I say no.  To anyone who would invite me to join a schism in the Church of England, over the single issue of whether two faithful, loving people can have the blessing of the church I say; “I’m prepared.  I’m equipped.  With the talents he has given me, I’m following Jesus.  I will bless such faithful, committed, love”.   And I hope you would say the same too.  Amen.

Saturday, November 11, 2023

Be Prepared!

Readings: Matthew 25.1-13 and Thessalonians 4.13-18

For a few brief years, when I was very young, I had the pleasure of being a cub scout.  I loved it.  We got to go camping, and to learn woodcraft.  We had fun evenings of games and enjoyed working for our various badges.  In my day, we had to wear what is now considered a rather old fashioned uniform, complete with garters to hold our socks up, a scarf in the colour of our troop, and of course a woggle.  We even used to use the chant ‘dib dib dib’, ‘dob dob dob’!  Once a year we would go out and terrorise our neighbours with the offer of ‘bob-a-job’ – when we would inexpertly clean cars or sweep driveways in return for a few miserable pennies.  But I loved it.  I even became a ‘sixer’ – which meant that I was put in charge of a group of six younger boys – which taught me, at a very early age, something about leadership.

All those activities were designed with one over-arching premise in mind.  It was the motto of the Scout movement: ‘Be Prepared’.  Lord Baden-Powell, when he founded the Scouts, wanted boys to be as prepared as possible for whatever life would throw at them. Through the badge system, boys like me were encouraged to learn skills like cooking, or how to make a camp fire, or how to build a shelter.  We were also encouraged to open our minds to the wider world, with badges about first aid, or even astronomy.  In many ways, the cub scouts prepared me for many of the situations of life, in which I’ve needed to get stuck in, work out how something works, or exercise some leadership skills.   Scouting is a brilliant movement – it taught me to ‘be prepared’.

Being prepared is, of course, at the heart of Jesus’ parable about the Bridesmaids and their oil lamps.  Jesus encourages all of us to be prepared for his coming.  If you’ve heard me speak about the second coming of Jesus in the past, you’ll know that I’m a little bit suspicious of those Scriptures which appear to foretell the arrival of Jesus on a cloud, like some sort of Greek god coming down from Mount Olympus, flying through the skies.  Thinking about our first reading of today, I think the Apostle Paul was being rather more poetic than literal, with all his vivid descriptions of Christians rising up to meet the Lord in the air. 

We need, as always, to think about the context of Paul’s words.  He was writing at a time when many Christians thought that Jesus would literally return from heaven. A lot of the New Testament contains rather fanciful promises of that happening, imminently, and while many who were then alive were still living.  It was, I believe, a view and a hope that was grounded in fear; fear of persecution, fear of being abandoned by Jesus.  In particular, Paul was addressing the fear that the Thessalonians had – a fear that those among them who had died would miss the return of Jesus.  As Greeks, the Thessalonians quite probably had the rather dark Greek notion of a world of the dead, which was separated for ever from the world of the living.  Paul’s rather poetic writing was a way of offering hope to a fledgling church that their efforts to build God’s Kingdom on earth were not in vain.  And he was assuring them that the promises of God, through Jesus, were as real for the dead as they are for the living. 

        History has proved, time and again, that belief in a literal second coming is a mistaken belief.   Countless prophets over the centuries have announced that Jesus will return.  And they’ve all been wrong.  There is a resurgence in such prophecies at the moment, because of the establishment of the state of Israel.  Some are even hoping, in a rather macabre way, that the present conflicts between Israel and Palestine are the early salvos in the war of Armageddon, which (they hope) will be a pre-cursor to the bodily return of Jesus.  Such prophets have, I think, a rather weak understanding of both Scripture, and of history. 

So what are we to think of Jesus’ reported promise to return?  I hold the view that the return of Jesus is not a one-time event.  Rather, it is something which has happened, and is happening, and will happen, all the time.  It happened when the Holy Spirit was poured out on the disciples at Pentecost.  It happens whenever his teachings are obeyed, and when world is made a better place.  Whenever a warrior acts out of mercy, and withholds from bombing hospitals and schools, Jesus returns.  Whenever an armistice – a ‘ceasefire’ is declared between warring nations, Jesus returns.  Whenever a soldier, or a doctor, or an ambulance driver lays down their life out of love for humanity, Jesus returns.  Whenever a homeless person is supported on the road to housing and security, Jesus returns.  Whenever a lonely person is offered companionship, Jesus returns.  Whenever a wealthy person gives from their wealth to help another human being, Jesus returns.

What then does it mean for us to be prepared, as Jesus teaches in the parable of the Bridesmaids?  It means being constantly alert for the ongoing activity of Jesus in the world – and it means being prepared to get on board with what Jesus has been doing, is doing and will be doing.  It means being prepared never to turn down an opportunity to bless another person, or to sacrifice for the well-being of all humanity.  It means being prepared to put our shoulders to the wheel in the task of building God’s Kingdom on earth.  Are you prepared?  Are you prepared to join in with Jesus?  Amen.

Wednesday, November 8, 2023

Anxiety, panic and fretting...on the Feast of Margery Kempe

 

Readings: 

Philippians 3.3–8a

For it is we who are the circumcision, who worship in the Spirit of God and boast in Christ Jesus and have no confidence in the flesh— even though I, too, have reason for confidence in the flesh.

If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.

Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ

Luke 15.1–10

Now all the tax-collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’

So he told them this parable: ‘Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbours, saying to them, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.” Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance.

‘Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbours, saying, “Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.” Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.’

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Today is the feast of Margery Kemp.  She was born in King’s Lynn in Norfolk in the late 1300s, a contemporary of Julian of Norwich. She received many visions, several of them of the holy family, one of the most regular being of the crucifixion. She also claimed to have conversations with the saints.

She was much sought after as a visionary, but she was also endlessly in trouble with the Church.  She was a bit of a campaigner, to be honest – who thought she knew better than the rest of her society about the things of God, and didn’t always know when to keep silent.  She was rebuked by the Archbishop of Canterbury, and was more than once imprisoned.  Nevertheless, Margery seems have experienced long periods of close communion with Christ, and developed a strong compassion for the sins of the world.  Her autobiography, The Book of Margery Kempe, recounts her remarkable life. She died towards the middle of the 1400s.

On the one hand, we might like to rejoice in Margery’s amazing and miraculous visions – which clearly sustained a great faith.  However, on the other hand, in our post-miraculous age we may prefer other explanations for Margery’s visions.  Thanks to modern medicine, and especially our increasing understanding of the mind, we know that hallucinations are often the result of some sort of stress or anxiety.  We also know that people who experience hallucinations tend to see those things on which they are most fixated.  So, people who live on a diet of horror movies will hallucinate horrible visions.  But those, like Margery, who focus on holy and beautiful ideas are most likely to hallucinate those things. 

These days, we might say that Margery was clearly a holy woman, who had spent much time in prayer and study, but who, when anxiety about the world overwhelmed her, tended to hallucinate visions of Godly things and people.  This is not uncommon.  There are even people who visit this church who claim to have visions or voices from God. 

Even in the non-scientific age of the Bible, wise teachers knew that it was important to treat such visions and prophecies with care.  St Paul taught that anyone with such apparent messages from God should bring them to the leaders of the church, for testing.  Perhaps Paul, too, was suspicious that not all visions come directly from God, but rather from the creative depths of the human mind – especially in times of great anxiety.

Anxiety is, of course, a normal human reaction to the changing circumstances of life.  It’s part of our natural protection mechanism – our ‘fight or flight’ instinct.  We cast around for threats to our security, or comfort.  We are on our guard…and that makes us anxious.  We become more alert…less likely to sleep…and therefore more anxious.  For some, the reaction to anxiety is to shut out the world, turn off the news, and bury our heads. For others, action is the name of the game.  We might try to allay our anxiety by joining marches to Parliament (which parliament rarely notices), or we might gain some relief by ranting about whatever worries us on social media.  For some, though, anxiety about the future manifests as hallucinations, either visual or auditory – stemming from a deep hope that God has the world under control.

In our first reading, St Paul describes the kind of anxiety that he has lived with, all his adult life.  There’s an almost Trumpian level of boasting on display as he talks about all the ways that he tried to work himself up into being acceptable to God.  He was ‘circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, a Hebrew born of Hebrews, a Pharisee, a persecutor of the church; righteous under the law and blameless.  (You can just hear Donald Trump at this end of that list can’t you?  ‘No-one has ever been more righteous-er than me!’).

There’s a lot of anxiety on display in today’s Gospel reading, too.  First, there’s the anxiety of the Pharisees and scribes.  They were anxious about this new charismatic preacher in their midst, who appeared to be leading people away from their way of doing religion.  They were anxious about losing their authority – losing their power base.

And then, in Jesus’ parables about the lost sheep and the lost coin, his main characters display anxiety too.  The shepherd is anxious about his lost sheep.  So is the woman who has lost her coin.  Both the shepherd and the woman are offered to us as pictures of God. 

We need to be careful about making God in our image – but there is a sense in which Jesus sees God as being anxious about the spiritual fate of his children.  The Scriptures offer us a picture of a God whose whole being is anxiously focussed on the salvation of humanity. 

Ultimately, it’s God’s sheer passion – anxiety if you will – for his children which saves us.  Paul ultimately discovers that all anxiety about faith, all his chasing after righteousness was ‘rubbish’ compared to the experience of finding out that God loves us, anyway.  You may be interested to know that this passage of Philippians contains one of the rather more fruity uses of language, hidden away in the Bible.  The word translated as ‘rubbish’ in our Bibles is really much closer to a strong word for manure, beginning with shshsh!   Paul says that all his achievements, all the things he was anxious to please God about, they are all ‘muck and manure’ compared to the surpassing joy of knowing Christ – and knowing that Christ has done all that is necessary to save us.  We have no need to try anxiously to earn God’s favour – because he is already favourable towards us. 

So, to my anxiety, and to yours, I say this:  let us use the coming days to rest in the Lord.  Let’s take time to rest in the loving gaze of our heavenly father, to contemplate his teachings, and receive the power of his love.  Then, perhaps, freed from anxiety, we too might be given visions, or at least nudges from the Holy Spirit, about how we can play our part in building God’s Kingdom of Justice on earth.  Not anxiously. Not expending our energy on fruitless frustration and worry. But, calmly, trustingly, stepping out each day to play our part, in the place God has put us, in building the Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.  Amen.

Thursday, November 2, 2023

All Saints 2023

  Readings:  

Revelation 7.9–17

After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying,

‘Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!’

And all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshipped God, singing, ‘Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honour and power and might be to our God for ever and ever! Amen.’

Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, ‘Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?’  I said to him, ‘Sir, you are the one that knows.’ Then he said to me, ‘These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them.  They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the centre of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.’

Matthew 5.1–12

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:

‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

‘Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

________________________________________________

I always look forward to All Saint’s Day.  It gives me an opportunity to remind you of my list of funny and quirky saints – most of which I have culled from a book by the priest and broadcaster, Richard Coles, called ‘Lives of the Improbable Saints’.

For example, have you ever heard of St Ronald of Buckingham?  Apparently, he was born into the world like any normal baby, and immediately preached an amazing sermon.... before promptly dying.  Then there's St Theophilus the Myrrh-Gusher.  It’s a great name isn't it?  It refers to the belief that the bodies of certain martyred saints secrete a sweet smelling liquid from their wounds.  Apparently, St Theophilus’ body did just that, in copious amounts!

Then there's St Isodore, who in the 1980s was designated the patron saint of the Internet –because he was a scholar and compiler of information.  I like to imagine the scene in Heaven when God told Isodore that the Church has just designated him as the patron of the internet?  "I'm the Patron Saint of WHAT?!"

And then there's the number one weird saint of all time...the Patron Saint of finding a parking place - Saint Mother Cabrini.  Apparently, in New York, car drivers circling a block can be heard muttering this prayer:  "Mother Cabrini, Mother Cabrini - find me a space for my driving machiny."

All these Saints are jolly good fun, but there is more than grain of truth in many of them.  Sometimes, saints become patron saints because of the terrible things they were made to suffer for their faith in Christ.  So, for example, St Apollonia is the patron saint of dentists, because she had all her teeth extracted as a punishment for believing in Jesus.  And let’s not forget our own St Faith... roasted alive on a griddle-iron, for refusing to give up her Lord.  I could tell you a lot more horror stories...but it’s a bit early in the morning for that!

So, All Saints is a good time to be reminded of extraordinary lives of the Saints who now ’from their labours rest’ - as we sang at the beginning of our service today.  But are there saints among us now?  

The Bible refers to all true believers as ‘saints’.  So the answer to my question must be ‘yes…there are saints among us today’.  There are, and must be, those who yearn and hope for the final revelation of Christ, just as John envisioned in our first reading of today.  They are those who constantly seek to purify themselves, to make their robes white, because of Christ.

Or, if you prefer, from Jesus’ lips in the Sermon on the Mount, the saints – the blessed ones - are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.  They are the poor in spirit, the meek, the merciful, the peacemakers, the pure in heart.

But is that me?  Is that you?

Our brothers and sisters in the Orthodox church have an insight to offer.  They teach that all Christians have the potential to become so like Christ that they can become kinds of gods themselves.  Orthodox theology calls that process ‘deification’ – and it’s a goal for which all of us are encouraged to strive.  

But what does it look like, in practice?  Much has been made recently of the secular sainthood of the medical profession, tirelessly exerting themselves on behalf of the population, still grappling with Covid and historic levels of under-funding.  Other secular saints will be recognised recognised by name in the King's new year honours list.  

        Locally, we have our own saints - like St Margaret of Tait, who has been championing the Langstone Millpond.  We have St Graham of the Organ, who has been developing not one but two junior choirs.  We have St Sandra of the Servery, always willing to whip up a brew and a slice of homemade cake for the weary visitor to the church.  And there are plenty more too.  St Bill of the Monday Club, the other St Bill ...of the Bells.  St Bruce of the Servers, St Alan of the Stewards, St Shelley of the Pallant - and of course, I have to mention St Clare of the Shop!  SO many of you act and live in saintly ways - you make me feel quite inadequate, and decidedly proud of you all! 

But are saints measured by what they do?  Yes, of course…to an extent.  The true nature of our heart is often demonstrated by our actions.  But what about those who cannot do anything?  Is it possible to be a saint who is tied by illness to the hospital bed, or trapped at home by infirmity?  Well, I want to say ‘yes’ to them too.  Being a living saint is not just about what we do.  It’s about who we are.  To be a saint is to become more and more like God.  Being a modern saint is about cultivating an attitude toward the world which mirrors the attitude of Jesus himself. 

But how?

Well, here’s a way of thinking about an answer to that question.  There’s been a thought winging its way around social media recently.  It’s one of those ‘feel good’ sayings that we all encounter from time to time, which gets lots of people clicking ‘Like’.  This particular one goes something like…

“I don’t care if you are black or white, gay or straight, rich or poor.  If you are good to me, I’ll be good to you”.  On the face of it, it’s a nice thing to have said – essentially ‘all that matters is how we treat each other’.   

But it’s not a particularly Christian thing to have said.  Being nice is not an exclusively Christian virtue.  Jesus calls his followers beyond human nice-ness.  He calls us to extraordinary love, in the pursuit of holiness.  If Jesus had written that ’meme’, he might have added – “It doesn’t even matter how you treat me.  Even when you insult me, or beat me, or kill me...I will still love you”.  

Christian love is the kind that says ‘Father forgive them’, even when ‘they’ are nailing you to a cross.  Christian love is unconditional – like the love of Jesus, who we strive to be like.  It is a love which does not stop even when, like St Faith, we are being tied to a roasting griddle iron. Or as Christians in Palestine have been discovering this month, being bombed by an apparently war-mongering neighbour.  It’s a love which sees beyond the poor behaviour and poor choices of failing human beings, and which begins to see all humanity as God sees us – children - who often fall down, and constantly need picking up and hugging from time to time.  

Now of course, I realise what a challenge it would be to continue to offer love to a bomb-slinging madman or, say, an abuser of children, or a corrupt politician.  Simple common sense says that, of course, society needs protecting from this kind of behaviour.  But hate is never the right response.  Hate only produces more hate.  The ONLY possible remedy against hate, is love.  It won’t always work – but it’s the only path worth even trying.  And it’s the path of Jesus.  It’s the path of holiness.  It’s the path of saint-hood.

Of course, that kind of holiness is beyond human norms.  It’s super-human, in fact.  It’s not something I would find easy to do, on my own.  But, with God’s help, and by God’s grace, maybe I could love someone that much.  Maybe I too could be considered a saint.  Hmm...St Thomas of Havant....has a bit of ring to it….

And if we are open to it, we can all take up the challenge to become Holy ones, deified ones, Saints, ourselves. 

Amen.

Saturday, October 21, 2023

What to do about Palestine?

I have, so far, rather avoided commenting on the Israeli / Palestinian conflict.  This is partly out of a concern that more or less anything I say is likely to cause offence to someone.  It’s also out of the sense of powerlessness that many of us feel about the situation.  After all, what can you or I, in here Havant, do to affect the outcome of such a major international problem?  But today’s Gospel reading, with its reference to the occupation of Palestine (as the Romans knew it), really doesn’t give me the chance of avoiding comment.  So, I plan to offer you, this morning, a bare-bones history of the land of Palestine, which also now includes the legally-constituted State of Israel.  It might feel a little bit like a lecture – but I hope you will find it helpful and useful.

But first, a personal story…35 years ago, at the tender age of 22, I had the honour to sing in Jerusalem.  It was the 40th anniversary of the founding of the modern state of Israel – and I sang at the performance of an oratorio called ‘Hear, O Israel’, by Irish composer, Cormac O-Duffy, who was an old college chum of mine.  The concert took place in an open-air amphitheatre belonging to the University of Jerusalem, with a back-drop of the Jordan Valley.  It was attended by the then Prime Minister of Israel, Yitzak Shamir. It was accompanied by a mixed choir of Christians and Jews, and led by the Israel Symphony Orchestra.  It’s something I hope I’ll never forget!

A few months later, we repeated the concert in Westminster Central Hall, for the benefit of London-based Christians and Jews.  And there is a recording of that!  So here I am, looking young and gorgeous, singing the song of Theodore Herzl.  Herzl was the leader of the Zionist Movement – and he predicted in 1897, at a Zionist Conference, that within 50 years, a State of Israel would be formed in Palestine – and he turned out to be correct.  There’s a lot to think about, but first, let me play you this clip: https://youtu.be/QFL5UPtf3LE 

Theodore Herzl undoubtedly didn’t sing in such a rock and roll style!  But he was the most prominent leader of the Zionist movement of the late 19th century. It is important to understand the roots of Zionism.  First of all – the name.  Zionism refers to Mount Zion – a large hill just outside the Old City of Jerusalem, but a name also synonymous with the Temple Mount.  Zionism is therefore essentially about the Jewish people regaining political control of Mount Zion, and the land around it.

But before we get too deep into modern Zionism, let’s take a brief tour of ancient history.  Around 1000 BC the Hebrews (as they were then known) had conquered the land of Palestine by force, taking it from the tribes such as the Canaanites, and the Philistines (from which the word Palestine originates).  According to the ancient Scriptures, God had promised this land to Abraham, and so the descendants of Abraham through Isaac believed they had the God-given right to claim it, through force if necessary.  The trouble is that Abraham had three lines of descendants, through three different women. The Jews were descended from Abraham’s wife Sarah, through Isaac.  But Abraham had two other lines of descendents, through Hagar (Sarah’s concubine) and Keturah (who Abraham married after Sarah’s death).  The peoples of the region trace their line back through Hagar and Keturah and therefore also claim God’s promise to Abraham for themselves.

Unfortunately for both Jews and Palestinians, the land lay in a strategic corridor between Africa and the Middle East – it was a narrow part of the so-called fertile crescent – a swathe of land, amid a lot of desert, in which food can be grown.  And so, throughout history, everyone fancied a piece of it – from the Assyrians, the Phoenicians, the Egyptians, the Greeks, the Babylonians (Iraqis), the Persians (Iranians), the Macedonians, and then the Romans.  Palestine had only actually been one unified Jewish State for about 80 years, from the time of King David, a thousand years before Christ up until the Exile around 500 years later.  As this set of key dates shows, Israel split into two kingdoms about 80 years after David – and both kingdoms were then subsequently conquered.  Various overlords then had control of Palestine, right up to the time of Jesus.

The Romans finally gained control a few decades before Jesus came on the scene.  But even their fragile control came to an end within about a hundred and fifty years.  Notably in the year 70AD, the Temple in Jerusalem was razed to the ground, during one particularly bloody uprising of Jewish nationalists. Without their Temple, the Jews became scattered all around the world, into what is known as the diaspora.  

After the Roman occupation, with the Jews now scattered, Jerusalem and Palestine continued to change hands – it remained an important and valuable property – overflowing with milk and honey (as the Scriptures say).  Palestine was controlled by various political entities, including the Church, through the Crusader armies of the West, and of course the Ottoman Empire, who were largely in control for about 400 years, up until the end of the First World War, when Britain invaded and expelled the Ottoman Empire.  Between the first and second world wars, Britain was in charge, under a mandate from the League of Nations.  The mandate was intended to lead the native population to self-government and independence.  

But, under the influence of the growing Zionist movement who had gained a strong foothold in world politics, the Mandate was also committed to providing for a Jewish Homeland.  Another influence was a strain of mainly American Christianity which believed that the legal establishment of a state of Israel was a necessary pre-cursor to the return of Jesus.  But creating a new state of Israel was at significant variance with desire of the native Arabs of Palestine, who feared displacement.  After a turbulent period of conflict during the 1940s, the State of Israel was formally established in 1948.  Around 500 Palestinian towns were forcibly absorbed into the new State, and something close to a million Palestinians were pushed out into Gaza and the West Bank – an area to the East of Jerusalem, but on the West Bank of the River Jordan.

And the rest, as they say, is modern history.  The State of Israel insists – not unreasonably - on its legal right to self-governance and security, not least because of the Holocaust and many other past injustices.  That view is reinforced by those religious Jews who draw on Scripture for the promise made to Abraham.  Some Israelis, supported by their Government, are systematically occupying Palestinian land to strengthen their claim.  Palestinians, who are mainly Muslim but also containing a significant minority of Christians, state – not unreasonably - that they were there first – as Philistines and Canaanites before Kind David’s military success, as well as being also legitimate descendants of Abraham.  They – rather naturally - perceive the Jews as invaders, both historically through King David, and in modern times under the British Mandate.  These are therefore deeply rooted enmities – coloured by the fact that over the last 3,000 years, many other nations have also had administrative control of the land of Palestine. History matters, you see – it shapes ideas and attitudes that are still being played out in Palestine and Israel today.

I now regret my 22 year old decision to sing about the founding of Israel, at its 40th anniversary, and by appearing to take such an uncritical view about the founding of Israel.  I was ignorant of the real history of the land at that time – except for the fact that I knew something of the horror of the Holocaust, and I was glad that Jews now had a place of relative safety and security.  What I hadn’t realised is the significant claim of the Palestinian people on the land which has borne their name for most of the last 3,000 years.  

The question that confronts each of us today, is what to do with that complicated, highly-contested history.  How shall we respond to the horror of Hamas terrorism, and the resultant Israeli rage?  How can we play our part in establishing justice, mercy and peace for all the inhabitants of the land called Holy?

Truthfully, there is not much we can do – except that through our relative wealth, we can bless those agencies who work on the front-line of caring for everyone affected by the political and historical forces at play.  In Jesus’ words, we can render to Caesar through the honest payment of our own taxes. And we can render to God through our gifts to agencies like the Red Cross and the Anglican Church in Jerusalem (provider of the Gazan hospital that was bombed this week) who work impartially for the good of all.   We can also play our part in voting for those British politicians who demonstrate the fairest and most just understanding of all the complex forces in play.  And of course we can pray – for justice and peace: for a Kingdom of righteousness to be established on earth as it is in heaven.  Amen.    


Tuesday, October 17, 2023

Henry Martyn - a short but astounding life

Texts: Isaiah 55.6–11 & Mark 16.15–end

Do you ever wonder what on earth you can do, personally, about the troubles in the world?  I know I do.  I’m an anxious consumer of news.  I listen to the Today programme every day.  I can’t have my lunch without the 1 o’clock news, and I check the headlines again when I go to bed!

The recent news of events in Palestine and Israel has drawn the world’s attention away from the horror of Russian’s attempted conquest of the Ukraine.  Largely unnoticed has also gone the recent earthquake in Afghanistan, and other natural disasters.  A man shot three people in Brussels this week – but the event barely got a mention.  The world is going to hell in a handcart, but you and I are largely powerless to do anything about it.  Aren’t we?

That could have been the attitude of Henry Martyn, who the Anglican church commemorates today as one of our outstanding Christians.  Born in Truro in 1781, Henry Martyn went up to Cambridge at the age of sixteen. He became an avowed evangelical and his friendship with Charles Simeon led to his interest in missionary work. In 1805, he left for Calcutta as a chaplain to the East India Company. The expectation was that he would minister to the British expatriate community, not to the indigenous peoples.  But, in fact, he found that there was a constant fear of insurrection among the ex-pat community.  They lived, somewhat as Israelis live today, under constant fear of violent uprising by those whose lands had been taken over.  Even the recitation of Magnificat at Evensong was forbidden, lest ‘putting down the mighty from their seat’ should incite the natives.

Henry’s response to this situation was notable.  He could have kept his head down, and quietly carried on ministering to his ex-patriate community.  But, instead, Henry – being a gifted scholar - set about learning the local languages so that he could share the Gospel with them, following Jesus command at The Great Commission.  One assumes that his motivation was a belief that converting the natives of India to Christianity would be a means of bringing the British and the Indians into a new fellowship with each other. 

Having learned their tongues, Henry then supervised the translation of the New Testament first into Hindustani and then into Persian and Arabic, as well as preaching and teaching in mission schools.  Many of those schools, and also some hospitals, were built out of his own funds.   He went to Persia to continue the work, where his translation of the New Testament was warmly welcomed by the enlightened Shah.  But, unfortunately suffering from tuberculosis, he died in the Turkish mountains, in modern day Armenia, on this day in 1812 – having only spent seven years in his task of translating the Scriptures.

In just seven years of his missionary life, Henry Martyn succeeded in spreading the Gospel among millions of people.  He was a famous and noted preacher, who engaged in public debate with scholars from other religions, and who gained their respect.  This was at a time when tensions between religions were rather less than they are today…a time when religious leaders didn’t claim, by and large, to have the monopoly on truth. 

What, I wonder, does Henry Martyn’s life have to say to us today?  Few of us, I suspect, have the intellectual skills to become bible translators…I know I don’t.  The world today is a far more fractured place than it was for Henry – and missionary work is no longer carried out (in the main) by British people going out to convert people of other nations.  Much has changed.  And Henry had some very particular skills and opportunities. 

Nevertheless, his short but brightly lit life teaches us that even in seven years, a great deal can be achieved, by those who have the faith and the courage to serve.  Henry’s life, of course, mirrors the life of Jesus who, as far as we can tell, only had a ministry of three years, and yet managed to set in motion a world-changing movement.

So the question that Henry Martyn leaves for each of us to ponder is this:  in the life that each of us has left (whether we have years or just months ahead of us) how are we going to be salt and light to the world in which we are placed?  Henry Martyn sought to make his corners of the world into a better place, by the light, the teaching and the example of Christ.  He brought the Gospel to those who hadn’t heard Jesus’ teaching of love.  He provided schools and hospitals for thousands.  He worked to break down barriers between religions and national identities.  

How are you and I going to do the same and perhaps even more, in the time that each of us has left on earth?  You and I are not likely to be able to do very much about the global conflicts currently shaking our world – except perhaps to direct our charity towards those who are suffering.  Henry Martin tackled the issues before him in Calcutta.  How are you and I going to bring the good news of Jesus’ life, teaching and example, to the people of Havant, Bedhampton, Emsworth and Hayling?  They are our mission field.  And it is first of all to them that we are called.  Amen.

Wednesday, October 11, 2023

Wilfred, Elizabeth and Edith...

Today, the church marks the death of three prominent Christians, Wilfred of Ripon, Elizabeth Fry and Edith Cavell.  As you know, I quite like using these Thursday sermons to learn something about those who have believed before us.  So with three famous names in our view, let’s hear their stories.

Wilfrid, or Wilfrith, was born in Northumbria in about the year 633. He was educated at the monastery of Lindisfarne, but disapproved of what he judged to be their Celtic insularity. Remember that at this time, the Celtic church had been thriving in the years since Rome retreated from the British Aisles.  But from 597, when Augustine of Canterbury was sent on a mission from Rome by Pope Gregory the Great, Rome had been steadily re-asserting its influence.

Wilfred’s sympathies lay with Rome.  He believed that Rome was the mother church, even though she had left her daughter-church in the British Isles to it’s own devices for a couple of centuries.  Wilfred journeyed to Canterbury and then to Rome. He spent three years at Lyons where he was admitted as a monk. He then was appointed Abbot of Ripon and took with him the Roman monastic system and Benedictine Rule, which he immediately introduced. 

Wilfred played an influential role at the Synod of Whitby, in around 663.  The Synod was called, essentially to decide whether the Anglo-Saxon church of Northumbria would follow Celtic or Roman church traditions.  Wilfred’s dominance of the debate was largely responsible for the victory of the Roman party over the Celts.  Later, when he was elected Bishop of York, he went to Compi├Ęgne to be consecrated by twelve Frankish bishops rather than risk any doubt of schism by being ordained by Celtic bishops. 

There were upsets first with Chad and then with Archbishop Theodore of Canterbury, but the Roman authorities took his side and he was eventually restored to his See. After further disputes, he resigned the See of York and became Bishop of Hexham, spending his remaining years at Ripon. His gift to the English church was to make it more clearly a part of the Church universal.  But it has to be said, his manner and methods were not such as to draw people close to him at a personal level. He died on this day in the year 709 and was buried in Ripon.

I find this period of British church history really interesting.  It shows that spark of independence from other nations which still dogs the British mindset today.  We are an island nation, and we don’t take kindly to being told what to do by other nations in Europe.  We never have done.  Henry the Eighth’s split with Rome was another example, and of course Brexit is the latest occasion when we have pulled up the drawbridge to Europe.

Wilfred also serves as a reminder that even the Church Universal, with its headquarters in Rome, has rarely managed to maintain a unified stance on anything.  The British Schism of the 600s, the Reformation, and the Great Schism with the Orthodox church at the turn of the first millennium – all these historical events remind us that unanimity on all matters theological and ecclesiological is a rare thing indeed.  The Catholic Cardinals are currently having another Synod, in Rome – and there are many issues up for debate there, too.

In the last week or so, the Bishops of the Church of England have voted to approve prayers which may be used at the blessing of same sex marriages.  This is a major shift in policy by the church, and it is warmly welcomed by so-called progressive and liberal clergy, like me.  On the other hand, those of a more conservative view are incensed by this move.  Many are calling the present House of Bishops a bunch of ungodly heretics!  The battle over same-sex blessings, and perhaps one day marriages, is but the latest ‘big issue’ to get in the way of Unity – and dire predictions of schism in the Church of England are rife once again.  In the past we’ve argued over where Authority lies, slavery, the rights of women, the ordination of women, and the authority of Scripture.  And no doubt we’ll find things to argue about in the future – just as Wilfred and others did in the past.  But through all these debates, the godly men and women of the past have continued to witness to God’s love in the world – whatever the theologians and bishops were arguing about!

I’m thinking, for example, of Elizabeth Fry. She was born at Earlham in Norfolk in 1780. At the age of twenty, she married Joseph Fry, a London merchant and a strict Quaker. She was admitted as a minister in the Society of Friends and became a noted preacher. The appalling state of the prisons came to her notice and she devoted much of her time to the welfare of female prisoners in Newgate. In 1820 she took part in the formation of a night shelter for the homeless in London. She travelled all over Europe in the cause of prison reform. She was a woman of a strong Christian and evangelistic impulse and this inspired all her work. She died on this day in 1845.

For another example of someone whose faith drove them on to great works, today we also remember Edith Cavell. was born into a clergy family at Swardeston, also in Norfolk, in 1865. After life as a governess, she trained as a nurse, ending up working with the Red Cross in Belgium in 1907. On the outbreak of the First World War, she became involved in caring for the wounded on both sides. She refused repatriation and then began smuggling British soldiers from Belgium into Holland. In 1915 she was arrested and brought to trial. Protecting those who worked with her, she was sentenced to death and executed by firing squad on this day in the year 1915. She went to her death calmly, forgiving her executioners, convinced she had been doing her duty as a Christian. 

A quick comparison of the lives of St Wilfred, Elizabeth Fry and Edith Cavell leads one to conclude that although Wifred is the only canonised Saint, of the three, he was perhaps the least ‘saintly’ of them.  By all accounts he was a miserable and argumentative so-and-so, who nobody really liked, and who spent most of his life arguing about which branch of the church was the most authentic.  In comparison, Fry and Cavell poured out their lives in the service of others – caring for the prisoner, the homeless and the sick.  I wonder which of these three each of us would rather emulate?  In the spirit of today’s Gospel reading, I wonder whose dogged persistence we would most like to copy?


Saturday, October 7, 2023

Patronal Festival Sermon

A sermon on the Patronal Festival, commemorating St Faith of Agen (our 'patron saint).  Texts: 1 Kings 8.22-30 & Matthew 21.12-16

There are many so called holy places in the world.  They are those places where, somehow, the veil between our mortal world and the spiritual world seems more fragile.  Some people call then ‘touching places’, or ‘thin places’ – places, that is, where one seems to be able to reach out and almost touch the out-stretched hand of God.

According to the Hebrew scriptures (or the Old Testament as Christians call it), Bethel was one such place.  After his prophetic dream, Jacob called the place ‘House of God’ (which is what Beth-el means.  (El was one of the early names for God).  For many generations, it was one of Israel’s holiest shrines.  The Ark of the Covenant was kept there, until it was transferred to Jerusalem.  Prophets and leaders would go to Bethel, to seek God’s wisdom and instruction. Ironically, though, for such a holy place, no-one can say with certainty today where Bethel actually was.  History and time did their work, and now that holiest of places is gone – just like so many abbeys and great churches in our own land.  Buildings are temporary – no matter how much they are loved.  God is immortal, and God’s immortal spirit lives in us, not in these stones and tiles.

We humans have a fondness for place, don’t we – and especially for ‘thin places’.  Stonehenge still attracts millions of pilgrims, even though they have no idea what actual ceremonies were practices there.  The modern-day druids who gather there at the Solstice are really only making educated guesses about what their ancestors did there.   For devotees of our patron Saint, Faith of Agen, the abbey-church of Conques, France is another such place.  There, the bones of the young martyr are laid – cruelly murdered under the rule of the Roman emperor Diocletian, because she refused to renounce her faith in Jesus Christ.  Ask Bishop John and Janet Hind for their account of the place – for they visited it only a few years ago.

In this morning’s reading from the book of Kings, we note that King Solomon himself, at the grand opening of the first Temple acknowledged that God didn’t live in the building.  “But will God indeed dwell on the earth?” he asks.  “Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built!”.  Rather, Solomon prays that God’s eyes may be open night and day towards the Temple.  He essentially asks God to make the Temple a ‘thin place’, a ‘touching place’ where God may especially hear the prayers of his people.

Where is your ‘thin place’?  Where is that you find that the veil between the physical and spiritual worlds is somehow made thinner?  For some, it may be a beautiful natural landscape.  For others, it will often be a building, in which hundreds of years of prayer and worship have somehow soaked into the stones.  Perhaps this is your thin place.  Or maybe it’s St Albans, for those who live and work in West Leigh.  Perhaps these are the places where God feels especially present – to which God’s eyes are open, day and night.  No doubt Jesus felt the same about the Temple in Jerusalem – which is why he was so incensed by the way it was being used to cheat and defraud pilgrims.  The crooks were charging extortionate prices for pilgrims to convert Roman money into Jewish coin (the only tender that the Jewish authorities would accept).  They were also selling doves at inflated prices for sacrifices.

In fact, as Jesus found, holy buildings can sometimes get in the way, and they can certainly be abused by unscrupulous men.  In Jerusalem, despite Solomon’s prayer, human priests created a holy of holies – a place in which God was said to actually dwell.  It was a place so holy, that the High Priest could only go into it on one day of the year, after elaborate rites of purification.  The New Testament tells us that the curtain of that ‘holy of holies’ was torn down at the death of Jesus.  It was not a helpful picture of God.  It had to go.  Now (as the book of Revelation has it), God’s dwelling place was with people – not locked up in a back corner of a temple. In fact, you and I are now where God dwells…not in buildings of stone, but in living flesh and blood.

Even our own beautiful building has some challenges – it’s High Altar can make God appear distant and aloof.  It’s stained glass windows of a decidedly romantic, English-looking Jesus are not particularly helpful either.  But, as we shall sing in our Offertory Hymn, here are symbols to remind us of our lifelong need of God, and of God’s grace.  As Fred Pratt Green’s words go on: “Here are table, font and pulpit, here the cross has central place.  Here in honesty of preaching (I love that line!) here in silence as in speech, here in newness and renewal, God the Spirit comes to each.

Those who steward and care-for this church throughout the week will testify, the building has immense value to all those who enter its doors throughout the week, seeking solace, peace, or a place to seek God.  That is why, for all its theological confusion, I think that our continuing efforts to refurbish this place are worthwhile.    Its very age and architectural idiosyncrasies are precisely what draw in those seekers of a thin place, a touching place.

But at the same time, we must not forget that this building is not ‘the Church’.  It is only a shell…at the end of the day, a shelter from the rain in which the actual church can gather.  Fundamentally it is no different from the church of St Nicholas in the parish of Nswam, Ghana – which I visited in 2015.  A few palm branches, spread over a bamboo frame.  Just a shelter from the elements.

For, as St Peter says, we are “living stones…built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood”.  We are the church – not these stones.  We could – if the Diocese would let us! – tear this whole place down.  That would not mean that the church was gone.  The people who make up the church would still be here (if a little damp, when it rains!).  The church is the holy house of spiritual people, with heaven in their hearts, and the needs of the world on their mind. People with so much faith, that they too, if ever called upon, might also demonstrate the certainty of purpose and belief of our own patron, St Faith. Amen.