Monday, 20 February 2017

Gifts we don't want


Some of the things which made Birmingham an important place in which to train for ordination in the middle of the 1980s have been coming back to me. 

The Bishop of Lincoln happened to ask me about it at breakfast earlier in the month and we named both Prof John Hull and Prof Frances Young in the conversation. 

And then the beautiful film Notes on Blindness was broadcast on BBC 4 this week – a film based on the notes which John Hull was making at the time as he explored the process of his going blind – and I was back in the midst of those conversations thirty years ago.

The film brought him to the place in which an overwhelming experience of grace gave him a sense of God placing a dark cloak over him – so that he had to own his blindness as a gift (albeit one he did not want) and the only question was then what he would do with it.

At the same time Frances Young, then a newly ordained Methodist Minister, was articulating her response to her son Arthur’s severe disabilities using what I take to be the same ‘theological method’.

But neither John Hull’s blindness nor Frances Young’s son’s disability were simply ‘raw material’ for ‘theological reflection’ but rather the realities integral to their lives, the lenses through which they read scripture, the questions with which they interrogated tradition, the filter through which they sifted other Christians' explorations and experience.

It strikes me belatedly that my own ministerial formation alongside these sorts of reflections explains why I find those who have a ‘problem with suffering’ so puzzling - when they made me want every such encounter to be the starting point which strips away previously easy answers and casual assumptions and takes me somewhere new.

So facing the realities of dispossesionbereavement, dementiasecular assumptions (thanks to Stephen Pattison, another of my Birmingham teachers of the time) and of stillbirth are examples of the places where faith can be refined and therefore renewed and validated rather than undermined and abandoned.

And just perhaps the Church of England is at such a moment with the gifts of both the experience of those who wish to own the reality of their same-sex marriages before God and of the painful division this has provoked.

It has brought our Archbishop this week to focus anew for those of whichever very different views of these realities:

No person is a problem, or an issue.  People are made in the image of God.  All of us, without exception, are loved and called in Christ.  There are no ‘problems’, there are simply people...  we need a radical new Christian inclusion in the Church... this must be... based on good, healthy, flourishing relationships, and in a proper 21st century understanding of being human and of being sexual... The way forward needs to be about love, joy and celebration of our humanity; of our creation in the image of God, of our belonging to Christ - all of us, without exception, without exclusion.

It brings me back to my reading of the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8 - returning from what would have been a marginalising experience at the temple in Jerusalem and full of urgent questions about his reading of Isaiah 53.

I’m certain it is not just or even chiefly a story of an intellectual question (‘who is Isaiah speaking about?’) receiving a satisfactory academic answer (‘this is how we understand the ministry of Jesus’) and thus provoking a religious response (‘what then prevents me from being baptised?’).

It is a story of a painful reality (of emasculation and religious exclusion) encountering Gospel possibilities (‘don’t let the eunuch say I’m just a dry tree’ comes in the same part of Isaiah) which opens up new life itself (‘and he went on his way rejoicing’).

The picture was taken in St Nicolas’, Great Coates after the children had left last week.

Wednesday, 15 February 2017

How you look at it



I’ve been as touched as much as others by the story of the antique lace wedding dress of her great, great grandmother’s which a recent bride rediscovered and wore at her own wedding and then thought she had lost when a dry cleaner firm went out of business.  It was identified in a heap in the abandoned shop, easily mistaken for a pile of discarded lace.  I’m briefly thinking of swathes of the Christian tradition as being that dress.

The essays in the catalogue of the Jerusalem exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art included a quotation read out to me yesterday: “It is in the same [Crusader] period that Islamic scholars increasingly began to interpret Qur’anic discussions of jihad, or struggle, to embrace the concept of fighting as a religious duty, rather than an inner struggle of a defence of a community.”

Members of a large school group in St Nicolas’ today were tasked with drawing things in the church which were symbolic of faith, and were directed in particular towards the font, the stained glass and so on.  I suggested that a tin of carrots was symbolic of the faith of the person who had bought it as an extra item when shopping to place in the Food Bank collecting box when coming to church on Sunday.  I checked at the end: four of them had drawn the tin.

Meanwhile, a Duke of Edinburgh Award group have returned yet again to St Nicolas' to work at the western edge of the churchyard extension on which for many years has been dumped surplus earth from digging graves and general rubbish.  There will be room for at least an additional fifteen burials when they have done, quite apart from the back rows of graves being in a more seemly setting which is something I'd promised some of the next-of-kin a very long time ago.

Wednesday, 8 February 2017

Investing in eternity


I’ve been thinking about how a cult and a mainstream church might both use the same theology.

It is a side effect of the three Bishops in this diocese processing all the clergy through a series of breakfast meetings for the first time: I set off for Lincoln at 6.45 a.m. one morning this week to be at Edward King House in times for shared Matins, an impressive cooked breakfast, and a hour and a half seminar about promoting financial stewardship in our parishes.

I suspect that twenty-five years ago such seminars (at whatever time of day!) would have begun by exercises enabling participants to express the theology they use or value when doing this and what they find difficult.  Things have moved on, and this time more than 80% of the time was taken by Bishops’ talks.

The talks centred on a theology often worried away at in posts on this Blog: the total self-giving of God-in-Christ and the absolute call for a sacrificial response to this.

My only contribution was to suggest that we need to be exploring and living the implications of this all the time and then seeking to apply it in different circumstances. 

It is one thing to preach it regularly and to apply it frequently enough in different circumstances.  In this case, it would simply be a mainstream activity to ask from time to time the discipleship question ‘how does this relate to our financial giving to those in need and to the church?’.

It is quite another thing to be seen to practice it rarely (for the avoidance of doubt, it is myself I’m typing about here as much as anyone else) but to produce it suddenly to encourage a good response to our appeal to fund the ministry and mission of the church.  In this case, it could look like the manipulative behaviour of a cult.

To present a congregation with theological guidelines the final question of which is ‘how much do you want to invest in eternity?’ (which is what the one example of apparently good parish practice presented to us did ) might be judged to have strayed too far in the cult direction.

The Church of England has just published Setting God’s People Free, one of the reports on lay discipleship which come round at intervals.  It reminds us yet again that there is a need for a real culture change (this is the report's main point and language) to value normal people’s everyday life as the primary place for their discipleship and to focus on equipping them for this rather than to identify and value chiefly their contribution to the life of the church.

At one point, it asks:

How are Christians who are not in specialist ecclesial roles within the Church (such as Readers) equipped to integrate their regular patterns of Sunday (and weekday) worship, personal devotion, Bible reading and other practices of faith with the demands of family life, finances, personal relationships, politics, media and consumerism? 

This is one of only two points at which it mentions the word 'finance'.  I’ve just had another quick search and found the report does also contain three references to money: an example of the release of capital for mission activities through the sale of surplus Vicarages; praise for initiatives to train people as debt councillors and money coaches; and the sharp claim that ‘some laypeople at times feel little better than pew fodder whose task is no more than to give money, receive teaching, sing nicely and comply meekly’.

There is an obvious irony that the first recent systematic attempt to gather all the clergy for briefings and encouragement should address the issue of promoting stewardship to finance the ministry and mission of the church just at the time that the issue is again raised of promoting a culture change in what we count as lay discipleship in life beyond the ministry and mission of the church, but I’m not sure it would really be that hard for a mainstream church to hold the two together.

Its statements and training would include the report's recognition and encouragement of the careful weighing of the difficult balance all of us face with the resources of time and money we can expend on ourselves, our families, our neighbours, charities and (of course) the ministry and mission of the church.  Perhaps it would begin with a celebration of the sometimes sacrificial generosity which does often flavour many people’s community and family lives.

Meanwhile, here is another quite different picture of St Michael’s, one which shows the whole of the 1915 chancel screen (the gallery of which was lost in the 1970s and the body of which was moved at the beginning of this century).  I think they sang ‘Praise my soul the King of heaven’ and ‘Lead us, heavenly Father, lead us’.

Revised 10th February

Sunday, 5 February 2017

A rhyme for 'God'


This week, I’ve found Bono writing of a new book by Richard Rohr:

Humanity is a perfect rhyme for what Christianity, trying to express the inexpressible, calls the holy trinity.

And Marilynne Robinson quoted in The Tablet:

I tend to think of all language as necessarily inexact when it is used to describe things beyond the experiential world – or, better, as free from the narrowness of meaning this-worldy understanding implies of it.

So I’ve returned to a little story I tell often.  In fact, I’m a little surprised to search back over eight and half years of blogging here to find that I’ve not posted it before. 

One of my brothers began an A-level science course forty years ago.  The school teacher welcomed the students.  He said how good it was to have so many who had done well at O-level wanting to study further.  He added that it would be fun to teach them without having all those who were not keen on the subject clogging up the class as well.

He then gave them a warning.  “If you are going to do well at A-level,” he said, “you need to know that a lot of what we taught you at O-level isn’t actually true.”

It links firmly in my mind with a quotation from Archbishop Anthony Bloom which I have posted before:

The little we know of God makes it difficult to learn more, because the more cannot be added to the little, since every meeting brings such a change of perspective that what was known before becomes almost untrue in the light of what we know later. 

You’d get stuck doing A-level science if the only model of an atom in your mind was one of a mini-solar system probably imagined with ping pong balls.  You’d get stuck growing in knowledge of God if the only model in your mind was the children’s hymn ‘All things bright and beautiful’ probably imagined as a powerful white bearded deity in the sky.

More profoundly, science traces back the origins of our expanding universe to a point 13 or 14 billion years ago when everything was one tiny point.  It warns us that this can’t be envisaged as a particular point in otherwise vacant space or to a particular time after an eternity of waiting: both space and time have their origins at this point as well.

So it is not possible to talk of ‘before’ or ‘outside’ or ‘causing’ this point simply because such language doesn’t make sense without space and time – which is as clear an illustration as I can imagine of the sort of ‘change in perspective’ and view of God ‘which becomes almost untrue’ of which Bloom writes.

I see that the earlier post acknowledges this and suggests a way through this, a way which does also have a Trinitarian shape:

Our instinct and hypothesis remains that it is meaningful to use this word God about what sometimes seems to meet us in these flawed places and sometimes seems to call, draw and take us beyond them.  Our instinct and hypothesis remains that in Jesus of Nazareth we can see most clearly what God would look like when expressed within the time and space beyond which we cannot conceive. Our instinct and our hypothesis is that what we encounter in creativity, love and communication are also echoes within time and space of the life of the God who draws us and who we see in Jesus.

I do quite like ‘rhyme’ as an alternative to ‘echo’.

The picture is another one of St Michael’s which I’ve found recently, this time without being able to pin down any copyright possibilities.  It dates from the 1950s – the main road outside the church had already been straightened but housing had not yet encroached on its splendid but still slightly surprising isolation.