Thursday, 20 December 2012

Advent 4: Judged by a baby in a cave

This morning, I asked some children from Victoria School what they would do to celebrate the biggest event in all history. Where would they hold the party? Whom would they invite? What would they come as?

Well, if our little dears had been God, we would have ended up with Jesus coming to earth in Buckingham Palace, or perhaps Kidscape, with Justin Bieber and New Direction as the VIP guests. Oh, and He would have come as an alien. What a party.

When God really did come to earth, when the One beyond time and space broke into our world, He came to a cave in a little-known town called 'Bethlehem,' which was about as famous as Potten End. He came as a powerless baby, and the only people there were his mother Mary and her husband. Other than them, the only witnesses were animals. Hardly A-list celebrities, and neither a spot of bling nor a Power Ranger in sight.

The Collect for this Sunday illustrates the paradox of the baby born of a homeless woman in a cave, who will yet ultimately be our judge. Unlike on celebrity panel shows, such as Britain's Got Talent, the X-Factor or whatever's in vogue for now, when He judges us there will be no points for showing off, and no reward for fame or wealth. God's standards are the standards of a dirty baby born in a cattle-trough, and the reward is reserved for those who can show Him the sort of love His mother did that night.

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Walsingham Youth Pilgrimage 2012 Highlights

For anyone who's thinking of coming next year: it was great!

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Advent 2: Make Straight the Path in the Desert

One of the desert fathers of ancient Christian Egypt tells a story of three brothers from the same village. All three determine to give their lives in service of Christ. The first, inspired by Christ's healing ministry, goes into medicine. The second, following Christ's proclamation that 'blessed are the peacemakers,' goes out among the various warlords suing for peace. The third, however, inspired by Christ's frequent retreats into prayer alone, takes himself deep into the desert to live as a hermit.

Some years pass. The first brother, who has worked tirelessly among the sick, finds that the sick keep coming, and he cannot heal them all; the second finds that however much he brokers peace, the wars around him continue. Exhausted, drained, they go to find their brother in the desert.

They tell him their troubles. Saying nothing, he takes a flask of water from its hanging, and pours it into a bowl. "What can you see?" he asks. But they can see nothing through the murk of the swilling water. Their brother tells them to wait. Gradually, the water settles and goes clear, as the dust in it separates out and sinks to the bottom. "When you are so busy," says the hermit, "you cannot see Christ clearly, and you cannot see your sins."

This Sunday marks St John the Baptist's Advent call to repentance of our sins. Despite the temptation to rush and 'get things done' before Christmas, we must take the time to reflect steadily and honestly on whatever is clouding our vision from the glory of Christ.

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

C of E Press Release on Women Bishops

Following my sermon on the matter, I thought that readers might be interested in the following press release. Some might see it as gerrymandering, others as obedience to our bishops, others yet as the next stage in an ongoing process of negotiation. Whatever way, change is afoot. 

NEWS from the Church of England
PR 152.12    28/11/2012

For immediate release
Statement on the Conclusion of the Meeting of the Archbishops’ Council
November 2012

“The Archbishops’ Council of the Church of England met on November 27-28th to consider
a wide ranging agenda. A substantial amount of time was given over to the discussion of the
recent vote by General Synod on Women in the Episcopate.
“As part of their reflections, many council members commented on the deep degree of
sadness and shock that they had felt as a result of the vote and also of the need to affirm all
women serving the church – both lay and ordained – in their ministries.
“In its discussions the Council decided that a process to admit women to the episcopate
needed to be restarted at the next meeting of the General Synod in July 2013. There was
agreement that the Church of England had to resolve this matter through its own processes as
a matter of urgency. The Council therefore recommended that the House of Bishops, during
its meeting in a fortnight’s time, put in place a clear process for discussions in the New Year
with a view to bringing legislative proposals before the Synod in July.”

Thursday, 22 November 2012

Christ the King and women bishops in the Church of England

After last Sunday's apocalyptic prophecies, we come today to the feast of Christ the King. The earliest Christians believed that the Kingdom would come, quite literally with trumpet blasts and Christ descending from the sky to judge the world, in their own lifetimes. St Paul's letter to the Thessalonians, one of his earliest and therefore one of the oldest parts of the New Testament, show this quite clearly. His later letters, though, such as Romans, show something of a change of mind - which is one of the many problems for people who think that the Bible is some kind of divinely dictated history book-cum-instruction manual. Because we know, as St Paul came to realise, that he and the earliest Christians were wrong. As Nathan helpfully reminded us last week, it doesn't look like the world has ended yet.

But the early Christians did have a point. In a way, the Kingdom has already come, though not with the fanfare they expected. Even in His lifetime, Jesus Himself told his disciples that the Kingdom was already among them. We only need to open our eyes to see it: within ourselves, within others, and most especially in the hearts of those in need. It will reach its fulfilment only when time ends, but the victory of the noble Kingdom over the dictatorship of sin is something that the Church is called to realise here and now, today.

Yet it might be rather hard for some of us to see that in the Church just now. Those who aren't lucky enough to have hair to tear out are at least scratching their heads at our church's decision last week not to go ahead with the ordination of women as bishops. How, our politicians and journalists are asking, can the Church be so behind the times on such a fundamental matter as sexual equality? But I'm afraid this just goes to show the limits of the public debate. Even a presenter on the Today programme polarised the argument as being between 'progressive society' versus 'what the Bible says.'

There are two problems with this polarisation. First, with the 'progressive society,' because the Church's duty is not just to go along with the times. Today's political beliefs are a flash in the pan compared with the thousands of years-old tradition that the Church is bound to guard. The question, for the Church, is not necessarily what today's society thinks, but what is true and right.

But coming to the problem of what constitutes 'truth' for a Christian, we need to see that it is not (and never has been) limited to 'what the Bible says.' As we've seen already, St Paul changes his mind within the Bible, between his first and his last letters. The idea that the Bible simply 'says' one, consistent thing, is very problematic. Our Church simply does not believe, like Muslims do, that we have a divinely dictated book which gives us definitive answers. Biblical fundamentalism is not our historic faith, it is a nineteenth-century invention. The fundamentalist Christians who do believe this sort of thing are a minority, and in the Church of England, a very small one. The Anglican Church, like the Roman Catholic Church, has never taught that the Bible is the be-all and end-all of theology. It is a library of different texts written by different people at different times, not an instruction manual for eternity, and it is only one part of the Church's vast tradition. The argument about women bishops, for most Christians in the Church of England, is not about 'what the Bible says.'

So, if the debate last Tuesday was not about the Bible versus modern society, then what was it about? Why are we still divided?

There are, of course, those who will not accept the authority of women bishops. But this has nothing to do with modern ideas of sexual equality. Among the antis, only a very small minority reject women's leadership on biblical principles of male headship. A larger cohort believes that the Church of England has no right to make such a significant change without the support of the bishops of the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches. And many more of those who voted against the measure did so because they thought it was messy legislation, giving either too little or too much support to those who cannot in conscience accept women bishops. They are far from a homogenous group, and it will not help the Church to move forward if we simply demonize them as misogynists or Bible-bashers, however angry we might be.

But actually, we are not as divided as last week's synod might suggest. Forty-two out of forty-four of the dioceses which make up the Church of England had already supported the draft legislation in their diocesan synods. Even within the General Synod, the House of Bishops and the House of Clergy passed the legislation, listening to the voice of the Church. It was only the House of Laity who stymied the vote, falling short of the needed two-thirds quorum by just five votes.

This should give us pause for thought. In our supposedly sexist, hierarchical church, it was the all-male bishops and mostly-male priests who voted for women bishops, and the more diverse laity who voted against. Ironically, if we were genuinely as hierarchical as our detractors like to think, and we had left the (male) bishops to make the decision, we would now have women bishops.

So, the picture is much more complicated than the media suggests. It demonstrably is NOT a matter of Bible versus modernity, conservative hierarchy versus progressive democracy, male misogyny versus women's rights. But of course, that message will not be heard, because it's much easier to boil it down to a simple opposition, a story that fits neatly with modern prejudices. Sadly for the Church, this is the story we will be judged by. I don't think I'm overstating the matter when I say: our relationship with the state will be jeopardized, and with it, England's identity as a Christian nation.

Like it or not, the Church of England does, overwhelmingly, want women bishops. It does not want them because modern society tells us we should, but because the Church believes in them as a matter of Christian theological principle. The failure of Synod to vote for women bishops has nothing to do with hierarchical structure, nothing to do with the men in charge, who almost all want women in their ranks. It has everything to do with one small and unrepresentative structure - the House of Laity in the General Synod - whose position is now very questionable, and whose action may even throw us into a constitutional crisis.

The Kingdom of Christ is not about us Christians and our salvation. It's about the Church becoming the vehicle which will lead the entirety of creation into salvation at the end of time by revealing the Kingdom here and now. The Church of England exists to call the entire people of this nation to the vision of that Kingdom. We need to think - and pray - very carefully about just how we are going to do that in the aftermath of what happened last week. Wherever you stand on the issue, there's no room for rejoicing, and I'm afraid we are ending this ecclesiastical year on a note of pessimism, because times are not about to get easier for our Church.

So perhaps we should look to the new Church year instead. Advent, a season of sober reflection and repentance, is just around the corner, and by God, we need it. But Advent is also a time of waiting and of patience, and we need to hold fast to those, too. The birth pangs of the fulness of Christian truth may be painful and long-lasting. Yet in the rebirth of Christ which we await at this time every year, we are promised that it will in time be delivered.

A hierarchical, misogynistic church?

This Sunday marks the feast of Christ the King. Yet many of us will be struggling to see the Kingdom in Christ's Church this week, after the calamitous meeting of Synod to vote on the consecration of women as Bishops.

I say 'calamitous' not just because of the verdict, but because of the situation it leaves the Church in, both internally and in the public eye. Internally, we remain at loggerheads in a compromise which suits nobody. The outside world, on the other hand, will ignore three key facts:

1. the measure fell in the most diverse house, the House of Laity; 2. it fell partly not because of antipathy to women bishops, but because members felt that the legislation was messy, and 3. the two-thirds vote needed in the House of Laity was lost by only six votes, showing that the majority even of the laity were in favour.

Despite the fact that the totally male House of Bishops voted for women bishops, as did the House of Clergy, we are still being seen as a male-dominated, hierarchical and backward organisation. The figures suggest the opposite. 42 out of 44 dioceses voted in favour of the legislation, backed by the bishops, including both the outgoing and incoming Archbishops of Canterbury. So, ironically, a more hierarchical structure of church governance would have given a more democratic result. This week's decision raises serious questions about the fitness of our current synodical structures, and worse, puts our relationship with the state in jeopardy.

We will need to pray hard for unity and charity within the Church, because both are going to be much harder to maintain over the years to come.

Monday, 5 November 2012

Autumn Spirituality (with thanks to Br Patrick Moore)

Forgive me for stating the obvious, but autumn is well under way. The air is cold and often wet, the sky a baleful pallor. The time has come to wrap up warm and hunker indoors over a bowl of steaming soup. Yet advertising encourages us to indulge in the fantasy of a perpetual summer, a land of endless gambolling beneath sunny skies, in a state of perpetual youth and beauty, vigour, vim, green shoots and get-up-and-go. Winter sun holidays, tanning booths, nightclubs with the heating up so we can dance around in crop tops (I do this all the time, of course) and pretend it's Ibiza - all these things beckon us in from the cold reality outside.

And to some extent, that's all well and good. We need such summer fantasies on our grey island. I'd like a bit of Winter sun myself. But the cold months are important, too. We can't live a life of nonstop growth and energy. Our is a world of seasons, and we need to respect the pattern of these seasons as much as everything else on earth does: to take time to hibernate, to refresh, to let the growth come gently underneath the frosty ground. Then, when the warm months come, we will be ready for them.

Many churches are guilty of the mentality of the perpetual summer, always brash and cheery, focussing on outwardly obvious growth and energy. And frankly, the forced smiles can grow rather tiresome. But if we follow the Church year properly, we can find a really seasonal spirituality. The summer season of Trinity, where the church is decked in fertile green, is drawing to an end. After the white of All Saints on the first of November, we come on the second to the pensive black of All Souls, when we pray for and with the dead loved ones, reflecting that we will one day join them. Soon after, we move to the penitential purple of Advent. This 'mini-Lent' is a time for reflection and inner growth, as we seek, warm and nourish the Christ hidden within each of us, ready for His birth, in golden splendour, at Christmas.

Believe it or not, Christ is hibernating inside you, deeper than you know. So try to withdraw a little in this cold season, keep warm beneath the spiritual frosts, and give Him the chance to wake up inside you in time for Christmas. Then the outer growth can really start anew.  

Sunday, 30 September 2012

Dazzling Darkness: Exodus 24

Over today's readings hangs the constant threat of fire. In this morning's Gospel, Jesus talked about the purging flames into which we must cast those wayward parts of ourselves which bar our way to God. And as tonight draws in, Moses ascends into a cloud of darkness to find the devouring fire of the glory of God. Jesus invokes the threat of Hell; for Moses, the danger is getting too close to God's own blinding light.

The fire of God does not destroy, but perfects. His blazing glory burns away our iniquities, cauterizes the wounds they leave on the perfect Image in which He made us; yet in so doing, it heals us, and once we are healed, we can warm ourselves by the fire. And, when our eyes are accustomed to it, we can see so much more clearly by its light, see it reflecting off everybody, everything; but while our eyes are still weak, its brightness is blinding, a dazzling darkness, leaving us to grope blindly up the steep mountain towards the warmth we who are far off can only just feel. God is dangerous: fire that heals only by first burning, light that gives sight only by first blinding.

There is a curious symmetry between Moses' ascent of Sinai to bring forth the Law of the old covenant and Jesus' ascent to the cross to bring forth the Spirit of the New. The Old Covenant begins with Moses making a bloody sacrifice with all the people of Israel, ascending the mountain partway to feast with a select band of followers, going alone to stay for forty days in the darkness where God dwells, beholding the glory of the Lord, and bringing back the tablets of Law to Israel. The New Covenant is like a mirror image. It begins at the other end. Jesus' ministry begins with Him being blessed by the glory of the Lord when the Holy Spirit descends on Him in baptism. He goes alone for forty days into the dark wilderness where Satan dwells, and then He has his meal, the Last Supper, again with a select band of followers, until finally He ascends to the Cross. There Jesus, God the Son, does not behold God the Father, but quite the opposite, experiences absolute Godlessness as He descends to Hell. Then, He returns resurrected to give us the unbloody sacrifice of bread and wine as a New Covenant, not of the Law but of the Spirit, and for everybody, the entire world.

More broadly, Moses' ascent of Sinai is through the darkness of God to the light of God, from the multitude of Israel into solitary union with the Divine. Jesus' ascent of the Cross, conversely, is from the light of God, through the darkness of Satan to forsakenness by God; but He emerges from His lone journey to be infinitely multiplied in His new, universal Body, the Church. Moses ascends from the many to the One; Jesus descends from the One to the many.

Nonetheless, the New Covenant, sealed by Jesus' self-sacrifice for the world, would not have been possible without the Old. He says Himself that He came not to destroy the Law but to fulfil it. Moses' ascent into the darkness of God is the prerequisite of Jesus' descent into Godlessness, the emptying of Hell by which our salvation is assured: we do not have to go to Hell, because Jesus has been there for us. We do not have to know those flames. But if we would see the glory of God illuminate all of His Creation, we must shield our eyes and climb like Moses, however painfully, towards the searing, blinding light of God's glory: by the discipline of repentance, allowing His fire to sear our sins and cauterise the wounds they leave; and by ascending into the darkness of the Sanctuary, to grope blindly towards the dazzling Eucharistic mystery of His invisible yet luminous Body and Blood. For as we consume Him, so are we consumed in His glory.

Thursday, 27 September 2012

The Cleansing Fire

The first message of this Sunday's Gospel was memorably inverted by George Bush II in his attack on the "Axis of Evil," when he announced to the world that 'whoever is not for us, is against us.' As a learned colleague has pointed out to me, this is the tenor of Mt 12.30 and Lk 11.23, but I prefer the Marcan (and hence older) account here, where Jesus says that 'whoever is not against us, is for us.'

Jesus' call here is for charity, not enmity: charity towards all those who work in His name, even when they are  aberrant in their beliefs and schismatic from the one Church He founded. Our prayer for Christian unity must be grounded in love, not contempt, however difficult we might find it (and I am by no means exempt!).

Jesus' subsequent threats of Hell are harder to take. He tells us to sever those parts of us that drag us into the Pit. As always, we have to take such threats alongside God's will and Jesus' promise that, in St Paul's words, all things will one day be completed in Christ. Jesus died for the salvation of all Creation. Who are we to say that God's will shall not be done?

Nonetheless, the only absolute guarantee of salvation remains baptism into the Church of Christ, washing the dirt of sin away from the shining Image of God in which we were all made; and then, immersion in the pattern of repentance, and reception of Christ in the Eucharist, so that we can be constantly reconformed to that primal Image, polishing away the grime of sin. The call to purge ourselves of the sin which mars that Image and distances us from God remains urgent, even for those of us who rest secure in the victory of Christ's self-sacrifice.

I am afraid that all of us have parts of ourselves which need to be purged by the flames. With discipline, we can make the searing heat a pleasant tickle, or even a warming glow, something we welcome because it is purifying us and bringing us closer to the cool refreshment of God's light. The Church gives us both the cool light and the hot: the searing pain of Confession, which empties our selves of sin, and the healing balm of the Eucharist, where Christ refills those empty selves with His divine, self-sacrifical love. That love, living in us, the Church, is the gift by which the whole world must be saved, all things brought back into unity with their Creator.

Friday, 14 September 2012

The Mass reveals Christ more deeply than words: Mark 8.37-38

Again, we are faced with the paradox of Mark telling us about Jesus telling his disciples not to tell anyone about Him. This time, Jesus has asked them the misleadingly simple question: Who do you say that I am?
Predictably enough, if we have followed Mark's portrayal of the disciples so far, they come up with all the wrong answers. Finally, Peter seems to get it right, when he proclaims that Jesus is the Christ. This is where Jesus tells them all to keep his identity secret.
And well He might, since the next paragraph shows how little the disciples understand even when they know that He is the Christ. They are clearly expecting a very different Christ - that is, a very different Messiah, since 'Christ' is simply the Greek translation of that Hebrew word - from the suffering servant that Jesus depicts. Even when he plainly predicts His execution and resurrection, the disciples cannot or will not believe it. And so, those famously harsh words to Peter: Get thee behind me, Satan!
But this is not just a matter for the disciples of yore. It should come as no surprise that so many people even now cannot or will not accept the kind of Messiah that Jesus is, and the kind of God that He has revealed Himself to be. Christians have been mocked and persecuted for their crucified God from the outset. This is why, in the early Church, this great mystery of our faith - that Christ has died, is risen, and will come again - was revealed only to the baptised and confirmed initiates, and even then not in words. Everyone else was ejected the church after the readings from Scripture, leaving only the faithful to participate in that mystical action by which Christ revealed Himself more intimately than words could express: the sacrifice of the Eucharist.
So let us come to Mass this week in deep gratitude for the privilege of knowing Christ for who He really is, consuming Him as He consumes us in the depths of His self-giving love.

Sunday, 9 September 2012

Mark's Jesus: Open your ears before your mouth!

Muslim prayer begins with the admirable gesture of raising the hands to the ears to listen to God. Given Mark's account of the failure of the disciples to listen and their propensity to speak instead, there is surely something to learn here.

"I can't wait to get out and tell people about Jesus!"

My heart sunk at these words from the lips of an enthusiastic young ordinand training for supposedly Anglican ministry at an Evangelical seminary. The Bishop had asked him what he was looking forward to, why he wanted to do it, and this was his answer: 'Telling people about Jesus.'

Well, perhaps you're more generous and forbearing than I am, but when people come up to me and start 'telling me about Jesus' I start to remember my atheist past more fondly and frankly feel like lamping them. The sheer patronising presumption of those who think they can go around 'telling' people things about Jesus, that all their Bible study gives them privileged knowledge of Him that we poor infidels just don't get, drives me round the bend. One even drew me a neat little picture of salvation with stick figures in six boxes on a sheet of A4. I just about managed to smile and thank him. But this sort of tedious lecturing goes completely against what Jesus Himself wanted in today's Gospel passage.

We heard from Mark about two of Jesus' miracles in Tyre and Decapolis. I'm going to focus on the second miracle, but it's worth noticing from the outset of the first that when Jesus entered the house of the possessed girl, in Mark's words, he 'did not want anyone to know he was there.' He certainly wasn't going up to strangers and 'telling them' about himself. Instead, he was quietly moving among them, doing the work of God which speaks so much more loudly than words. To paraphrase the famous words of St Francis, He was teaching the Gospel, but using words only where He had to. He arrived like a thief in the night, without fanfare or announcement.

But it is the second miracle that interests me more, here. Even more than the first miracle, Jesus wants the second kept quiet: in fact, He explicitly orders the disciples not to tell anyone about it. Perhaps this is because the second miracle involves more secret stuff: the use of spittle and the touching of the tongue are widely recognised as fairly typical Middle Eastern magical formulae. So, perhaps Jesus did not want this particular healing advertised because the Jewish authorities would disapprove. That's possible.

Yet I think there's rather more to it than that, embedded in the nature of the miracle itself. Jesus is healing a deaf man who could barely speak. 'Ephphatha,' he commands: 'be opened.' First, the man's ears are opened and then his mouth begins to work so that he can speak plainly. An interesting paradox, no? Jesus is telling the disciples to keep schtum about a man He has just given the power of speech.

Let's look closer still. The man gains the power of speech only after his ears are open. Only once he has been enabled to listen can he truly speak. Compare this with the verbose disciples. You may remember from the last time I preached on Mark that in his account of the Gospel, the disciples are always failing. They fail to understand who Jesus really is right up until the Resurrection, and Jesus is constantly having to correct their misguided ideas and teachings. Yet this man, when Jesus has opened his ears, begins to speak plainly.

'Ephphatha,' 'be opened.' Our main job as the Christians is not to TELL people about Jesus, but to HEAR Him in them, to SEE Him in their faces and in their hearts. And the only way we can do that is by allowing Him to open us, to make us receptive to His presence in ourselves, in others and in all His creation. Our God is by nature communal, dialogical, not the stern Father issuing edicts, 'telling us' about Himself, all one way ; but Father and Son in conversation, listening to one another, bound in mutual receptivity by the love of the Holy Spirit. And that's how we need to be. Receptive, open, loving, seeking always for God, humbly aware that others may know His love far better than we do: seeking God, never imposing Him. 'Ephphatha,' says the Lord, 'be opened,' and your loving action will say far more about Jesus than any words.

But how? How do we let Jesus open us? It can't just be through the Bible, because the Bible is still human words, and Jesus doesn't seem to think much of those. It's always worth remembering that the only words He wrote Himself were scrawled with a stick in sand to be blown away, and we don't even know what they were. If Our Lord had wanted us to pass Him on just through words, surely He might have taken the trouble to write some down. But no: after the Resurrection, even when He spoke to them, His disciples did not recognise Him. It was not in words, but in the action of the breaking of the bread that Jesus opened their eyes. He opened us in baptism, too, when we died to self and were emptied to be filled by Him; but human sin congeals and blocks out the light. And so, it is by repentance and by reception of His living Body at the altar that we continue to be opened within: open like the emptiness of His Cross, the emptiness of His tomb, the emptiness of His Virgin Mother's womb, so His love can be born in us anew. Long before the Church had any Bible, its Bishops were repeating the action Our Lord had taught them in the breaking of the bread. It is the Mass, not the Bible, which makes the Church.

Well, after all I've said, the next time someone tries to tell me about Jesus I suppose I'd better surpress my violent urges and try my best to listen and to love. Quite probably, I'll fail. But at least I can try to follow Jesus own commands a bit better myself: 'Stop telling people about me. Shut your mouth and open your ears! Maybe then you'll hear me, from heart to heart, speaking without words.'

Anyway, following Jesus' words, it's probably about time I shut my mouth now, but please allow me one small announcement: as an exercise in listening deeply to Christ within, we are starting 45-minute sessions of meditation before the Blessed Sacrament every first and third Sunday at 5, starting next week. I'll be guiding the sessions following some of the principles of Zen meditation that I've been practising for years now and found helpful, so if you're interested in learning to meditate in a Christian idiom, then please do come along.

Thursday, 16 August 2012

This week's Sunday Gospel: Jn 6.51-58

More bread of life!
At a cursory glance, this week’s Gospel, John 6.51-58, looks much the same as the past few doses. Jesus tells us, yet again, that He is the bread of life, the living bread which comes from heaven, not the manna given by Moses but the bread that gives eternal life, yada, yada. You’d think we’ve got the message by now.
But the point of this passage is that by and large, we haven’t. No matter how many times Jesus told his listeners, they really didn’t get the message. And so this time, when Jesus tells them that the bread that He will give is his flesh, they think he’s talking nonsense. “How can this man give his us his flesh to eat?”
Jesus hears them, and answers even more strongly before. He had just told them that they must eat his flesh, using the typical Greek word phagein. But now, in verse 53, reiterating and emphasising, he uses another word: trogein, ‘chew’ or ‘gnaw.’  Most translations just leave it as ‘eat,’ but surely Jesus is using a different word because he wants to make a point: you’ve not just got to eat my flesh, but to chew on it – because, as he says in verse 55, his flesh is ‘real meat.’
This is not to say that the bread of life which we receive in the Eucharist is a lump of bleeding meat just disguised as bread. Whatever you may have heard, no church has ever taught that this was so – indeed, the Catholic Church has always disavowed such an understanding (St Thomas Aquinas pointedly so). But we are called to believe that Jesus’ body is really and truly present in that bread, even if in a way which surpasses our understanding. For it is by eating His real flesh and drinking His blood, as He says in verse 56, that we dwell in Him and He in us.
The paradox is that by consuming Christ, we are simultaneously consumed by Him, and our humanity is thus assumed into His divinity.  So spend a little time before this Sunday’s Mass, if you can, preparing to partake of that living bread, calling to mind those parts of you that you have not yet let Christ consume, and let yourself be drawn ever closer into mystical union with God.

On Anglican dress

So much for those who claim not to be from 'a robed tradition' - that'd be the C of E, then? 

New service: combined Wedding, Baptism ... and Funeral

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

The Assumption: A second death is superfluous

How much of a mother dies when she sees her own son executed? Enough that a second death is superfluous. This is one narrative aspect of the feast celebrated by the whole Church since at least the fourth century every August 15th and called variously the Assumption or the Dormition of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
The tradition maintains that Mary did not die as the rest of us do. Her son loved her so much that he took her directly into union with Him, granting her instantly the bodily resurrection for which the rest of us must wait until the end of time.
The Church of England never rejected the Feast of the Assumption, but retained it officially as the Feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary. And indeed, Mary's importance in the narrative of Christian salvation should not be underestimated. It was she who was chosen to bear the Son of God and raise Him in the faith, and more fundamentally it was by her 'fiat' - her saying 'yes, let it be' to God at the Annunciation - that He could even be born in this world.
Various Protestants have denigrated Mary because of their doctrinal resistance to the idea that human will might play any part in our salvation. In the most extreme case, this led Calvin to deny that we have any free will at all, and so to the perverse doctrine that God has predestined every one of us either for heaven or for hell even before we are born, and there is nothing we can do about it. But the Bible tells a different story. God does not impregnate Mary against her will - there is a word for that, which is not fitting of God - and we are not merely His puppets. It took her human cooperation for the Saviour to be brought into the world.
At the Assumption, we give thanks for the one who willingly took the burden of bringing God into the world and who watched and wept as He, her son, died before her eyes; and we acknowledge her as the one whom God loved as only a son can love his mother, and so brought her soonest of all the saints to his side. 

Sunday, 5 August 2012

The Good Shepherd - Mark 6

Ah, the Good Shepherd. Gentle Jesus, meek and mild, looking after us, his woolly wards. All those chocolate box pictures of our Lord replete with blond curls and somewhat suspiciously effeminate eyes with a sheep draped over his shoulders like some grande dame's ermine stole. Well, all I can to say to that image, is - "baah."

Yes, here in Mark 6, Jesus is portrayed as a good shepherd. Yes, our Lord cares for his flocks, he tends for them and - in the bit the lectionary has cut from the middle of today's reading - he feeds them in their thousands with food of miraculous generation. But! But, the disciples, the people who are supposed to be closest to him, his followers, his church, are not among those flocks.

Think about the story as Mark tells it. It's the other folk who are so eager to see Jesus, the other folk who believe in his miraculous powers, the other folk who are fed and even healed by him. Remember the woman with haemorrages? - 'it was your faith that healed you.' It is the others who have faith in Jesus, the sheep without a shepherd that Jesus comes to teach and save.

Saturday, 21 July 2012

This Sunday's Gospel: Trinity 7, the Good Shepherd

This week, Jesus is portrayed as the familiar Good Shepherd who cares for us wild and wayward ruminants. But there is more than meets the eye to this charming picture. For although it is quite clear in Mark 6 that Jesus sees the multitudes as his flock, it is not at all clear at this point that He includes the disciples in their number.

In fact, it seems that everyone except the disciples sees Jesus for what he really is. Even when he feeds thousands, the disciples simply do not get it. It is only later that Peter realises that Jesus is the Messiah, but even then will not accept Jesus' definition of His messiahdom as a matter of self-sacrifice and suffering. And so, Judas betrays Him, and the remaining disciples abandon Him when He is arrested at Gethsemane.

Jesus has warned us over and again these past few weeks against complacency. Much is expected from those to whom much is given, and the Christian Church has been given the most precious gift: the invitation to become one with the God we have seen in Christ. Yet we cannot respond to this invitation only by looking inwards towards each other. If, unlike the disciples, we manage to stay awake long enough, we will discover that true knowledge of Christ is to be found as much outside the Church as within. It was, after all, for the outsiders that Jesus died.

Sunday, 10 June 2012

"Divine Women" - Dr Bettany Hughes on the BBC

I've just watched (rather belatedly) the second episode of Dr Bettany Hughes' BBC series, 'Divine Women,' where she talks about the role of women in the early Church. I can only say - don't be taken in by it! Especially if you are an advocate of women's ordination to the priesthood, because the patina of half-truths, omissions and outright fabrications that Dr Hughes presents will only discredit your position. It all sounds so credible, and I'd love to believe it - but sadly, it simply is not.

Even before we get to the detail, the very presentation of the programme shows that Dr Hughes is on a PR exercise designed to pull the wool over viewers' eyes. Once in a while, I'm sure, the Beeb does still manage to present unbiased, critically balanced documentaries, but this is not one of them. Leaving aside the doom-laden music used whenever anything Hughes deems 'anti-women' comes up, or the looks of smug condescension she gives to interviewees she disagrees with, there is a clear bias in the editing of her interviews. She interviews a straw woman of a Roman Catholic academic whose arguments are tossed away with the raise of Dr Hughes' well-plucked eyebrow; and when the Roman Catholic priest she interviews tells her no more than that women enjoyed prestige and influence in the early Church, Dr Hughes implies that he is suggesting that women were ordained to the priesthood and episcopate. Fr Scott may think such things, but he never said or even implied them - yet this did not stop Dr Hughes from misrepresenting him to her own ends.

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

On the Jubilee

"Can reeds flourish where there is no water?," Bildad asks Job. To which the answer is 'Yes,' if God wills it so: for Him, all things are possible. But the answer expected of Job is 'No,' and the answer for us, almost all the time, is 'No.' Reeds cannot flourish where there is no water.

For while God can transgress the natural order working miracles and wonders to make whatever He wishes so, by and large He does not. His work is done not in spite of, but through His creation, through the imperfect agents of the material world according to the nature that He has given them.

Jesus broke many natural laws and condemned time-hallowed institutions. But the principle of the Incarnation is not to destroy the natural order, not to replace created humanity with perfect divinity, but to fulfil that order: grace does not destroy nature, but perfects it. Jesus told us to call no-one 'teacher,' because He was our only teacher; to call no man 'father,' because we have one Father in Heaven. Yet we have earthly fathers, and earthly teachers, too. They are not our perfect Father or teacher, who is God, but aspire to His parenthood, his wisdom, of which they are analogues and foreshadowings.

Likewise, we Christians have only one true King, who is Christ. But it is not for nothing that the Gospels stress Jesus' mortal line in the Royal House of David. It is not for nothing that every king in the line of David was chosen by God and anointed by His priests to rule His people. Nor is it a coincidence that our own monarchs in this land for at least 1000 years have been consecrated by the Church to reign according to those very rites described in Hebrew Scripture.

In God, we have one Father, one teacher, one priest - one King: but until His Kingdom come, we are blessed with a ruler raised from birth to guide His people: a ruler not chosen by people, not swayed by promises of wealth or power, not answerable to vested interests, but to God alone. A ruler who can swear, as our Queen did on her enthronement 60 years ago, not just to the people but to God, too: 'I declare before you that my whole life, be it long or short, shall be devoted to your service.'

For it is God, not the people, who saves the Queen; it is by the line of birth and chance of nature, not human election, that she is chosen to serve us; and it is by God's wisdom, not popular whim, that she is covenanted to guide us, one earthly Church and one earthly nation, towards the Kingdom that will never end.

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Sean Penn calls Prince William's deployment to Falkland Islands 'unthinkable' - Telegraph

Sean Penn calls Prince William's deployment to Falkland Islands 'unthinkable' - Telegraph:

Actor Sean Penn accuses the United Kingdom of 'colonialism' over the Falklands.

I wonder, has he been to Hawai'i lately? There, the United States overthrew the legitimate, sovereign government in 1893 and imprisoned its monarch, Queen Lilikuolani, until 1900. It then annexed the islands as a Territory - despite military pressure from the Japanese, who were understandably keen to thwart American imperial ambitions in Asia. Full statehood and democratic rights were not granted to Hawai'i until 1959.

The Falklands, on the other hand, were barren and uninhabited until discovery by an English captain in 1591. No native population was subjugated, no native government overthrown. The people of the Falklands are full British subjects and consider themselves so.

Hawaiians are more divided over whether they should consider themselves American or not, considering the historic suppression of their native rule. Perhaps Penn should look at the plank in his own nation's eye before picking the specks out of other people's.

Tuesday, 31 January 2012

De Botton: "only religion takes sex seriously."

De Botton recently defended his latest book, Religion for Atheists, in the Spectator from crushing reviews by Terry Eagleton, among others. I haven't read the book and probably won't, given that Eagleton's indictment is far more interesting than de Botton's rebuffal of it.

That said, de Botton did say one thing in the Spectator article which made me ponder:
"Three of my fellow males admitted they'd recently come through profound periods of internet porn addiction - not the mild curiosity one can expect, the sort where you can't wait to get home to look up the latest offering and are up till 3a.m. every night. This makes me think that nowadays, only religions really still take sex seriously, in the sense of properly respecting its power to turn us away from our priorities."
I'd be among the first to admit that the Church has of late been depressingly one-tracked minded, particularly as far as homosexuality, the status of women and contraception go. And of course, one could say that after last year's abominable scandals among so many churches, religious people should put their own houses in order before they dare to tell anyone else about sex.

Still, I think de Botton has a point. While we may scorns certain religions' insistence on women covering up, as de Botton puts it, even the 'glimpse of a pair of knees' can really turn someone's life upside down if it leads to adultery or to porn addiction: the loss of family, livelihood and even liberty in the worst of cases. Perhaps I am transferring my own proclivities, but it does seem that sex is one of humanity's greatest weaknesses of the will.

Much of our culture teaches that sex is little more than a marketing tool or a vehicle of self-expression. Few voices challenge these notions, and outside the religions, very few indeed. I have yet to encounter a convincing secular resistance to the power and sheer danger of human sexuality, and certainly none that affirms the great responsibility that comes with its gift.

Ironically, considering the patriarchal order of so many religions, feminists seem to have a stronger voice within the Church than their counterparts in the secular world, which tends increasingly to laugh off their concerns. If this is not so, then it should be. In a world where the woman's body has become the ultimate consumer luxury, we need a firm riposte. The religious recognition of sex and each individual person as sacred is one such. It may not be the only one, but as de Botton points out, there are very few voices offering a substantial alternative.

Perhaps I should read his book, after all.

Monday, 23 January 2012

Catechetics Online

An exceptionally useful resource for any preacher: S. Thomas Aquinas' anthology of Patristic commentary on the four gospels arranged by chapter:

Catechetics Online

Thanks to Étienne Démons for the link.

King's College Chapel

A frozen waterfall:
Ceiling stones plunge
To the depths of Heaven.

Nito Shinkage Ryu 二刀神影流鎖鎌術

This video should serve as a brief introduction for my Budo friends to the school of kusarigama (sickle and chain) in which I trained while living in Kochi eight years ago. It practises only in Kochi, and these are the very gentlemen I used to train under. The unique feature of the school is that it uses two kusarigama, one held in each hand.