Sunday, 10 May 2020

Ferns and prayers

In our desiccations, with those dried up,
we pray:
ever-creative God,
un-curl us. 

In our isolations, with those restricted,
we pray:
human-habited God,
fresh-green us.

In our mortifications, with those disprited,
we pray:
re-newing God,
new-season us.

Wednesday, 29 April 2020

Rooks and bees

A fresh nest on the statue of St Michael, high on the east front of St Michael's, Haworth, and the nest-building debris below it.

Our favourite bush at the Rector entrance, with the flowers which face the sun coming into bloom first, and one of its early visitors.

Friday, 17 April 2020

The Church of England might look different

Almost exactly thirteen years ago, I attempted to help the Deanery (or ‘Mission Area’ as it was briefly fashionable to call it at the time) of which I was Rural Dean to recognise the level of change which we faced, and I was sufficiently impressed with myself both a year later to reproduce much of it as the second post I put up on this Blog and now to want to return to it again.

The physical landscape around us changes gradually until it becomes unrecognisable.  Some change we hardly notice, such as the slow erosion caused by a river.  Some change is observable over a few years, such as the retreat of a cliff.  Some change is instant, such as the result of a levies breaking or land slipping.

In the past, change in the Church of England has been of the first sort.  In the 150 years before I was confirmed in 1974 the pattern of clergy deployment, relating to society, theology and worship... changed fundamentally without any of the individual increments being revolutionary.

In the present, change in the Church of England is of the second sort.  The Alterative Service Book 1980 came and went in just twenty years, and the number of clergy deployed...  [here] today is half the number in the Pastoral Plan of the early 1990s.

What is hardly grasped by anyone involved is that change in the Church of England immediate future will be of the third sort.  The ground beneath us is moving.  The pressures created by the demography of our congregations and the tightening our finances (as well as shifts in society) have been building inexorably.

The demography of our congregations is such that the presence of those who were formed as present and future members of the Church of England in the 1920s, 30s, 40s and 50s has masked the startlingly smaller number so formed in the 1960s, 70s, 80s and 90s, but as they begin to die the huge gap is exposed.

The tightening of our finances has reached the point when we need to subscribe... over £100 a day to deploy a stipendiary clergyperson, before we even begin to finance our church activities and buildings; this will continue to increase in real terms....

... on a specific day in the not too distant future the combination of these pressures will mean that we suddenly cease to be able to operate as we are.

Some people of all ages will continue to make Christian commitment, and many people will continue to look to the established church for varieties of Christian ministry, but the numbers of those committed will not be able to sustain anything like our present provision of buildings or stipendiary ministry.

Some small parts of the Mission Area continue to operate as if change is still very gradual...  [so] change doesn’t have to be faced at the moment at all.

But the majority of the Mission Area operates as if rapid change is enough; ... places where ten years ago a priest lived next door a church which was his or her sole responsibility have all ceased to operate in this way; systematic development of authorised lay ministry and alternative worship is common.

Hardly anyone operates as if the major crisis is coming, and the ugly experiences of our Methodist neighbours when seeking to bring together three small churches in the centre of our Mission Area is one indication of why we have shied away from seeking to propose anything bold...

... we know (as the Methodists do) that the personal investment of most of us in the particular congregation of which we are part means that coming to a common mind about which places to identify and then willingly ceasing regular worship in the others is a task which may well be beyond us.

So are we more likely to wait until the levies break or the land slips, until further specific congregations become unviable or until the provision of stipendiary ministry across particular parts of the Mission Area becomes impossible, and make emergency plans in the new landscape only when we can see it?

Since then a complementary evolutionary (rather than geological) image has come to mind, remembering that the mechanism of evolution often appears to have been sudden steps rather than imperceptible increments.

A disaster (of climate or flood or famine), perhaps even a near extinction event, happens.  In happening it creates a pinch point such that only a fraction of a species survives, and new born members of this species will descend from those survivors alone.  Whether it was the unusual length of a foraging snout or the accidental camouflage provided by a minority fur colour or some other suddenly advantageous dexterity or stamina, those without it will have no children.

So, it is not a surprise to find that the sudden closing down of much of our economy put straight out of business some firms which were already precarious, and now threatens to do so for a significant proportion of other previously flourishing small and medium sized businesses as well.

And it is not surprising that serious worries arise about the viability of the business models on which our dioceses and parishes are operating.  Is this the breaking of levies, the slipping of land, the near extinction event, the evolutionary pinch point?  If it is, what will the landscape look like when we set out of isolation?

On Wednesday, the latest in the Bishop of Leeds’ e-mails to his clergy named this fear.

Some of you will be wondering what will happen when we re-enter and re-launch in due course.  I am also aware that there is some fear about the sustainability of the church in the light of an economic depression/recession, loss of finance to parishes and a plunging stock market.  I just want to reassure you that discussions are going on nationally and in the diocese about how to anticipate, mitigate or negotiate the challenges that might confront us.  I am not worried about this at all.  We are a people who deal with reality and work out how to respond faithfully to any challenges that come our way.  We are getting ahead of the game in this, but we don’t have firm data with which to work yet.  I simply want to reassure you that the thinking and scenario planning is being done at every level.  What is clear is that the Church of England might look different in the future – even if our core vocation does not change.

I am grateful for his positive tone.  I just wonder what ‘might look different in the future’, now so clearly named, will actually mean.

Before the sudden crisis, there was already great popularity and significant strategic funding being directed to establish franchises of (and imaginative variations on) the Holy Trinity, Brompton approach to mission and church life.  Perhaps this was already anticipated to be one well adapted potential survivor of and parent of Church of England life.

But has there been real evidence that this or any other model was already particularly well adapted for often ancient parishes churches at the centre of villages of 500, 2000 or 3500 people at present lay-led and largely attended by those in their 70s and 80s whose economic viability has looked vulnerable for some time and might now be suddenly tipped over?

And are those stipendiary clergy most like me (as some of the last 1000 blog posts has sometimes identified and admitted) ill-adapted parts of the present logistical and theological vulnerability? 

Meanwhile, the picture is the Easter garden created in front of the house here.

Saturday, 11 April 2020

Waiting in darkness

Parts of the reflections for Thursday and for Saturday from the Bronte Virtual Church blog.

There was a full moon late on Tuesday evening.

This is not a coincidence.  There is always a Full Moon on one of the days before Easter. 

We know that the resurrection happened very early on the first day of the week around the feast of Passover.  And we know how the date of Passover was calculated.  So the early Christians came to celebrate the resurrection on the first Sunday after the first Full Moon after the Spring Equinox.

This year’s Spring Equinox was on 20 March.  We had to wait eighteen days until Tuesday’s Full Moon.  We are now waiting five more days for the next Sunday so we can celebrate Easter on its actual anniversary.

Those without modern calendars, and without our convention that the year begins on 1 January, would have thought of it as the first day of the first new week in the first new month (a word which relates to moons) of the fresh new year.

But it places us in a moon-haunted darkness for a few days first.  Jesus is arrested tonight (the Thursday before Easter, Maundy Thursday).  He is executed tomorrow (the Friday before Easter, Good Friday).  And all creation appears abandoned by his absence the following day (Easter Eve, Holy Saturday).

Nothing happens on Holy Saturday
Good Friday’s grief and drama were yesterday.  Easter Day’s surprise and celebration will be tomorrow. 

The church has an extraordinary wealth of prayers and activities for yesterday and for tomorrow, because the death and resurrection of the Lord is the pivot on which everything turns for us. 

But it doesn’t for today, because nothing happens today.

Many churches use the empty day to spring clean and to deck the church out ready for tomorrow. 

But this year the church can’t distract itself by being busy like that.  We simply have to sit and wait. 

Perhaps that has always been the point.  We sit, we wait, and we long for God’s promise to become real around us.

There will be a tiny shock of recognition for those doing so who turn the pages of our daily service book to find a prayer composed for today and used for several years. 

It is difficult to think it wasn’t written in the last few days for our situation: 

In the depths of our isolation
we cry to you, Lord God:
give light to our darkness
and bring us out of the prison of our despair.

So, this year, let us not rush on too quickly to trumpet the resurrection which we always know is very close. 

Let us wait alongside those for whom it is not yet close.   

With those in isolation around us,
with those who cry,
with those who cry to you, Lord God:

we pray for the light you promise
not seen by those now enveloped by darkness;

we pray for the hope you promise
no whiff of which reaches those now enmeshed in despair;

we pray for the freedom you promise
no rumour of which is heard by those now most confined;

we pray for love you promise
    not savoured by those now misused;

we pray for resurrection you promise
    not touched by those now held in doubt.

For many it has always been true that the leap from grief to joy has not been instantaneous.  As nothing happens today, we wait and pray alongside them. 

For ourselves, there are also things for which we long (an interesting word in itself). 

If this is the right sort of praying to do today, it is beautiful that the Archbishops’ recent message speaks of us all at the moment “living through a prolonged Holy Saturday”.

We will not see an end to the present crisis any time soon.  But we will do so.

We will not be able properly to celebrate Easter for a little while yet.  But it will come.

Tuesday, 31 March 2020

Can these dry bones live?

The legend near the very beginning of the Bible is that we are made up of earth into which God breaths life.  It is a perspective which has pursued me since Lent began.  Mud, animated by God.

I felt it using the words “remember you are dust and to dust you will return” as I marked people with a cross of ash.  Going into Lent not in my own strength (“here is what I am going to achieve  giving things up and taking things on”) but in a heightened awareness of a dependence on God (“here is where my nature cannot but fail and needs to be laid open to you”).  Dust alone, unless breathed on by God.

I then reflected with people on the first Sunday in Lent how even modest acts of fasting may be intended to alert me not to how spiritually fit I can become by such a spiritual workout but to how earthly limited I am by my own appetites and habits.  Human weakness, in need of the action of God’s spirit. 

So what stood out for me the following Sunday was how the phrase sometimes a little mistranslated as “born again” actually sits in John 3.6 as “what is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the spirit is spirit, so do not be incredulous that I say ‘you must be born from above’”.  The resources of flesh alone, unless renewed by the original creativity of God.

Then Lent suddenly changed gear - all of us instantly re-aware of how vulnerable we are (as individuals who can get sick and as a society which can collapse) when a new virus gets loose.  Fraility exposed, and hardly daring to expect anything from God.  

So this Sunday what we are given is Ezekiel’s vision of a valley of desiccated skeletons, a place where some plague or slaughter must have passed by (Ezekiel  37.1-12).  I half remembered it as a nightmare from which Ezekiel awoke crying “can these dry bones live?”.  But, re-reading it, I see that it is God who asks Ezekiel that question.  Ezekiel replies “God knows”.

“Play your part”, God says, “discern and tell this lifeless place to respond to the possibilities that I can make them live”.  It takes more than one go.  The first hints are a clanking sound as discarded bits of people began to come together.  Ezekiel is urged to discern and tell again “God says ‘come breath and make these slain live’”.

Discern and tell our mud, our dust, our human weakness, our flesh, our frailty that it is ready for God’s animation, God’ breath, God’s spirit, the renewal of God’s creativity, God’s unknown future.

Discern and tell.  First, the awful and almost necessary shock of human loss brought by the next crisis or disaster.  Then, the distant noise which isn’t the storm swirling  the detritus around but is human reconnecting already beginning to happen.  Until, the God-breathed possibilities of new human flourishing comes.

The words are the reflection on Sunday’s Old Testament reading published on the Bronte Virtual Church blog.  The Epistle included:  To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace (Romans 8.6).

The picture is the box of Palm Crosses which it is just dawning on me current restrictions mean cannot be delivered house to house as I had begun to plan.

Saturday, 28 March 2020

Acting love

Rowan Williams was Archbishop of Canterbury in 2001.  He was in New York on 9/11 when the World Trade Centre were attacked and collapsed.  He said profound things about the experience then and since.

He noticed one simple thing.  Most of the mobile phone calls made from the hijacked planes and from the twin towers were from people calling family and friends to say ‘I love you’.  Nobody seemed bothered to settle old scores.  There aren’t records of people using the time to transfer money from one account to another.  Few even raged against the terrorists. 

News and rumours about coronavirus quarantine began to circulate a fortnight ago.  It made me think about his remarks again.  It is true there were some negative stories.  First, tales of people emptying supermarket shelves to hoard toilet roll and pasta.  Also, I realise, lots of selfishness, profiteering and political point scoring. 

But most reactions were creative and positive.  Cross Roads village’s Facebook pages were immediately full of people offering to shop for others.  People restricted to their flats in Italy were singing to each other on their balconies.  Most reactions were simply about noticing and loving our neighbours.

When times of crisis come and test me, I realise I don’t always show up as well as I’d like.  And many in isolation today don’t get noticed or loved as they should.  I have a prayer for me and for them.  It is based on one written 471 years ago by the man who was Archbishop of Canterbury then.

Lord, you teach us that without love all we do is worth nothing: send your Holy Spirit to pour into our hearts the supreme gift of love, the one thing which binds peace and virtue around us.  Otherwise our lives might as well be lost.

The words are the Thought for the Week column (which I'm only asked to contribute about once a year) in last week's Keighley News.

The tulips were at a magnificent final stage which we enjoyed as much as when we were given them perfect and new.

The monumental mason part of whose names appears in the previous post was James Greaves of Halifax.