Sunday, 16 July 2017

Trinity 5: Empty bell, good ground

“The one who sows on good ground is the one who hears the Word and understands it, and he is the one who bears fruit.”
A bell sounds because it is hollow. If it were a solid block, all you would get when you struck it would be a dull metallic clatter. It is the emptiness of the bell that gives it voice.
The bell is a metaphor for spiritual truth in Buddhism, and many other religious traditions attest to the need for inner emptiness as the ground which bears spiritual fruit.
Yet we do not need to go all the way to India to find this path of prayer. We find evidence of it weaving its way through our own sacred scriptures, the teachings of Our Lord, and the spiritual traditions of the Christian Church.
Only two Sundays ago, we heard from Jesus’s own lips that to find yourself, you have to lose yourself. The false self of the ego must be emptied to make way for the true self which is Christ. Last Sunday, he told us to take our rest in him, the Lord of the Sabbath rest, who has made resting and return the very purpose of creation.
And from its purpose, think back to where creation began. The orthodox tradition of the Church is that God created ex nihilo, from nothing, absolute emptiness. It was in this emptiness, like the hollow of the bell, that his Word found voice and resounded into being.
Later, we find this motif of the Word sounding out of emptiness repeated: in the emptiness of the Blessed Virgin’s womb and in the emptiness of the tomb, where the Word continues to be burst into ever creation. First, the Word becomes flesh and dwells among us; then, the Word Resurrected speaks into being a new creation, from the desolate bounds of death a new infinitude of life and being.
The seed of Jesus’ parable is, he explains, the Word. Now remember that the Word is not a word, or any number of words: it is not the Bible. It is the Logos, the divine principle of order and creation, the Word which according to St John is and always has been God from the very beginning, and is none other than the second Person of the Holy Trinity, the Word which came and dwelt among us not as a book but as a boy, the Word whose script is scribed by the Spirit not in letters but in a Jewish carpenter’s DNA. The Word that Jesus wants us to hear and understand is himself, the Word made flesh: he is the seed and we are the ground.
“You have not chosen me, but I have chosen you: and I have appointed you that you might bear fruit.” If we are to bear fruit, then we must make ourselves good ground. We must harrow and water before we can sow. And we must tear up the weeds that would hamper good growth.
The harrowing is repentance. We will achieve no peace and will be quite unready to welcome the Word if our mind and hearts are laden with the guilt of our sin. Repentance, then, is the first step. Sin is a sharp sword which pierces the heart, but Christ in his kindness has turned it to a ploughshare for us. That ploughshare is confession, the Sacrament of Reconciliation, whereby Our Lord furrows our hearts to fill them with his forgiveness.
I have seen the gift of tears that flow after a good confession soften many hearts, but the true water that fills those furrows is the Living Water of the Holy Spirit. This we drink by going to mass, by reading the Scriptures, by acts of loving kindness.
But while we are harrowing and irrigating, we must also clear the way of weeds. The weeds of nagging thoughts, of unconsidered instincts, of our own devices and desires detached from God. And I am persuaded by our own Christian monastic tradition and also by many non-Christian spiritual paths, that the way to do this is to cultivate an inner silence.
When my mind and heart are full of other things, they are like a bell filled with solid metal. Strike it as much you like, it will only give the dullest clang. The Word is muted, at best muttered, at worst even distorted.
But when I have spent time in silence and stilled my thoughts, I am like the hollow bell, and then a far more beautiful voice can ring out of me: it is no longer I who speak, but Christ who sings from within me. The Word is given space to reverberate, grow, sound clearly.
So I repeat my plea from last week. If you wish the Word to find its voice in you, then rest in him. Make some sabbath space each day for silence and stillness. Become the empty bell, the empty womb, the empty tomb, find the Word’s still small seed of a voice within, give it good ground to be reborn in you so that it is no longer you but Christ who sounds aloud the new song of the Resurrection from your heart.

Monday, 10 July 2017

Lord, remedy our unrest

Today’s sermon is brought to you by the number seven.

Seven branches of the Temple lamps. Seven Churches in Asia. Seven seals of divine judgment. Seven stars in Christ’s right hand. Seven angels with seven trumpets. Seven deacons of the early church in Rome. Seven gifts of the Spirit. Seven heavenly virtues. Seven deadly sins. Seven colours in a rainbow. Seven notes in a classical western scale.

Why does the number seven so permeate the Scriptures and tradition of the Church? Why has seven even influenced the way the West has categorised light and sound?

“And on the seventh day God ended his work which he had made; and he rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had made.”

Because God completed creation on the seventh day, seven is the biblical number for completion. So, the seven Churches in the Revelation to St John represent the completion of the Church, the whole Church; the seven seals of judgment the completion of divine judgment, and so on. But the Gospel draws our attention to today is exactly of what that completion consists:

God “rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had made.”

The completion, perfection, wholeness, the very purpose of creation represented by the seventh day is rest.

If you have ever lived in a Jewish area or are friends with any orthodox Jews, you will know how seriously they take the seventh, Sabbath day. For them the seventh day is Saturday - the Christian sabbath is different because it is the day of the Resurrection - but on their sabbath, the strictest of Jews will do absolutely nothing at all but study and pray. Gentiles like us sometimes find it baffling and bizarre that some very observant Jews will not even open a door or flick a light switch on the Sabbath: everything has to be prepared to enforce proper rest. But I think that their seriousness of purpose on the Sabbath is sign for us all, especially Christians, of God’s ultimate purpose for creation.

The respect of modern Jews for the sabbath also helps us to understand the magnitude of some of the claims made by the ancient Jewish man we worship: his claim to be Lord of the Sabbath, his claim to be allowed to break the Sabbath, and in the Gospel for the fourth Sunday of Trinity, this:

“Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”

Now just think about the implications of what Jesus is saying here. Think about the importance of rest as the entire purpose of creation. Then listen to what Jesus says: “not God will give you rest,” which his Jewish hearers would have expected - but “I will give you rest.” To Jewish hearers, Our Lord is putting himself in God’s place.

We tend to think of the Sabbath as a day off from work, and perhaps a chance to squeeze a bit of God into our otherwise busy schedules. Even the ancient pagan Romans had their priorities better sorted than ours: the Latin word for ‘business’ is negotium, which literally means ‘not at leisure’ - for the Romans, life was defined as rest which alas has to be interrupted some of the time for work. We and especially our brethren across the Atlantic seem to see life quite the other way around. There was a time not long ago when even in this country, Sunday was enforced as a day off for everybody so that they could go to church and spend time with their family and friends - and while it’s convenient for the shopping, I am not convinced that the flexibility of Sunday opening hours has been such a good thing for people, especially for workers in the service industry themselves. That battle is long lost, but it does leave us Christians with an even greater challenge to keep God’s purpose for us in mind and, even amid all the busyness, to live a life oriented primarily towards his rest.

So how? How do we come to Christ, rest in Him, take on his gentle yoke, when the list of tasks and chores and responsibilities keeps growing? To be honest, I’m not sure I’m the best person to answer that question at the moment. Being a rural Worcester boy, it has taken me some time to get used to the busyness and noise and crowds of London, and just as I am starting to find some equilibrium and make more space in my mind and heart for God I am moving on again. So you’ll forgive me if on this occasion, I preach something that I have been struggling to practice myself for the last year or so: but prayer really is fundamental. I don’t just mean a few minutes of intercession at the bedside each night, although interceding for others is vital work. What I mean is time set deliberately aside each day simply to rest in God. Perhaps a candle, an icon, some incense in the corner of your room, even time with the Blessed Sacrament in church if you can get here, and keeping that time just to sit or kneel in silence and drink in the presence of God. You can repeat the name of the Lord, or count your breaths out one to ten, or use something like the Jesus prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me,” over and over again - anything to take your attention from the wanderings of your mind and rediscover the divine rest, stillness and stability which God has implanted at the core of your heart. It could be 15 minutes or a full hour, a daily mini-sabbath, calling us back to the purpose for which we are made.

“Physician, heal thyself!” you might rightly chastise, but prayer is my prescription: For “In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength.” Amid the earthquake and the fire, the terror all around, and even just the busyness of modern life, let us make some Sabbath rest to listen deep within for God’s still small voice of calm.

Sunday, 2 July 2017

What kind of nation do we want to be?

He who finds his life (psychē) will lose it, and he who loses his life for my sake will find it.
- Matthew 10:39

This paradoxical verse is a powerful summation of Christian teaching on self-realisation. The word ‘life’ here stands for the Greek psyche, which means the ‘breath of life,’ or the soul, and is of course the root of our modern word, ‘psychology.’ To find yourself, you have to put yourself to the Cross.

Our Lord lived in a philosophical milieu wherein the highest ideal was to “know yourself,” gnōthi seauton, as was famously inscribed on the Temple to Apollo at Delphi. Later Christian writers adopted and adapted this tenet to the Christian faith, notably St Augustine, for whom true knowledge of the self led to knowledge of the divine image in which the self is made, and so to God himself, ‘deeper than my innermost depth,’ Deus interior intimo meo, yet at the same time superior summo meo, ‘higher than my highest height.’ The 19th century American poet Ralph Waldo Emerson captures the paradox in his poem named after that same philosophical maxim, Gnōthi Seauton:
Give up to thy soul-----
Let it have its way-----
It is, I tell thee, God himself,
The selfsame One that rules the Whole...

More modern study of the psyche, a Jesuit priest told me at a recent conference for school chaplains, tells us that the most important question that adolescents need to answer for the sake of their later psychological wellbeing is “what kind of person do I want to be?” In other words, the question of self-definition, which can only really be answered with some degree of self-searching and self-knowledge. Failure to come up with any answer to this question apparently leaves people psychologically rootless, unstable and unmoored.

This led me to think about the political instability of Great Britain at the moment. I wonder to what extent the polarisation, the wild pendulum of public opinion and the anger we are seeing materialise into extremism and violent protest is to do with our collective failure of our nation to know itself and to answer the question of what sort of nation it really wants to be. And I want to suggest that the Christian paradox of finding the self in yielding the self – which in fact overlaps with the sensibility of other ancient religions and philosophies – might offer a corrective to modern Europe’s overwhelmingly materialistic mindset: a manifesto for a nation with a spiritual and not just an economic purpose.

“The Church has had 1800 years to improve the world and has done nothing. Now we must do it ourselves.” Over the last century, Karl Marx’s opinion has become so widespread in Europe as to become almost a defining doctrine of modern polity: the only ‘heaven’ will be the one we humans can make on earth. This worldview, widely propagated in schools, universities and the media, is generally expressed in evolutionary terms to lend a veneer of scientific respectability. Once upon a time, we were governed by an oppressive Church which kept people in their place and dictated the minutiae of their personal lives. Then, happily, the modern democratic state took control, and since then humanity has been evolving naturally towards an egalitarian utopia of our own making, where all will be given the highest possible freedom of choice to decide exactly who and what we want to be.

And yet this supposed evolution of secularism has not in fact come about naturally. It has been forced and contrived. In some cases, such as revolutionary France and Russia, it was far from gradual, but achieved by extreme violence and coercion. But even in Northern Europe, the eradication of Christianity from the fabric of the State and the popular conscience has been quite deliberate – and far more effective. Social reformers in the twentieth century purposely mined Christian tradition for ethical content when it was useful and reframed it in humanistic terms. The early Labour Movement has been described as a new ‘gospel of social amelioration,’ the ‘transference of religious enthusiasms to the secular sphere.’ If you have been to Walsingham, you will have the walls of the stately homes built from the rubble of monastery dissolved at the Reformation. Likewise you can see to this day purloined fragments of Christian ethical teaching in the modern creed of human rights, and even in the newfangled system of ‘British values’ taught in our schools, which bear only a passing relation to the meaning of the three crosses overlaid on our national flag.

Yet behind this was a will to destroy the Church. Marx, who called for the ‘abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of man,’ was a hero to Ramsay McDonald, whose government dismissed evidence given by Archbishop Cosmo Gordon Lang and Free Church leaders of the thousands of Christians sent to prison camps or summarily executed on Lenin and Stalin’s personal orders - much as Europe ignores the systematic extermination of Christians in Arab lands today. George Bernard Shaw, whose name adorns the council block next door to me, declared that a the state should remove children from parents who taught them the catechism of the Church – a policy now effected in a milder form by the refusal of social workers to allow families who do not profess the state orthodoxy on sexuality to adopt, and the closure of Catholic adoption agencies. The Proletarian Sunday Schools movement developed its own baby-naming ceremony and ten commandments, starting with the maxim ‘Thou shalt not be a patriot’ – and nowadays, the young are more likely to identify with the EU than the UK. None of these developments against the Church, the family and the nation, was natural or organic. Their ‘evolution’ has been planned by progressives.

Some good has come of these changes of attitude, such as abandoning the persecution of sexual minorities, for which the Church was and is much to blame. But other developments are more questionable. In the most recent survey of British attitudes, 70% say that an abortion should be allowed because a woman decides she does not want a child or a couple cannot afford one. 77% say that a person with an incurable disease should be able to ask a doctor to end their life. 75% say that sex before marriage is not at all wrong, and 41% believe that there is no such thing as a film too violent or too pornographic to be watched by adults. The Christian teaching of the sanctity of every human life, illumined by St Augustine’s ‘God within,’ has been garbled into the right to exercise the greatest possible individual choice.

The essence of the Christian God is what theologians call kenōsis, self-emptying: the emptying of God’s self in the gift of creation, of his divine power in becoming human, of his humanity in dying on the Cross. Utter self-gift freely given. This kind of altruism is anathema to the Marxist, for whom moral actions are not for the sake of others per se, but are entirely dictated by the interest of the working class. Even more moderate Socialism risks falling into seeing people as problems to solve, and the State as the means of solving then. But this leaves many taxpayers asking questions like, “why should I help the homeless, the poor, the sick, when I am paying for the State to do it for me?” And of course, those taxes are not voluntary contributions, they are levied on threat of imprisonment. Nor do the solutions always work, as anyone who has been passed through the sausage machines of state bureaucracy knows. The idea of the Camerados’ Living Room was to get away from reducing people to dependency on services and help them find themselves precisely by giving themselves to each other, helping each other, and that is why I supported it. Diminishing our moral responsibility for one another by systematising it can end up dehumanising people - especially the unborn, the disabled and the dying.

But if Socialism is stony ground for the seed of the Kingdom, consumerism does not offer any better soil: reducing life to a set of supermarket choices and calling this freedom. Adolescents had a tough enough job of working out what kind of person they wanted to be when the choices were limited. Nobody chooses to be born and nobody chooses their parents, but children are now offered the chance to choose their own religion, their own set of values, their ethnic or national loyalties – and even whether they are male or female cannot now be taken for granted. When everything except the fact of birth becomes a matter of choice, choice itself becomes a tyranny, a mere illusion of freedom.

No one political system is sufficient for true human flourishing and freedom. Capitalism and socialism are merely rival systems to ensure the greatest wealth for the greatest number. Any questions of higher purpose end up relegated to the realm of personal, private choice. And so no party dares ask that fundamental question: what kind of nation do we want to be? 

A Christian society would be one shaped by the Cross, one which finds itself in yielding itself for the sake of others. There are, thank God, still instances of this pattern repeating in our society. We can see it in the hundreds of council workers and emergency service personnel working unpaid hours for the sake of the people evicted from tower blocks nearby. We can see it in the institution of marriage, which for now is still two persons giving themselves unconditionally to one another. We can see it in the ethos of the Armed Forces of the Crown, and we can see it in the Monarch herself, who through no choice of her own but by the grace of God gives not just a few years but her entire life to the service of the nation. I would go so far as to say that we still have some hope of being a Christian country in more than just name as long as we have at the spiritual Head of our nation one chosen not by people but by God and anointed by his Church, a living icon of self-giving love.

In the end, the Christian manifesto for life cannot be contained in writing, not even in the Bible, because the Word has been made flesh, written in a person, Jesus Christ – God incarnate, crucified. It is through not just emulating but sacramentally joining with his self-emptying sacrifice that we find our true self and with it the freedom of God. This cannot be reduced down to sets of values or systematised into a state bureaucracy. It must be impressed into the very character of the self and so of the nation – and that is what the altar is for.

Sunday, 25 June 2017

Terror all around

Terror all around. Words from the prophet Jeremiah in today's first reading at Mass which resound with us in London: terror in Westminster, on London Bridge; terror at the hate crime on Finsbury Mosque; terror in the flames of Grenfall Tower. The prophet calls for vengeance, denunciation, and we are seeing plenty of that. The Psalmist, in our next reading, continues in this line, demanding a swift response from God: answer me, O Lord!

So what might God’s response to all this terror be? And what might our own? 
It goes without saying that terror is nothing new, nor man’s desperation for God’s voice in the midst of it. Scorsese’s recent film of Endo Shusaku’s novel Silence gives us one historic instance, the persecution of Christians of 17th century Japan. In the story, a young Jesuit priest goes there in search of his former master, rumoured to have apostatised. He finds hidden communities of Christians whom he tends until his inevitable capture, whereon the rumours about his master are confirmed to be true. He is determined to be a martyr to the faith, but the Japanese inquisitor is wise to his ways, and offers him that glory only with one formidable qualification: he will be allowed to die only after he has watched the execution of his flock. If he apostatises by trampling on an image of the virgin and child, they will be released. 

Every day the young priest prays for a solution to this dilemma, and every day the authorities execute more and more of his faithful. God’s response can be gleaned from the title of the film, until the moment comes when he is led out to trample. His foot hovers over the image, and then he hears a voice: “Trample.” And so he does. A cock crows.

The authorities keep their word, allowing the apostate priest to marry and giving him a job at the docks, sifting through foreign imports to make sure that no Christian literature or devotional artefacts make it through to the mainland. He dies a natural death. At this point, the film deviates from the book. We see the priest’s funeral. He is being cremated, the Japanese way. The camera zooms in on his casket, and then goes inside, to where the body is burning; and clutched in his hand, we see a little crucifix. In the film version, at least, it seems he kept some vestige of his faith, hidden away in his heart. 

So did he do the right thing? It’s tempting to believe so. He saved all those peasant converts, after all, and still kept the faith in his heart. Perhaps that was the most Christ-like thing to do. 

But are we not left with the cock’s crow echoing in our ears? That voice he heard: it might have been Christ’s. But it might equally have been his own. It might even have been the Devil’s. 

Yes, he saved the lives of many villagers, but what does his apostasy mean for the villagers he had already watched die for the faith he had taught them? What does it say about that faith, the faith in the film version he supposedly kept hidden to the end? It turns out to be exactly the kind of faith -  a private, inoffensive matter of conscience - which the Japanese authorities wanted. 
Make no mistake, this is the kind of faith so many of our modern authorities want to encourage, too. The Church on its better days can cope with a variety of opinion, but it seems that Tim Farron’s views are incompatible with the orthodoxy of public life. David Cameron’s ‘Radio 3 in the Chilterns,’ intermittent Anglicanism of the shires was just about tolerable to the press. The ideal view is that of Jeremy Corbyn, who would own everything publicly except faith, which he says is a purely private matter with no place in public discourse, which is why he wants to close church schools. I suspect his real answer to the question  of faith would cost him too much of the Labour Muslim vote to say out loud, but just in case he is a closet believer in something higher than himself and the proletariat, he is wise not to announce it: the Today Programme relishes ridiculing Christian politicians who let slip that prayer forms any part of their decision-making process, as though they were basing their policy on voices in their heads (Muslim MPs, I’ve noticed, are allowed use the ‘p’-word unchallenged, so we might want to make allies of them). The overall message is that in this country, you can believe whatever you want -  as long as it doesn’t get in the way. As long as it doesn’t challenge secular orthodoxies. In short, as long as it doesn’t actually do anything. 

The Gospel reading today does offer a response to the terror all around. It is not Jeremiah’s answer, calling for vengeance and denunciation. It is not to form a rabble and bay for blood on the streets, as John McDonnell demands. Nor is the Psalmist’s demand for answers. It is not to resort to scapegoating, the search for an instant solution, not to make political capital out of the tragedy of others. It is not to engage in juvenile political posturing, putting up abusive stickers in public places and waving banners, posting cartoons of the Prime Minister as though she were personally responsible for acts of terror and dangerous cladding. It is not to chant the platitudinous litany of instant answers expected from every politician, pundit and pulpit whenever disaster strikes: nothing to do with Islam, it’s Theresa May’s fault, London is not afraid, etc. Many of the people in Camden have been told to pack for four weeks and evacuated to sports centres, and other people living in tower blocks fear the same well happen to them. Of course we are afraid. We would be stupid not to be.

God's response is not silence, but the person of Jesus Christ, the Word made Flesh: a man who was executed for failing to comply with the prevailing orthodoxy and for speaking out. We are told in today's Gospel to proclaim him on the rooftops, the ancient Israelite equivalent of over the garden fence. And following his example, while we must seek justice, we are surely not to create new enemies, resorting to hatred of political opponents. Rather we must see where our real enemies are and take the truly radical and dangerous step of loving them - even if it means loving them to our detriment, or loving them to our death. 

Love your enemies. We are seeing precious little of that at present. 

Sunday, 7 May 2017

Mary, Patrilineage and Sexuality

I was not the only one to announce a move last Sunday. A nearby friend who has served the Church for 30 years also announced that he too would be moving on - but to no further priestly duties. You see, he and his partner of many years had dared to get married. His partner being another man, this marriage breached the clergy disciplinary rules of the Church of England. The authorities could not actually throw him out of his parish, but made life difficult by refusing to give him a curate and warning him that when he left, he would never be able to get another post as a priest. So now that he has decided to leave, he is taking early retirement, and will not be licensed anywhere to exercise any priestly ministry at all, even unpaid. He will effectively be debarred from celebrating the Mass or any other sacrament.You could of course say that this is quite right and proper: he knew the result, deliberately contravened clergy discipline, and now must face the consequences. You could add that the Church has made this decision to avoid schism over issues of sexuality. But this line of reasoning falls too readily into the modern tendency to view opinions as absolute, and argument as nothing but the mutually irreconcilable expression of personal and ultimately unchangeable views - two parties shouting at one other from separate hilltops. Moderns resist getting back to first principles and seeking truth: but that is what I want to do today. As we make our May devotions, I want to get back to the biblical narrative of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and suggest that it gives our Catholic faith the potential for rapprochement with modern scientific understandings of human sexuality.
You cannot hope to understand the New Testament without some understanding of the Old, and Mary’s story is no exception. The Jews were always great storytellers, and they still are - take Sigmund Freud and Woody Allen for a start – and Mary’s story is a quintessentially Jewish story of a mother and her son. Mary and Jesus became the most famous parent-child pair in Christian tradition, but their story builds on and challenges a far older analogue, namely the story of the father and son from whom Jews, Christians and Muslims alike claim lineage: Abraham and Isaac.
You may well recall that story with a shudder: the horror of a man submitting to God’s instruction to sacrifice his only son as a burnt offering. But it is not just a horror story of old, or a Sunday school parable about the extremes of true faith. Christians are called to read the Old Testament through the lens of the New. So, let’s take Abraham’s story in parallel with Mary’s. There is that divine command and expression of consent: Abraham’s “Here I am, Lord,” and Mary’s Fiat, “Be it unto me according to thy Word.” There is that same foreknowledge of what will happen, the prophecy that Mary’s heart will be pierced as she sees her own son suffer. But the ends are quite opposite. An angel appears, a deus ex machina, to save Isaac and offer a ram in his place. But the angels do not save Jesus. Mary is there at the foot of the Cross to watch her only son die.
That word “only” - the “only” son - is important, in both stories. Abraham actually had another son, Ishmael, but by another woman. The phrase ‘only son’ in the Bible means the heir, the one who would inherit the father’s birthright and continue the family line. This is also the sense of Jesus being God’s and Mary’s “only” son. Isaac and Jesus are the true heirs of their fathers and will continue the family line.
Except, of course, that Jesus does not.
This is where Mary and Jesus’ story becomes a direct challenge to the Jewish story of Abraham. For the Sadducees especially, who denied the resurrection, the only way to live forever was through your descendants. This kind of ‘eternal life’ was marked by your name - that is to say, the man’s name - being passed on through the generations. So in the Old Testament story, Sarah rather vanishes from view once her job of producing Isaac is done. We do not hear about her again until Abraham buries her.
But in the New Testament, it is quite the opposite. It is Joseph who vanished from the plot, and Jesus even keeps being referred to not as Joseph’s but as “Mary’s son.” And then, even more scandalously, he does not marry, does reproduce, does not continue his adoptive father’s line of David. In his preaching, he rails against family, calling his disciples his true mother and siblings, saying that he will set fathers and sons against one another. All this is utterly opposed to the religious worldview of most of his Jewish contemporaries. Jesus preaches not about the physical fruits of love, but about its spiritual fruits - a theme taken to the extreme by St Paul, who condemns marriage with very faint praise.
We do not have to rely on proof negative. Mary’s relationship with God the Father gives a positive value to loving relationships which are not predicated on sex. Theirs is a relationship not of sex, but of love and of mutual consent. Christians are called to emulate Mary’s relationship with the Father and so to give spiritual birth to Christ ourselves. We also see in their relationship an analogue of the trinitarian love between the Father and the Son, which overflows into creation as the Holy Spirit. That is what our human marriages are about, too: the growth and overflow of love between one another, for the parturition of spiritual fruits. Marriage is as much for the hallowing of sexual instincts and for mutual comfort as for the "increase of mankind." This is not how the Christian vision has always ended up being interpreted. The Church has at times reverted to the old patriarchal ways demanded not only by ancient Jewish and pagan religion, but also by Charles Darwin. The French author Michel Houllebecq’s recent novel ‘Submission’ fantasises almost approvingly about a Europe in which Islam effectively outbreeds Christianity by men perpetuating their patriarchal line through multiple wives; the image of Victorian patriarchs with vast beards going forth and multiplying still finds expression in Amish and Mormon communities to this day; and there are many in the West who bang the drum for “Christian family values,” whether or not they have any real commitment to Christ Himself. And yet the story of Mary and Our Lord’s own teaching militate against this patriarchal view, apparently setting us up for evolutionary failure, precisely so that we might trust in God’s supernatural agency rather than in our own natural reproductive abilities - for it is the Resurrection, not childbirth, which gives us eternal life.
So I put it to you that Christianity is absolutely not about perpetuating our parents’ or grandparents’ line, or even their values; that Mary’s story is God’s direct challenge to patriarchal lineage, rebutting the importance even of the kingly line of David; and that we Christians are not a genetic race from a patriarchal line, but God’s own spiritual offspring given true birth in the waters of baptism by sharing in the death of Christ.
And I suggest that our religion, so ambiguous about the status of physical procreation, and so clear about the importance of the fruits of love, is far more sympathetic to loving homosexual partnerships than it has historically allowed.

Sunday, 30 April 2017

Annual Report for the ADCM

In the weeks after Easter the disciples meet the Risen Lord in a variety of ways. But there is one constant in their experiences: they all at first fail to recognise him. It takes some word or action to open their eyes to his presence, and the trigger is something different for each of them, whether it is Mary being called by name, Thomas recognising the wounds, or the pair on the Emmaus road in the breaking of bread. Jesus calls to each of them, reveals himself to each of them, in different ways according to who they are.
We have achieved a lot this year, and I mean ‘we.’ We are an Anglo-Catholic church with a high view of priesthood and a tradition of expecting the clergy to be in charge, I know – but this doesn’t mean we have to have a low theology of baptism. We are all baptised to fulfil God’s potential in us as he calls us one by one, and my vision for this church is one in which everyone here discerns and fulfils his or her own particular vocation, hears Our Lord calling in each of our particular ways. I’ve challenged you over the year to find where Christ is calling you, to find your role – and you have done it. Let’s remind ourselves of what has happened as a result.
We have offered more worship, and a greater variety: We have new Taizé and Vespers services. An additional two masses in the week bring up our midweek attendance to around 40, and we are up to the mid-80s most Sunday mornings now, thanks to the good offices of our sidesmen and welcomers. We had Holy Hour in Advent, Stations in Lent. We have had two weddings, three people have been baptised and five confirmed, two of them newcomers to the faith. I have also been out saying mass for a Japanese church elsewhere in London.
We have done more socially: Sharline has put on new Sunday meet-ups. We had a relaunch party and so far I have invited church cleaners, the choir and legal drop-in volunteers to the Vicarage for drinks. Nick has introduced Theology in the Pub. More volunteers have stepped up to make coffee after mass (including two men). Andrea and her Catechists brought people together with new, inspiring ideas for Sundays at 12. Our annual Youth Holiday has brought children and teenagers together for First Communion and Confirmation classes.
We have done more volunteering: Jane has built up the Legal Drop-in and Cathy has started running a Homeless Drop-in for around 15 regular guests. Marion has built up a new team of garden volunteers. Richard Miller has multiplied the choir fivefold following his successful come-and-sing last November, and I think you’ll agree that the musical standards are high at the moment, thanks to our singers and organists. John Cochrane has had tour guides trained, who have given over 50 tours. In total, our active volunteers number over 60, at least ten of them newcomers in the last year, of whom I must make special mention of Nicholas Pomerantz for his hard work as a newcomer to the team.
We have improved our governance: Our Church Warden, Deputy and Treasurer in particular have worked extraordinary hours behind the scenes on top of demanding day-jobs. They have balanced our accounts, launched a more efficient scheme of Planned Giving, and liaised with architects, church restorers and our neighbours, to keep the church running with gentle but effective leadership and invaluable expertise. Our DCC has met 6 times and given careful consideration before authorising several new schemes and projects, including poring over the volunteer restructuring plans and role descriptions. Thanks to countless hours of pro-bono help from Martin Moore and Karen Fonseka, we now have role descriptions, safeguarding policy and a structure for volunteers, and have held a Volunteer Day, with more to come.
We have started improving our communication: We have a new Communications Officer, Matthew Johnston, who has worked with our DCC Secretary to make sure that DCC minutes are now published in hard copy after every meeting at the back of church. There will soon be an online archive of all of these, too. There is a monthly Parish Newsletter. We have active Twitter and Facebook accounts and all my sermons have been posted online. Plans are afoot for more hard-copy publications to help those without computer access and the hard of hearing, including printed sermons and a calendar of forthcoming events at the back of church. Jay has been spreading news of us around the university campuses.
We have improved our facilities: Thanks to our newly employed Verger, Richard Gosnold, the rats have been evicted, we have new portaloos, a tidy storeroom, new signage and weekly building maintenance.
We have gained the chance to become a live music venue: After much legal wrangling and ambiguous press interest in November, Brendan Collins, Jim Moreton and Richard Gosnold, with the help of our lawyer Stephen Thomas, managed to gain permission from Camden Council to hold live music in the church, potentially a source of outreach and of much-needed funding.
...And this is just the new things that have happened in the year. With all this going on, we have still managed to keep the usual work of the church going, too. It is thanks to you that the church gets cleaned, the flower arranged, the linen washed, the altar served, the readings and prayers read, the housebound visited, the strangers welcomed, the minutes typed, the drinks served, the library maintained, the children taught in Sunday school, the Michaelmas Fair organised and delivered, the pewsheets and posters printed. You know who you are.
So, thank you. You have a lot to be proud of this year.
There have been losses, too. I valued Fr Simon as a colleague and was sorry to see him leave in June, and am grateful to Susan Webster who left us after many years of work in our garden. Helena will be leaving us as Pastoral Assistant soon, after two years of hard work.
And there have been challenges. Looking back over the past year’s calendar, I can see a lot of things that have happened at St Michael’s in which – to put it mildly – I somewhat struggled to see Christ at the time. Many of these come with the territory of Camden Town and its less stable denizens, but I am sorry that some of our volunteers have suffered as a result, and want to make sure that we can improve the experience of volunteering here, as well as trying to help those who come through our doors. Jane, Jeannie and Nicholas have borne a disproportionate brunt of abusive and anti-social behaviour, and the risk to our volunteers has given me sleepless nights. That is why I am so keen to get what might seem like the boring details of our infrastructure and policy right – a wing and a prayer are not enough. I hope that you are starting to see some of the fruits of these labours, launched at our Volunteer Day.
Still, we have exciting times ahead. Our church’s tagline is “making a family out of strangers,” and I think that’s a good start. But looking for Our Lord in the events of the past year, I see more to St Michael’s than just that. My vision is of a place of sanctuary amid the bustle of Camden Town – a place where we offer healing from the social ills of isolation and self-hatred that beset our city to friend and stranger alike. That’s why I want every person here to listen deeply for Christ within, to seek the specific, tailored sign that he is sending you of his resurrected life, which is life in its fulness: a life of growth to the full adult stature of humanity which we see in His divinity

Sunday, 23 April 2017

Restoring the national memory

A friend of mine used to joke about a certain priest’s sermons which went something like this: “I walked into the supermarket yesterday, and it reminded me of Jesus. Amen.” Well, my sermon today may be a little longer than that (sorry), but I’m going to start in a not entirely dissimilar way.
Not, admittedly, in a supermarket, but in a shoe shop, J.D. Sports in Camden Town, in fact, where I found myself on Good Friday, all cassocked up like a faithful priest. Now before you raise your eyebrows in horror that I was out shopping on Good Friday, a day of fasting and weeping and all that, I should point out that I was trying to get a pair of trainers for a homeless man whose shoes had worn out. But I’m not here to “virtue signal.” I just want to tell you what a juxtaposition it was, leaving the tomb-like stillness of my church and going into J.D. Sports. The church was bare, the altars stripped, the people silent and contemplative; but the shoe shop was jam-packed full of people from all around the world practically pushing each other out of the way for bargains, waiting impatiently in long queues, tapping away on mobile ‘phones, and all the while trying to speak over the monstrous cacophony of something vaguely related to music which was booming out throughout the shop.
While I was waiting (also impatiently, to be fair), I had the strange sense that if Jesus had walked in there - even with a robe of purple, a crown of thorns on his head, and bleeding wounds in his hands, feet and side - people would not even have recognised him; and if they had, frankly, I don’t know whether they would have cared. Everything they wanted at that moment was there, in J.D. Sports.
Coming back to supermarkets for a moment, Tesco got into trouble for advertising that they could “Make Good Friday better.” Better than the promise of eternal life won for us on the Cross. Well, I suppose we should be grateful that anyone bothered to complain. Give it another generation, and I don’t know if non-churchgoers will have a clue what Good Friday is, anyway. There will just be a collective blank look: no recognition.
Mary Magdalene famously meets Jesus outside his tomb, and mistakes him for the gardener. It takes her a moment to recognise him. Like an amnesiac, she sees the world through a fuzzy cloud as she grieves. But like so many of the suffers of dementia or Alzheimer’s I have spent time with, Mary is suddenly woken from her stupor by some trigger, something intangible, and I picture her face coming back to life in that moment of recognition. “Mary,” says Jesus, calling her by name – and she remembers. For other disciples, when the Risen Lord appears to them, it will be other things - the breaking of bread, the opening of scriptures, the showing of wounds - but for Mary, it is simply her name that sparks that recognition.
It has been said that our society is suffering from a collective amnesia, generation by generation losing any recognition of what came before. There is no doubt that modern technology decreases individuals’ attention spans, but I am talking about a societal phenomenon that goes back much further than the advent of the iPhone. You could trace it as far back as the Reformation, that first and decisive stripping of the altars, when the King and clergy erased the wall paintings, burnt the statues, took away the raucous plays and festivals which had had kept the faith alive in the Englishman’s imagination - and replaced them all with books, the Bible and Prayer Book, which only the educated few could even read. An old man in James I’s reign was asked about Jesus Christ, and said that he had heard of him, yes, because he had seen him in the village Corpus Christi play at Kendal when he was a child. But that was the extent of his knowledge, because those plays had since been banned by the Reformers, and the result is clear as mud: the English people who had known Jesus for over a thousand years barely even recognised him any more. And that was four hundred years ago.
Things did get better in the Victorian age, under the steam of the Evangelicals and the Anglo-Catholics, who built three of our churches in the Parish of Old St Pancras. People like Fr Basil Jellicoe restored the images and ceremonial, started guilds, built schools for the education of the poor and their instruction in the faith. The heyday was in the 1930s, when tens of thousands gathered in London for mass at the Anglo-Catholic congresses. But that has all gone now. Particularly since the State purloined schools paid for by Victorian Christians, the teaching of the faith has been mostly reduced to a matter of show-and-tell, comparing the funny things one religious group, say Christians, does, with the practices of another religion, of course all from a “neutral” standpoint which suggests that it’s all just a matter of choice anyway: you can choose your religion in much the same way as you choose your trainers, or choose whether to shop in Tesco or Morrison’s. Twenty minutes on Wikipedia, read a few reviews, and you should be able to make your mind up. The result: Christianity becomes a take-it-or-leave-it lifestyle choice.
The problem is, you can’t choose what you don’t even recognise. We used to be able to take it for granted that people at least knew what the Christian religion was before they rejected it. Nowadays, even young Cambridge undergraduates have never even learnt the Lord’s Prayer. Words that used to evoke a great wealth meaning, words like “wood” and “nails,” are being stripped of their significance; let alone words like “Crown” or “nation” or “family.” Our language is losing meaning, our ability even to communicate with each other at anything more than the most prosaic and dull level is rapidly diminishing because we can no longer assume we have anything in common with one another. People are making their “decision” based on atrophied, misinformed perceptions, groping about for meaning in our collective amnesiac fog. We don’t recognise each other, let alone Christ.
Christians could respond to this by saying, well, so what? The early Christians lived as a little minority, a rebel sect, so let’s keep the fire burning discretely and keep to our own, let the world go its own way. We could. But that would be giving in to the modern worldview of religion as a supermarket commodity, and it would be letting our nation down. I would go further and say that we would be complicit in the gradual erosion of identity and even meaning that is happening throughout Europe at the moment. We are heading into a world without society, a world of complete individualism, isolation and self-orientation, where every man and woman is an island. You can see the effects of this isolation on the streets of Camden Town, people staggering about in isolation without family, friends or home. And yet our Lord tells us that the people around us are our brothers and sisters: we have no right as Christians to let our family, our country, our world go this way.
Yet this is Easter, the time of the Resurrection. There is hope. Not for a return to the Christendom of the Middle Ages or Queen Victoria, nor even to the 1950s, none of which were perfect. But there are signs, like them or not, that people are seeking meaning and identity: the tribes marked by people’s clothing, tattoos, band or football t-shirts, the causes they sign up to on Twitter, the rise of the SNP and even the urge for “Brexit.” Tomorrow is St George’s day, and the English flag will no doubt fly from many vans and be daubed on many faces.
The Church would be foolish indeed to sneer at these signs. Our job is to fill in the gaps, to preserve and to restore the memory of our nation: to bring out the Cross at the heart of our flag, to revive the memory of the English people of our historical, intellectual and spiritual roots, and to spark the recognition in every human heart of the Lord above every prince or prelate who commanded us to love one another, and to do what we are about to do in Remembrance of Him.

Sunday, 16 April 2017

Easter and the Martyrs

Alleluia! Christ is Risen. And just as well.
This time last week, we were processing around the block with palms in our hands, a short but powerful proclamation of Our Saviour’s entry to Jerusalem: powerful enough that passers-by joined our number, and I hope that some of you have come back here to celebrate His rising from the dead and triumph over death today with us.
But at the same time, while we were singing our way through the back of Sainsbury’s, far away in Egypt, a church full of our brothers and sisters kept Palm Sunday in a very different way. We may feel that we are making ourselves a target by parading publicly as Christians out in Camden Town, but those Egyptian Christians in that awful bomb attack, even as they were beginning to celebrate their Lord’s victory over death, died for the faith we share.
We are right to be horrified and to mourn, but it is important not to lose sight, especially on Easter Day, of what it was we and our Egyptian brethren were proclaiming last week when they died. We do them a disservice if we now lose hope and join the rest of the world in believing that they are no more and death has won the day. For today we proclaim the deepest truth of the Christian faith, the truth towards which the Incarnation at Christmas and the Cross and Passion of Holy Week lead: the truth of the Resurrection.
Claims of truth are mistrusted in what has, I think misleadingly, been called a “post-truth” age. So let me first be clear: the truth of the Resurrection is not merely a proclamation of dogma, something for your list of 100 impossible things to believe before breakfast. Belief in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead is not something you merely sign up to to please God or the Church. It is first of all a matter of trust, trust in people: the people who first saw the empty tomb, the people who saw Jesus variously risen and appearing to them from the dead, the people who wrote this down in what would later become the Bible. People chosen by God and inspired by God. And if you ask, “why should we trust them - what were their vested interests?”, the most powerful answer I can give is that so many of them chose to die rather than give up on proclaiming what they had seen. These Christian martyrs did not take anyone else with them - suicide-bombers do not follow a man who ordered his disciples to put away their swords - but they let themselves be tortured and killed rather than deny their Risen Lord. They could have joined any number of Greek or Roman mystery cults promising eternal life, even wealth here and now, but they stuck to the vision of the executed criminal who promised them a resurrection like the one they had seen with their own eyes. Truly, the seed of the Church was sown in the blood of the martyrs.
It might surprise you to hear that the second generation of Christians did not for the most part worship in churches. Nor did most of them even worship in private homes, as is often thought. More recent scholarship shows that around 95% of these Christians worshipped weekly outdoors in graveyards, especially at the gravesides of martyrs. And the nature of their worship was much what we are doing today, and our Egyptian brothers and sisters were doing when they were martyred last week: celebrating the Eucharist.
Now this is something that horrified many non-Christians, especially Jews, for whom the dead were unclean. The idea of praying and offering a sacrifice for the dead was not new, but to do it among the dead, and even to eat among them was beyond the pale. But that is what our early Christian forebears did, whatever later reformers might think about prayers for the dead, and not just incidentally as an aside to more conventional indoor Eucharists, but as the main form of worship for the overwhelming majority of Christians every week. So why?
The answer is simply that the Eucharist was for Christians a matter of life and death. It is the way that Christ has given us to participate in his death on the Cross and his resurrection to eternal life.
In one way this is a great and supernatural paradox and miraculous exchange: God, who cannot die, does die, so that we, who cannot live forever, can live forever. And so it was natural for the early Christians to worship near those who had received the Eucharist before them, and whose mortal remains were therefore destined for resurrected life. Hence the cult of relics, and the reason why relics of martyrs are to this day placed in churches’ altar stones.
But in another way, it is the revelation of something miraculous but nonetheless completely natural: the cycle of death and birth. Imagine a grain sown into the earth. It grows to wheat and the grain is no more. The wheat is cut and ground to be made into dough. The dough is mixed with yeast to rise and then baked into bread for our sustenance. Just so, Christ died, was cut down from the Cross and was buried in the earth, then rose to life by the yeast and fire of the Holy Spirit. We have the bread which sustains our mortal life only because the grain dies and gives wheat. We have the Resurrection to eternal life only because Jesus dies and yields to us his immortality.
What we are doing here, and Christians throughout time and the world are doing whenever they celebrate mass, is nothing other than preparing for death. The historian St Bede writes of several early British saints, such as Hilda, Caedmon and Cuthbert, that they received the Sacrament as close as possible to the moment of their own deaths, ideally surrounded by their fellow Christians. St Dunstan, 10th century Archbishop of Canterbury, during mass in the Easter octave, surrounded by the singing of psalms, received the precious Body of Christ and then, it is written, “gave up his spirit,” so joining his departure with Our Lord’s on the Cross. It may sound strange to the world, but for a Christian, there can be no better way to die.
So now, my brothers and sisters, I urge you to give thanks today at our altar for the blood of the martyrs, even the most recent ones, confident in their Resurrection to life with Our Lord; to offer his sacrifice for them here as our forebears have ever done; and now and at every Mass to prepare also for your own death, praying for God’s grace to transform you into the fulness of Resurrected Life in which he wills you to rejoice.
Alleluia! Christ is risen.

Thursday, 13 April 2017

Maundy Thursday: the Cosmic Mystery

The Cosmic Christ
Imagine: you’ve just made a deal with someone and shaken on it. The person then goes off and breaks the deal straight away. When you ask them about it and point out that you shook hands, they say “What of it? It was just friction between flesh.”
Or imagine for a moment that I took your national flag and burned it right in front of you; and when you got angry, I said, “well, it’s just a piece of coloured cloth.”
Or to take another example, what if I ripped the head off a toddler's favourite teddy bear? She could cry all she liked, but after all, I could say, “it’s just some stuffed bit of polyester.” What’s all the fuss about?
Now of course, a handshake or even a kiss is friction between two people’s flesh. A flag is a piece of coloured cloth. A teddy bear is a stuffed bit of polyester. But to say that they are just any of these things is misleading. They have a deeper significance than their mere outward forms might suggest.
And yet there are those who like to say that the Eucharist Jesus instituted the night before he died was just a meal between friends, just an act of remembrance, and that the food we eat is just bread and wine.
There are even those within the Church who might say that Jesus is just a man, and certainly, it took about four centuries to come up with a satisfactory answer to how Jesus could be both God and man at the same time. Yet that was the conclusion of the Church, as it tested the ideas that Jesus was either just God in disguise as a man, or just a man claiming equality with God, and found both solutions wanting. The orthodox Christian faith therefore became one not of just one or the other, but of both.
It’s no secret (but is surely a shame) that the Church today remains divided in all sorts of directions. We have seen some of the fallout of those divisions close to home recently, when my predecessor Bishop Philip was pressured into refusing to become Bishop of Sheffield. Yet the major fault line between Christians nowadays, it seems to me, is not so much between traditionalists and liberals, or even Catholics and Protestants. It is between those on the one hand who believe that the God’s grace, integrally woven into his Creation right from the start, is still there; and those on the other who think that God’s grace has been more or less obliterated in the Fall by human sin. To put it another way, it is between those who think the image of God is deformed but still there in humanity and the rest of creation along with all our sin and wickedness, and those who think that sin has completely obliterated the image of God in us, that creation now is just creation unless grace is actively superimposed on it by God.
If you take the former view, that God’s grace is still present in Creation simply because God made it, then it stands to reason that the world and things and people are at their heart good, corrupted but still all part of God’s basic goodness.
If you take the other view, then the world and everything in it is fundamentally wicked and wretched, fit only for damnation. This view has its strong points. It begins in the writings of St Paul, and is built on by St Augustine, then reaches its climax at the Reformation in the thought of Calvin. Its strength lies in the idea that if we are completely and utterly depraved, empty of grace, then we have to rely entirely on God’s love for our salvation. Our own actions and the things of this world have no bearing on the next. We are utterly at the mercy of God who saves us, despite our sinful nature.
Yet this view comes with certain problems, too. It raises the question of why an all-powerful God would create something fit only for condemnation. It even risks making God responsible for evil, an impossibility if God is by definition entirely good. And St Augustine notwithstanding, it is certainly not the majority view of the early Church fathers, and does not reflect the practice of early Christians, whose theology and worship demonstrate a sense of connection between God and his creation in the person of Jesus Christ.
Maundy Thursday is primarily about Jesus’ double mandate (which is why we call it Maundy Thursday) first, to love one another as he has loved us, and second, to do this in remembrance of him: in other words, to celebrate the Eucharist. The night before he dies, Jesus gives us his followers the means to share in the death he is about to undergo on the Cross and in his Resurrection. He gives us the “daily bread” which he has taught us to pray for: epiousios artos, that difficult phrase in Greek which I have mentioned before means both “bread for our existence” and at the same time “supernatural bread.” A lot of knickers got twisted in the 16th century over whether the bread in the Mass stayed as bread or was completely transformed into Christ’s body, but the answer hinted at by that word epiousios in the Lord’s Prayer, and more fundamentally by Jesus’ own incarnate nature as both God and man, is that the Eucharist is not just one or the other, but simultaneously both the bread of earth and of heaven.
Tonight, Jesus links natural bread and wine to the supernatural gift of his eternal divine life tomorrow on the Cross. This gives us a principle, you could call it a sacramental principle, which gives a richness of meaning to the entirety of the created order and to our lives. To put this sacramental principle in the traditional language of the Church, as you will find in our own Book of Common Prayer, a sacrament is an outward, visible sign of an inner, invisible grace. The bread and wine are the outward, visible signs of the inner, invisible grace of the Body and Blood of Christ - and it is this principle, the principle embodied in Jesus’ life as both God and man and given to us by Jesus as the primal sacrament of the Eucharist, which anciently conditioned the Church’s view of reality.
For in the beginning, God made the world and saw that it was good. His Spirit brooded over the waters and gave creation form, he breathed it into Adam and Eve to give life to the human race; and it was as a human that he came among us as God the Son, Our Saviour Jesus Christ, to live and die and give us life.
Just so, from the earth he made we take wheat and grapes and make of them bread and wine, already suffused with God’s grace because it was by his grace, by the work of the Spirit, that he made them in the first place.
And so the Cross of Christ brings to perfection, realises and fulfils the graced potential of all reality, the entire cosmos, making the world our High Priest’s altar; an enriched, fulfilled reality in which we can participate through our altar here today. For in the Holy Eucharist, through our hands, Christ does not destroy the bread and wine to give us his body and blood, but brings their innate potential to perfection, making them food not just for our bodies but for our souls, and so gradually working the perfection of all reality.
The Last Supper was not just a meal, any more than the Crucifixion was just the execution of a radical rabbi. Tonight, as Christ offers his body and blood through bread and wine at our hands, he lifts us up with our brothers and sisters throughout the entire world and throughout all time, even with the saints in heaven, in an act of adoration and sacrifice of cosmic significance: as we dwell in him and he in us, we become the self-offering of God to himself, the Spirit-born Body of the Son lifted by the hands of angels to the Father.
For in this outward act of taking and eating and drinking, Christ reveals to us the true and perfect reality, the Kingdom lying in wait under the surface of creation, waiting to be blessed and broken and born anew: the mystery, the secret, the sacrament of salvation he entrusted to his Church that night before he died.

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

Wednesday of Holy Week: Handing Over

So far, since Monday, I have been saying that there is a common thread holding each of the three gospel passages together in the Greek word paradosis, which means in the Bible both "handing over" and "betrayal," and so links Judas' handing over of Jesus to the authorities with Jesus' handing over of himself in bread and wine. We saw how three characters respond to Jesus handing his body and blood over to them: Mary by giving without counting the cost, Peter by betraying Jesus but returning to him for forgiveness, and Judas by betraying Jesus, handing him over to the authorities, and losing all hope and trust in God.

So far we have been looking at all this through the lens of St John's gospel. Like yesterday, today we are guests at the Last Supper, but now we put on St Matthew's specs and see see things slightly differently. So let’s set the scene.

First thing, forget the painting by Leonardo da Vinci. The disciples were not sitting on chairs around a dining table. They were dining in the ancient Greco-Roman style, which meant leaning on reclining sofas and taking food off a low table; this is how St John could be leaning on Jesus' chest, which would be rather difficult on a set of matching Gainsboroughs. They are dining ancient pagan style.

Second, even though they are dining pagan style, they are all very much Jews. Unlike St John’s, St Matthew’s gospel is written for a mostly Jewish audience. He makes this clear by using words like "Master," which in the original is actually "teacher," the word Greek-speakers used for “Rabbi.” And so third, bear in mind that the Last Supper is a ritual meal, the beginning of the Passover. Put out of mind those awful sermons that you will most certainly never have heard in this parish, where the preacher tries to tell you that the Last Supper was just Jesus having a nice dinner with his mates. No. It was not a pie and a pint at the Lord Stanley. It was a Jewish ritual meal which acted as the preliminary to the sacrifice of the Passover lamb, and it was being done in the style of an Ancient Greek symposium meal where a philosopher instructs his pupils.

Perhaps you can see where this is leading. The Last Supper was the ritual preparation for the sacrifice of the new Passover lamb who is Jesus Christ himself. It is only when he is handed over to death on the Cross that his handing over of himself in bread and wine makes any sense.

This leaves us with a rather awkward question. If Jesus had to be handed over to death, where does this leave Judas? Does this get him off the hook on which he has been speared for two millennia? The traditional answer is no, and the trendy answer is yes. As so often, I tend to sit between the two camps.

On the one hand, Judas and Judas alone made the choice he made, and it was he who gave up all hope in God's forgiveness when he ended his own life.

On the other, we all know that people do not take their lives lightly, and it is very hard to say that anyone who does so is enough in their right mind to be held to blame for it. Nor is it easy to make any sense of God as wholly good if he predestines certain people to do evil things. What is more, the bottom line of Christianity is forgiveness and God's mercy, even to the extent that some ancient church fathers thought that in the end, even the Devil himself would be saved - so I think we are secure at least in hoping for Judas' salvation at the last.

A tentative hope, however, is not much for us to go on. Better that we trust in the guarantee of salvation. That is what Our Lord offers us in baptism, just as he offers the guarantee of forgiveness in Confession, and the guarantee that through receiving his body and blood handed over to us through the Apostolic tradition of the Church, he will hand us over to eternal life with our Father.

Tuesday, 11 April 2017

Tuesday Traitors

I hope you've got the keys to the Tardis in your handbags, because we've got a bit of zipping through time to do in these three days of Holy Week. Yesterday, St John took us back in time to the night before the events of Palm Sunday, and we heard how it was Mary who had listened and understood how Our Lord was going to be handed over to the Cross and how he would hand himself over to us. Mary’s response was to give without counting the cost, in contrast with Judas, so desperate for everything to be costed for usefulness. Interesting that it was a woman who understood Jesus better than any disciple, just as we commemorate the women weeping for him in the Stations of the Cross, and just as it was a woman, another Mary, who first saw him resurrected: especially since today, our gospel is a tale of two men, and both traitors.

I do love a good John le Carré novel, especially the ever-popular "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy." Le Carré builds up a sympathetic portrait of the British spy Bill Hayden, trusty old reliable Bill, showing us all his deep friendships and loyalties, and then of course explodes them all when it turns out that Bill is the mole, the double-agent who has been selling MI6 out to Moscow all along. We have a national fascination with traitors like these - Tinker, Tailor became an incredibly popular TV series starring Alec Guinness, and more recently, a Hollywood film success - and there is no end of biographies and documentaries on the likes of real-life double-agents such as Kim Philby.

Take all these traitors back to their archetypal core, and you've got Judas. Not content to do things Jesus' way, like the Communist double-agents, he wanted radical change, revolution now. A pie-in-the-sky Kingdom of love and peace was no good: what was called for was immediate redistribution of wealth, a return of power to the Jewish people, by violence if necessary. And so, even while he lived among the students or disciples of Jesus, he was in the pay of rival authorities, waiting for the moment to spring the trap. We associate the betrayal of Jesus with the Garden of Gethsemane and the famous "Judas Kiss," but I would say that the decisive moment in Judas' betrayal - his handing over, his paradosis of Jesus - happens beforehand, in tonight's gospel. For this is where Jesus hands himself over to his disciples, in bread and wine. And they all take the bread - including Judas and Peter. They both receive him. And yet, in St Paul's words, they receive him unworthily, because they will both betray him.

But there is a difference. Peter will betray Jesus, yes: three times, before the cock crows. But he will return to Jesus. He trusts in Our Lord to forgive him, as indeed Our Lord will, when three times he entrusts to Peter the care of his sheep. Peter receives unworthily, but he never loses hope in Jesus' compassion and forgiveness.

Judas, though, has abandoned all hope of forgiveness. He thinks he can make the Kingdom of Heaven by force, and when he fails, he is blind to the reality of that Kingdom embodied in Christ right before his eyes. This hopeless fatalism, his fear that there is no redemption for him, is what makes Judas’ story so tragic, in the proper sense of the word. But more on him tomorrow.

For now, let us heed tonight's gospel, and look to ourselves. Are we a Bill Hayden or Kim Philby, a double-agent in Jesus' camp? Could it be that we, even tonight at mass, receive Our Lord unworthily, offering our lives with our lips but holding back when it counts?

If so, we have two options. Option one: we hold out like Judas, harbouring our grudges until finally, we abandon hope, lose trust in God and take the Devil's shilling. Or option two, Peter's way: we acknowledge that we have sinned and return to God in the knowledge that for all our betrayals, he forgives all those who truly repent and longs for our reconciliation. And that, dear brethren, is why he has given his priests a purple stole.

It's not too late.

Monday of Holy Week: Counting Costs

I was walking home one day in my clerical garb, and just up the road from here (St Mary's Somers Town) a couple of homeless men who were having a drink on a step stopped me, with the usual request. I don't carry cash in Camden Town for just this reason, and normally when I say I'm not carrying any, that's enough - or if someone is really desperate for food, I'll go with them and buy them some on my card. But these gentlemen had a bit of Dutch courage in them and clearly wanted a bit of sport. "The Church has got lots of money," one of them said. "You're meant to help the poor. That's us. So why don't you give us all the Church's money?"

The homeless people were genuinely poor, which lends their objection some strength. However, you do hear similar arguments from wealthier people, too. I once received a nasty little email from someone in Berkhamsted saying that the best thing we could do for him would be to turn the church into a block of affordable flats, and several times I've heard people who are quite happy spending a fortune on cars and holidays questioning how the Church can "waste" money on fancy robes and candlesticks and incense. We can probably all think of someone who knows the price of everything but the value of nothing.

There is a word which keeps coming up in the gospel readings for Holy Week. In the original Greek that the gospels were written in, it is the same word, over and over again, but it has several different meanings, so our English versions end up losing something in translation. The Greek word is "paradosis," which basically just means "handing over," but also means "betrayal," and even "tradition" - so when you hear of Judas "betraying" Jesus, Jesus "handing over" bread and wine, and even in St Paul's letters the "tradition" of the Eucharist, just bear in mind that these are all actually one and the same word, “paradosis.” I'm not just saying this to look clever, but because I want to show how the Bible uses this one word to link together Jesus' betrayal, his being "handed over" to death on the cross, with his "handing over" of himself to his disciples in bread and wine the night before he died. Jesus is handed over to death, and he hands himself over to us. The question is, what are we going to do about it?

These first three nights of Holy Week the gospels give us three different answers to this question, in three different people: Judas, Peter and Mary. This is Lazarus' sister, the Mary who St Luke tells us chose "the better way" when she sat and listened to Jesus rather than bustling about like her sister, Martha. So she has listened and understood what Judas does not: that Jesus is going to give all that he is and all that he has, going to hand himself over, for her. And so she buys the best she can afford to send him on his way, that expensive ointment, and she gives without counting the cost. Judas does the maths: 300 silver pieces; that’s 300 days' wages! But Mary counts it as nothing compared with what Jesus is going to give her and all who believe in him. The love that gives eternal life cannot be weighed or measured - and yet Judas puts it on the scales and finds it wanting.

We could "be Church" the Judas way: we could set quantifiable targets for the sale of the faith; we could close down the branches which do not achieve the required quotas of bums on pews. We could sell the useless old buildings and baubles, house a few people, give the money to a handful of the poor to spend as they please, and too bad that when it's gone, it's gone. At least we’d get the glow of feeling that we'd done something nice for someone. Or, we can do it the Mary way. We can remember that everything we have is only on loan from God anyway, and so stop counting the cost. We can make sure that there is a place for generation after generation to come and waste their time and money and effort on God. Not because we think we can buy a place in heaven; not because God needs our cash; but because we know the value of what Our Lord has done for us, because we know that the body and blood he hands over to us on the Cross and in the mass are beyond any price, because we know that his sacrifice matters more than anything we can give, and because we like Mary are grateful.

Sunday, 5 March 2017

Three questions for Lent

Only a few weeks ago, I witnessed first-hand something of the power of repentance.

There was a young man who could not handle the responsibility of bringing up the son he had unintentionally sired. So set was he on living a carefree life of drink, drugs and parties that he cut himself off from the mother and denied outright that the baby was his, despite the obvious resemblance - for fifteen years. That fifteenth year was the year his son died. He was stabbed to death, in some connection with gang crime. That was what it took for the man to realise what it means to be a father. Hew knew for the first time, in what he saw as the fatal consequence of his irresponsibility, the full weight of his sin. It pushed him to the verge of madness, and in his grief he prayed to God for forgiveness.

“Repentance” in the Bible means a change of heart, and that is what happened to this man. He turned from his dissolute lifestyle to Christ, and now spends his life visiting gaols, borstals, schools and youth clubs trying to alert young men to the consequences of involvement in gangs.

This young man was just one of the speakers at a service for families affected by gang and knife crime held here last month.

It’s easy to write testimony like this off when you’re thinking about it from a distance, sitting behind a computer screen, say. The online sceptic might say that it’s all rather convenient for people who have seriously let other people down to turn and “be saved.” But you would have needed a heart of stone not to be moved that night, when that man spoke in person. The atheist Twitterati say we need to throw away the faith and lead lives based purely on science and analytical philosophy, but I have yet to see someone’s entire life turn around because they read a bit of Locke or Hume. The evidence for people’s lives changed by grace through turning in repentance to Christ, on the other hand, is all around us.

Repentance is for sinners, and the greater the sin, the more powerful the repentance. Our Lord said that he came not for the well, but for the sick. It is not just Christians who know this basic truth, either. The Buddhist monk Shinran wrote that if the good man should be saved, how much more the evil man.
Where we tend to fall short in the modern world, though, is that we are far readier to see other people’s sins than our own. The example I have given of the young man who abandoned his family is obvious. But Lent is not about other people’s sins. As Jesus said, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” Let me be blunt: if you believe, as most of the world seems to, that nothing at all is your fault, that you have no sin in you, then you are living a lie, will never know the joy of repentance and cannot even start on the spiritual journey of a renewed heart in Christ. So Lent is the time when Christians go completely against the self-congratulating and self-justifying orthodoxy of the modern age and look honestly in the mirror.

To this end, we might this Lent ask ourselves the three questions which the Devil puts to Jesus in the wilderness.

First, the stones and the bread. What is our bread? What keeps us going? If the only thing that gets us up in the morning is, say, seeking entertainment, the next fix, the next tidbit of gossip, picking and choosing clothes or food, shopping, or even work - if those are the priority in our life - then we are chewing on worthless stones in the vain hope that God will turn them to bread. He will not. He has given us the Living Bread of his Word, the Word he made flesh in the person of Jesus Christ and gives us afresh in the words of Scripture and in the the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar. So first, repent by making the true bread your priority.

Second, the Devil takes Jesus to the roof of the temple. what do we trust? What do we think is going to catch us if we fall? Perhaps we think we can make our own security out of sheer will or hard work, so that we do not need God. Or even if we do believe in God, there is a temptation to believe in him only when things are going well. To say, “I believe in God only as long as X, or Y, or Z does not happen to me” is to put God to the test. It is putting conditions on our belief when he offers us unconditional love. If ever you suffer this affliction (as many of us do sometimes), take up your Bible and read the Book of Job. If we believe in a God who is nailed to a Cross, we are foolish to expect a life of easy reward and no suffering. That mindset has to be changed if we want to know the truth of God, rather than setting him up as a daddy in the sky who gives us treats for being good. Again, repentance, changing of the heart and mind - this time to trust in God.

Third, the Devil tempts Jesus to worship him. To what do we really bend the knee? Most of us have idols that we set up from time to time where God really belongs. It may take exploration and a great deal of honesty to own up to ourselves about what really matters most in our lives. If it is not God, then there is more repentance do be done. And what is more, Jesus says that we are not only to worship God alone but to serve God alone. If we are serving to get our names on the rota or the board and look important, but don’t turn up on time (or at all) and so pile up more work on our Christian brothers and sisters, we are not serving God. We are serving ourselves, at best giving God a nice “tip” so generously offered from our precious time. All that we have and all that we are belong to him, and repentance helps us to see that truth.

So pray for the grace to know yourself more clearly, to see yourself more honestly. Repentance is the very first step on the road to knowing God truly, in all his unconditional forgiveness and love - and it will change your life.  

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Ash Wednesday

Give, pray, and fast are Our Lord’s clear instructions in the Gospel for Ash Wednesday (Matthew 6:1-6 & 16-18) - but with an important caveat. Give, pray, and fast, but not to draw attention to yourself, not because you want a reward.
There are plenty of people in our church who give very generously, some of money, some of time, some of both. It’s worth remembering at this point that you may not know who they are, so if you are occasionally quick to criticise people who work behind the scenes, perhaps you might pause for thought. We all give something, and the onus on us in Lent is not to ask what other people are giving, but what more we can give ourselves. 

Prayer does not need to be done with great exuberance, arm-waving and rolling round in the aisles to prove to everyone how holy you are, but it does need to be done. And so Lent is not the only time we focus on prayer, but a reminder to put our entire prayer life back into order for the longer term. I have spoken before about the Anglican pattern of regular Mass, the Office of daily morning and evening prayer, and private prayer (“MOP” for short). The first, you can do here; there are resources for the second online; and the third, we can think more deeply about in Lent. As a start, I would strongly suggest keeping some sort of prayer diary with the names of people or organisations or causes you want to pray for (1) every day, (2) weekly and (3) monthly - then spend a few minutes each day on your knees praying for them.

Of the three, fasting is probably the most forgotten these days. Let’s be clear from the start that this is not just a “Roman Catholic thing.” Our own Book of Common Prayer very clearly marks days of abstinence, and Archbishop Cranmer was keen to encourage them. For those who are physically fit enough to do so, certainly Ash Wednesday and Good Friday should be kept as fasts, focussing your mind on Christ’s sacrifice by eating only one full meal in the day, and having one or two very light meals to keep you going if you must. You might also consider giving up something, such as meat, on Fridays throughout Lent, and further on in the year - the Ash is not just for Wednesday. 

None of this - giving, praying or fasting - is going to earn you a place in heaven. Our Lord has already done that for us on the Cross. What it is, however, is an expression of our gratitude to Him for His Sacrifice, and a way of staying ever mindful of it so that we can respond to his love and change our lives for the better: for God hates nothing that he has made and gives perfect remission and forgiveness to who are truly penitent of their sins. 

Thursday, 9 February 2017

The Wall

I have held off from preaching or writing about Mr Trump, partly because I am naturally cautious when it comes to witch-hunts. It sadly does not surprise me that exactly the people who object to his famous Hadrian fantasy now want to block him from entering our country, despite having made no objections against various visiting despots from the Middle East, Indonesia and China. 

Even so, objections to Trump's wall stand firmer than it does itself, especially when it is propped up by cherry-picked biblical witness. It surely did no credit to Christianity when Trump's reverend stooge cited sacred scripture at his inaugural speech to prove that God is "not against" building walls. 

Now this may well be true when one is defending one's people from marauding tribes, as in the Old Testament story cited: and I suspect that very few of the people who hold up placards calling for "no borders" leave their front doors and windows open to all comers at all hours. But the Bible is not given to Christians as an anthology of proof texts. We are meant to read it through the lens of Christ. So doing, we see an overarching narrative of a God who breaks boundaries, even the boundary between himself and his creation, in the person of Jesus Christ; who breaks the barriers that separate Jew and Gentile, slave and free, the taboos which cordon off the leper, the prostitute, the tax-collector; who even tears the veil between earth and heaven in his glorious Resurrection. National boundaries and nation states have their purpose, but Christians must always see them as only temporary measures, in this critical light. There is nothing temporary about a wall. 

All this is a caution against a pick'n'mix approach to the Bible, and also to a pick'n'mix approach to clergy: U.S. Presidents choose their own preachers. The benefit of an Established Church like ours is that, counterintuitively, its leaders are not chosen by our political masters. This does leave us with a grave responsibility to act as critical friends to the Government rather than as lickspittles, but the American contrast shows that this is no bad thing. 

This aside, it is worth bearing in mind in the furore that the proposed presidential visit is not a matter of Mrs May inviting Mr Trump. Rather, the Prime Minister of Great Britain is inviting the President of the United States. He is here for his role, not his person, and to refuse to work with him would be a neglect of the Government's duty, foolish and even childish: grown-ups have to work with people they do not like. There is something of the Gospel in that sentiment, too.