Friday 17 July 2009

Interest in Herodias

This year some members of study groups have been asking about the ‘original’ text of the New Testament, so last night I took the PCC and the Shared Ministry Team through a much more academic exercise than I would usually. I hadn't realised how fascinated some people would be by this.

I was helped by the placing of the complete fourth century Codex Sinaiticus (including the earliest, or one of the earliest, New Testaments) on line this month. They could go home and look at one of about a dozen major sources for the original text of the New Testament, right down to the finger print of a scribe on one of the pages.

I explained that these major sources (and a large number of other early fragments) provide substantial agreement about the majority of the text. But where they disagree a scholarly opinion has to be formed about what the correct Greek text is before it can be translated. These disagreements sometimes show up in notes at the bottom of a page in our New Testaments with words like ‘other ancient authorities read’.

I was also helped by the Gospel we read on Sunday. They were familiar with the story of one of the Herods being scandalously married to his former sister-in-law Herodias whose daughter Salome (although she is not named in the Bible) dances before her step-father / uncle, is promised any reward she chooses, and is prompted by her mother to ask for the head of John the Baptist who had spoken out against the marriage. The Jewish historian Josephus has them all being related in a slightly different way, names Herodias’ daughter as Salome, and links the scandal of her marriage to the execution of John the Baptist, so there is a rare touching point with independently evidenced history here even if there is some disagreement about the details.

We read Mark 6.22 in the New Revised Standard Version (‘When his daughter Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests’) which is different from, for example, the New International Version (‘When the daughter of Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his dinner guests’). The NIV appears to make more sense and translates what is in some sources, but the NRSV translators obviously think that what is in many other sources is more likely to be the original text both because it is better evidenced and also perhaps because it is a stranger reading and thus less likely to have been produced by a scribe trying to ‘correct’ his source.

The shadow was in St Michael’s the previous evening.

Monday 13 July 2009

Twenty years

We are rich in people impressively committed to the well being of our area.

This includes well paid businessmen. At a recent College Governors’ event, two of them mentioned to me independently their determination to improve North East Lincolnshire. One has taken a £10,000s cut in pay to work in education. The other said he only saw the point of being a Governor if his expertise contributed to making a difference to the local community.

It also includes those who are less well off members of the community, of which I was reminded yesterday. The picture is of the resident of the Willows estate who chairs the Freshney Forward group. She is in front of the bouncy castle which it provided free (as the result of a grant) at the well attended mini-Carnival there yesterday. The server at the morning service at St Michael’s yesterday was completing seventy years at the one church (he told me he began Sunday School on the second week of July 1939 when all the news was about the threat of war); he has spent half his life running Scout groups and is planning yet another of his a fund raising events for the church in the autumn.

This all pleases me no end as I’m beginning to think I belong here myself. I can’t manage seventy years in one place, but yesterday I completed twenty years in the diocese of Lincoln (having been licensed to a parish in Scunthorpe on 12th July 1989). Such stability is quite a surprise for me as I lived in seven different English counties and two other countries in the thirty years before that.

Saturday 11 July 2009

Final answer

I kept my answers small and kept them near;
Big questions bruised my mind but still I let
Small answers be a bulwark to my fear.

I’ve been re-reading Elizabeth Jennings Selected Poems and it is to Answers, with these opening lines, that I keep coming back.

One reason is that of R.S. Thomas’ poems the one I value above almost all is The Answer with its image Christ’s empty tomb (the stone rolled away and only his burial cloths inside) and its sense that what bruises our thinking will simply become redundant:

There have been times
when, after long on my knees
in a cold chancel, a stone has rolled
from my mind, and I have looked
in and seen the old questions lie
folded and in a place
by themselves, like the folded
graveclothes of love’s risen body.

Jennings’ place is earlier in the process. She recognises that dwelling on the questions which preoccupy her is really a defence against this sort of moment:

Even when all the small answers build up to
Protection of my spirit, still I hear
Big answers striving for their overthrow
And all the great conclusions coming near.

At Matins this morning we finished reading through Job again. Just as Thomas Aquinas’ vision of God near the end of his life made him regard all he had written as ‘so much straw’, so, after forty chapters of disputation, Job says:

I knew you then only by hearsay;
but now, having seen you with my own eyes,
I retract all I have said,
and in dust and ashes, I repent

I took the picture of Grimsby Docks (with the the increasingly derelict ice factory at the centre)when I was upstairs in the Grimsby Telegraph building during the week.

Thursday 9 July 2009

Not shopkeepers

Pastors have metamorphosed into a company of shopkeepers, and the shops they keep are churches. They are preoccupied with shopkeepers’ concerns - how to keep the customers happy, how to lure customers away from competitors down the street, how to package the goods so that the customers will lay out more money. Some of them are very good shopkeepers. They attract a lot of customers, pull in great sums of money, develop splendid reputations. Yet it is still shopkeeping; religious shopkeeping, to be sure, but shop-keeping all the same...

'A walloping great congregation is fine, and fun,' says Martin Thornton, 'but what most communities really need is a couple of saints; the tragedy is that they may well be there in embryo, waiting to be discovered, waiting for sound training, waiting to be emancipated from the cult of the mediocre.' The biblical fact is that there are no successful churches. There are, instead, communities of sinners, gathered before God week after week in towns and villages all over the world. The Holy Spirit gathers them and does his work in them. In these communities of sinners, one of the sinners is called pastor and given a designated responsibility in the community. The pastor’s responsibility is to keep the community attentive to God.


We don’t trust ourselves - our emotions seduce us into infidelities. We know that we are launched on a difficult and dangerous act of faith, and that there are strong influences intent on diluting or destroying it. We want you to help us: be our pastor, a minister of word and sacrament, in the middle of this world’s life... This isn’t the only task in the life of faith, but it is your task. We will find someone else to do the other important and essential tasks...

We know that you are launched on the same difficult belief venture in the same dangerous world as we are. We know that your emotions are as fickle as ours, and that your mind can play the same tricks on you as ours. That is why we are going to ordain you and why we are going to exact a vow from you. We know that there are going to be days and months, maybe even years, when we won’t feel like we are believing anything and won’t want to hear it from you. And we know that there will be days and weeks and maybe even years when you won’t feel like saying it. It doesn’t matter. Do it. You are ordained to this ministry, vowed to it.

There may be times when we come to you as a committee or delegation and demand that you tell us something else than what we are telling you now. Promise, right now, that you won’t give in to what we demand of you then. You are not the minister of our changing desires, or our time-conditioned understanding of our needs, or our secularized hopes for something better...

There are a lot of other things to be done in this wrecked world and we are going to be doing at least some of them, but if we don’t know the basic terms with which we are working, the foundational realities with which we are dealing - God, kingdom, gospel - we are going to end up living futile, fantasy lives. Your task is to keep telling the basic story, representing the presence of the Spirit, insisting on the priority of God, speaking the biblical words of command and promise and invitation.

The words are Eugene Peterson's from 'Working the Angles' (Eerdmans, 1987) pp 1-2, and 24-5, simply lifted from the Bishop of Buckingham's blog following an Ordination on Sunday, and the flower is behind the altar at St Nicolas', Great Coates.

Tuesday 7 July 2009

God trodden

Are our planning and our pet projects things which Jesus wants us to leave behind? It isn’t a new thought, but it came up again as a small group was discussing the Gospel from Mark 6 on Sunday morning; one of the pleasant side effects of having the First Sunday Thing as our main service is that from time to time I get to be the one looking at the Gospel in a small group rather than simply telling the congregation what I think about it.

Jesus told the disciples to take only sandals, a staff and a tunic; no food, no money, no spare clothes, and nothing in which to carry such things. This led to an interesting discussion about the balance between trusting God and being irresponsible. Being so convinced by or tied into the Business Plan mightn’t allow much room for God to get in. But, for example, charity trustees would be at fault getting into financial trouble by carrying on with something important not quite sure from where the money was to come, and their conviction that they were going forward in faith mightn’t give God any more of a look in.

We noticed Jesus also told them if they’d found one place of hospitality, to stick there and not to seek other places to stay instead. It did make us wonder whether one of the things we ought to leave behind, along with all our other abandoned resources, was what we hoped to achieve and how we hoped to achieve it. ‘Simply go with the opening you find’ seemed a possible message, one parallel to the old encouragement to find out what God appears to be moving and get behind that.

Meanwhile, as the earliest complete Bible was put on line yesterday, I find that the monastery on Mount Sinai from which it comes describes itself as being ‘of the God trodden mountain’, which fills in a gap in my vocabulary for the opposite of ‘God forsaken’ with which I’m very pleased.

Sunday 5 July 2009

Parish Lay Ministers

Recognising the formal ministry of some lay people includes celebrating those who are recognised as natural ministers anyway, placing them so that they can nurture the ministry of others, and deploying them to be creative with new possibilities in the life of their churches. These are three things I didn’t say introducing the authorisation of five Parish Lay Ministers in Cleethorpes on Friday.

They are authorised with the permission of the Bishop, but the Bishop does not authorise them lest it look as if he is licensing them. They only work on the basis of a parish Working Agreement, but the parish does not authorise them lest it looks as if they are only part of a parish rota. So, somewhat incongruously when compared with other aspects of his or her role, they are authorised by the Rural Dean, and I think I made a satisfactory fist at introducing the role they are to play in the life of their parishes when doing this for the first time, before asking the three parish priests to introduce their candidates.

One highlighted the way a candidate had simply been a natural lay leader in the life of the church anyway, something the parish hoped is now enhanced by further training and authorisation. It prompted me to remember the way Elders were identified in an ecumenical church of which I was part where from time to time each Member is asked to note who he or she looked up to in the life of the church.

Another highlighted the way he hoped new Parish Lay Ministers would animate and involve others in the worship they helped lead. It prompted me to remember the way cascading training and collaborative working was meant to be built into the old Local Ministry Scheme in the diocese.

The final one highlighted the new things which were already happening in the life of the church through what a candidate had been doing. It prompted me to remember a warning I’d heard before that the multiplication of lay ministry can just be a way of keeping the old model of the church on the road by covering the tasks clergy could no longer cover rather than beginning something new.

Wednesday 1 July 2009

Willows moving forward

If things don’t go well for the Willows estate, it won’t be for want of trying whether by local people or by professionals. I was at the monthly Freshney Forward meeting last night and was reminded of this yet again. There was some concentration on other aspects of the Ward (including the need to tackle an anti-social hot spot on Aylesby Park and the campaign to keep an ice rink in the area) but almost all the energy was coming from those who live on the Willows and those who support them.

Whereas grass roots groups either quickly flourish and then disappear or simply don’t appear at all in most other parts of the parish, groups and volunteers on the Willows do seem to bed in. Members of our former Bishop Edward King Centre contribute every week to activities in the old church building. Those who developed the garden behind the church have been at work in it yet again - I took the picture in there before the meeting. The TARA (Tenants and Residents Association) have a new poster up with photographs of members of a strong and large committee. It and Freshney Forward together have a mini-carnival planned for later this month. These partners and local Councillors demonstrated how they are all getting stuck into several real issues.

And of particular interest to me was also the shift to a ‘neighbourhood management’ approach by the local police who made a presentation. They have realigned their areas to match local Wards so that they can work better alongside Forward groups and Councillors. They have identified three priorities from local people in each Ward (the anti-social behaviour hot spot on Aylesby Park is one of them) and are trying to shift resources to tackle these. They are holding a monthly multi-agency meeting for a five Ward area to see whether different people (such as social housing providers or youth services) can respond in different and complementary ways to the most pressing needs.