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.

Thursday, 3 July 2014

Too Clever by Half

"Don't be clever, boy."
"Yes, sir. How stupid do you want me to be?"
A young and precocious Stephen Fry understandably got himself into a bit of trouble for the above exchange.
He must have been infuriating to teach, but his question does make a fair point as it strikes against the anti-intellectualism of English institutions. I heard a French politician being interrogated by Jim Naughtie earlier this week, and was much impressed by the forthright rebuttals he parried with in crisp, concise English. Far better, I thought, than the grunting obfuscations of so many of our own political class, eager as they are to say nothing and to do so in a register they condescendingly suppose will mollify the common man. The last thing they want to be accused of is sounding posh, and the close runner up is sounding "too clever by half," that peculiarly English complaint. Those few among them who are not worried about either of these things are refreshing because they are so deplorably rare.
What to make, then, of Jesus' thanksgiving to His Father in this Sunday's Gospel, Matthew 11: "I thank thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes?" Are we guilty of being too clever by half?
There certainly are churches where one is encouraged on entry to leave one's brain in a handy receptacle by the West Door, but I for one am glad that St Peter's is not one of them. There is a lot to be said for a simple faith, like the faith of a child, but it would be a great mistake to equate this with a "stupid" faith. Stupid faith does exist, and is an embarrassment to most Christians: the sort of faith that says God is punishing Britain for being nice to gay people by sending floods on Hull, or that people who get ill are just not praying hard enough, or that God put dinosaur bones into the ground to test our faith in the seven days of Creation, for example. But that is different from simple faith. Simplicity is not stupidity, and children are not (necessarily) stupid, either. A child's faith can be a beautiful thing, and is surely not stupid.
Yet, if we left our faith where it was at the age of 7, our knowledge of God would remain even more limited than it quite necessarily is. Critics of religion are often really criticising the religion that they learnt in their childhood but never explored in any greater depth. There are good things about childish simplicity, but bad things too: just think of the effect of the children's monochrome worldview portrayed in the Lord of the Flies. A world run by children would be cruel and exacting. And so, we might note, in the first part of Sunday's reading, Jesus makes a less favourable comparison with children than we usually associate with Him:
"But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the market-places and calling to one another..."
The intellect, the faculty of reason, the ability to perceive the world in all its different shades and not merely in black and white, and so to deepen our understanding of its Creator: these are all God-given and He wants us to use them. Pray for the simple, and pray for the simplicity of life and vision that will allow us to see God clearly at the last; but be prepared to put in the hard brain-work first, and fight hard against the stupid faith that is a disgrace to the Christian Church. Pray too for those theologians who have done so much of that hard work for us already.