Monday, 13 November 2017

Luke 17: Faith, Reproof and Obstacles


Jesus said to his disciples: ‘Obstacles are sure to come, but alas for the one who provides them! It would be better for him to be thrown into the Sea with a millstone put round his neck than that he should lead astray a single one of these little ones. Watch yourselves!
If your brother does something wrong, reprove him and, if he is sorry, forgive him. And if he wrongs you seven times a day and seven times comes back to you and says, “I am sorry,” you must forgive him.’
The apostles said to the Lord, ‘Increase our faith.’ The Lord replied, ‘Were your faith the size of a mustard seed you could say to this mulberry tree, “Be uprooted and planted in the sea,” and it would obey you.’
- Luke 17:1-6

It is difficult to see the connection between these three snippets of wisdom from Jesus: do not place obstacles in the way of the ‘little ones’ who seek faith, reprove and forgive those who are sorry, and finally, that even the tiniest seed of true faith can perform miracles. Quite possibly they are unrelated and were simply catalogued this way post factum. And yet we are led to believe that God’s Spirit was at work in the Church even as she collated and canonised the Scriptures, so we should not be surprised if, in prayer and reflection, we uncover some unsuspected commonality after all.  
As a school chaplain, I take the first snippet very seriously indeed. It seems to me that the modern culture of relativism, and particularly the idea that leaving ‘little ones’ alone in vast supermarket of ideas to pick and choose their own constitutes responsible parenting, presents significant obstacles to growth of faith. People who would not dream of leaving their children alone in a room of Sabatier kitchen knives in the hope that they might make themselves the next Gordon Ramsey at the same time profess that children abandoned in a marketplace of harmful ideologies will somehow learn to become paradigms of morality. Watch yourselves, Jesus says to us. 
And yet, in the next breath, Our Lord reminds us that there is always a second chance: and a third, and a fourth, even up to seven, the Jewish cipher for eternity - and hence infinity. There is always a chance to repent. This calls to mind the Presupposition of the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius of Loyola (naturally), which in sum says that for spiritual growth, we need always to live on the assumption that our neighbour means well and is speaking with good intent. If, on reflection, he or she really doesn’t and isn’t, then it is time to have the courage gently and subtly to reprove. For me, I think this means I need to watch that I am preaching for people and not at them, ever a danger in my line of work. Hectoring does not build faith or trust. So, apologies for the last paragraph. 
Finally, the Apostles ask for more faith themselves. The Lord seems to be replying that they do not have any. If they had even a mustard seed’s worth, they could achieve the impossible. So what is this ‘faith’ thing, anyway? Professor John Milbank describes it as complete trust in the unknown - an echo, to my ears, of the mediaeval Japanese Buddhist Shinran’s elevation of ‘deep entrusting’ as the sole criterion for enlightenment. So, faith is easy, in one way, the gentle yoke: all you have to do is trust. And yet trust can be the most difficult path, the narrow way, as anyone who has engaged in ‘corporate team building exercises’ knows. 
So here is the connection. What obstacles are we putting before ourselves and each other in the way of deep entrusting in God? How might presupposing the good in others break down those obstacles, and lead us to the trust which can move not just mulberry bushes, but even mountains?   

Saturday, 11 November 2017

Re-membrance over enemy lines


The War was meant to be over by now.
Christmas Eve 1914, on the Front. The everyday rattle of gunfire tonight is silent. Instead, a familiar song drifts over the lines to the Tommies, but with different words: Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht.
Later that night come words the Tommies understand, echoing out in English from the German trenches over No Man's land. "Tomorrow is Christmas. If you don't fight, we won't fight."
Is the enemy playing a trick? Setting a trap for a Yuletide massacre?
Dawn usually brings barrages of artillery fire, but not today. Instead, the wind carries music and sounds of good cheer. Around midday, a Sergeant spots the enemy standing up in full view - dancing, with what looks like a beer tankard in hand.
"Permission to shoot, Sir?"
But his Officer does not know what to do. He goes to find the Commanding Officer. The orders are clear. Under no circumstances must the war stop. But by the time the Officer gets back to his platoon, it's too late. In an act of mutinous disobedience, the soldiers have crossed the lines and are fraternising with the enemy, exchanging gifts and sharing the Germans' beer. You've probably heard of the famous football match that ensued (and the famous score of 3-1 to the German side). What you may not have heard is that some disobedient Army Chaplains also held joint British and German Christmas services: in some cases, services of Communion. The Officers were furious: their orders from the top were to keep on killing.
When we use word "remembrance," we generally just mean calling something to memory. But it has a deeper meaning than that, too. Literally, it means re-membering: putting divided, separate limbs or "members" back together. In the famous Christmas truce of 1914, those two parts of the human race who, from 1914-1918, were so bitterly divided, were re-membered: by beer, by football - and by Communion.
Back home in Britain, people were increasingly calling for a way to be "re-membered" with their sons and fathers who had died. The Church of England responded by recovering the ancient practice of Requiem Masses, Eucharists offered especially for the souls of the dead. Tens of thousands of people gathered in churches throughout the land for these: and this is the tradition we continue today. We remember all who have died in war, civilians, soldiers in wars we won and lost, soldiers who at that time were our enemies, but in death are "re-membered" in the one common Body of Christ. And as we remember them, we are re-membered with them: the Church of the living and the dead united in the sacrifice of Christ crucified through the bread and wine of the altar.
A true Christian community is at heart at Eucharistic community.
The first thing we do at Mass is to confess and receive God’s forgiveness. So first, a Eucharistic community will be one that looks at itself and the world it lives in critically and honestly. A community with a conscience. Those soldiers on both sides in the Christmas truce, repented, laid down arms, and opened their hearts to each other, disobeying what the world wanted, even at the risk of Court Martial. So first, a community of repentance.
Next, in Mass, we listen to God’s word. A Eucharistic community needs to be one that listens to God and each other, looks not for the signs of love. Remember how the Germans called out in friendship. The Officers’ first response was suspicion. But the men listened deeper, and heard the tone of true friendship. We need to give each other the benefit of the doubt, make the best of what each other has to say, not be constantly assuming the worst. A community that is open enough to listen.
Half way through Mass (in the modern Anglican order), we share the peace. We cannot approach the altar until we have put away all enmity and hatred, until we have forgiven our brothers and sisters. Think as we shake hands today of the handshakes those soldiers made a century ago. Repentance and listening were the preconditions for this. God forgives us; we forgive others.
Next, we offer - or more properly, through the bread and wine he has given us, we join in Christ’s offering on the Cross. Through the Mass, Jesus continues to give his entire self, body and blood, no strings attached, for the sake of the whole world. Think of the sacrifice those soldiers were making; the sacrifice made by those at home, the sacrifice made for wars won and lost, for good causes and for bad. It was in a Roman centurion that Jesus found faith ‘greater than that of all Israel.’ Our community needs to be self-giving, always asking what more we can give, not what we can get, and never counting the cost. A community of self-sacrificial service.
And then we feast. In the act of Holy Communion, Jesus invites us to feast with the whole Church of the living and the dead, so that as we remember him, he literally re-members us, joins us back up, with them in his Body. Think of the beer and food shared by those soldiers, its power to unite. A Eucharistic community is a community of hospitality, which welcomes the stranger, brings people in from the cold (people like the homeless man on the Close), re-members them with us in one body, one shared humanity.
After we receive, we give thanks. Eucharist is the Greek for “thanksgiving.” The soldiers exchanged gifts and wrote letters home saying how thankful they were for that one day of peace. We need to be a community that is always thankful for the gifts we receive and the eternal peace God offers us.
The last thing we do is easily missed. The word “mass” comes from the last words the priest traditionally said in Latin: “Missa est.” “Missa” is related to “missile” and “mission,” and it means “sending out.” We need to go out of these church doors changed and ready for action. The Christian life does not end in these four walls. We need to be a community oriented to action, a missional community, sent out to work for everything we learn in the Mass: for repentance and criticism of the powers that be, for listening to the other deeply, for making peace among enemies, for giving ourselves in service of the poor, for inviting the outcast into our friendship. Faith without action is dead faith.
So now, we remember the War Dead - but more importantly, we are re-membered with them, united as one humanity, undivided by nation, by politics, even by death, in the one self-giving Body of Christ, the Church of the living and the dead won by his precious blood.

Sunday, 5 November 2017

Lichfield Cathedral Reformation thinkers series: Calvin

I have been asked to speak about Calvin in five minutes.

The French lawyer is easy to caricature. Even more so his inglorious progeny, from the Toblerone-toting Taliban of the cantons who, if their neighbour is mowing the lawn on a Sunday, will call the Police, to the Wee Frees of Her Majesty’s older Kingdom who frown upon fornication - for fear it might lead to dancing.
There is some truth in these exaggerated parodies and the “us and them” dichotomy they betray. For according to Calvinist soteriology, “Some are Born to sweet delight / Some are Born to Endless Night.” This paraphrase by William Blake is a not inaccurate rendition of Calvin’s most famous contribution to Christian doctrine, namely that of “double predestination,” wherein not only are God’s elect already and inevitably predestined for heaven, but the leftover vulgus equally ineluctably for the fires of hell: no feat of ours can modify or mollify the course of God’s Sovereign Will, and there is no “second opinion.”
And yet it is unfair to judge someone’s thought only by what followed it. We need also to look at context and motives. Calvin’s context was one of late mediaeval to early modern ecclesiastical abuses: and his motivation, far from abandoning the faith of the Catholic Church, was to dig deep and rediscover its pristine form. His intellectual oeuvre forms part of a continuous discourse with early mediaeval theologians, particularly Aquinas, and is informed by expansive reading not just of the Bible, but of the Fathers of the Early Church - at least, of those whose texts were available at the time.

Indeed, his doctrine of double predestination is the fruit of his reading of St Augustine. From that great Father of the western Church, Calvin deduced that not only is mankind fallen, but utterly reprobate, the image of God within not just sullied and broken, but completely obliterated, so that we have no merits of our own to rely on, but for salvation must trust in Christ alone, by faith alone, through Scripture alone.

A noble idea - but not without flaws: for it meant subjecting the Holy Scriptures and inherited Tradition of the Church ruthlessly to the Procrustean bed of Calvin’s own devising. This meant, among other things, rejecting Apostolic order in favour of a system of ministry divined from the letters of St Paul, mistranslating words in the Epistle of St James, lopping off the entire Deuterocanon and relegating it to apocryphal status, and (close to the hearts of Lichfield folk) urging the destruction of religious images in churches: in other words, excising from the faith anything which disobligingly failed to live up to the purity of his own doctrinal standards. It must be said that he is not the only theologian to employed such methods. We must also remember that Calvin had at his disposal only a fraction of the patristic texts we have today, and he cannot be blamed for the relative paucity of his sources. Nonetheless, the word ‘alone’ has caused a great deal of subsequent damage in both theology and history, marks of which are still visible on our cathedral's stones.

In the final analysis of the Catholic Church in its widest sense, much of Calvin’s teaching is heresy, as indicated by those parts of it rejected by own church at the Savoy Conference, in reaction to twenty years of Cromwell’s experimental presbyterian dictatorship. The consequent revisions to the Book of Common Prayer led to our current 1662 edition, which remains the authoritative course of doctrine in the English Church, and in this we retained, inter alia and contra Calviniana, the threefold Apostolic ministry of the Church, the commemoration of the Communion of Saints, the use of the Sign of the Cross, the sacramentals of Reconciliation and Confirmation (which Calvin deemed ‘a noted insult to Baptism’). Much of what we regard as essentially Anglican would have been lost had Calvin’s influence endured.

And yet, we would be wise to resist the fashion of judging Calvin only by his failings. Calvin’s contributions to the 16th century debates about justification still resonate today, and his work on Christology is enjoying a renaissance in unexpected theological circles: to the extent that Rowan Williams calls him the greatest theologian of the Reformation. His grasp of the paradox by which God becomes man that man might become God is unmistakably patristic and even Catholic in its tenor. So let us leave him to inspire our faith with some of his own profound words:

“This is the wonderful exchange which, out of his measureless benevolence, [Christ] has made with us; that, becoming Son of man with us, he has made us sons of God with him; that, by his descent to earth, he has prepared an ascent to heaven for us; that, by taking on our mortality, he has conferred his immortality upon us; that, accepting our weakness, he has strengthened us by his power; that, receiving our poverty unto himself, he has transferred his wealth to us; that, taking the weight of our iniquity upon himself (which oppressed us), he has clothed us with righteousness.”

Monday, 30 October 2017

All Hallows school address


To judge by the supermarket shelves, Christmas is well on its way, and when it arrives, I bet that at least one of you will find stuffed in your stocking by some well-meaning distant Aunt one of those “Magic Eye” books from the Works. You know the sort. They’re full of pixelated images that you have to shift about in front of your face and cross your eyes painfully until finally, a sort of Minecraft version of a kangaroo or a pair of cavorting hares emerges from the page in glorious 3D. That’s when you put it down, help yourself to another piece of Terry’s chocolate orange and hope that you haven’t done any permanent damage to your retina - so that you can still watch the Queen’s speech when it comes on the telly.
And some of you will probably get one of those giant posters of Yoda or Darth Vader or R2D2 (or one of the newfangled nonentities I don’t care about) that looks like the character in question from afar but - when you get close up, you realise that it’s actually made up of hundreds of tiny little stills of scenes from the Star Wars films.
Why am I telling you this? Because it’s the end of October. And at the end of October, the Church starts a period of remembrance. Now remember that for the Church, like for the ancient Jews, each new day begins when the sun sets, not when the sun rises. That’s why we celebrate, for example, the first mass of Christmas the night before, on Christmas Eve, and the first mass of Easter at the vigil on Holy Saturday night. So that is why we start to celebrate the feast of All Saints, the 1st of November - also called the feast of All Hallows - the night before, on the 31st of October, or “All Hallows Even,” later shortened to Hallowe’en.
I’ve already moaned about the shops being full of Christmas stuff two months in advance, but I’m amazed at how much the various purveyors of cheap plastic tat are now benefitting from Hallowe’en. Apparently it is becoming the United Kingdom’s second biggest celebration of the year after Christmas. Easter doesn’t get a look in: it seems our people are more interested in dressing up as goblins than in the mysteries of cosmic salvation in the Resurrection of Our Lord and Saviour, but there we go. And I suspect that people have even less of an idea about what Hallowe’en means than they do about Christmas or Easter. It’s all just Dracula, Santa Claus and a bunny with a chocolate egg, I suppose. Perhaps all three combined: a jolly consumerist Trinity for our days.
Well, you can count yourselves among the favoured few who still know something about the ancient religion of our land, because I’ve just told you what All Saints is really about. It’s about those Magic Eye books and Yoda posters. Well, sort of. The saints are those whose lives are so filled with holiness that they surround Christ like a ‘cloud of witnesses’ around him. Take them one by one, and each has some Christ-like quality of his or her own - and no doubt, each has faults and failings, too. But step back from the individuals and look at them all together - perhaps cross your eyes a bit - and you start to perceive one shape emerging from the melange: the shape of Christ. Christ incarnate, Christ crucified, Christ resurrected, Christ as nothing other than self-giving love: one and the same pattern emerges from the lives of the saints who are close to him, and even when we struggle to see the bigger picture, we can still look to them for inspiration and ask for their prayers - which is exactly what we do on All Saints, All Hallows’ day. May God indeed enlighten the eyes of our minds so that we can see what hope his call holds for each of us, as it holds for each and every saint. 

Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Prisons Week 2017

Camden Town, where I was in charge of a church before I moved here, is a famous place of protest. Many were the Saturdays you could hardly move for young and not-so-young idealists marching with red flags and placards. I remember one young man, I assumed a student, waving a banner emblazoned with the words “prison is inhumane.” And certainly, early 20th century socialist movements called for the abolition of prisons and the freeing of all inmates. But, I wonder in this national week of prayer for prisoners, would that truly be an act of liberation?
I served among many people in Camden who had been (or would be) in and out of prison, especially the homeless people who took refuge in our church and its garden. Many were ex-military, most were alcoholics and/or drug users, almost all had mental health problems of some kind. They soon told me that their basic problem as homeless people was not, as you might expect, actually the lack of a home. One - a very talented musician - told me that you could put him up in the Ritz, but he knew that because of his drug habit, by the end of the week he would have trashed it. The basic solution to homelessness for him and many was not a home, but months of very expensive therapy in rehab: and who was going to pay for that?
Talking to ex-offenders, I learnt that prison presents a similar problem. Locking someone up to put them off doing whatever it was they did again, the prison service knows well, tends not to work. Let them out, and often, they repeat the offence: unless, that is, something in them has changed. Freeing people from prison does not liberate them from themselves. True liberation needs to happen within.
All of us to some extent are imprisoned by the historic influences that have defined the boundaries of our selves, the behaviours and reactions learnt from infancy, especially from our parents. This is a psychological truth, not a religious one. And yet there are unmistakably religious responses to this truth.
One of the best known is the ancient Greek motif, ‘know yourself.’ This makes good sense from a Christian perspective, too. An honest knowledge of oneself is the vital starting point on the journey to liberation. The saints and mystics have long taught that this self-knowledge is best found in silence, stillness and contemplation.
You can see your reflection more clearly in still water than when it is being busily swilled around; and when you finally see yourself clearly, and see yourself warts and all, you see how ridiculous it is to think that you might liberate yourself. You need to turn to a higher power for that liberation.

This first step is what we in the trade call “repentance,” and it is no coincidence that it is one of the Alcoholics Anonymous key steps towards rehabilitation. Turning oneself to look into the endless well of compassion which Christians (for want of a better word) call “God” is the key in the lock of the prison of the self.