Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Prisons Week 2017

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

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

Monday, 9 October 2017

All Things Dull and Ugly: Harvest 2017

"When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things." These words from the Apostle St Paul came to mind as I wondered exactly how I was supposed to preach on the Harvest to a congregation ranging from Year 1 through to teenagers, young adults, their teachers, parents and who knows, maybe even all the way to grandparents?
I hope you remember Pentecost, that fiftieth day after Easter Day, when the Apostles preached amid a vision of flames dancing round their heads, and everyone who heard them could understand what they were saying in his or her own language. Now Bishop Michael is a successor of the Apostles and even has the flame-shaped hat to prove it, so if he were here, perhaps he could speak in words that would make sense to the youngest and the oldest alike: but I, as a humble priest, lack that particular charism. I suppose I’ll just have to start with the youngest and work my way up. 
So, for the little ones: I wonder whether we know the hymn, “All Things Bright and Beautiful”? It’s often sung at harvest time, though somehow we seem to have escaped it this year. It is of course a song about all the good things in this world, the plants and animals, the air we breathe and the food we eat, and how it all comes from God. And that is all quite right and true, just as it is true that we need to thank God and thank the people who bring these good things to us, like the farmers, the shopkeepers and our parents. For the young children, whose life I hope is still mostly sunshine and goodness, “All Things Bright and Beautiful” is probably enough.
But as we get into our more contrary teenage years, we perhaps start to find the Monty Python version of the hymn more compelling:

All things dull and ugly,
All creatures short and squat,
All things rude and nasty,
The Lord God made the lot.
Each little snake that poisons,
Each little wasp that stings,
He made their brutish venom.
He made their horrid wings” - and so on.

We start to see some of the darker and less shiny aspects of existence, and quite rightly wonder how they might fit into “God’s plan:” especially when we look at the news and see the natural catastrophes affecting, for instance, Mexico of late. Do pain and hunger and misery come from God, too?
Well, the standard GCSE answer to this question is to whip out the handy “inconsistent triad,” and argue that God cannot be what he is supposed to be, namely all-knowing, all-powerful and all-good: because if he were, he would know that we are suffering, have the ability to do something about it, and be good enough to want to. But suffering still happens. So, that’s God dealt with, then.
Except - if this conundrum could be dealt with so neatly in a single period on a rainy Wednesday afternoon, it would not have exercised some of the greatest minds, throughout all philosophies and religions, throughout history. There must be a bit more to it than that.
A start would be to point out that actually, the little ones’ point of view is not as childish as you might think. There is enough in this world to feed everybody and to shelter everybody. We do have what we need to prevent and cure most of the sicknesses that scourge the world. We can predict and minimise the damage from earthquakes, tsunami and storms. We might even be able to do something to alleviate global warming. Perhaps, if we had invested more time and energy in these instead, of luxury and war, far fewer people would suffer. In simple terms, God has left us in charge of his good creation.
Ah, but! - you might be thinking - but what about the suffering we cannot stop? And why give us a world with suffering in any case?
This is where we have to move away from the GCSE textbook God, the God of the philosophers, to God as revealed in the person of Jesus Christ: God revealed in a person who was a child, who grew up, and who himself suffered and died. Not a God standing back remotely from Creation and letting us get on with it; not a God sitting on a cloud saying, “ah, well, I gave them free will, so it’s up to them if they starve and maim each other. Not my problem any more”; but a God who enters into human suffering, who suffers with those who suffer, a God who descends into the utter darkness of the godlessness of hell. I cannot speak for any other ideas of God, but the Christian God is nothing other than the God we know in Christ, and in whom there is nothing that is not like Christ. And that, I think, puts a different perspective on suffering.
Perhaps this is where we have to move from our teenage to our older and more discerning years, years battered by hard experience. That’s when we see how our own suffering has made us what we are. And actually, it’s often the people who suffer most who understand God the best, rather than the people trying to dissect him in a classroom. Those who suffer realise, like the Psalmist, that for God, the darkness and the light are both alike, and that he is found not only in moments of illuminated clarity, but sometimes by groping around in the deepest dark.

So, on our journey from innocence to experience, what are we to make of the harvest? First, that like little children, we need to ask God to open our eyes to the goodness and light of this world. Second, that like teenagers, we need to retain our shock at injustice, and take the responsibility of doing something about it, rather than lazily blaming an abstract God. And last, with the benefit of experience, to make the best of whatever afflicts us, and willingly share in the suffering of others. Then we might start seeing Creation from something more like God’s point of view - and feel ready to thank him for it. 

Friday, 6 October 2017

Homily on Luke 10.13-16

‘Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the deeds of power done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago, sitting in sackcloth and ashes. But at the judgement it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon than for you. And you, Capernaum,
will you be exalted to heaven?
'No, you will be brought down to Hades.
'Whoever listens to you listens to me, and whoever rejects you rejects me, and whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me.’

“From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked” (Luke 12:48): these words, later in Luke’s Gospel, are essentially the gist of Jesus’ tirade against Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum. The very Son of God had walked around these towns on the edge of Lake Galilee, given them his miracles and teachings, and yet they did not believe. No prophet is welcome in his homeland, to paraphrase another saying of Our Lord, and to paraphrase another, there is little point in throwing pearls before swine. Hard words, but Jesus uses harder ones still: they shall, he says, be thrown down to hell. Proof, which Anglicans sometimes need to remember, that being holy does not always equal being nice.

Tyre and Sidon, in contrast, had been entrusted with little. Ancient mediterranean cities in what is now Lebanon, their downfall was prophesied in the Old Testament, and had come to pass under Alexander the Great in the fourth century before Christ. By Jesus’ day they were prosperous ports of the Roman empire, not unlike St Paul’s native Tarsus. They were and always had been unabashedly pagan, first with their own native gods, and now the Greco-Roman pantheon. And yet, in Old Testament days, they had struck up alliances with the Israelites from time to time. Freemasons are particularly familiar with King Hiram of Tyre and his contributions to Solomon’s temple. Those who are not against us are for us. And so it goes easier on these pagan cities, says Our Lord, who have never had the benefit of knowing God the Father, than it does on those who have seen him revealed in his own Son and rejected him. From the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.

These are sobering words us in England, a nation to which so much has been entrusted and which has lost so much over the last few decades, if not centuries. The Church has enjoyed the allegiance of the monarch, chaplaincy in state institutions, our own schools, the foundations of universities and colleges, all the privileges of Establishment - and we seem set to lose them all. Only 15% of the population even now identify as Anglican. It is not all the Church’s fault: there are powerful rival ideologies and institutions at work. And yet, for all that, it may go easier on the Tyres and Sidons of nations never evangelised, places where Body of Christ has never entered, than it does on us at the end. We were given so much.

But do not lose hope or heart. Do not think that God has abandoned us or condemned us. We are still here, and through us, the Body of Christ, Our Lord is still here. We are his hands, his feet, his heart in the world, salt to flavour the dough: and he is faithful. We must take Christ’s warning today seriously, as a call to battle for the soul of our nation - but nourished by him at this altar, however badly our battle may seem to be going, we are assured that we will be on the winning side of the overall war. For our weapon is self-giving love, the love of the Cross, and its victory is irresistible in the end.

Monday, 2 October 2017

The true hierarchy

An argument arose among them as to which one of them was the greatest. But Jesus, aware of their inner thoughts, took a little child and put it by his side, and said to them, “Whoever welcomes this child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me; for the least among all of you is the greatest.” John answered, “Master, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he does not follow with us.” But Jesus said to him, “Do not stop him; for whoever is not against you is for you.” - Luke 9:46-50



“Hierarchy” in this age of supposed equality has become a dirty word. It should not be. It was coined in the 6th century from noble dies: hieros is Greek for “holy,” archẽ for “origin” and “order.” Hierarchy in its true sense, then, is the holy order, the heavenly pattern of existence to which God wills Creation to conform.

The problem with the disciples’ argument in Luke 9 about who was the greatest was not that they were seeking a place in the hierarchy. They may well have thought that they were arguing about a place in the hierarchy, had the word existed then - but actually, they were arguing for a place in the far more obvious and persistent order of sin and death. I mean to say, that they were looking for a place in the order of power: the order where the strongest are greatest, where the loudest voices are heard most clearly. where the fittest survive to lord it over the weak.

Now this order can be very tempting. You can see Peter yearning for it from time to time, for instance in the Garden of Gethsemane, when he yearns to take up arms in his Lord’s defence. You see it in Judas, too, impatient for a military messiah who will overthrow the violent order of Roman rule with purer, greater Jewish violence in its stead. And we may often feel that the end justifies the means: that we must use secular power to achieve spiritual ends, an indomitable Pax Christiana.

But there is nothing holy about this order, or any order which ultimately relies on the threat of violence to coerce conformity. That is not hierarchy in its true sense at all: it is order not divine, but diabolical.

Several times, Jesus shows us what true hierarchy is by the example of a child. We must become as children, he says, to inherit the Kingdom of Heaven.

Now what children like is not the same as what adults like. There are plenty of adults who really do quite like war, violence, coercion, the exercise of hard or soft power, the thrill of anger and revenge.

Children by and large do not like these things.

To receive a child - perhaps, at the risk of conflating theology with therapy, being truly receptive to our own inner child - is to receive Christ, and to receive Christ is to receive the Father. To receive and reflect the open and innocent love of a child is to see sacred order, hierarchy, for what it is: the great pattern, almost a mandala, of love which overflows from the blessed Trinity into Creation and enfolds us in its embrace to draw us back to itself, our divine and eternal origin, our ‘archē;’ and anyone who conforms their life to that holy order of love will send the devils and their order of control running for fear.

In the bread and wine of the Eucharist today we receive a vision and a foretaste of that heavenly order penetrating our own, conforming all creation to the Body of the cosmic Christ.

An Historic Homecoming: the Relic of St Chad


It is not often that you find that an international celebrity has been quietly sneaked into the back of Evensong, but that is what happened on Saturday 23 September in the Cathedral. Admittedly, for all his fame he was once a local boy, but he had not been to these parts for quite some years. For almost 500 years, in fact.
Fear not, the church has got prematurely into the Hallowe’en spirit: but we did truly receive a visitor from the dead. For the first time since the Reformation, a relic of St Chad, some part of his body, was returned to the site where he served as Bishop of Mercia some 1400 years ago.
Until the Reformation, St Chad’s relics had been permanently enshrined where now only an icon of him stands. Pilgrims came from all over the land and beyond to venerate the old saint’s bones. The truly fortunate were blessed with a glimpse of his head, held aloft from a balcony for them to see as they approached.
In 1538, by decree of King Henry VIII, the shrine was dismantled and most of Chad’s body burnt or buried; but one priest by the name of Arthur Dudley managed to rescue a small box of bones secreted in the Chad’s Head chapel. A series of Catholic faithful kept them safe until the consecration of St Chad’s Roman Catholic Cathedral in Birmingham, where they have remained safely enshrined to this day.
On Saturday, Roman Catholics and Anglicans walked together from St Chad’s Cathedral to our own on an ecumenical pilgrimage marking the 500th anniversary of the cataclysmic division of the Western Church. With them, in a pyx around Monsignor Timothy Menezes’ neck, came the unexpected guest.
“So what?”, you might ask. These days, the movement of a bit of bone from one church to another is probably a matter of indifference to most English people. But it was not always so, and even now, many may be moved to concur with the 32nd of the Church of England’s 39 Articles of Religion, which denounces relics as superstition, ‘a fond thing vainly invented.’ Had the weekend’s visit taken place only thirty years ago, one might have expected visible and vocal opposition.
As much as such opposition would at least have signified a greater popular interest in religious matters than nowadays, today’s ecumenical scene is at least more eirenic. Christians are largely more willing to listen to and understand one another than ever before. And so we should listen to the joint testimony of both the Western and Eastern traditions of the Church to the spiritual value of relics.
First, relics are an ancient part of Christian piety. Modern research shows that the veneration of deceased saints is not, as the Reformers believed, a mediaeval innovation, but predates even the formation of the Bible in the fourth century. The earliest Christians were until recently thought to have met predominantly in ‘house churches,’ but archaeological evidence suggests that the majority of weekly Eucharists were in fact held at the graves of local martyrs - so much so that even as late as the third century, some bishops struggled to exhort worshippers to have their services in churches!
Second, relics make an important point of doctrine. As we profess in the creeds at every service in the Book of Common Prayer, Christians believe ‘in the resurrection of the body.’ When all time is ended, at the final judgment, the Church teaches that our physical bodies will be reconstituted (even if cremated or destroyed) and conformed to the “glorious body” of Christ. Saints are by definition those who are undoubtedly destined for resurrection. This makes relics powerful signs of physical matter destined for glory: pointers to heaven, if you like.
Third, but no less important, relics have been foci for prayer for generations. They are like those places which you can feel are saturated with prayer. I felt their power when, some years ago, I had the honour of celebrating mass in a chapel of the catacombs of St Callistus in Rome: it was strangely comforting to be surrounded by the remains of the very martyrs whose names were invoked in the eucharistic prayer. There are more mundane places with that sense, too. The homes of elderly and housebound parishioners often have a similar sense of being well prayed in.
St Chad only came back to visit for a short while; but even if he had stayed with us in Lichfield, his odyssey would not be complete. His final home will not be here, or in Birmingham, but in the eternal glory to which he points the way in death as he did in life. May he pray for us.

Fr Thomas Plant

Saturday, 23 September 2017

Standing on the Bridge of Heaven: Aikido in the life of a Christian priest


We must stand on the Floating Bridge even if we can find nothing else. Before God we must give up our ego, freeing our mind of all thoughts and endeavour to be able to execute divine deeds by calming our spirit and returning to God.” - Ueshiba Morihei, Takemusu Aiki, 1976 (trans. S. Pranin, 2012)
It is said that a Christian priest must always have one foot in the grave. What is less often seen is that for the priest, the grave has been harrowed, and its very emptiness is the necessary precondition of infinite and eternal life. To have one foot in the grave is to have one foot in heaven while keeping the other on earth. There is an echo of this sentiment in the Floating Bridge to which O-Sensei refers above, which he elsewhere calls the Ame no Ukihashi, the Bridge between Heaven and Earth.
Custom demands that a candidate for first dan grading in Aikido write an essay on the art in daily life. My daily life, indeed my whole being, is that of a Christian priest, and it would require jarring dissociation for me to abstract my Aikido practice from that reality. It would also be dishonest. This means that I cannot help this essay being to some extent a confessional document: I can only admit my bias.
Perhaps ‘admit’ is too negative a word. I hope that the particularity of my religious perspective might contribute in some small way towards the understanding – especially a Christian understanding - of our martial art. The quote above is enough to show that O-Sensei himself held a deeply spiritual perspective on Aikido: so perhaps the eye of a fellow seeker of the Divine might lighten upon landmarks in his spiritual homeland which the disinterested passer-through would otherwise miss.
Even a cursory reading of materials on O-Sensei shows his spiritual interests. Western Aikidoka tend to respond to them in one of two ways: either by ignoring them or by seeking to assimilate certain aspects. The former is understandably the standard response of skeptics and atheists. But even the latter will tend to skim the overtly Shinto references or demythologise them to find some kernel of a more universal wisdom: an obvious example is to transmute ki from the metaphysical to the purely mechanical plane (the “it’s all just physics” approach).
The attitude of Christian practitioners can fall into either camp, depending partly on the kind of Christianity they profess. Anecdotally and at risk of oversimplification, I find that more Evangelical and conservative Christians, if they practise Aikido at all, can bring themselves to do so only by emptying it of any spiritual content. Those on the more Catholic or liberal spectra may find resonances of Christian doctrine and spiritual practice in the words of O-Sensei. Few will find the time to subject any of this to much systematic thought, however – this author included. I am therefore grateful for the opportunity this essay affords to develop a few very preliminary ideas.
The former option, of walking away from O-Sensei’s spiritual teaching, does not readily present itself to me. Aikido was in fact the catalyst which spurred me towards the Christian faith. Unbaptized as an infant and raised unchurched, I grew up as an ardent atheist, or in the words of my school chaplain, a “militant heathen” – even to the extent of passing time viciously attacking Christianity in my university debating society. It was the practice of Aikido, first in the University of St Andrews Dojo from 2001-2002 and then in Kochi City Prefectural Dojo under Sawamoto Shihan from 2002-2004, that awakened me to wider possibilities than those of a purely material realm. It sounds like a Hollywood movie when I say that in Japan, I trained with a Buddhist monk who helped to open my mind to spiritual realities, but there it is. There were certainly other factors, but I attribute to Aikido that “freeing of the mind of all thought” and “calming of the spirit” exhorted by O-Sensei in the quote above, which ignited within me, one spring morning on my futon, a very sudden and intense moment of religious experience.
O-Sensei describes the nature of that experience better than I can:
I felt the universe suddenly quake, and that a golden spirit sprang up from the ground, veiled my body, and changed my body into a golden one. At the same time my body became light. I was able to understand the whispering of the birds, and was clearly aware of the mind of God, the creator of the universe” – quoted in Aikido, Ueshiba Kisshomaru, 1985.
At that time, admittedly, I was so inured against Christianity that I did not use the word “God” or “creator.” Instead, I slunk into Buddhist temples to meditate and regain some sense of that moment of transcendent light and peace.
I used to make a sort of pilgrimage, as often as I could afford, from the outback of Kochi Prefecture on the isle of Shikoku to elegant Kyoto, which in those days was home to the nearest Kinokuniya bookshop with a decent English language section. After my experience, I found myself guiltily browsing the Religion Section, as though I was scouring the top shelf at the newsagents. When I eventually found what I was looking for, I think I might have liked to wrap its cover in brown paper: for the first time in my life, I had sought and bought a Bible.
Later I would find in those Holy Scriptures a story which brought to mind my experience, and by extension O-Sensei’s. The ninth book of the Acts of the Apostles recounts the story of Saul’s conversion on the road to Damascus. He had been a persecutor of Christians, but suddenly, something changed:
Now as he journeyed he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven flashed about him. And he fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’”
After healing from the ensuing blindness, Saul famously became Paul, saint and Apostle to the Gentiles. For O-Sensei, the experience took victory in a sword contest over a naval office; for S Paul, the persecution of Christians by the sword. For me, it seemingly happened with very little preparation, so I am certainly not claiming any parity with either of them: I want only to point out the common points of our experiences of the Divine, as a sudden and devastating light which instantly transform one’s perspective. Nor is this restricted to any favoured few. Such is the experience described by mystical writers and meditators throughout religious and spiritual traditions worldwide.
However, the supposition of any universality to religious experience raises intellectual problems, especially for those who hold to the orthodox Christian belief of the particularity and uniqueness of divine revelation in Christ. At a simplistic level, one might ask, if the experience of divine light can be mediated in a variety of religious or spiritual traditions, then what is the point of Christ? The more philosophically inclined might further question whether there can be any such thing as primal experience, unmediated by culture, language or tradition. Surely these are formative of all our experiences. Are we perhaps guilty of falling prey to a Kantian distinction of form and content belied by postmodernism, indulging in a Western “pic’n’mix” of whatever spiritual elements take our fancy without paying attention to the tradition which gives them context and meaning?
The Japanese have historically been very aware of the Western tendency to colonise, both intellectually and literally. In the decades following the Meiji Restoration of 1867, when Japan was cracked open to the world after three centuries of isolation, the Emperor not only received Western scientists, soldiers and missionaries, but sent missions of his own out to acquire Western learning. In the sphere of religion, this meant an encounter between Japanese Buddhists with the post-Enlightenment academy of European and American Protestants engaged in the work of demythologisation: explaining, or explaining away, any miraculous or supernatural elements of their own religion which conflicted with current scientific ideas. I have written elsewhere about how academics of the True Pure Land school (Jodo Shin-shu), the largest Buddhist sect in Japan, felt compelled to follow suit. Partly, they did so to keep up with their new Western neighbours, and partly to bring their own teaching more into line with that of other Buddhists in solidarity to the incoming Christian missionary tide. This is only one fairly typical example of the general interplay between Japanese and Western learning.
It is this milieu of ambivalent respect for and hostility towards the West into which Ueshiba Morihei was born, and this surely has some bearing on his spirituality. We read, for instance, that when the Japanese Army imposed a Western-style minimum height requirement for its new recruits, the young and diminutive Ueshiba hanged himself from a tree until he had gained the extra inch needed to enlist. To serve Japan he paradoxically had to become more like the gaijin.
Much of what O-Sensei actually taught and wrote is distinctly uncongenial to a Western modernist worldview and, like some of the Shin Buddhist teaching I mentioned above, has therefore been redacted and diluted to make it more palatable to international palates, especially in translation. Stanley Pranin, a Japanese scholar who write for the Aikido Journal, maintains that despite the proliferation of “his” texts in modern publications, Ueshiba actually wrote very little. Most of what we receive is mediated by his family and Ushi-deshi, with their own editorial intent to bear in mind. Pranin studied video and audio footage of O-Sensei teaching, and has concluded that there is only “one published text that faithfully preserves the content and flavor of O-Sensei’s actual speech.” This text is Takemusu Aiki, transcribed from a lecture series Ueshiba gave to the Byakko Shin Kokai sect by an adherent, Hideo Takahashi1. These reveal a complex and specifically Japanese language of esoteric symbolism which might put off Western readers, particularly Christian ones. The cultural specificity of this language, going against the Western drive for scientistic universalism, suggests why O-Sensei’s teachings tend to be glossed both by his later Japanese interpreters and by Western. Both have an interest in sanitising his spirituality for international consumption.
Let me give just three examples of O-Sensei’s teaching to support this argument: first, one which fits universalist aspirations and would be reasonably uncontroversial to many a Christian conscience; secondly, a more difficult one for a Christian to accept; and thirdly, one far more specifically Shinto-Buddhist, with arguably troubling resonances given Japan’s and O-Sensei’s mid-twentieth century history.
First, then, an O-Sensei quote reproduced by Ueshiba Kisshomaru, by John Stevens, and widely elsewhere:
"The source of budo is God's love – the spirit of loving protection for all beings... True Budo is to accept the spirit of the universe, keep the peace of the world, correctly produce, protect and cultivate all beings in nature." – Aikido 1985, Kisshomaru Ueshiba
This is a teaching of O-Sensei which sits neatly with any generally spiritual conscience, and has thereby been granted, if you like, an imprimatur from the Aikikai and subsequently been repeated with approbation by Aikido’s international spokesmen. As a Christian priest, I enjoy the logic of this teaching: the paradox of the Way of the Sword, like the Way of the Cross, is that of a tool designed for maiming and killing undergoing transformation by the grace of divine love into a vehicle of life and peace. It connects with O-Sensei’s teaching on the paradoxical nonduality between the life-giving sword and the life-taking sword. I can see this as a spiritual truth not only compatible with Christian teaching, but with a practical outworking in the dscipline of Aikido. The more proficient one becomes at delivering what can be a lethal art, the more able one becomes to apply it gently and in a way which builds up rather than seeks to conquer one’s uke.
So far, straightforward. A second and more controversial example of O-Sensei’s teaching might be his claim, quoted in John Stevens’ 1987 biography Abundant Peace:
I am the Universe.”
Part of the difficulty with this is that, given O-Sensei’s own rather idiosyncratic borrowing from a variety of Japanese and Chinese spiritual systems, it is very difficult to interpret. To do it justice, one would have to take it in the context of O-Sensei’s wider teaching, but the limited size of his oeuvre, the questionable transmission and editorial influences on what little we have of his teaching, and the lack of any obvious systematic approach in his spiritual thinking compound the difficulty. I can think of various applications of Buddhist teachings of no-self and mutually dependent arising which would make sense of this concept, and could then work intellectually towards a rapprochement with Christian understandings of, say, the divine invitation for the created order to join in the life of the Trinity through Christ – but then I would be wary of my own interpretive lens distorting and ‘colonising’ O-Sensei’s thought for my own ends. I find myself having to resort to my own religious experience of nonduality with both God and creation in the moment of realisation, but left at something of an intellectual impasse.
The third example comes from the set of O-Sensei’s teaching which has less obvious application to spiritual development outside the lineage of his own fairly eccentric and idiosyncratic tradition. This set is most difficult because of its explicit Shinto allusions, which is perhaps why it tends not to make it into the ‘official’ literature of Aikido publications. Let us examine one passage from Chapter 1 of Takemusu Aiki according to Pranin’s 2012 translation.
Aikido is the supreme work of kotodama and the Great Way of Universal Purification (misogi). Those who deeply believe in this Way must serve in the administration of the founding of a Universal Nation.”
This theme runs throughout Takemusu Aiki, and it takes only a little imagination to see why the text has not been more widely translated and distributed among Aikidoka. For a start, anyone with a passing knowledge of O-Sensei’s pre-War history knows of his attempt, with Deguchi Onisaburo of the Ōmoto-kyō sect, to found exactly such a utopian Universal Nation in Mongolia – a coup for which he narrowly escaped execution. His action was only a part of the general Japanese drive endorsed by the military government to colonise Asia. We must recognise that this was a direct response to Western nations doing exactly the same thing. The rationale was that Asian nations should be brought under a “Co-prosperity Sphere” in which Japanese imperialism would shelter them from Western imperialism: hence, the annexation of Korea, Taiwan and eventually Singapore. Japan’s right over other Asian nations was sanctioned by the divinity of the Emperor, and Brian Victoria has shown how her armed forces were motivated by manipulating the Buddhist doctrine of no-self into self-giving service to imperial ambitions. All religions, including Christianity, were placed under state scrutiny and control to make sure that all citizens duly observed Shinto state services. Lip service was paid to the law of religious freedom established under Emperor Meiji by declaring Shinto “not a religion” (mushukyo) - therefore, it was reasoned, there could be no religious objection to these statutory observances. This observation gives something of a chilling undercurrent to O-Sensei’s statement in Takemusu Aiki, made long after the War, that “Aikido is a religion without being a religion.” In the same light, O-Sensei’s further exhortation on misogi, that Aikidoka “purify ourselves, people, nations and the whole world, and advance in the name of God,” sounds downright sinister.
As a Christian priest who practises Aikido, I do find it uncomfortably tempting to pick out the bits of O-Sensei’s teaching that I find immediately palatable and scrape the rest to the side of my plate, but this is ultimately dissatisfying. I think I would rather try to understand his position from his own context: to acknowledge the Western and in some cases Christian influences which pushed Japan to its ambivalent relationship with the West and with her Asian neighbours, and the West’s cultural complicity in the milieu which formed Ueshiba Morihei’s spiritual thinking. We must also understand that his thought, with its optimistic internationalism, is very much of its time, a time when the devastating effects of the twentieth century’s conflicting ideologies of national and international power had not yet been fully realised. O-Sensei did not live to see the full extent of the damage caused by twentieth century attempts to found “Universal Nations.”
From the perspective of a Christian priest, valuable work could be done on shifting the destination of O-Sensei’s teaching from a utopian Universal Nation here on earth towards the Kingdom to which Christians aspire, but which is not bound in space and time or built by human labour. One might argue that this is a more faithful approach to the founder’s intentions than a mere demythologization of Aikido.
In the meantime, among my unsatisfactory and inconclusive thoughts, I intend to continue the practice of Aikido in daily life, standing on the Ame no Ukihashi, the Bridge between Heaven and Earth, in the hope that I may follow the bidding of Takemusu Aiki: “to return to and be unified with God, who is the spiritual source, the Original Parent,” whereby humanity might “purify the whole Universe by becoming Light ourselves.”

1 See http://blog.aikidojournal.com/2012/06/06/o-senseis-spiritual-writings-where-did-they-really-come-from-by-stanley-pranin/)

Saturday, 16 September 2017

St Ninian, 16 September 2017

"The city which had taken the whole world has itself been taken."
So St Jerome wrote in AD 410 from the safety of Bethlehem, but even there the tremors could be felt from the fall of the greatest city in the known world; the city called 'eternal,' but proven by Alaric and his Visigoth hordes to be somewhat more ephemeral than her people thought. The centre of civilisation and the patriarchal see of the Western Church, reduced to rubble; leading St Jerome to plead, "If Rome can perish, what can be safe?"

And that is the milieu in which, almost equidistant from the epicentre from Bethlehem, on the other, western side, St Ninian was working to convert the native Picts of what is now southern Scotland. The shockwaves must have hit him hard: St Bede tells us that though a native Briton, it was in Rome that he learnt "the mystery of truth." Though he predates St Augustine's mission to Canterbury by some 200 hundred years, and represents that period of early British Christianity outwith the direct rule of Rome, that primal See of the Western Church was nonetheless his spiritual home. Yet he persevered right through the sacking of Rome, on the outermost frontiers of a fallen Empire to spread the Gospel among the natives.

At the fall of Rome, pagans blamed Christians for its collapse, as the heathen are wont to blame us for the ills of today's society. St Augustine responded by writing the City of God, and reminding Christians that our human-made megapoleis and civilisations can and must pass. We strive not for earth and stone but for the truly eternal city of the Heavenly Jerusalem; and I imagine it must have been the vision of this beautiful Kingdom which sustained Ninian even as the worldly empire crumbled.

Ninian may not have the fame of his contemporary Patrick, or the letters of Jerome, but perhaps when we think we live in difficult times, among people indifferent or hostile to the Gospel; when we think that civilisation is about to collapse; when we look at our church's failure to maintain the missionary zeal of Ninian and keep alive the faith that his labours won - we might ponder his example, ask his prayers, and even should Rome, or more likely Canterbury, perish, keep the vision of our eternal home firmly before our eyes.

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