Saturday, 27 December 2014

The Feast of S. John the Evangelist: The flesh revealed Life itself

A treatise by St Augustine on the epistle of John

We announce what existed from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our own eyes, what we have touched with our own hands. Who could touch the Word with his hands unless the Word was made flesh and lived among us? 
    Now this Word, whose flesh was so real that he could be touched by human hands, began to be flesh in the Virgin Mary’s womb; but he did not begin to exist at that moment. We know this from what John says: What existed from the beginning. Notice how John’s letter bears witness to his Gospel, which you just heard a moment ago: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God. 
    Someone might interpret the phrase the Word of life to mean a word about Christ, rather than Christ’s body itself which was touched by human hands. But consider what comes next: and life itself was revealed. Christ therefore is himself the Word of life. 
    And how was this life revealed? It existed from the beginning, but was not revealed to men, only to angels, who looked upon it and feasted upon it as their own spiritual bread. But what does Scripture say? Mankind ate the bread of angels. 
    Life itself was therefore revealed in the flesh. In this way what was visible to the heart alone could become visible also to the eye, and so heal men’s hearts. For the Word is visible to the heart alone, while flesh is visible to bodily eyes as well. We already possessed the means to see the flesh, but we had no means of seeing the Word. The Word was made flesh so that we could see it, to heal the part of us by which we could see the Word. 
    John continues: And we are witnesses and we proclaim to you that eternal life which was with the Father and has been revealed among us – one might say more simply “revealed to us.” 
    We proclaim to you what we have heard and seen. Make sure that you grasp the meaning of these words. The disciples saw our Lord in the flesh, face to face; they heard the words he spoke, and in turn they proclaimed the message to us. So we also have heard, although we have not seen. 
    Are we then less favoured than those who both saw and heard? If that were so, why should John add: so that you too may have fellowship with us? They saw, and we have not seen; yet we have fellowship with them, because we and they share the same faith. 
    And our fellowship is with God the Father and Jesus Christ his Son. And we write this to you to make your joy complete – complete in that fellowship, in that love and in that unity.

Wednesday, 17 December 2014


I write on 17 December, which begins the eight-day count down to Christmas. Since the fourth century, the Church has marked these eight days with a set of eight sentences derived from Scripture known as the 'O' Antiphons. The Church of England suppressed them at the Reformation, but happily restored their use with the publication of the modern 'Common Worship' liturgy in 2000. They are now back in their proper place as antiphons or 'refrains' used this week at the Magnificat in Evening Prayer, and as the Alleluia verses before the Gospel at the Daily Eucharist.

The 'O' Antiphons are the verses for the ancient hymn O Come, O Come Emmanuel. They address Christ with seven Messianic titles, based on the Old Testament prophecies which foreshadowed Him. As such, they announce Jesus in turn as our Teacher, our Redeemer, our Liberator, our Guide, our Enlightener and our Saviour, ascending through the history of redemption.

You can find them on the Church of England's website for Evening Prayer in Advent, but I have also typed them out below. If you do not say daily Evening Prayer, you might use these sentences as verses to pray on each of their respective days, or to guide you in finding a daily Bible reading in the countdown to Christmas.

December 17: O Sapientia

Recalling that Jesus is our Teacher, a Jewish Rabbi, we address Him first as Divine Wisdom:

O Wisdom, coming forth from the mouth of the Most High,
reaching from one end to the other mightily,
and sweetly ordering all things:
Come and teach us the way of prudence.

cf Ecclesiasticus 24.3; Wisdom 8.1

December 18: O Adonai

Next, we go back to the time of Moses, around 1400 BC, and the extension of the redemption promised to the Jews through the Law to all people through Christ.

O Adonai, and leader of the House of Israel,
who appeared to Moses in the fire of the burning bush
and gave him the law on Sinai:
Come and redeem us with an outstretched arm.

cf Exodus 3.2, 24.12

December 19: O Radix Jesse

Next we come to the time of David, around 1100 BC, whose father was Jesse and into whose household, through Joseph, Jesus was born. David was liberator of his people, but Christ is liberator of all.

O Root of Jesse, standing as a sign among the peoples;
before you kings will shut their mouths,
to you the nations will make their prayer:
Come and deliver us, and delay no longer.

cf Isaiah 11.10, 45.14, 52.15; Romans 15.12

December 20: O Clavis David

Now around 1000 BC, Hezekiah, a descendent of David, cleanses the Temple and hands on David's authority or 'key' to his steward Eliakim. This is 'key' Jesus gives to Peter, representing the Church, to set us free from sin. So it reveals Jesus as our Guide from slavery to sin to the freedom of His Kingdom.

O Key of David and sceptre of the House of Israel;
you open and no one can shut; you shut and no one can open:
Come and lead the prisoners from the prison house,
those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.

cf Isaiah 22.22, 42.7; Rev 3.7-8

December 21: O Oriens

The 'Oriens' is the morning star, Christ as the light prophesied by Malachi to enlighten all peoples, repeated later by Simeon and, in his words known as the 'Nunc Dimittis,' by us, at Evensong, Compline and funerals.

O Morning Star,
splendour of light eternal and sun of righteousness:
Come and enlighten those who dwell in darkness
and the shadow of death.

cf Malachi 4.2

December 22: O Rex Gentium

With the light of revelation, we see Jesus as He truly is: Rex Gentium, King of the Nations, both Creator and Saviour of the world.

O King of the nations, and their desire,
the cornerstone making both one:
Come and save the human race,
which you fashioned from clay.

cf Isaiah 28.16; Ephesians 2.14

December 23: O Emmanuel

Finally, the night before the Vigil of Christmas, we proclaim Jesus by His greatest title: Emmanuel, God With Us. And note that the first letter of the Messianic titles - Emmanuel, Rex, Oriens, Clavis, Radix, Adonai, Sapientia - spell out Latin words ero cras: "tomorrow, I will come."

O Emmanuel, our king and our lawgiver,
the hope of the nations and their Saviour:
Come and save us, O Lord our God.

cf Isaiah 7.14

Have a blessed Christmas.
Fr Tom

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

Dear Lord and Father...

For those who haven't seen this one already:

Dear Lord and Father of mankind,
forgive our foolish ways,
for most of us, when asked our mind,
admit we still more pleasure find
in hymns of ancient days.

The simple lyrics, for a start,
of many a modern song
are far too trite to touch the heart,
enshrine no poetry, no art,
and go on much too long.

O for a rest from jollity
and syncopated praise!
What happened to tranquillity?
The silence of eternity
is hard to hear these days.

Send Thy deep hush, subduing all
those happy claps that drown
the tender whisper of Thy call.
Triumphalism is not all,
for sometimes we feel down.

Drop Thy still dews of quietness
till all our strummings cease.
Take from our souls the strain and stress
of always having to be blessed.
Give us a bit of peace.

Breathe through the beats of praise guitar
Thy coolness and Thy balm.
Let drum be dumb, bring back the lyre,
enough of earthquake, wind and fire -
let's hear it for some calm.

Sunday, 9 November 2014

Selective remembrance

(With thanks to Neil MacGregor for inspiring this sermon)

"Stay awake." As we remember particularly the war dead of the First World War one hundred years on, there's a certain irony to Jesus' command to us today, since our country used to shoot dead its own soldiers if they fell asleep on their watch. But then, our remembrance tends to be rather selective.
Remembering and memorialising victory is nothing new. Pagan Rome was particularly good at it, and many of her monuments to wars won still stand. The most enduring symbol of national victory is surely the triumphal arch, copied by the Romans from the Etruscans, and ever after in cities where the legions never marched, from Washington to Pyongyang.
Men have always been keen to set in stone their triumphs; even Christian men of Christian nations. Curious that they had to delve into pagan history to find a suitable form for immortalising their victories in war, that nothing from the Christian tradition leapt out as being appropriate: for make no mistake, pagan these things are, generally including or topped by a "quadriga," that is a four-horsed chariot, bearing the goddess Victory, and often flanked by Mars and Minerva, god and goddess of war. Curious that a Christian nation might appropriate these pagan deities to its cause, especially curious when you consider the greatest and best known of all the triumphal arches, the model for all its later imitators: the Arch of the Emperor Titus in Rome.

The Arch of Titus is beautiful, no doubt, but it is spectacularly unchristian for two strong reasons. First is the quadriga, the divine chariot. As if deifying victory were not bad enough, on this arch it is Titus himself who takes pride of place, being crowned by Victory. The man Titus is delaring himself a god.

And what has made him a god? The second reason: namely, that this arch commemorates the sack of Jerusalem in AD 70. On one famous frieze, you can the soldiers with all the booty of the Temple, having killed off the Jews. You can see the menorah candle and the trumpets of ancient Jewish worship. This massacre of God's chosen people and desecration of His temple is the reason Titus proclaims himself a god, the ultimate idolatry. And this is the model European nations have chosen to remember our war dead.

A very selective remembrance, at that. The Arc de Triomphe records the dates of French victories: 1792, 1810, 1814, 1815. On defeats, though, the Arc is silent. 1870, for example, and France's defeat against Prussia, which meant losing Alsace-Lorraine and providing one of the many causes of the First World War - this doesn't get a look-in. It's only the soldiers who died in the wars France won that are worth remembering. The rest are conveniently forgotten. Victory is all.
We Britons have our arch, too: the Wellington Arch in Hyde Park. Completed in 1830, it memorialises our victory in the Napoleonic wars. The quadriga was mounted in 1912, this time with an angel of peace, at least, though she is mounted on a chariot of war. The message is that peace is earned through war, which may be true. But the medium of that message is telling: it was quite deliberately made to be the biggest bronze statue in Europe. It was made to show off; and it was made by a nation whose imperial exploits had not exactly taken peace to every nation they visited. We were not suppressing wars for much of the 19th century, we were starting them. So you might say that the message was a bit rich coming from us. And of course, it is all success, all victory, with never a mention of those who died in our military failures, the wars we lost: Afghanistan, in 1842 and 1880, where we would lose again in 1919, for example; Isandhlwana, now Durban, in 1879; Castlebar in 1798; Saratoga in 1777, the list goes on. And even now, how often do we remember Singapore in 1942 or the Suez in 1955? How often do we remember our victims, the ones whose countries we invaded, the slaves we took - where is the memorial to them? I think our remembrance is selective. I think it is dishonest.

Perhaps honesty comes only with crushing defeat. Neil Macgregor, Director of the British Museum, says that the only country that is truly honest in its remembrance and memorials of war is Germany. There is no other country, for example, that has a monument to its victims, a monument to its shame, like the Holocaust Memorial set right in the centre of its capital; and there is no triumphal arch quite like the Siegestor in Munich.

This arch, like the others, was modelled on Titus', back in the 1840s as a reminder of Bavarian heroism in repelling Napoleon. From the front, it looks much like its fellows: an inscription, 'to the Bavarian Army,' a quadriga on top. But then you go through to the other side. Blasted back by bombs and bullet holes, it has never been restored to its former beauty. The scars are left exposed for everyone to see, and above them, a blank expanse of stone with a new message etched in: "Dem Sieg geweiht, vom Krieg zerstört, zum Frieden mahnend," Dedicated to victory, destroyed by war, urging peace. This is remembrance which does not hide its ugliness and its shame, and does not just look back through rosy lenses but looks forward and pleads with its people not to enter this awful madness of war again. Born in hubris it is shamed and scourged and now emerges as something new, offering a hope of peace. It is remembrance as resurrection.

We are a people who gather every Sunday to celebrate a memorial: the memorial of our redemption. In the sacraments of bread and wine we are drawn into the life of one who was scourged and shamed, we are drawn into the shame of our fellow people who bloodied and killed him, and we are drawn into the promise, despite all this, of new and eternal life in peace. Ours is not a triumphal creed, it is bound up in sinfulness and failure, the story of a crucified God. It is the stark opposite of gods and goddesses of war and victory, and emperors becoming gods through military might. It is about a man who we know was God because He submitted to violence rather than employing it. There is no Christ the King without Christ the crucified; there is no Church redeemed without the Church that nailed God to the Cross. The worshippers of the true God, friends of a man crucified unjustly, cannot be friends of falsehood and injustice.
We, the Church, must therefore be very careful that we are not complicit in a dishonest national amnesia about the utter wrongness of war and the wrongness of our part in many of the wars our nation has fought. As the Established Church of this land, the onus is all the heavier, because it may be that we are the only ones with the authority to prompt our people's and our leaders' memories of the uncomfortable truths they would rather forget and the dead they would like to dismiss.
I would like to leave you with some questions about how we remember, as a nation, and the memorials we are making, especially on this 100th anniversary of the Great War. Take the poppies that are pouring from the Tower of London at the moment, one for every serviceman who died - for our country, that is. It is poignant. It is beautiful. But is it enough? Does it express any contrition, any responsibility, any shame? What - or who - might be forgotten as we remember?

Let us remember those who have died in the service of their nation, and pray for those who still do; but let us remember also those whom we prefer to forget, and repent of our nation's and our own part in bloodying God's creation with war.

Saturday, 8 November 2014

Frankenstein's Worship: Against Liturgical Relativism

A Sermon for the St Albans Branch of the Prayer Book Society given by the Rev'd Dr Thomas Plant at the parish church of St Peter, Great Berkhamsted, on the Feast of All Saints of England, 8 November 2014.

"This morning's worship didn't do much for me, Father," says the parishioner; to which the grumpy priest replies, "that's OK. We weren't worshipping you."

A hundred years ago, if anyone was suspected of disloyalty to our Anglican inheritance, of tampering with our liturgy and threatening our uniformity of worship, it was the Anglo-Catholics. Many of their number argued that the eucharistic liturgy of the Prayer Book was at best disordered, and at worst deficient. Among the proponents of the latter view were the Anglo-Papalists, for whom nothing less than an Englished Roman Canon would suffice; while the former was the position of the 'English' or 'Prayer Book' Catholics of Pusey and Dearmer's ilk, who wanted nothing more than the reordering of the service and additional collects promised in 1928. For them, if the Prayer Book was not essentially Catholic, then nor was the Church of England, and I think they had a point. Yet, the revisions that they and most of the Church wanted never went ahead, and their case was not helped by their more extreme brethren.

Our present situation surely has something to do with the failure of 1928. We might have had a Prayer Book which was not stuck in a seventeenth century time warp, but reflected the theological (and ecumenical) advances of the day without sacrificing unity or compromising doctrinal clarity. Instead, with the authorisation of Common Worship, we are in the throes of liturgical anarchy.

I use the term 'anarchy' with intent. The Anglican approach to doctrine has consistently, even if not always explicitly or consciously, rested on the 4th century maxim 'lex orandi, lex credendi': "the rule of prayer is the rule of belief." Ours has never been a church much disposed to great systematic theologies like those of Aquinas or Calvin. Rather, what we believe, our 'lex credendi,' has been defined by what we pray, as expressed in our liturgy, our 'lex orandi.' Lex, "rule," or more properly, "law," is precisely what an-archia, 'un-lawfulness,' negates, and anarchy of liturgy means anarchy of belief. Make-it-up-as-you-go-along prayer, cobbled-together Frankenstein liturgy, means make-it-up-as-you-go-along belief, Frankenstein doctrine, a lumbering hybrid of arbitrary spare parts. It is the exact opposite of the Anglican genius.

Nor is it justified on anything like theological grounds. Rather, the relativism of our times has crept into our thinking about the Church. Liturgy is now all about 'meeting people where they are,' suiting it to the congregation's needs or abilities as rather patronisingly discerned by the clergy. In other words, it's more about us than about God.

Hence the perfidious delusion of "worship styles," two words which should strike fear into the hearts of all true believers. You often see these words in advertisements in the Church Times, and they are eagerly taken up on the lips of latitudinarian clergy who are keen to show that they can offer the full range. I was moaning (quite uncharacteristically) at our last clergy conference that it was difficult to find Anglo-Catholic clergy to fill vacancies in Catholic parishes, and about my fears that the tradition would die. The Evangelical priest I was moaning to retorted that I had no need to worry, because she could quite happily offer a variety of worship styles, from choral Eucharist to Baptist prayer meeting. It's just a difference of style, informal versus formal.

The idea that the form might in some way reflect the content of the worship, that the differences in liturgy express differences of theology, does not seem to cross people's minds. There is no difference in content between four-chord wonder "Jesus and me" worship songs and solemn, traditional hymnody with less obvious melodic resolutions; no difference between doing some arts and crafts and singing a few hymns once a month or making the sacrament of the Eucharist the focus of one's daily devotion; no difference between addressing the sempiternal fount of all being in the matey language of a bloke at the pub or in Cranmerian awe - it's all just a matter of taste. This, in case you hadn't noticed, seems to be the current orthodoxy of the Church of England, enshrined in the pick and mix methodology of Common Worship, and you challenge it at your peril. So much for lex orandi, lex credendi. What we pray is no longer an expression of what we believe, but what we like.

The thinking behind these changes is untheological, but I fear that they are being exploited by some with serious theological intent. The clergy swear to obey the Canons of the Church of England, among which is Canon A3, namely that 'the doctrine contained in The Book of Common Prayer ... is agreeable to the Word of God.' Yet, I have heard clergy say quite openly that the ordering of bishops, priests and deacons, the need of a priest to pronounce absolution or to celebrate the Holy Communion, the provision of auricular Confession and various other things stipulated quite clearly in the Prayer Book are 'unscriptural.' For these clergy, the smorgasbord of Common Worship is perfect, as it allows them to construct good, clean, Biblical worship unsullied by the tradition of the Church in which they accepted ordination. Their laity, of course, do not own the Common Worship library and are never introduced to the Prayer Book, and so have no reason to suspect that the clergy might be leading them into belief and practice that bears very little resemblance to the historic faith of the Church. Disloyalty and clericalism, it seems, are not just the province of Anglo-Catholics.
But here am I, pontificating about uniformity and the woes of relativism, while I myself offer not pure 1662, but the 'interim rite,' the Prayer Book Holy Communion restored - or distorted, depending on your opinion - into the older and now more ecumenically recognised shape. Am I then hoist by my own petard? You might think so; but I would argue that the Prayer Book has its value in use as the living liturgy of the Church, that it can be flexibly enough employed to reflect the more accurate understandings that we now have of the primitive liturgies which Cranmer and his successors sought to refine. We have, after all, an additional few centuries of scholarship, discovery and ecumenical consensus on our side. To return the liturgy to its pristine form, drawing on resources which were unavailable to the Reformers, is very different from simply knocking up a bit of whatever one fancies. 'Permitted variation' is not the same thing as laissez-faire. Today's Eucharist reflects an authentic Anglican position, namely that of the Catholic Movement, but held within the clear bounds of the Church of England's historic liturgy. It is an example of the Prayer Book as a living text rather than the museum piece as which many like to denigrate it.

We mark today a feast unknown to the 1662 Prayer Book: that of all the English Saints. That we may do so is, I think, one of the positive results of the recent reforms to the liturgy and the Kalendar; but we need not throw the baby out with the bathwater. The Prayer Book can offer twentieth century worship in the idiom which all the saints of this nation, pre- and post-Reformation, Catholic and Protestant alike, would recognise as being in clear continuity with the tradition handed down from the Apostles. It is an honour to offer such worship, an honour to which we must cling firmly if our church is to retain its claim to be not merely an informal network of self-regulating congregations, but the proper part of the Catholic Church in this land, and to teach her one true faith. 

Monday, 3 November 2014

All Souls 2014

From the glorious gold of All Saints we have moved to the sombre black of All Souls, and unusually, we have done it all in one day. All Saints really falls of the first of November, so if we were being traditional, we would have kept it yesterday, and just All Souls today, but as you can see from tonight's liturgy, here at St Peter's we're very modern and progressive; so, we moved All Saints to this morning for the whole parish to enjoy. But there is something surprisingly fitting about marking both on the same day. All Saints are, after all, pretty much the same thing: the difference is that while All Saints glories in the memory of the saints known and celebrated throughout the worldwide Church, All Souls marks the more recently and more locally departed, the dead we know and love in person. It's essentially a more local and familiar version of All Saints. 

So why, you might ask, the difference in tone - why the gold for All Saints and the black for All Souls? Well, I can think of two answers to this. One is pastoral, and the other is theological, but they are both very much connected. 

The pastoral reason is simply a matter of emotional honesty. We can be cheery about the universal saints of yesteryear and celebrate our communion with them in gold vestments and joyful songs, but when it's our own friends and family, it's different. The fact is, death is not something we naturally celebrate. A common modern position is that our loved ones are gone, so there's no point making a fuss about it, and we should all just cheer up and celebrate the good things in their lives. I think this comes from the historic Protestant viewpoint that once the dead are dead, God has made his mind up about them, so there's no point in praying for them: just let them and Him get on with it. As a result, instead of acknowledging our grief, we try to cheer ourselves up, and we do the same to other people, too: though I wonder, when we do that, are we really trying to help them or just take away the awkwardness that we feel ourselves? As an aside, I think the current obsession that is developing with Hallowe'en and zombies has something to do with the utter inadequacy of our culture to confront the reality of death. The Church, and this Requiem, does not make death go away, does not brush it under the carpet. It is realistic. It offers a place to grieve, in all honesty, and people who won't try to cheer you up or change the subject, but will be with you in your grief. 

And so onto the theological reason why All Souls is not a celebration, as such: and that is that death is not part of God's plan. Some deaths are better than others, certainly, but death in itself is never good. It is the very opposite of the eternal life for which God made us. The theological rationale is that death is the result of the Fall, the sinful condition of a world separated from God. But therein lies the hope, too, because God's response to our fallenness is to send His only Son to suffer just as we do, to die just as we do, and rising again to ascend to heaven and so lift up our humanity to join in his divinity. 

We wear black today and join in solemn ritual because we cannot celebrate death; but we can join the beloved dead in Communion at the heavenly altar where they now feast and worship, and so celebrate with them the joy of the Resurrection which we can know only in part, but they know far better than we. We pray for them as they pray for us, weep for them as they weep for us, and even as we weep, rejoice with them through the tears as they rejoice for us. 

Sunday, 2 November 2014

All Saints: Is relativism a fiction worth maintaining?

It used to be quite a brave thing not to baptise your children. You'd incur the wrath of many a maiden aunt. But now, almost the opposite is true. The respectable position is that children should be free to make their own minds up about these things in their own time and develop their own sets of values. To force your views on your children, to make promises for them, is borderline barbaric. I recently found out that a priest who baptises a baby without the consent of both parents could find himself in the dock for common assault. Maybe one day infant baptism will be an infringement of a child's human rights. Watch this space.

It's easy to see where we get this wariness of imparting our beliefs. We have seen the violence that comes when totalising ideologies brainwash people into belief in absolute truths. We've seen the results of twentieth century imperialism, colonialism, Fascism, Communism, and we have become allergic to 'isms' as a result, so much so that to add an -ism to something is perhaps the worst insult of the postmodern age: think capital vs. capitalism, community vs. communism, Islam vs. Islamism. We are sceptical of systematic approaches to truth. So we come to the relativism that is the default position of today's postmodern West. Scared of the old modernist certainties, we conclude that there is no ultimate truth, only equally valid, rival truth-claims, none inherently any better than another.

Take modern R.E. lessons. This sort of thing is quite common: the children are taught the Ten Commandments or the Buddha's Four Noble Truths or the Pillars of Islam, and then, to conclude the lesson, they make up their own version. Sounds quite creative - but think for a moment about what it implies. First, that actual religious codes are inadequate; second, that the children have some privileged vantage point outside the values of any given community from which they can make balanced, unbiased judgments; and third, that what you believe as an individual is the most important thing and trumps what any community believes, even if that community's beliefs have been formed, debated and tested for thousands of years, while you've just thought about yours in the last ten minutes before playtime.

The results of these exercises are interesting. Once the children have been left 'to make up their own minds,' they surprisingly seem to focus on - guess what? Gender, sexual and racial equality, diversity and the environment. In other words, our little freethinkers reel off what the school and the modern zeitgeist has been spoonfeeding them. What they are being spoonfed may be all well and good, and thank God we live in a country where, unlike Egypt last week, you won't be imprisoned for 'corrupting public morality' by attending a same-sex wedding. That's not the problem. The problem is with the assumption that a religious upbringing imparted by one's parents constrains thought, i.e. is 'brainwashing,' and if you take this away, people will be unfettered into vistas of free thinking. But the reality, as you can see from the R.E. lesson, is that if you take away one influence on how people look at the world, another fills the vacuum. What currently fills the vacuum, then, is relativism: the claim that there is no universal truth. But this is inconsistent, because it claims status for itself as universal truth. So, it becomes just another truth-claim in competition with others, setting up tolerance as the cardinal virtue and diversity as the indisputable good; yet no tolerance is given to those who diverge from this orthodoxy: people who want to baptise their children, for example. Its claim fails on its own grounds.

Still, if the only fruits of relativism were tolerance and kindness to those different from ourselves, it might not matter that it was inconsistent: it might be a fiction worth maintaining. But I don't think that's the case. In practice, the doctrine that everyone 'should be left free to make up their own minds' really just leaves the majority ignorant of the long-tested beliefs that have sustained our communities for centuries and leaves the weakest vulnerable to whatever influence happens to be strongest. It becomes little more than a mask for social Darwinism, a free market of ideas, where it is not the truth of competing ideas that matters, but their brute power. And so it is that our people end up not free but thralls to consumerism, to the lie that autonomy can be earnt by getting of the right products, the right opinions, the right body shape, sold by the self-interested cartels of slave-drivers, drug-pushers and pornographers who wield economic power. And they've got us right where they want us, because as soon as you voice any alternative view to this cult of the individual, as soon as you dare to say that what someone else is doing or saying or buying or selling is wrong, you're a bigot, you're intolerant, you're a fanatic, you're the brainwashed adherent of a primitive and outmoded cult - whereas they, in a diabolical inversion, are enlightened and tolerant and free-thinking.

In the end, though, this cuckoo ideology cannot push the Christian faith completely out of the nest: the truth we hold is more consistent and more compelling. It is a truth for which many of the saints have borne witness with their lives, their robes 'washed in the blood of the Lamb.' It is a truth grounded not in an ideology, but in a person, a man crucified who reveals God as one and three, true diversity that does not preclude unity but embraces it. It is a truth grounded in the vulnerability and self-sacrifice of the Cross, orientation not towards self but to others. It is a truth therefore that cannot mean empire and domination, though God knows the Church has used His name to justify bloodshed and God knows we owe Him and His world an apology. It is a truth, therefore, that we should hold in confidence but never in arrogance.

If we are worried that this truth excludes diversity, we should be encouraged by the saints John sees in his Revelation: the 'men and women from every nation,' for in Christ 'there is no slave or free, no man or woman, no Jew or Greek;' not a privileged minority, but 'a multitude that no one could count,' since Christ died for the sins of all. This motley band of individuals is how John pictures the Kingdom, united in the worship of the Triune God for which every single one of us was made, in all our diversity. For it is by worshipping Him, by entering into union – communion – with Him, that for all our variety and difference we find our common source, the truth of self-giving love that underpins reality, and in it the promise of joyous eternity with all God's saints.

Monday, 13 October 2014

Trinity 17 – “How did you get in here without a wedding robe?”

Matthew 22.1-14: Jesus compares the Kingdom of Heaven to a wedding banquet given for the King's son. The party is already going on before the King arrives: “When the King came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe.” The feast has already started. And the King expects the guests to be properly attired. He expects them to be ready. Are they ready? Are we?

The feast that has already started is a wedding celebration for the King’s Son: he should be centre-stage. Yet the Son and his bride don’t get a mention in the parable after the first line. The marriage itself doesn’t happen in the story: we don’t make it that far. We, the listeners, get only as far as the unprepared guest; we are thrown out into the darkness with him. We’re given no idea of what the bride looks like, who she is, the joy that awaits her and her groom-to-be. It’s like looking at a wedding album with all the photos of the couple cut out. Jesus leaves his audience in the dark. All we can do is look in on the feast from the outside, maybe just glimpse the lights, vaguely hear the sounds of rejoicing.

I don’t know about you, but I want to be closer than that. I mean, after all, isn’t that why we’re here? Isn’t that why we’ve come to the feast, joined the party? To celebrate the union of the Son and his bride?

In fact, there’s more to it than just spectating and celebrating, if only we’re prepared enough to see, if only we we’re properly clothed, because what Jesus doesn’t tell us, but St Paul does later, is that we are the Bride. The wedding is none other than that of Jesus, the Son, to His bride, the Church, the mystical union of God and His Creation, the final oneness of the Kingdom of Heaven and earth, light breaking through the veil, and that is why nothing but our poshest frocks will do: because we’re not just invited as idle guests, to munch the canapés from the sideline - surprise! - we are to be the Bride. We are to be as close as one can be, we are to share in Christ’s own utter intimacy with the Father, we are to be loved as adopted children, sons- and daughters-in-law of the King. And we need to get ready.

We can be. It’s no use saying, “I haven’t got time to put my makeup on,” or, “give me five minutes for my varnish to dry:” there are no excuses. We’re invited, everyone is invited. You were given the invitation the moment you were conceived, you were given the clothing of salvation when you were baptised, so yes, Cinderella, you can go to the ball. No: you’re at it already: and although you may not see with your eyes the angels and saints singing and dancing at the heavenly altar to which this altar joins us at the Mass, they are here, the Kingdom is here among us, and if we can bear to open the eyes of our heart we will know that they are with us.

But the vision is weak. We see through a glass darkly. It takes practice, prayer, preparation to open those eyes of the heart. Spiritual preparation for every Eucharist we come to: true contrition, repentance for the stains we have put on the garment God gave us, wonder and thanksgiving that He has forgiven us, time spent simply basking in the presence of His love. There are so many ways to pray: one, at least, to suit each of us! Silent meditation, regular Confession, prayer with Scripture, the Rosary, adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, simple conversation with God - if you haven’t yet found how you pray best, then maybe this parable is saying that now is the time. Just ask one of your fellow guests around you for advice, and don’t worry about turning up to the party dressed the same as someone else. We can be different: but we must get ready.

What’s the party like, I wonder? Well, of course, it’s a metaphor, and like any metaphor it has its limits. St Augustine puts it differently in this week’s Collect: “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless till they find their rest in you.” If parties aren’t your thing, then this is another way of talking about what God has invited us to: rest in Him, forever, in His heavenly city, “where we shall see Him face to face.” But don’t write off the party metaphor completely. It’s not an eternity of cake and tea with the goody-two-shoes elect, granted: the good and the bad are invited alike, which is definitely good news for most of us. But it is a party where there will be no drunks brawling, no spiked drinks, nobody taking advantage. No hatred, envy, malice. A party of sheer joy, bliss, ecstacy. A marriage, a union with the divine One who became human so that we humans could become divine.

We don’t have to wait until we’re dead to know the Kingdom. The party has already started. Pray, practise, prepare, and we can join it here and now. We can take it with us wherever we go. We can bring it to earth as it is in heaven. Everyone is invited— and the Lord will join us just as soon as we are ready for Him.

Tuesday, 30 September 2014

St Jerome, or "why the moderns don't always know best"

"Stand ye in the ways, and see, and ask for the old paths, where is the good way, and walk therein, and ye shall find rest for your souls." Jeremiah 6.16

One of the many infuriating things about me when I was younger, and for all I know perhaps remains so, was my conviction that modern ways are best. Not that I was alone: it's pretty common for moderns to laugh off and dismiss older ways as backward or regressive. Nor is it anything new. Today's saint, Jerome, suffered the fate of the traditionalist. 

Active at the turn of the fourth century, Jerome went through the not uncommon route to sainthood of a pious upbringing, a period of youthful and wanton depravity, repentance, conversion, priesthood and devotion to the study and teaching of the faith. In this, he was much like his contemporary Augustine, with whom he did not always get on. They could both be pretty irascible. 

If Augustine's greatest contributions to Christian thought were in doctrine and ecclesiology (the theology of the structure of the Church), Jerome's was to Scripture, of which he was a profound, sensitive and learned exponent. In his lifetime, Jerome mastered Latin - his native tongue was Illyrian - Greek and Hebrew, and translated the Hebrew Old Testament and Greek New into Latin, the common (in Latin, 'vulgatus')  language of the time. His 'Vulgate' Bible became the authoritative edition and was unchallenged until the Reformation. 

The Reformers, of course, knew better. They had rediscovered the 'original' Greek in manuscripts newly brought from the East, and had for the first time since in the West before the Dark Ages mastered enough Greek to translate them. They found that the 'original' differed in many respects from Jerome's, and in ways which were conducive to their new Protestant thinking. So, they ditched Jerome. 

The problem was, their 'original' Greek manuscripts were actually 11th or 12th century editions, whereas Jerome back in 382 was comparing several different versions whose pedigree he checked exactingly. It was not until the rediscovery of some of those ancient manuscripts in the 19th century that scholars realised that in many cases, Jerome was right and the Reformers were wrong. 

This is just one example of how arrogant views of the past can lead to error. We still live with it today, in a Church divided by errors of doctrine caused by the arrogance of those who thought they knew better. A good day, then, to pray for unity in the Church and to thank God for the work of those saints who truly lead us into His truth. 

Sunday, 28 September 2014

By whose authority?

Who has authority? A tricky question for us Brits nowadays. The old authorities have fallen into disrepute - the bankers in the financial crisis; clergy, media figures and even social services in sexual scandal; politicians in both of the above and more. We're rapidly becoming a country that doesn't trust any authority at all.

The Russians, in contrast, have fewer doubts, according to a recent poll asking them to name their highest moral authority. At the bottom, about 1 percent named a revered journalist, a Soviet hockey star, a Chechen leader and the Russian Orthodox Church's Patriarch Kirill. Next up the list came the Defense Minister, scoring 5 percent. In second place, with 9 percent, came Russian cultural figures, such as the novelist Alexander Solzhenitsyn. But guess who came top of the list? With 36 percent of the vote, none other than that beacon of morality and personal integrity, President Vladimir Putin. Russia, amazingly, puts a great deal of its trust in the authority of her political establishment.

I want to argue that neither of these positions, whether British skepticism or Russian nationalism, answers the authority question. But for now, let's wind back two thousand years and focus on the situation Matthew describes in Jerusalem.

Jesus has just entered the city. The crowds have welcomed him with palm branches and clothes thrown at his feet, proclaiming him the son of David. He's been into the Temple and caused catastrophe, turning tables and casting out the sellers of sacrificial doves. He has healed the blind and the lame there. The priests are not pleased. They'd managed to get rid of him overnight, but now he's back causing trouble again. So they ask a question, a question of our times just as much as theirs: "what is your authority for doing these things?" You're not one of us, you haven't got the authority of the priestly bloodline. You're not sent by the Romans, you haven't got the imperial authority of Caesar. You're not a demagogue, leading a political body, you haven't got the authority of the people. So whose authority have you got to do these things?

And these of course are questions that we still ask. A lot of people don't trust bloodlines and birthrights; people don't much trust the democratic process or believe that politicians really represent their interests. Sure, a certain level of cynicism is a sign of a healthy society, but it seems nowadays that whenever anyone tries to do anything, the initial response is one of skepticism and distrust. What's in it for you? Why should we trust you? And then scepticism turns into anger and self-righteousness, like the self-righteousness of the priests in the Temple. We get defensive. Who are you to preach at me?

It's easy to see why we want to ask these questions. But the obvious problem with our attitude is that society cannot function without some sort of authority. Where old authorities are thrown away, new ones quickly arise to fill the vacuum. At an extreme level, we can see this happening in countries like Iraq where old and oppressive political structures are destroyed, and Islamic radicalism comes in with the resources to take over — the so-called Arab Spring is part of the same story. But it happens here, too. Where people come to believe nothing, they will start to believe anything. There are all sorts of people and organisations offering easy answers to difficult questions. You can find your own preferred authority on the Internet, on soap operas, in celebrities, in Tarot or horoscopes, in the BNP - in short, in anything which offers a message conveniently conforming to one's particular prejudices. If nobody's opinion has any authority any more, my opinion is just as valid as anyone else's, no matter how ill-founded and unexamined it might be.

Jesus in the Temple does not offer an easy answer to the question of authority. In fact, when the priests ask him whose authority he works under, Jesus refuses to answer. Instead, he asks them a question about John the Baptist: by whose authority did John baptise? Not from a birthright, not from the Temple, not from Caesar, that much is clear. The priests have accused Jesus of expelling demons using the power of the Devil before, but they are sensible enough not to say that in front of his followers. Nor, though, can they possibly admit the truth, because that would be too much of a challenge to them. The truth is that John baptised by the authority of the one he baptised, Jesus the Messiah. And so it follows that Jesus is acting on no other authority than his own.

That seems straightforward. But before we start thinking that the authority of Jesus gives us an easy solution to the problem, let's think about what Jesus' authority involves. It's the authority of a God who empties Himself of His divinity to be born a baby in a stable. The authority of a God who rides into the city on a donkey, who teaches but never coerces, who refuses to assert that authority but invites us to join Him in His weakness, His self-giving, His humble service to others. The authority of a God crucified who even then makes no show of power but the power of forgiveness and the saving grace of love. It's not the sort of authority the world is looking for, not in ancient Jerusalem, not in sceptical Britain or nationalist Russia. It isn't the authority of a Putin, and it undercuts scepticism with its humility. But it is the authority the world sorely needs.

This is the authority Jesus has given the Church in its action and teaching. It doesn't come from being the Established Church of this country - we can't rely on the gift of Caesar, or rest on our laurels like the priests of the Temple. It doesn't come from the number of bums on pews every Sunday, or the percentage of people who identify themselves as Christian. It's the same authority by which John the Baptist baptised, that is, the paradoxical authority of Christ Himself, the humble authority of self-sacrificial love, of surrendering our lives so that Christ might live in us - the authority of a crucified God: and it is by letting Him act in us and through us that people will see and know and trust Him.

Saturday, 13 September 2014

Exaltation of the Holy Cross

This Sunday, we celebrate the feast of the Holy Cross. To the outsider, it must seem a rather strange affair. What are these Christians doing, exalting an instrument of torture and execution?

First of all, we are celebrating God's transformative power. Even something as stark and wicked as a crucifix is transfigured by His grace into something noble and good, even the opposite of its intention: this tool designed to give one man a gruesome death is made the tree of eternal life for all people. Even evil is not destroyed, but by grace perfected into goodness.

Second, this feast brings home the concreteness of Christianity. The crucifixion and resurrection of Our Lord is not a myth or abstract spiritual typology, but a real event that happened to a real man at a real moment in time on a real, wooden cross. The Word was made flesh, not abstracted away into theories and books.

Theology and thought are helpful to guide us on the Way, and for some of us, essential (and there's little to be said for the sort of church that orders you to leave your brain outside before entering the building). But all our theological thinking comes to nothing without the real historical events of God living among us and dying for us on the Cross. Take it away, and our religion is just another ancient Greek mystery cult. 

That is not what the martyrs of the faith died to bequeath us.  This Sunday, in particular, we remember the reality of the suffering they bore and in parts of the world, such as Iraq, bear still today, with their Lord and ours nailed up alongside them.

Friday, 5 September 2014

Where two or three are gathered

"Again I say unto you, that if two of you shall agree on earth as touching any thing that they shall ask, it shall be done for them of my Father which is in heaven. For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” (Matthew 18.19-20)

The second of these verses is very familiar, especially in extreme Protestant circles: we don't need the Church, a few of us gathered together in Jesus' name will do just fine.

However, this needs to be qualified by the verse immediately before it. Notice that the answering of our prayers is predicated on us agreeing with one another first. Quite clearly, our prayers when we gather together, for peace in Syria or Iraq or Gaza, for example, are not being answered. Perhaps this verse tells us why that might be. To cite the great third century scholar of Scripture, Origen:

"This is the reason why our prayers are not granted: because we do not agree together in all things upon earth, neither in doctrine, nor in conversation. For as in music, unless the voices are in time there is no pleasure to the hearer, so in the Church, unless they are united God is not pleased therein, nor does He hear their words."

Until the world is united in one body under the headship of Christ, knowing and practising His love as one great existential prayer, that prayer is not going to be answered. Fissiparity, cults and tabernacles are not the solution. We are called to unity.

St Jerome, writing in the fourth century, says that we should understand this passage spiritually and internally, too, interpreting Jesus' words here as follows:

"Where our spirit, soul, and body are in agreement, and have not within them conflicting wills, they shall obtain from My Father every thing they shall ask; for none can doubt that that demand is good, where the body wills the same thing as the spirit."

In other words, our words, actions, intentions, body and soul, need to be united with God's will: this is the true fruit of prayer. When all of humanity is so thoroughly united with its maker, then our prayers will be answered. But it starts with each of us, and it starts within.

Sunday, 31 August 2014

Deserve the truth

"What is truth?", as Pontius Pilate asked Our Lord. I can only assume from his question that he didn't wash his hair in TréSemmé shampoo, because they've got the answer written on the back of their bottles, as I keep seeing every morning in the shower. TréSemmé's "philosophy," they write, is based on a "simple truth:" "every woman deserves to look fabulous, like she's just stepped out of the salon." Well, that's that one sorted, then, Pontius. Look no further. What is truth? Every woman deserves to look fabulous.

Except: hang on a minute. Really? Every woman deserves to look fabulous? What - Myra Hindley? Does she "deserve to look fabulous?" Rose West?

No? Then, we'll have to modify that "simple truth" a bit, won't we. Maybe, "some women deserve to look fabulous," then. But I don't think that will quite do, either, actually. It's the word "deserve" I'm having trouble with: in what sense do women "deserve" to look fabulous? In the sense that a dog deserves a biscuit for doing a trick? Presumably not. I suppose that's where the "every" comes in: every woman deserves it because looking fabulous is a basic, fundamental right for all women. Not sure where that leaves men - perhaps we have no right to look fabulous - but that's the philosophy. Every woman has a fundamental right to look fabulous.

Well, it's rubbish, isn't it: because actually, nobody has any right whatsoever to "look fabulous," whatever the pronouncement of some PR guru at TréSemmé. And actually, I think this "philosophy" of deserving, of having a right to something, of the world owing you a living, is quite a serious problem. Because despite it being really quite obvious that we don't have any right to anything, it's a philosophy that is pretty much considered common sense nowadays in the western world.

A lot of this comes from the doctrine of human rights, developed in the mid-twentieth century for very good reasons: an agreement to make sure that those with next to nothing would no longer be abused. This is, of course, quite right and proper. But there are two problems with it. First, there's the problem that it leads to a mindset of entitlement: "I know my rights."

But second, there's the more fundamental problem of who exactly came up with this agreement in the first place. China, for example, when accused of human rights abuses, points out that this supposedly universal truth, that everybody has certain fundamental basic rights, actually originated from a bunch of academics in Europe, all from a Judaeo-Christian background. Nobody else had a say. So why should they listen? And they've got a point: actually, there is nothing fundamentally true about human rights at all. They're a useful collective fiction, maintained by consensus if at all. But perhaps it was naive (and a trifle arrogant?) to suppose that a bunch of westerners could solve the world's problems by getting together and making up a system of universal moral truth.

I think it has to be said, that although there was considerable input from churches in the formulation of the doctrine of human rights, and although it's grounded in a clearly Christian set of ethics, it doesn't actually always sit very well with the teaching of the Gospel. I think that churches should rally behind the banner of human rights as a convenient ally in improving the world, but we also have to be careful that we don't make an idol of it, and we need to be ready to be critical when the ideal is abused, when it stops being about the genuinely needy and starts being about "everybody's right to look fabulous," or to have a wide-screen TV, or to go on foreign holidays, or whatever.

That idea is quite the opposite of what Jesus tells us to do today: to deny ourselves and take up our Cross. The truth is not what TréSemmé thinks, but the very opposite. The truth is that we do not deserve anything at all. The truth is that we do not have any right to anything. Everything that we have, whether it's our looks, our money, our talents or whatever, everything is a freely given gift from God. Our duty and our joy is to learn to be thankful for this and to use it for the sake of others and for the growth of the Kingdom: and never to expect it as a right.

And isn't that what the Eucharist teaches us, too? We come to this altar only when we have repented of our sins, acknowledged our unworthiness to receive the body and blood of Our Lord. Yet God forgives us always, He cleanses the Image in which He made us and makes us worthy vessels for Christ to offer Himself through us, and for us to receive the overflowing goodness of His love. It's the Christian life in microcosm: repentance, forgiveness, self-offering, receiving the free gift of God's overwhelming love, and going out to let that love overflow to those around us. This altar is where real truth, goodness and beauty reside: not inside a bottle of shampoo.

Friday, 29 August 2014

Take up your cross

"If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. "

I've known parishioners elsewhere to get understandably cross at their clergy urging them to "take up their cross" and do more every year, especially as it seems to be the ones who do most who keep responding to the call to do even more. But there is surely something every one of us can do to follow Christ more closely.

"Self-denial" is, it must be said, a pretty unpopular notion these days. Humility is hardly the virtue of our age. And there's good reason for this: modern psychoanalysis and, frankly, a good dose of common sense shows that generations of repressed egos and the old English stiff upper lip lead to depression, self-hatred and often, sadly, to abusive and violent behaviour later in life. I don't think the young and (increasingly) not-so-young things throwing up on the streets and starting fights on Friday nights truly love themselves, for example. So we do have to be careful about encouraging self-denial.

The problem, it seems to me, is discerning between the true self and the various false selves that surround it, like rotten onion layers. The true self is the image of God in which we are all made. It is the spirit of Christ's self-sacrificial love which dwells within every single one of us and is just waiting to be released; the slavery which yields true freedom.

The false selves, on the other hand, are the puffed-up ideas of ourselves, the masks we wear for whatever reason as we try to live up to the demands of the outside world. The Christian tradition has a good word for these obfuscations and distortions of our true nature: sin. It's all too easy to fall into, but a hard habit to break.

Fortunately for us, we don't need to break sin: that has been done for us, by Christ on the Cross. What we do need to do is humbly acknowledge our sins and repent of them, knowing that God will forgive us. This is an essential part of preparation for the Eucharist, and if our general confession at the beginning of every Sunday service is merely lip-service, then we really need to think again. Repentance is the beginning of denying our false selves and growing to live in truth and freedom.

An excellent resources which you might use to prepare yourself for each Eucharist, perhaps the night before, can be found here:

Sunday, 24 August 2014

Who holds the keys?

Arriving at All Saints on Tuesday morning to celebrate mass, I found something of a furore: who has got the church keys? By the time you read this, I suspect we will know the answer. The only reason I mention it is that it ties in rather nicely with this Sunday's passage from Matthew, where Jesus bequeathes Peter the "keys of the Kingdom."

Without the keys to All Saints, we would not be able to open the safe to get to the various eucharistic vessels, so the keeper of those keys has quite a responsibility: he or she can provide or prevent access to the Sacrament. This is why the keys are usually in the possession of the Rector, and at the moment are most likely waiting with a Church Warden for the next incumbent, on whose appointment they will be ceremonially handed over to him or her. Even symbolically, they represent a certain authority.

According to Matthew, Jesus gives such an authority especially to Peter. By extension, it is given to all the Apostles, entrenched as they are in the shared bedrock of Peter's faith in Christ. The precise nature of that authority, referring back to Isaiah 22, is as legitimate stewards of the truth of the Kingdom of Heaven, which in many parts of Matthew means the same thing as the Church. The Church has the authority not to declare new truths, but to declare the truth of the Law that it has been given in Christ.

We can listen to that truth, grounded in the faith of the Apostles in Christ, or we can reject it. We can find other authorities for our lives. Some are no doubt better than others. We can look around the world, especially the Middle East at the moment, and judge these various authorities by their fruits; but it is instructive to remember that God judges us by exactly the same criterion, which is the living Law of Our Lord Jesus Christ.

Sunday, 3 August 2014

Sermon for Trinity 7: The Feeding of the Five Thousand

So, the feeding of the five thousand. Let me start by saying: Jesus is not just showing off. This miracle is not at its heart just about Jesus proving Himself with divine powers. It's not part of a checklist of "a hundred impossible things to believe before breakfast." There is more to it than that.
For a start, there is the numbers: five thousand people; five loaves, plus two fish - makes seven; twelve baskets left over at the end. What would Matthew's listeners and readers make of these? Well, not much if they were gentiles, probably, but if they were Jews - and because the numbers would make sense to Jews, it makes sense for us to assume that the target audience was indeed Jews - the numbers would be quite familiar.
Five is the number of books in the Torah, the Law of Moses, the "Pentateuch" or first five books of what we call the Old Testament. So, the five thousand and the five loaves carry an association with Moses, the Jewish people and the Law.
Seven, on the other hand, was the traditional number the Jews gave to the number of the gentile nations: the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites, according to Deuteronomy. There's one for the pub quiz.
Twelve, of course, is the number of the Tribes of Israel and, consequently, of Jesus' Apostles.
So let's think again about the story with these numbers in mind. Like Moses, Jesus retreats into a "desert place" at the beginning of the story; but where Moses' gift to the Jewish nation is the five books of the Torah, Jesus' gift to the Jews, symbolised by the number 5000, is five loaves of bread. Moses nourished his people with the written Word of the Law, but Jesus does something different: He gives living bread, bread that grows and increases and nourishes many people. And not just Jews, either. The two fish add to the five loaves to make seven, the number of the Gentiles. From now on, the bread of life will nourish all peoples.
But even once it has fed everyone, that bread is not exhausted. There is excess of it: twelve baskets full, to be precise. Enough to fill all twelve tribes of the Jews even while the Gentiles eat their fill. Enough for everyone.
So what does this miracle say to us today? Today's Collect can help us towards an answer to that. You may like to have a look at it again:
"Lord of all power and might, which art the author and giver of all good things; graft in our hearts the love of thy name, increase in us true religion, nourish us with all goodness, and of thy great mercy keep us in the same."
This ancient prayer was collated by the fifth century Pope Gelasius and translated by Cranmer for the first English Prayer Book of 1549. Notice the powerful series of verbs: graft, increase, nourish, keep. God gives us a little piece of the bread of life to sow the seed of His love in our hearts; thanks to His work in us, it grows and increases within us, like the five loaves, nourishing not just us who receive it, but overspilling to those around us; and so it keeps us all together in God's true religion, the Christian religion not of the stale word of laws but of the living Word who is Christ Himself, our bread of life.

And how do we receive that bread? Well, that should be obvious. Surely that is the reason why we, with the whole Church around the world, gather at His altar today.  

Saturday, 2 August 2014

The Great War and the Twentieth Century: Taking the Kingdom of Heaven by Storm

It didn't take a war to tell the world at the threshold of the twentieth century that a new age was on its way. Half the map was coloured pink, won by British Imperial might, driven forward by rapid innovations in military and industrial technology. Evolution was in, God was dead, and philosophers like Nietzsche and Schopenhauer prophesied with glee the selective breeding of a new superman to replace Him, unfettered by the stale dogma and bourgeois moralism of the past. On the British Left, the Fabians, including one Winston Churchill at the time, championed the new science of Eugenics, and sought to engineer a new world order from which the weak and deficient elements of the gene pool would be eradicated: "The multiplication of the feeble-minded," wrote our future Prime Minister in 1910 to his predecessor in that role, "is a very terrible danger to the race." The artistic and musical world clamoured for revolution and wanted it won by arms: in 1914, the composers Ravel and Schoenberg were among the chief rattlers of the sabres so recently forged from ploughshares. And not just sabres, but deadlier weapons, now: breech-loading rifles, machine guns, aeroplanes, even rudimentary tanks. With our new technology and industrial might, we could manufacture death like never before, systematise it, sanitise it, even sanctify it: for yes, we were told, this was a holy war. No more waiting for the Kingdom of Heaven: it was time to take it, break it, remake it in our own image.

Yet for all its modern trappings, the First War still had a foot sunk deeply in more venerable ways of brutality. Field medics would find themselves treating not just bullet wounds or the atrocities of artillery bombardment, but the almost mediaeval lesions of sword and lance, limbs severed, raw bone exposed. Men fought on horseback: one million of the animals were requisitioned from farmers by the British Army alone, leaving the people at home hungry for want of the harvest. And old-fashioned methods were applied to modern maladies, still not understood, for all our forebears' confidence in their new science. Men we would now know as suffering post-traumatic disorders, brain damage, shell shock and the like, were simply lined up and shot as deserters if they staggered from their post.

So much for the brave new world. So much for the patriotic sermons, so much for the patriotic songs: "Pack up your troubles in your old kit bag And smile, smile, smile." So much for the miracles of modern science ending all those old troubles, so much for the war to end all wars: the unfortunate but necessary, surgical solution to all our ancient ills.

We are now well into the new age, and looking back over the twentieth century, we can see the benefits it yielded: the advances of modern medicine, travel, communications, food production technology, for a start. But we must not blind ourselves to the cost, a cost which haunts us still. Our leaders were like children playing with lethal toys, and we loved to try them out.

We tried our technological innovation in the Blitzkrieg, in the gas chambers, in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in Agent Orange, in the cluster bomb, in biological and chemical weapons and all the myriad tools of modern warfare.

We tried our political hubris and newfound certainties in the doomed and deadly experiments of Imperialism, Communism, Fascism, and we feel their ripples still in Islamism and strident Neoconservatism. The crayons our masters used to scribble out new borders for the world have turned to serpents in their chubby little fists.

Let's step back now to 1914. The mood was exuberant. But it only took a couple of years for people to see what was ahead, and this caused a loss of faith in the new order. The artists and musicians who had been tearing up the old conventions, confronted with the barbarity now being unleashed, retreated back to safer, more familiar classical modes. Ravel recanted. Painters who had once turned people into series of squares and blotches went back to showing them as human beings, dying among the wires. The new artistic register, the languages of the new age, just could not express the full breadth of human emotion encountered in the trenches and the eastern fields. For a while, at least, we walked back on older, more familiar paths.

So it was with religion. Clergy at home preached the sixteenth century Protestant novelty that the dead were dead and God had made his mind up about them, so there was no point in praying for them. But this did not ring true for the men and their chaplains abroad, nor for the relatives left behind to mourn them. Again, they retreated to the older ways of the Christian Church, and soon, for the first time since the Reformation, Requiem Masses were being sung in English parishes again. People needed to believe that God was not deaf to their appeals for their men who died perhaps with the enemies' bloodstains on their immortal souls.

People also needed that basic certainty of the old faith which modern liberal religion at the time risked eroding: namely, the truth of the Incarnation, that God the Son really had walked the earth among us as Jesus Christ. They needed to know that God was not some distant satrap or fanciful theory, but that He had truly lived and suffered and died as bloodily as they and their kin. And it was only in the light of His historic sacrifice on the Cross, only by their participation in it through Baptism and the Eucharist of the Church, that many found meaning in their own sacrifices in that otherwise frankly quite meaningless War. Through the Cross, they were given hope in the promise of a true new world order, a promise made millenia ago, and one which would not rely on barbarity and slaughter to bring it to fruition: the Kingdom of Heaven, where swords would turn to ploughshares, spears into pruning hooks.

That promise was (and is) yet to be realised. As the detritus of the Great War settled, the new certainties fought back to replace the old: the new religions of Bolshevism, Fascism, nationalism, eugenics, all promising their own home-made utopias. Look at the fallout of Russian socialism, Islamist anti-Semitism, Israeli nationalism, Anglo-American consumer capitalism, and decide for yourself if any of the -isms are going to bring us to a glorious new world. But, whatever certainty you might choose, and whatever you think of the Christian promise, the First World War surely proved us right on one thing: the Kingdom of Heaven cannot be taken by storm.

Friday, 1 August 2014

Anglo-Catholic Congress 1922
As the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War is heralded in the media, I find myself pondering the bravery and near foolhardiness of the men who went to the Front, and the rhetoric of those who sent them there. Radio 3 has broadcast some fascinating stories about the use and abuse of the arts in the War, and indeed the almost bloodthirsty nationalism of some of their artists. Schoenberg and Ravel, for instance, glorified the War until they actually encountered it, which rather altered their perspectives. Even Stravinsky lost his appetite for the strident avant-garde of his youth, and after the War returned for some time to a more steady, even nostalgic, classicism.
The same was true of religion. The distinction between those clergy who stayed at home whilst preaching the virtues of just war, encouraging young lads off to their graves, and those who went out with them to minister to them, is particularly on my mind, since I have recently been commissioned as Chaplain to the Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire Army Cadet Force. Many of those boys would have been no older than the girls and boys I will minister to in the coming years.
Those priests who joined them (179 of whom were killed in action) began to see their religion with rather different eyes from those who stayed behind, and so did much of the civilian population at home. Many of the clergy at home continued to preach the old Protestant prejudices against praying for the dead, frequent Communion, the use of candles, incense and ritual; but in the face of the spiritual needs of those who fought, and those who mourned, this all seemed dry and sophistic.
Before the War, it had been downright unrespectable to be an Anglo-Catholic: some priests were arrested and imprisoned just for having candles or a cross on the altar, and the Army's Chaplain General at the beginning of the War was highly suspicious of Anglo-Catholic clergy. By the end, though, it was their heartier and older religion which took seriously the theological doubts and spiritual needs of a devasted nation. Anglican congregations throughout the land began openly to celebrate Requiem Masses, and for the first time in centuries English composers, such as Benjamin Britten, wrote new settings for the rite.
The 1920s were the heyday of Anglo-Catholicism, and while that fire has sadly somewhat abated, much of what we take for granted in our cathedrals and even quite middle-of-the-road churches -  such as seasonal colours and vestments, candles, crosses, Home Communion, and weekly Eucharists - was the direct result of that awful war. The relatively new languages of modern art and music, Reformed religion and analytic philosophy ushered in the new world order of the twentieth century, to be sure; but for all their confidence could not express the depth of human emotion needed to live through that order. For that, the English people needed a return to older ways. Some might say we need them still.

Monday, 28 July 2014

Have you understood all this?

I don't really think that this Sunday's Gospel reading (Mt 13) is a verbatim report of an actual conversation between Our Lord and His disciples, but I still love their reply. Jesus tells them what the Kingdom of Heaven is like, namely: a mustard seed, yeast, treasure hidden in a field and a merchant seeking fine pearls. ‘Have you understood all this?’ he asks, and the disciples answer, as though it were the easiest thing in the world: ‘Yes.’ So the story goes. 

But we know, in hindsight, that the disciples really did not understand what the Kingdom was all about. The Gospels are, among other things, a record of the failure of the disciples to understand what Jesus what saying. So it was that they abandoned Him when it came to the crucial moment. 

The Collect for this Sunday, it seems to me, considers well this biblically warranted limitation of our abilities: "Merciful God, you have prepared for those who love you such good things as pass our understanding." The Kingdom of God is not something instantly comprehensible. In fact, the instantly accessible is seldom worth bothering with. If it were, Jesus would not have spoken in metaphors and parables. He would have just told us straight. 

But He didn't, and isn't it interesting how much more willing His followers are to express the faith in black and white terms than He was Himself? We should be wary of falling into that trap. We should not presume to imagine that we know more about God than Jesus Himself let us know, in all his oblique testimonies. Surely we should not dare state the faith in simpler terms than He did Himself. 

This Sunday, let us listen to what Jesus says the Kingdom of Heaven is, both in His words and in the spaces He leaves between them. Let us not presume. He gives us glimpses of that which lies beneath our tawdry conceptions of reality and which guides us to the vision of something far better than in this life we can possibly know. Our job, I would say, is to heed and hold to that vision. 

Thursday, 17 July 2014

The BBC and women bishops

Radio 4 gives much to enjoy, but it can sometimes be bad for my blood pressure: not least when it betrays the Beeb's wilful ignorance of anything to do with Christianity. The standard of its religious reporting is wretchedly simplistic, and makes me wonder how far they dumb down the rest of our news. This morning, the Today programme proclaimed that the Church of England is "banishing the Devil" from its "Christening ceremony." Once again, the feckless C of E kowtows to secular modernity. Never mind the fact that we offer the sacrament of Baptism, and not "Christening ceremonies," whatever they are; nor that the Church has simply approved one new optional liturgy which does not mention the Devil in addition to the existing ones which all do; nor that the Book of Common Prayer in its 1662 manifestation remains the normative standard of our liturgy and doctrine, in which the Devil is most vehemently and explicitly rejected. No, forget all that: the addition of one new, perhaps misguided, order of Baptism to the liturgical canon (which will probably barely be used) is simply not as newsworthy as the BBC's fabricated version of events, viz. "the Church has gone to the dogs."

And so we should not be surprised that the bigger news of the week is treated with the same declination of forehead. The Church has finally decided to consecrate women as bishops. In any moment of controversy like this, the media likes to find two clear sides, however complicated the debate may really be: the wheat and the tares, one might say. For the BBC, this means the wheat who support women's ordination, and the tares who don't. The wheat are secular modernists who want to move the Church with the times, nice progressive types like those who run the BBC. The tares are the cassocked Neanderthals of the Anglo-Catholic movement and the swivel-eyed Bible-bashers from the Evangelical fold.

This is a myth that, to be fair, some of the debatably monikered "traditionalists" also buy into. Anyone who disagrees with them is a vassal of secularism and traitor to the true faith, whether it's the Catholic faith according to the Roman Curia or the Bible-based faith of the fundamentalists. If you support the ordination of women, you're just a woolly, liberal sell-out.

The truth is not that simple. There are indeed some nasty misogynists among the antis and there are also barely Christian secularists among the proponents of women's ordination: I've even heard some say that we need female bishops to get women into "senior management of the Church," which makes me want to vomit. It's hardly the job description St Ignatius of Antioch would give the successors of the Apostles.

For the most part, though, both the pros and antis are genuinely seeking to discern God's way and walk in his truth, as this Sunday's Psalm has it (87.11). There are Evangelicals whose reading of the Bible does not allow for women to lead. There are Anglo-Catholics who cannot countenance unilaterally changing the episcopate of the Holy Catholic Church (of which the English church has always claimed to be part) when the rest of the bishops of the worldwide Church oppose that change. But then, there are Evangelicals who read Scripture quite differently, and prioritise the teachings and life of Jesus over some minority texts in Paul; and there are Anglo-Catholics who would argue that our church has made many unilateral decisions in the past, and its Catholicity does not depend on a majority decision of foreign bishops. For my part, I think that this week's decision was the logical and right one, and Christian and biblical to boot; but I cannot bring myself to crack open the champagne over an action which fractures the Church any further and, for the time being at least, jeopardises any hopes of reunion with the wider Catholic Church.

Coming back to this Sunday's Gospel (Mt 13.24ff.), it is sad that not just outsiders but so many of us Christians still see each other as wheat or tares: there are fellow Anglicans who are quite sure that those of us who support women's ordination will be gathered up for the bonfire at the end of the ages. Despite all this, the Church of England remains unified at least in its liturgy of "Common" Worship (not as common as it used to be in the BCP days, sadly, but there we go). We should, for the most part, all be praying the same Collect this Sunday, which happens rather fortuitously to be for vocation:

"Hear our prayer which we offer for all your faithful people, that in their vocation and ministry they may serve you in holiness and truth to the glory of your name."

This, at least, redirects the spotlight of vocation away from the clergy and back to where it belongs: that is, on "all faithful people," every Christian, ordained or otherwise. We each have our vocation to serve the Church however God might call us. One may or may not believe that women are truly called to be priests or bishops, but none can doubt that they are called, as we all are, to something. So whatever our theological positions, we should all unite at least in praying for the best fulfilment of everyone's Christian vocation in the Church today: that, in the words of the old Prayer Book collect, "Thy Church may joyfully serve Thee in all godly quietness." Surely that, over and above who is or isn't called to Holy Orders, is the point.

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

St Augustine on those who call themselves Christian

From a discourse on the psalms by Saint Augustine, bishop
Whether they like it or not, those who are outside the church are our brothers

We entreat you, brothers, as earnestly as we are able, to have charity, not only for one another, but also for those who are outside the Church. Of these some are still pagans, who have not yet made an act of faith in Christ. Others are separated, insofar as they are joined with us in professing faith in Christ, our head, but are yet divided from the unity of his body. My friends, we must grieve over these as over our brothers; and they will only cease to be so when they no longer say our Father. 
    The prophet refers to some men saying: When they say to you: You are not our brothers, you are to tell them: You are our brothers. Consider whom he intended by these words. Were they the pagans? Hardly; for nowhere either in Scripture or in our traditional manner of speaking do we find them called our brothers. Nor could it refer to the Jews, who do not believe in Christ. Read Saint Paul and you will see that when he speaks of “brothers,” without any qualification, he refers always to Christians. For example, he says: Why do you judge your brother or why do you despise your brother? And again: You perform iniquity and common fraud, and this against your brothers. 
    Those then who tell us: You are not our brothers, are saying that we are pagans. That is why they want to baptize us again, claiming that we do not have what they can give. Hence their error of denying that we are their brothers. Why then did the prophet tell us: Say to them: You are our brothers? It is because we acknowledge in them that which we do not repeat. By not recognising our baptism, they deny that we are their brothers; on the other hand, when we do not repeat their baptism but acknowledge it to be our own, we are saying to them: You are our brothers. 
    If they say, “Why do you seek us? What do you want of us?” we should reply: You are our brothers. They may say, “Leave us alone. We have nothing to do with you.” But we have everything to do with you, for we are one in our belief in Christ; and so we should be in one body, under one head.
    And so, dear brothers, we entreat you on their behalf, in the name of the very source of our love, by whose milk we are nourished, and whose bread is our strength, in the name of Christ our Lord and his gentle love. For it is time now for us to show them great love and abundant compassion by praying to God for them. May he one day give them a clear mind to repent and to realise that they have nothing now but the sickness of their hatred, and the stronger they think they are, the weaker they become. We entreat you then to pray for them, for they are weak, given to the wisdom of the flesh, to fleshly and carnal things, but yet they are our brothers. They celebrate the same sacraments as we, not indeed with us, but still the same. They respond with the same Amen, not with us, but still the same. And so pour out your hearts for them in prayer to God.

Sunday, 6 July 2014

Trinity 3: Which seed will you sow?

Do you ever get out of bed a bit late? Set the alarm to sleep for just another ten little minutes? And then, when it rings, maybe another ten after that? And then you get up, ten or twenty minutes late, and you have to rush to get in the shower, get dressed, scoff down some breakfast if you've got time, do your teeth, and maybe your husband or wife or one of the kids tries to engage you in a bit of conversation, but you haven't got time, and while you're smiling, you're gritting your teeth and thinking you just need to get out of there and into the car and get to work, and actually your wife can tell, and that winds her up. You get into the car and because you're running late - just ten little minutes late - you speed, and when you get stopped at the lights (how long is this going to take?) you can feel the blood pressure rising. Then you're waiting at the roundabout and someone pulls into the next turning without signalling, and you could have gone then but now there's a lorry coming, and you stick up the Vs at the driver who's just made you even later (how dare he?), and he sees and he gets angry, too. You get to work in the nick of time and don't have time to prepare for the first meeting, but you bluster through defensively. In the meantime, your wife is giving the children the silent treatment back at home because she's thinking about what a pain in the back side you are, and they go to school grumpy and get into trouble in class. The driver who didn't indicate loses his temper with someone who's been tailgating him. Your colleagues at work are stressed at wondering what they've done to upset you.
Just ten little minutes. Ten little minutes is all is takes for the Devil to get his grip: ten minutes to bring the world the gift of - sin.
"I do not understand my own actions," says St Paul in his letter to the Romans (7.15ff.). "For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate." Doesn't that ring true? And then, just as the little example I've just given spirals out of control, so Paul tells us that there's a sense that we lose control of our sin. It's as if sin takes over us, sometimes. "In fact," he says, "it is no longer I that do it, but sin that lives within me ... if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that lives within me." Sin dwells within and all too often takes control.
And yet, St Paul himself also says elsewhere, in his letter to the Galatians (2.20), "it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives within me." Sin lives within me and Christ lives within me, both of them, he says. This may come as a surprise. A lot of people outside the Church, and maybe some inside it too, seem to think that Christians are all expected to be perfect and sinless. We're held to harsh account on the many occasions that we fail to live up to Christ's example. And yet, here is sin written into the very blueprint of the Christian heart, just as we heard last week, Peter's failure as a disciple is built into the blueprint of the Christian Church.
But this should not surprise us if we listen to what Jesus Himself tells us. In today's Gospel (Mt 11), we have just heard Him call Himself a "friend of sinners." So is it really a surprise that the friend of sinners should choose to dwell in the very birthplace of sin, the human heart? The human heart that in its weakness takes the little ten minutes here and there, succumbs to the tiny temptations and the bigger ones, the heart that of all the organs in creation lets down its maker so disastrously. That is where Christ dwells: and the less room we allow sin to take up, the more room we give Him to grow in us.
That is why we prayed in this morning's Collect, "You ... have sent the Spirit of your Son into our hearts." In our own right, no one can see God and yet live, as St John reminds us at the beginning of his Gospel. But the Father, ever gracious and merciful (Ps 145.8), has sent us His Son to reveal Him, to let us know the Father as intimately as He does, even to the extent whereby, as the Collect puts it, "we can call [God] Father" ourselves. "No one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal Him," and it could not be clearer from today's readings that the people He chooses are sinners, one and all. That means you and me.
It may not be easy for our sinful hearts to welcome such a gracious guest. Pride and self-righteousness can puff up and harden our hearts against Him. But in the end, Jesus tries to tell us, it's not a matter of how difficult we find it. When it comes down to it, for us, it's impossible to choose God, as impossible for us to enter the narrow gate as it is for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle. And yet, Jesus says, "my yoke is easy, and my burden is light." Stop trying so hard. Rest in me, let me do the work for you. That much you can do, you're free to do, however hard your heart: dedicate your freedom to my service, take my easy yoke, let my love live you, so that "you and all creation may be brought to the glorious liberty of the children of God."
That is the offer that Christ makes us always, but especially at this Altar. Take, eat. It's just a little thing. It'll only take a minute. But see how it grows.