MATURE QUESTIONS

LAST EVENING I pre-ordered Diarmuid O’Murchu’s next book In the Beginning Was the Spirit: Science, Religion and Indigenous Spirituality though it’s not due to be published until the end of October. This man’s writing matters to me. His Adult Faith, Growing in Wisdom and Understanding is one of the books I most frequently recommend to seekers who’ve “had it with the Church”, and to committed churchwomen and men too. And I give fellow clergy-friends his Jesus in the Power of Poetry simply because I think they’d be the long-term poorer without a copy on their shelves.

Trouble is, a bit like Jesus of Nazareth, O’Murchu doesn’t sound very “orthodox” in 2012 – one commentator today has even spoken of some “seriously weird essays on [O’Murchu’s] website”. That’s the magnet for me though. I’ve always been drawn to prophets, and to Jesus amongst these, because of what appears to many at first to be weirdness, and – in the case of Christ – his all-embracing inclusiveness and invitation to lift up eyes and open ears. And it turns out that Jesus is a mega-Prophet, to say the very least of Him!

The judgmental intransigence of a great deal of so called “mainstream” Christianity drives me round the bend at times. “Gospel” (Good News) too often looks like bad news for many people, myself included, and it’s supposed to be precisely the opposite – for ALL people – regardless of religious affiliation or the lack thereof. The Gospel of Jesus is an invitation to mature, liberated Life – and all the consequent pushing out of boundaries and stretching human imaginations that evolving Life involves.

So I was delighted to wake up this morning to Bishop of Bradford Nick Baines’ post about his Diocesan Clergy Conference …

When you have grown up with a particular framework for understanding the world and theology, it is not a simple task to listen through different ears to a different vocabulary. But, this is, in fact, what Jesus asked his friends and enemies to do – just read the gospels and this is the story: who dared to listen and look at God, the world and us through a different lens, and who could only try to shut out the heresy?

The Bradford Diocesan Clergy Conference began today at Swanwick in Derbyshire. I guess it’s one of those things – like preaching – where you just have to be there to ‘get it’. We began with an utterly human session with David Runcorn on ‘keeping faith in a time of change’. Then we had a first session with Diarmuid O’Murchu on the developing cosmological context of human spirituality. It is in this context that we explored the implications of human belonging to the interconnected web of relationship with people, creation and the cosmos.

via The web of belonging « Nick Baines’s Blog.

… delighted because I’m convinced that listening “through different ears to a different vocabulary” is of vital, utmost importance at this moment in history. This gifted linguist of a bishop, in company with people like Diarmuid O’Murchu, recognises the profound importance of language, and today’s “interconnected web of relationship” involves the daily use of more languages, metaphors and memories than we’ve had hot dinners. And “memories” are not straightforward facts. Writing about having no memory of the 1969 moon landing Christopher Burkett says

My not remembering the Apollo 11 landing illustrates how plastic memory is. Memory is always something we construct and not simply retrieval of pre-existent, pre-formed files. It’s a disarming fact that memory making is often as easy as forgetting.

via Christopher Burkett’s Blog.

Another daily encouragement comes to me from the pen of Fr Richard Rohr – who offers daily meditations in the form of snippets from his prolific writings. Yesterday’s brought forth a whole series of Alleluias in me

The Reign of God has much more to do with right relationship than with being privately right. It has much more to do with being connected than with being personally correct. Can you feel the total difference between these two? The one encourages an impossible notion of individual salvation and creates individualists, the other introduces cosmic salvation and creates humans, citizens, caretakers, neighbors, and saints.

The Reign of God is not about a world without pain or mystery but simply a world where we can be in real contact with all things, where we can be inherently connected and in communion with what Mary Oliver calls “the daily presentations.” Then the whole world is our temple and your church. Then we can realistically hope for both “a new heaven and a new earth” (Revelation 21:1) as the Bible finally promises.

Jesus is a consummate Jew and he was quite aware from his own Scriptures that God was saving history itself, and all of us in its sweep—and all of us in spite of ourselves, just as he always loved Israel in spite of its constant infidelities. Salvation for the Jews was a social and historical notion, not this much later regression into “How can I personally go to heaven?” This gross individualism pretty much defeated any real notion of God’s victory and “reign.”

Adapted from Jesus’ Plan for a New World: The Sermon on the Mount, p. 11

via Daily Meditation: The Reign of God – September 18, 2012.

In the evening of the 11th May 1985, as the smoke still poured forth from the tragic fire at Bradford City Football Stadium, that great city knew itself changed forever. I was working at the time as Chaplain to one of Nick Baines’ predecessors and I remember as though it were yesterday a young Muslim teacher addressing the bishop at one of the crowded Memorial Services in the Cathedral: “today our religions have matured, my Lord Bishop. We’ve discovered languages beyond our own.”

Today Nick Baines has replied to a too-quick dismissal of Diarmuid O’Murchu with these words

Should we only invite people who say what we want to hear in words that make us comfortable? Or is there a virtue in listening to people who come at things from a different angle? We don’t have to agree with him. In fact, the clergy are so mature here that pretty well everyone engaged with what he had to say and asked some excellent critical questions. Several of the more conservative clergy were grateful that we got someone left-field whose language alone makes you think hard about why we think the way we think about what we think. Maybe you can’t cope with that, but we can.

via The web of belonging « Nick Baines’s Blog.

And I thank God.

WHAT’S GOOD NEWS?

I’M OFF TO A DAY CONFERENCE on “Catholic Evangelism” tomorrow. I’m not wholly sure whether it’s going to be about Catholic Evangelism (capital C, capital E) or catholic evangelism (small c, small e), and I’m rather hoping for the latter … hoping, that is to say, for a catholic evangelism that really is about good news (evangelism) universally applied (catholic), ie, for everybody – no matter their “faith tradition” or lack thereof – everywhere.

I’ve spent a very great deal of my life passionately pondering what exactly constitutes good news, and in particular why having some sort of acknowledged relationship to / with the Source of our lives might matter – to individuals, to communities, to nations, to our world, to the whole created order – some of these whole and healthy, some desperately broken, hurting, and in need of that Divine touch that brings healing. And I’m consistently finding that old definitions of what it means to be Catholic, or Protestant, or Christian, or shades in between all of these, don’t fit all sizes any more, if they ever did.

Christ everywhere …

What constitutes Good News in a ‘catholic’, pluralistic world? Where is an / our anointed Christ to be found? (as I’m sure such a Christ is indeed to be found, anywhere in the world, and across the world’s faith traditions). And the questions are so important to me because as a Christian priest, seeking always to live and learn – to be a disciple – after the pattern of Jesus of Nazareth, I have observed that some kinds of Catholic, some kinds of Protestant, and some kinds of “Christian” plainly do not represent very good news for many people at all. So catholic evangelism must be something quite different, something much more open, something prepared always to be held to account as to the reach of what it purports to be good news. Catholic evangelism will not, I think, be too prescriptive.

Feast of life for all

Catholic evangelism will offer the “feast of life” to people in the “highways and byways” won’t it? Catholic evangelists, personal and corporate, will have dismantled their drawbridges. Catholic evangelism will be less concerned (although not wholly unconcerned) with the Faith of our Fathers and hugely more concerned with Faith Being Received Today. When I’ve asked adults over the past thirty years whether they’d like to come to confirmation classes, so that they can be presented to the bishop, confirmed, and thereafter receive Holy Communion many have politely declined. When I’ve offered the Sacrament of Holy Communion “no questions asked” it has been the case, more frequently than I can count, that the recipient has ended up doing the asking, seeking to confirm a present and acknowledged reality – satisfied hunger – in their lives.

Let’s explore!

And I remember that Jesus was ever ready to go the extra mile for children, too. “Do not try to stop them for the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to such as these”. Catholic evangelists will work hard at becoming more, well … catholic – so that they’re more plainly seen to be, well … “Christian” or “Anointed”. Catholic evangelists will be interested in marginalised multi-tasking-capable women, tax collectors, prodigal sons, unimaginative but very opinionated men, quieter and more imaginative men, too, and in lost sheep. Catholic evangelism won’t chastise the lost sheep for having left the fold in order to “explore”, still less tell the poor creature that God forbids it. Instead truly catholic evangelists (like Jesus of Nazareth) will make the fold larger so that there’s the space for MORE sheep to engage in the business of exploration, to engage, that is to say, in their God-given Life!

The Sound of Silence

One of the biggest growth areas in our parish (liberal Catholic with blurry edges – a bit like my paintings!) – has been a call to shared and silent meditation in the parish church – arriving and departing in companionable silence. No coffee or handing out electoral roll forms afterwards. And numbers in excess of many a church’s entire Sunday congregation have responded to a call – we believe a Divine call – to dwell for a space, together in the “house for the Church”, to wait upon the Word that touches life in silence. (The Word – not words. There’s not “even” a Bible reading). It’s life-changing, say many participants. It’s the only occasion in my month when I’m really and deeply aware of the heartbeat of God, the pulse of life, say others. This silence, this “that’s not very Catholic” but absolutely catholic encounter is breathing into our common life new elements of what it means to bear good news in our lives today, what it means, first and foremost to BE the Body of Christ now on earth, what it means to be religious in the original sense of the word (religare) – reconnected, re-membered. Restored to what we’ve forgotten.

Old assumptions yield

So whether tomorrow proves to be slanted more to Catholic Evangelism, or to catholic evangelism, I hope we’ll be asking the same question – What is Good News? – at least sometimes. Because, remembering Louis MacNeice’s Mutations again:

… old assumptions yield to new sensations.
The Stranger in the Wings is waiting for his cue.
The fuse is always laid to some annunciation …

RESTORATION

MY FRIEND ALAN MORRIS reminded us in a sermon here yesterday of the infinite care that is the work of a master art restorer.

We are God’s work of art, created in Christ Jesus to live the good life as from the beginning he had meant us to live it.

Ephesians 2.10, Jerusalem Bible

We talked over lunch, too, of Paul Tillich, and – as clerics are wont to do – of the vicissitudes and inadequacies in the life of the Church, and ourselves as members of her. Alan’s a Roman Catholic. I’m an Anglican. Close friends for years and both “arrested”, as Tillich would have it, by God “beyond religion.” And our truest and deepest lifeline is, precisely, in our having been so arrested.

And if someone is arrested by God and made aware of the ambiguous character of his religious life, religion is not taken away from him. But now he realises that even this cannot give him the meaning of his life. He does not have to lose the meaning of his life if he loses his religion. Whoever is arrested by God stands beyond religion and non-religion. And if he holds fast to his religion, it becomes something else to him. It becomes a channel, not a law, another way in which the presence of the ultimate has arrested him, not the only way. Since he has reached freedom from religion, he also has reached freedom for religion. He is blessed in it and he is blessed outside of it. He has been opened to the ultimate dimension of being.

Paul Tillich, The Eternal Now, page 75

Prayer and contemplation seek to maintain that “opening” in the now and in the eternal. We are caught up in a work of restoration.

BAPTISM & BIRDSONG

I COULD BARELY BREATHE during BBC1’s Birdsong tonight. May the God of life help us never, ever, ever to forget again the realities therein represented. After last week’s episode I’d spent a lot of time thinking up excuses to avoid tonight’s, but in the event sat dumbstruck under a sense I can only describe as “responsible obligation”. The terrible, terrible and overwhelming waste of not one but two World Wars, early in the same century, swamp the soul. I thought my chest would burst in the scene when the two German soldiers told Wraysford that the War was finished. Over. Told, terrified and terrifying, with all the dear longing and hope in the world – the dead Jack Firebrace’s “Love is all there is Sir. To love and to be loved”, hanging in exploded dust.

Today I baptised a young woman, two young boys and three beautiful infants. They’re all treasured. This world’s peace and your life’s purpose are intimately bound, I told them, their parents and their godparents; those baptised into the faith of the Christ today must play their part well in ensuring that no religious, political or sociological dogma should ever again lead to such a monstrously great lie, a madness of such inconceivable proportions, that so set tender-hearted men against each other that hell was created upon the face of the earth. No religious certainty, no political ideology, no nationalism nor false pride should ever again be allowed to prevail over “Love is all there is Sir. To love and be loved.”

Six new Christians. May they herald a purer, higher form of Christianity for today and for the future. May they mingle with wider religious representation. May they be salt and yeast and light and love in the world. May they never be taught, or learn by any other means, how to hate another human person by reason of their colour or creed, gender, race or sexuality. And may they ever be profoundly grateful for the comradeship, the basic goodness, compassion and self-sacrifice of the millions who gave up their lives – God help humanity – without ever fully understanding why. May they follow the example – all this is to say – of our Lord Jesus Christ, who was always more concerned to serve than to be served, to offer worth to others than to be himself worshipped. May it be that when any of us feel burdened with a desire to persuade others of our own doctrine we might follow Archbishop Sentamu’s advice the other night: “ask yourself first how your doctrine measures up to your Jesus”. How does it, how do I, measure up to Love?

PURPOSE

Screenshot - click to go to BBC Radio 4

CAUGHT UP tonight with the excellent BBC Radio 4 conversation, hosted by Andrew Marr, between Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Richard Dawkins and Lisa Randall. I was greatly impressed by the tone of the conversation. Respectful and interested, there was also a distinct absence of high-pitched religious or philosophical “certainties”. Wondering quietly about human perspectives 500 years from now (“our view of the world around us, and our place within it”) is a fairly frequent feature of my own prayer-life and daily contemplation. I’m able to delight with Richard Dawkins in his celebrating beauty and “magic”. And one of Rabbi Sacks’ sentences reverberates particularly: “Things do not need to have a purpose, but persons do”. That has certainly been my experience. William Cleary’s lovely prayer speaks of the hope in persons with a purpose, with imagination:

There is hope for me because you are a caring creator, and have filled our experience with caringness: links of concern and love in my heart for those around me, and energies of positive regard from others toward me. In such a circle we can survive, and with evolutionary imagination at work everywhere, we can find joy in the mysterious dance of daily life. Amen

My Being Speaks: Finding joy in life
from We side with the morning: William Cleary

AMAZING BROOMS OF MANY COLOURS

broom-army | clean-up at Clapham Junction photo/AndrewBayles

Robert Robinson, broadcaster, who died 13 August 2011

ROBERT ROBINSON, veteran broadcaster and presenter (Ask the Family, Call My Bluff, Brain of Britain etc) has died at the age of 83. The BBCs Nick Higham has described him today as “a polite and genial host”, and as (hopefully-tongue-in-cheek) “a relic of a time when there were gentlemen on television.”

I hope that the past week here in the UK will have invoked heartfelt prayers – and hopes if not prayers – in favour of the “old fashioned” notion of the gentleman and the gentlewoman with all possible speed. Being polite, genial and gentle are human qualities that must not be allowed to become relics. Actually, it occurs to me tonight that I watched substantially more television in “the old days” than I do now. I’m really rather disposed towards the polite, the genial and the gentle. And that’s why the main picture in this post gives me – and the greater part of the 60+million citizens of the United Kingdom – such hope and heart.

Truly, these brooms sweeping clean are a sight to behold. This is News of the World that isn’t controlled by greedy fat-cat bankers, or by the Murdoch empire: these brooms represent a majority impulse for decency and order, for clean-up and community. And it’s not just shattered glass, destroyed homes and shops that need the broom treatment. There’s huge need in British society today for “cleaning up our act”. Inflammatory behaviour, inflammatory language, all forms of (often alcohol-fuelled) violence, exclusive language (especially religious language) needs to be “cleaned up” urgently. There’s too much talk within some of the Christian communities I’ve been involved with across a lifetime that smacks of “we’ve got it right; we and we alone have got the gospel” – and I don’t believe for a second that Jesus of Nazareth did or would brook any of that kind of attitude.

I often make a point of assuring people who express interest that the posts I publish on this private blog represent my own personal views. I do not presume to speak for anyone else. I know, of course, that my public ministry as an Anglican parish priest requires that I speak, in some broadly agreed sense, for the Church of England in my parish. But the Church of England represents a whole raft of opinion, theology, spirituality – some of which I speak for, and some of which I do not. Speaking for the Church is by no means an easy consideration – and I “pray to speak” with a proper humility. How could I claim to know all that “the Church of England” might want to say on this, that or another subject? How much more difficult it becomes when people presume to speak the wholly expressed will of God; when people dare to suggest that their own religious (or political) tradition, and theirs alone, offers the path to “full salvation”.

Words do matter. Words can include or exclude. Words do include some and they also exclude others, political words, religious words, broadcast words, twittered words or domestic words. We need to “clean them up”. Our language needs the more truly to represent our national, political and (for some) religious aspirations. But that ever-evolving process takes time, and time is not an available luxury in the midst of a crisis. So where words have failed, and continue to fail, cosmopolitan gatherings of people standing shoulder to shoulder, wielding brooms of many colours (and yes, thank God, there have been church-folk among these) are they who win the day, and who win the loudest applause. Cross-political, cross-religious, cross-community: polite, genial and gentle are truly cosmopolitan values. May Robert Robinson be remembered with gratitude and affection tonight, and may his values never become relics.

FLAK FROM ALL SIDES

MAGGI DAWN’S QUESTIONS unerringly get to the  heart of the matter faster than most people’s answers:

The Archbishop is worried.

A new bishop has been elected (though not yet confirmed) in Los Angeles, and she’s “married” to another woman. This will undoubtedly cause another round of bitter rows in the Anglican communion, and there is no solution to the endless disagreement. Andrew Brown says that “Rowan Williams has been forced into an impossible corner by his own diplomacy”; while Ekklesia suggests that the Archbishop making comments that the election of Mary Glasspool is problematic, while refusing to condemn the extreme measures of the Ugandan Anti-Homosexuality Bill, makes it seem that he is taking sides.

I think he can’t win whatever he says, and in a problem without a solution he has become the symbolic person that takes the flak from all sides. I don’t know what the answer is either. Do you? (my emphasis)

via lesbian bishop – Maggi Dawn.

No, Maggi. I’m sure I don’t know the answer. But as every day goes by I’m thinking that the quicker we move away from religious propositions that front “a symbolic person taking the flak” the better. And René Girard, for example, stands in company with many faithful Christians whose faith does not require that GOD intended for “His only Son” to be scapegoat for the “sin” represented by all that appears wrong, or at least unsolvable, in this world. Those of homosexual orientation are no more to blame for all the ills of Africa than Archbishop Rowan can be blamed for the ills of the Anglican Communion. Outdated theologies of scapegoating – symbolic persons taking the flak from all sides – are at the heart of the matter.

In future, all violence will reveal what Christ’s Passion revealed, the foolish genesis of bloodstained idols and the false gods of religion, politics, and ideologies. The murderers remain convinced of the worthiness of their sacrifices. They, too, know not what they do and we must forgive them. The time has come for us to forgive one another. If we wait any longer there will not be time enough. – The Scapegoat, René Girard, John Hopkins University Press, 1986, p 212

May angels of God be on hand to comfort and sustain Archbishop Rowan. And may “the thoughts and meditations of all our hearts and minds” together with our prayer, moderation and non-violence, physical or verbal, establish peace.