THE QUEEN’S FIAT

THERE’S A LOVELY PIECE by Liz Dodd in The Tablet this week about the “anti-Jubilee resolve” in her that hadn’t yet considered what two archbishops (Canterbury and Westminster) had: the Marian-like “fiat” or “yes” uttered by Queen Elizabeth II sixty years ago, and the resolve, perseverance and dedication with which Her Majesty has fulfilled that promise.

Impressed by

“Prince Charles’ speech at the end of the concert (‘my father has been taken unwell’); the Queen, accompanied only by a Lady in Waiting to the Service of Thanksgiving; Archbishop Williams’ brave words about ‘ludicrous financial greed’ at that same service – [which] will stick in my memory long after I’ve forgotten the hymns, the hats and the pearly sword”

Liz writes of the importance of the humanity revealed in the celebration, and of how

“My own anti-Jubilee resolve eventually crumbled when I found myself stuck in a pub in Hackney that was showing the concert. As the national anthem brought the event to a close everyone – every hipster, drinker and cynic in the bar – stood up. Including me.”

This is really important stuff. A theological college Principal recently suggested to one of our ordinands here that “I would really have to see the whites of their eyes before I preach.” The way we feel about people, and their celebrations and circumstances, and the way we speak with and to and amongst them, is changed irrevocably when we’ve truly met them as human persons, as “one of us”. That, of course, involves a very particular kind of “fiat”, a very particular kind of commitment to the persons we presume to know, address or speak about. Preachers and would-be teachers in the life of the Church (or any institution) absolutely owe it to their hearers to make some real effort to know WHO it is they’re addressing, to know something of the issues going on in the lives of the human persons seated before them. (And actually, whether you’ve a congregation of 20 or 2000, or a Commonwealth of billions, that’s really not an easy thing to do).

Proximity

Once upon a time I worked with a church council who were exceptionally unkind and discourteous to one another and to the people they were called to represent and serve. Meeting in a cavernous ecclesiastical space, all parties felt at liberty to “slag off” any and all others at will. So we moved to a much smaller space and we sat round a table that made for a tight fit. Behaviour improved immediately. Falsely inflated opinions about persons are deflated by proximity to them.

Still, however, we all find it easier to be rude about others than to them. Proximity ordinarily makes us more civilized (and we really are pompous buffoons if it doesn’t). Close up, one can almost hear the heartbeat. Close up, one can feel warmth and loving kindness, or isolation, illness, anguish or pain. Close up, one can feel one’s own falsity and neediness, and hear one’s own balderdash and blustering. Close up, we wonder, embarrassed, how we ever came to be in possession of such grandiose ideas of our own importance in the scheme of things. (Sight of Archbishop Rowan’s desk and study in the recent Lambeth Palace video left me thanking God for a gentle, humble, scholarly GIANT of an archbishop, at around the same time as I spotted an account of his reading The Gruffalo to playschool children). Close up, the idea of inclusivity feels a better idea than we’d hitherto imagined (and we’re acutely aware of our own longing to be accepted for who we really are). Close up, a particularly vociferous and homophobic “Christian” of my aquaintance, suddenly saw, in the Bishop Gene Robinson he’d hitherto despised, a loving, warm, kindly and Christ-like human being – and repented of his former arrogance and “theological and doctrinal certainty.” Close up, we’re faced, and others are faced, with the reality of our character, values, and virtues – or the lack thereof.

Shaping society

Moving, forgive me, from one ecclesiastical journal to another, I was delighted to read the Church Times account of the University of Birmingham’s having been given “a multi-million pound award” by the Templeton Foundation (great videos) “to support [The Jubilee Centre] the first UK centre dedicated to research into the character, values, and virtues that shape UK society” … The director of the new centre, Professor James Arthur, said:

“In the aftermath of the August 2011 riots, there have been many calls for the renewal of public and private virtues. As a country we appear to want to change people for the better and so improve the quality of public life. However, there is very little definition of what these changes might be and how they might be made. The Jubilee Centre will not simply research past and present attitudes to character, but help to develop new knowledge and understanding of character that will benefit civil society.”

The same edition of the Church Times carries an extract from a sermon of Dean Jeffrey John who, attending St Alban’s Cathedral as “an ordinary worshipper” a week before being installed as its Dean, was approached by someone who didn’t know him and invited to sign a petition protesting his own appointment! That’s nearly as odd as one of my own, more straightforward – if impatient – parishioners who complained directly in my first week: “but we don’t know you …

Liz Dodd’s article in The Tablet, some reflection upon the Queen’s “fiat” – and her 60 years of absolute commitment to making real effort to know her peoples, together with an ever more widely adopted willingness to “see the whites of their eyes before I’d preach” would make for a really encouraging, exciting start to the Birmingham project. Well done the Templeton Foundation (again). This is research I’d really love to be involved with in depth. But, then again, I am. We all are. Her Majesty the Queen, the governments of the nations, the faith traditions, the philosophers and thinkers, the peoples of the world, we’re all involved. And I do not doubt that yet further grace will flow from Her Majesty’s Diamond Jubilee. Magnificat! There’s real hope.

” … every hipster, drinker and cynic in the bar – stood up. Including me.”

HOW SHALL I SING?

Coe Fen from Salisbury

ONE OF OUR ORDINANDS has been longing to get up to Durham for Evensong in the Cathedral there for weeks. Rachael Elizabeth has described the experience (happily on St Cuthbert’s Day) as “cloaked in a golden embrace” – and was thrilled then, and will be again, by a hymn we’ll sing here on Sunday – John Mason’s How Shall I Sing That Majesty? sung to Ken Naylor’s Coe Fen. Huddersfield Choral Society have recorded the hymn and an mp3 is here. I play Winchester Cathedral’s version from Hymns and Psalms Volume 2 constantly. It’s available here.

It’s a question that’s on this parish priest’s heart every day. How shall we sing? How shall the Body of Christ in the 21st century be blessed with resources in hymnody that speak the Word of God for our day? Our theology is a living thing and God speaks “New every morning … our waking and uprising prove”. I’ve written before about some of the hackneyed old stuff – stuffed full of outdated theology – that I believe is positively dangerous in today’s searching and pluralistic society; I’ve written before too of the divisive repetition of carefully selected chunks of Scripture that are then misused to patronise, chastise and exclude. These things will only be replaced, though, when hearts are captured by something that better describes where the people of this contemporary world have got to in their journeying with God and with those many and diverse “others” who make up the one humankind.

The Church of God, like humanity herself, is in the hands of God and will therefore end only if and when God wills it. That’s wholly better news to my eyes and ears than the fulminating “evangelicalism” that bleats on and on about the certain destruction of a Church led by “non-Bible believing liberals”. Dear God help us! They’re not talking good news. There’s nothing truly evangelical  about their perpetually prophesying destruction – and wilfully abrogating the responsibility of all human beings for “salvation” by turns either to Jesus of Nazareth or Rowan of Canterbury. The Primate of All Nigeria, in a statement about Archbishop Rowan’s new appointment says

For us, the announcement does not present any opportunity for excitement. It is not good news here, until whoever comes as the next leader pulls back the Communion from the edge of total destruction. To this end, we commit our Church, the Church of Nigeria, (Anglican Communion) to serious fasting and prayers that God will do “a new thing”, in the Communion.

For 2000 years no single person has shown themselves capable of pulling back an entire communion from anything at all. For pity’s sake let’s not burden Rowan’s hapless-even-before-named successor with this pretence of an expectation – only to knock them down when they don’t meet the mark either. Can’t we stretch our imaginations a bit further? Could we stop looking for unique messiahs and archbishops “possessed of unique qualities”?  Could we stop insisting that our version of messiah – already come or still awaited – is the one and only – the unique possibility? Couldn’t we “apply our minds to Wisdom”? – recognising from henceforth that Divine Sophia is to be found in every atom and fibre of every created thing? “Consider the lilies of the field …”

Could we rewrite the myth (as it has been rewritten so many times before) so that instead of making scapegoats we shared responsibility, under God, every child, woman and man alive, for the “salvation” of our supremely beautiful but tired and aching world and her humankind?

Jesus has never given me the impression that he was or is chiefly interested in our recognising his personal “uniqueness” (apparently keener on being thought of as “son of man” – one of us – than as “Son of God”) ; never implied that (long after his lifetime) “Bible Believing Christians” and their myths and theologies should take precedence over the primacy of experience in the Life and Love of koinonia. The arms wide-open embrace of Jesus of Nazareth was surely an invitation to all humankind to offer similar self-emptying healing and hospitality – and especially, if an “especially” there was ever to be, for those hitherto consigned to the anguish of life’s margins.

So tonight’s music choosing meeting here in little Bramhall was heartening. 5 people engaged in some depth with a shedload of hymnbooks and tunes. We grappled with what the hymns were trying to say alongside what we believed needed to be said to elucidate the Lectionary and to inspire hearts and souls at worship in the next eight weeks. It’s a tough collaborative exercise. It takes time, effort and forbearance – even  choosing how to celebrate Resurrection relevantly, worshipfully and well – but there’s no avoiding the question – Christian people who are liberal and inclusive in heart, soul, mind, body and intention must continue to ask How Shall I Sing? For

Thou art a sea without a shore,
a sun without a sphere;
thy time is now and evermore,
thy place is everywhere.

A THICK SKIN?

DEAR EDITH COX my late lamented doughty defender, protector, elderly Christian disciple and friend used, thirty years ago, to exclaim “eeh Father, you’ll just have to grow a thicker skin”. And every time she said it I was troubled by my apparent inability so to do. Edie eventually died in my arms, and just before she left this world she whispered “better that you live in your own skin, my love, better that you live in your own skin”.

Heaven knows that whoever succeeds Rowan Williams will need to be a person of almost inestimable strength of grace and character. That Archbishop Rowan should gently suggest that his successor will need “the skin of a rhinoceros” is entirely understandable. But honestly, watching this most gracious of men in the recent debate with Professor Richard Dawkins, much moved by the mutual respect and regard between them, I found myself profoundly grateful that Archbishop Rowan lives in his own skin. I wish for him and for his family all the well deserved joy and peace that Cambridge has to offer. The passing of time will most assuredly reveal the measure of the love Archbishop Rowan has quietly bestowed upon a noisy and fractious Church in a noisy and fractious world. Should Gabriel be the next Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan will be no less thoroughly missed.

Edie Cox used also to assure me, “God is good my lad. God is good. And merciful. And kind.” Edie Cox was right.

ENOUGH NATTERING

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I KNOW I SUGGESTED only yesterday that I’m more than just a bit grateful for those who shoulder the responsibilities of General Synod membership, doubting my own ability and / or willingness so to do. (PCC’s about my synodical limit). And I know I smiled when I read Bishop Nick Baines’ Catch up the other day:

if it wasn’t clear before, it should be obvious now that some circles simply cannot be squared. I am not aware of anyone – of any persuasion – who is looking forward with unalloyed joy to this week’s debates.

But nonetheless I wish I’d been in London this morning to hear the ABC at the Synod Eucharist. And to thank God for him. No matter how despondent I sometimes feel about the quality of the life of the Church of England generally today I am never, never despondent about Archbishop Rowan. I feel that at heart he speaks for me from the praying heart of a priest; that he speaks to and for the hearts of countless “witterers” and that, in his own heart and experience, he really does understand something of the “churning around inside” that goes on in wittering lesser mortals like me. Doesn’t he hit the nail on the head here? …

… we ought to remember that of course this is God’s future we’re talking about. And God’s future is by no means the same as the future we try to create for ourselves, and imagine for ourselves. That’s the challenge of discernment in the Holy Spirit. We’re asking not for a foretaste of the future we would like, we are planning, we are working for; we ask for a foretaste of God’s future. And once we put it like that, we realise of course that sinful and stupid as we are, we haven’t got a clue about God’s future. And so we come in prayer to the Holy Spirit, very much with empty hands and longing hearts and relatively blank minds. We come in exactly that state of wittering, inarticulate confusion that St Paul so wonderfully describes as the state of Christian prayer. We do not know how to pray as we ought to. Our prayer is a bundle of distractions and longings, hopes and anxieties, churning around inside, and somehow, upheld, shot through, by the power of the Holy Spirit in us. Somehow the Holy Spirit is constantly winnowing out the nonsense from our longing and hopes, and pushing us towards that future, God’s future, of which we can have so little a picture.

And yet, having said we haven’t got a clue what God’s future looks like, as a matter of fact that’s not the case. What does God’s future look like? Well, one thing we can say is that it looks like Jesus. And that’s why what we wait for, what we long for – God’s future – is our redemption. We ourselves have had the first fruits of the spirit grow inwardly while we wait for adoption. The redemption of our bodies for in hope we were saved.

full homily text and video here © Rowan Williams 2012

The future looks like Jesus … so, the future will probably be heavily weighted towards affording women absolutely proper, necessary and equal status; would respect the dignity and untold worth of all shapes, sizes, colours, creeds and the many other temporal orientations of a wide-world’s-worth of human persons; would teach and preach with relevant simplicity and humility; wouldn’t be afraid of affection, children, emotion, failure, laughter, illness, intimacy, politicians, questioning, religious authorities, or sexuality; would have a ready empathy with – and a natural incination towards – friendship / colleagueship with outcasts and ordinary folks, little life celebrations, wholeness and holiness, and a gracious and compassionate leading out of “things now hidden in darkness” into God’s eternally new and creative light.

Thank God for Archbishop Rowan. I thank God that a future that looks like Jesus will be, notwithstanding the best efforts of contemporary religious nattering, inevitably and eternally bright. Transfigured. A lifting and a glorious revelation of the Divine beauty in all things – witterers and “others” included – beyond the present limits of our sight.

Thanks be to God that “God is”, as God’s Archbishop of Canterbury has it, “God’s future.”

WHAT A CHARACTER!

WHAT A CHARACTER! What a visionary John the Baptist appears to have been. “Skinny as a cactus” as Barbara Brown Taylor has it, and ready to stand before all-comers to present them with a haunting hunch. No. He was not the Christ. No. Not the greatest amongst the prophets, past or present. No. Not the light that was to come into the world. No. He didn’t know his name. Yes. He understood that most people had heard more messianic / apocalyptic preachers than they’d had hot dinners. No. He wouldn’t be able to hold a candle to the one who’s absolutely going to be raised up, “one who stands among you”. It’s a hunch. A haunting hunch. Not much detail yet. But an absolute assurance that what’s needed in this world, the real and radical hope for the friendless, the unheard, the dispossessed (of whom, in our time too, Archbishop Rowan has been writing in the Advent wilderness this week) – is repentance. Not a nauseating or ingratiating or formulaic “Father, forgive me for I have sinned” but repentance. Turning around. Looking at life, and at love, and the way we live, and the way we love, in a new way. John the Baptist had a prophetic hunch that what was going to be required, in future, of every anointed man, woman and child upon the face of the earth was a willingness to “walk the walk” as well, if not better, than they “talk the talk”. And people like you and me were prepared to put life and limb at great risk to go out there into the wilderness to hear that! John the Baptist wasn’t the only guy with a hunch, was he? We’ve a pretty strong sense too that what we need in our broken world is a good dunking in the Jordan. Fresh, cold water. Rise and shine. Smell the coffee. The wilderness is about to break into flower. Which wilderness? Where? Yours. In your heart, for a start. What a character! What a visionary. Who? Ah, come on! YOU …

THE WIND BLOWETH …

SIGNS THAT THE SPIRIT listeth where she wills fill me with a real sense of hope. I pray that history will look upon the Bishop of London and the Dean and Chapter of St Paul’s with a kindly eye. There can hardly be a priest, dean or bishop in the country that hasn’t privately sighed “there, but for the grace of God, go I”. We’ve all done a bit of volte face in our time. Truth to tell, and to pinch an oft used phrase of Bishop Michael Marshall’s: “the many are saved by the few and the few are saved by the one”. Wrong-footed wrath – or even just embarrassment – too quickly and too often demands a scapegoat … until we learn (and – thank God – some are learning) the ways of God a little more perfectly.

The Church in England has long been in need of a bit of a shake up.

I’m mortified every time I hear another weary “Christian” bleat about human sexuality – of whatever shade or hue; embarrassed by the continual twittering about women priests and bishops – there are thousands of women who, whilst waiting for consecration and call to a particular office have just got on and quietly exercised episcopal ministry anyway; irritated by the anonymous demands of “health and safety” – so often more to to do with giving someone a licence to pontificate than with actual health or actual safety;  too frequently angry about “personnel management” and “growth action plans” that give the impression that the only kind of growth that the Church is interested in is its bank balance and the number of seats filled in the nave (the expensive nave that “must” be preserved in every town and village whatever the cost – so the “growth” will preferably be made up of season ticket holders or pay monthly contracts). And God forbid that we should ever be asked to pray in a tent (or a local ecumenical project) … without a stained glass East window. It’s hard going firing slings and arrows at fat cats when you’re hoping against hope that no-one notices your own interest in preserving what you think is “rightfully mine”.

So where’s the sense of hope coming from? Let me name a few reasons:

1. St Paul’s changed its collective mind. You might say that St Paul’s repented. Turned around. Had a rethink. Looked at the situation from a changed perspective after Giles Fraser’s prophetic resignation. And the diocesan bishop Dr Chartres, writing for the Church Times has now said: “I believe that this is a moment in which St Paul’s, and the Church in general, has been shown how it can get away from an in-house ecclesiastical agenda, and its passion for elaborating defensive bureauocracy, in order to serve the agenda of the people of England at a critical moment in our history”. Amen. And hooray.

2. The Archbishop of Canterbury, having joined with 300+ other faith leaders at an interfaith –  🙂 – event in Assisi, organised by Pope Benedict XVI, said: “Lasting peace begins when we see the neighbour as another self, and so begin to to understand how and why we must love the neighbour as we love ourselves … human beings do not have to be strangers”. Here’s a man of God for our times. A man who can keep his head when all about him are either losing theirs, or becoming more entrenched in outdated religious conservatisms.

3. I visited the College of the Resurrection at Mirfield the other day. I quickly ordered up a core text I spotted on an ordinand’s bookshelf. How delighted I was to read in his introduction to Faith Seeking Understanding: An Introduction to Christian Theology, Daniel Migliore’s “Authentic faith is no sedative for world-weary souls, no satchel full of ready answers to the deepest questions of life. Instead, faith in God revealed in Jesus Christ sets an inquiry in motion, fights the inclination to accept things as they are, and continually calls in question unexamined assumptions about God, our world, and ourselves … When faith no longer frees people to ask hard questions, it becomes inhuman and dangerous. Unquestioning faith soon slips into ideology, superstition, fanaticism, self-indulgence, and idolatry …” So there’ll be some good people shaping up at Mirfield then. Future priests with their eyes and ears wide open.

And the Spirit of God hovers over the abyss today as yesterday. Blessed be God.

MORE THAN A ONE-MAN BAND

Buddy One-Man Band photo/simonmarsh

THE DAILY TELEGRAPH has been General Synod watching:

The Rt Rev Nick Baines, the Bishop of Bradford, said some parishes in his diocese were 95% Muslim but that this should not be seen as “a problem”. “This is a fantastic opportunity,” he told the General Synod, the Church of England’s national assembly, in York. “It is a challenge, yes, but it’s an opportunity to rethink what it means to be a Christian community. We often ask Muslims to learn what it is to be a Muslim as a minority culture. Maybe we could benefit from learning some of the same lessons in some of our cities.”

His comments came as Church leaders at the assembly were warned that Britain’s increasingly diverse society could undermine the position of the Church of England as the “established” faith of the nation.”

A comment on the bishop’s own Minority Matters post reads:

The point about starting from where people are, rather than where we would wish them to be, is one that the church (especially the CofE) needs to learn and learn and learn again. We also need to learn to avoid identifying Christianity too closely with particular cultural expressions of it.

The increasingly diverse society in my parish church in Bramhall has, thank God, most definitely “undermined” the notion of the vicar’s ministry as the (only) “established” ministry of the parish. Diverse societies – and all their attendant richnesses – have a way of pointing to the glories of orchestra as opposed to the decidedly more limited repertoire of the one man band – albeit that orchestra involves a heck of a lot more rehearsal, conducting, cooperation, coordination, determination, dialogue, “failure”, mistakes, rising to challenges and sheer hard practice. Not boring, says Bishop Nick: “It is demanding … and very exciting”.

Nick Baines uses words like fantastic, challenge, opportunity, lessons, rethink and learning pretty much every day. Such are the hope-filled and dynamic words of modern-day seers, and all of them necessary encouragements in the toolbag of a contemporary bishop in Bradford … or a bishop anywhere else for that matter. Jesus was no stranger to shaking the position of the “established” faith of his own nation; a vastly wider vision than position was what fuelled his mission, his vigour and his grace.

I’ve revelled in the last week or so in serious conversations with faithful Christian people, some of them priests, who are daily engaged in tentatively working out on the ground – their ground (I don’t believe it’s true that “people are the same everywhere”) how to be Church, how to speak of Jesus Christ, (and how to listen – for and with Christ – to accounts of others’ different faith experiences) in the context of a multi-cultural orchestra, the day having long passed when the vicar, his opinions, or his church-of-England were a one-man band on the block. Some have come to this work in relatively recent times. Others have been asking questions and learning valuable lessons for very much longer. I learned “multicultural” lessons I’ve never forgotten in the city of Bradford at the time of the Football Stadium fire in 1985. All will encounter both the need and the challenging work during the course of their ministries.

How are we, any of us, “to sing the Lord’s song in a strange land”? Well, I think that more than a few of us would do well to follow Archbishop Rowan’s general encouragement to spend a bit more time on seeking after what “the Lord’s song” today might be, (so definitely no cheap, or trite, or personnel-managed, or “growth action planning” quick fix, then) and yes, most certainly, trying to avoid identifying Christianity too closely with particular cultural expressions of it.

A friend pointed me today to David Hare’s Guardian interview with +Rowan (8th July) – who said:

Self-absorption means thinking the most interesting thing in the world is myself. Self-scrutiny, on the other hand, is very deeply part of the Christian experience.” So is his religion a relief, a way of escaping self? “Yes. We are able to lay down the heavy burden of self-justification. Put it this way, if I’m not absolutely paralysed by the question, ‘Am I right? Am I safe?’ then there are more things I can ask of myself. I can afford to be wrong. In my middle 20s, I was an angst-ridden young man, with a lot of worries about whether I was doing enough suffering and whether I was compassionate enough. But the late, great Mother Mary Clare said to me, ‘You don’t have to suffer for the sins of the world, darling. It’s been done.'”

Self-absorbed one-man bands are ultimately unhealthy. Learning to sing the Lord’s song in a bigger orchestra is, as +Nick says, demanding and exciting. And God knows (I don’t quite know whether to say “fortunately” or “hopefully”) where an “undermined”, “exiled” Church will lead us. Maybe all the way to a new Jerusalem.

Canon Paul Oestreicher writing on Donald Reeves’ Fraction Meditation for the Church Times of 24 October 2008 asked:

Do we really mean it when, in the eucharist, we proclaim the mystery of faith? Mystery it will remain in this interim. How dare we then lay exclusive claim to the truth we perceive so dimly? No two of us see the same Jesus, face to face.

This, however, we do know. Jesus broke down all human barriers. He ate with the despised, saw goodness in Samaritan heretics, prayed for his executioners, gave women true dignity, welcomed children, and assured the poor that they would inherit the Kingdom.

This, too, we know. The whole human family, however brightly or dimly our inner light shines, is embraced by Christ, and so are all living things, and each one of us in our brokenness. This prayer at the breaking of the bread symbolically expresses what the Church is meant to be about.

It comes close to making clear the universality of the gospel and its social significance. And, in its unexpectedness, it is a prayer that those whom we have hitherto called outsiders may be glad to hear as a message of peace. The divine banquet may change its nature, and that may change us.