Monday, 13 November 2017

Luke 17: Faith, Reproof and Obstacles


Jesus said to his disciples: ‘Obstacles are sure to come, but alas for the one who provides them! It would be better for him to be thrown into the Sea with a millstone put round his neck than that he should lead astray a single one of these little ones. Watch yourselves!
If your brother does something wrong, reprove him and, if he is sorry, forgive him. And if he wrongs you seven times a day and seven times comes back to you and says, “I am sorry,” you must forgive him.’
The apostles said to the Lord, ‘Increase our faith.’ The Lord replied, ‘Were your faith the size of a mustard seed you could say to this mulberry tree, “Be uprooted and planted in the sea,” and it would obey you.’
- Luke 17:1-6

It is difficult to see the connection between these three snippets of wisdom from Jesus: do not place obstacles in the way of the ‘little ones’ who seek faith, reprove and forgive those who are sorry, and finally, that even the tiniest seed of true faith can perform miracles. Quite possibly they are unrelated and were simply catalogued this way post factum. And yet we are led to believe that God’s Spirit was at work in the Church even as she collated and canonised the Scriptures, so we should not be surprised if, in prayer and reflection, we uncover some unsuspected commonality after all.  
As a school chaplain, I take the first snippet very seriously indeed. It seems to me that the modern culture of relativism, and particularly the idea that leaving ‘little ones’ alone in vast supermarket of ideas to pick and choose their own constitutes responsible parenting, presents significant obstacles to growth of faith. People who would not dream of leaving their children alone in a room of Sabatier kitchen knives in the hope that they might make themselves the next Gordon Ramsey at the same time profess that children abandoned in a marketplace of harmful ideologies will somehow learn to become paradigms of morality. Watch yourselves, Jesus says to us. 
And yet, in the next breath, Our Lord reminds us that there is always a second chance: and a third, and a fourth, even up to seven, the Jewish cipher for eternity - and hence infinity. There is always a chance to repent. This calls to mind the Presupposition of the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius of Loyola (naturally), which in sum says that for spiritual growth, we need always to live on the assumption that our neighbour means well and is speaking with good intent. If, on reflection, he or she really doesn’t and isn’t, then it is time to have the courage gently and subtly to reprove. For me, I think this means I need to watch that I am preaching for people and not at them, ever a danger in my line of work. Hectoring does not build faith or trust. So, apologies for the last paragraph. 
Finally, the Apostles ask for more faith themselves. The Lord seems to be replying that they do not have any. If they had even a mustard seed’s worth, they could achieve the impossible. So what is this ‘faith’ thing, anyway? Professor John Milbank describes it as complete trust in the unknown - an echo, to my ears, of the mediaeval Japanese Buddhist Shinran’s elevation of ‘deep entrusting’ as the sole criterion for enlightenment. So, faith is easy, in one way, the gentle yoke: all you have to do is trust. And yet trust can be the most difficult path, the narrow way, as anyone who has engaged in ‘corporate team building exercises’ knows. 
So here is the connection. What obstacles are we putting before ourselves and each other in the way of deep entrusting in God? How might presupposing the good in others break down those obstacles, and lead us to the trust which can move not just mulberry bushes, but even mountains?   

Saturday, 11 November 2017

Re-membrance over enemy lines


The War was meant to be over by now.
Christmas Eve 1914, on the Front. The everyday rattle of gunfire tonight is silent. Instead, a familiar song drifts over the lines to the Tommies, but with different words: Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht.
Later that night come words the Tommies understand, echoing out in English from the German trenches over No Man's land. "Tomorrow is Christmas. If you don't fight, we won't fight."
Is the enemy playing a trick? Setting a trap for a Yuletide massacre?
Dawn usually brings barrages of artillery fire, but not today. Instead, the wind carries music and sounds of good cheer. Around midday, a Sergeant spots the enemy standing up in full view - dancing, with what looks like a beer tankard in hand.
"Permission to shoot, Sir?"
But his Officer does not know what to do. He goes to find the Commanding Officer. The orders are clear. Under no circumstances must the war stop. But by the time the Officer gets back to his platoon, it's too late. In an act of mutinous disobedience, the soldiers have crossed the lines and are fraternising with the enemy, exchanging gifts and sharing the Germans' beer. You've probably heard of the famous football match that ensued (and the famous score of 3-1 to the German side). What you may not have heard is that some disobedient Army Chaplains also held joint British and German Christmas services: in some cases, services of Communion. The Officers were furious: their orders from the top were to keep on killing.
When we use word "remembrance," we generally just mean calling something to memory. But it has a deeper meaning than that, too. Literally, it means re-membering: putting divided, separate limbs or "members" back together. In the famous Christmas truce of 1914, those two parts of the human race who, from 1914-1918, were so bitterly divided, were re-membered: by beer, by football - and by Communion.
Back home in Britain, people were increasingly calling for a way to be "re-membered" with their sons and fathers who had died. The Church of England responded by recovering the ancient practice of Requiem Masses, Eucharists offered especially for the souls of the dead. Tens of thousands of people gathered in churches throughout the land for these: and this is the tradition we continue today. We remember all who have died in war, civilians, soldiers in wars we won and lost, soldiers who at that time were our enemies, but in death are "re-membered" in the one common Body of Christ. And as we remember them, we are re-membered with them: the Church of the living and the dead united in the sacrifice of Christ crucified through the bread and wine of the altar.
A true Christian community is at heart at Eucharistic community.
The first thing we do at Mass is to confess and receive God’s forgiveness. So first, a Eucharistic community will be one that looks at itself and the world it lives in critically and honestly. A community with a conscience. Those soldiers on both sides in the Christmas truce, repented, laid down arms, and opened their hearts to each other, disobeying what the world wanted, even at the risk of Court Martial. So first, a community of repentance.
Next, in Mass, we listen to God’s word. A Eucharistic community needs to be one that listens to God and each other, looks not for the signs of love. Remember how the Germans called out in friendship. The Officers’ first response was suspicion. But the men listened deeper, and heard the tone of true friendship. We need to give each other the benefit of the doubt, make the best of what each other has to say, not be constantly assuming the worst. A community that is open enough to listen.
Half way through Mass (in the modern Anglican order), we share the peace. We cannot approach the altar until we have put away all enmity and hatred, until we have forgiven our brothers and sisters. Think as we shake hands today of the handshakes those soldiers made a century ago. Repentance and listening were the preconditions for this. God forgives us; we forgive others.
Next, we offer - or more properly, through the bread and wine he has given us, we join in Christ’s offering on the Cross. Through the Mass, Jesus continues to give his entire self, body and blood, no strings attached, for the sake of the whole world. Think of the sacrifice those soldiers were making; the sacrifice made by those at home, the sacrifice made for wars won and lost, for good causes and for bad. It was in a Roman centurion that Jesus found faith ‘greater than that of all Israel.’ Our community needs to be self-giving, always asking what more we can give, not what we can get, and never counting the cost. A community of self-sacrificial service.
And then we feast. In the act of Holy Communion, Jesus invites us to feast with the whole Church of the living and the dead, so that as we remember him, he literally re-members us, joins us back up, with them in his Body. Think of the beer and food shared by those soldiers, its power to unite. A Eucharistic community is a community of hospitality, which welcomes the stranger, brings people in from the cold (people like the homeless man on the Close), re-members them with us in one body, one shared humanity.
After we receive, we give thanks. Eucharist is the Greek for “thanksgiving.” The soldiers exchanged gifts and wrote letters home saying how thankful they were for that one day of peace. We need to be a community that is always thankful for the gifts we receive and the eternal peace God offers us.
The last thing we do is easily missed. The word “mass” comes from the last words the priest traditionally said in Latin: “Missa est.” “Missa” is related to “missile” and “mission,” and it means “sending out.” We need to go out of these church doors changed and ready for action. The Christian life does not end in these four walls. We need to be a community oriented to action, a missional community, sent out to work for everything we learn in the Mass: for repentance and criticism of the powers that be, for listening to the other deeply, for making peace among enemies, for giving ourselves in service of the poor, for inviting the outcast into our friendship. Faith without action is dead faith.
So now, we remember the War Dead - but more importantly, we are re-membered with them, united as one humanity, undivided by nation, by politics, even by death, in the one self-giving Body of Christ, the Church of the living and the dead won by his precious blood.

Sunday, 5 November 2017

Lichfield Cathedral Reformation thinkers series: Calvin

I have been asked to speak about Calvin in five minutes.

The French lawyer is easy to caricature. Even more so his inglorious progeny, from the Toblerone-toting Taliban of the cantons who, if their neighbour is mowing the lawn on a Sunday, will call the Police, to the Wee Frees of Her Majesty’s older Kingdom who frown upon fornication - for fear it might lead to dancing.
There is some truth in these exaggerated parodies and the “us and them” dichotomy they betray. For according to Calvinist soteriology, “Some are Born to sweet delight / Some are Born to Endless Night.” This paraphrase by William Blake is a not inaccurate rendition of Calvin’s most famous contribution to Christian doctrine, namely that of “double predestination,” wherein not only are God’s elect already and inevitably predestined for heaven, but the leftover vulgus equally ineluctably for the fires of hell: no feat of ours can modify or mollify the course of God’s Sovereign Will, and there is no “second opinion.”
And yet it is unfair to judge someone’s thought only by what followed it. We need also to look at context and motives. Calvin’s context was one of late mediaeval to early modern ecclesiastical abuses: and his motivation, far from abandoning the faith of the Catholic Church, was to dig deep and rediscover its pristine form. His intellectual oeuvre forms part of a continuous discourse with early mediaeval theologians, particularly Aquinas, and is informed by expansive reading not just of the Bible, but of the Fathers of the Early Church - at least, of those whose texts were available at the time.

Indeed, his doctrine of double predestination is the fruit of his reading of St Augustine. From that great Father of the western Church, Calvin deduced that not only is mankind fallen, but utterly reprobate, the image of God within not just sullied and broken, but completely obliterated, so that we have no merits of our own to rely on, but for salvation must trust in Christ alone, by faith alone, through Scripture alone.

A noble idea - but not without flaws: for it meant subjecting the Holy Scriptures and inherited Tradition of the Church ruthlessly to the Procrustean bed of Calvin’s own devising. This meant, among other things, rejecting Apostolic order in favour of a system of ministry divined from the letters of St Paul, mistranslating words in the Epistle of St James, lopping off the entire Deuterocanon and relegating it to apocryphal status, and (close to the hearts of Lichfield folk) urging the destruction of religious images in churches: in other words, excising from the faith anything which disobligingly failed to live up to the purity of his own doctrinal standards. It must be said that he is not the only theologian to employed such methods. We must also remember that Calvin had at his disposal only a fraction of the patristic texts we have today, and he cannot be blamed for the relative paucity of his sources. Nonetheless, the word ‘alone’ has caused a great deal of subsequent damage in both theology and history, marks of which are still visible on our cathedral's stones.

In the final analysis of the Catholic Church in its widest sense, much of Calvin’s teaching is heresy, as indicated by those parts of it rejected by own church at the Savoy Conference, in reaction to twenty years of Cromwell’s experimental presbyterian dictatorship. The consequent revisions to the Book of Common Prayer led to our current 1662 edition, which remains the authoritative course of doctrine in the English Church, and in this we retained, inter alia and contra Calviniana, the threefold Apostolic ministry of the Church, the commemoration of the Communion of Saints, the use of the Sign of the Cross, the sacramentals of Reconciliation and Confirmation (which Calvin deemed ‘a noted insult to Baptism’). Much of what we regard as essentially Anglican would have been lost had Calvin’s influence endured.

And yet, we would be wise to resist the fashion of judging Calvin only by his failings. Calvin’s contributions to the 16th century debates about justification still resonate today, and his work on Christology is enjoying a renaissance in unexpected theological circles: to the extent that Rowan Williams calls him the greatest theologian of the Reformation. His grasp of the paradox by which God becomes man that man might become God is unmistakably patristic and even Catholic in its tenor. So let us leave him to inspire our faith with some of his own profound words:

“This is the wonderful exchange which, out of his measureless benevolence, [Christ] has made with us; that, becoming Son of man with us, he has made us sons of God with him; that, by his descent to earth, he has prepared an ascent to heaven for us; that, by taking on our mortality, he has conferred his immortality upon us; that, accepting our weakness, he has strengthened us by his power; that, receiving our poverty unto himself, he has transferred his wealth to us; that, taking the weight of our iniquity upon himself (which oppressed us), he has clothed us with righteousness.”

Monday, 30 October 2017

All Hallows school address


To judge by the supermarket shelves, Christmas is well on its way, and when it arrives, I bet that at least one of you will find stuffed in your stocking by some well-meaning distant Aunt one of those “Magic Eye” books from the Works. You know the sort. They’re full of pixelated images that you have to shift about in front of your face and cross your eyes painfully until finally, a sort of Minecraft version of a kangaroo or a pair of cavorting hares emerges from the page in glorious 3D. That’s when you put it down, help yourself to another piece of Terry’s chocolate orange and hope that you haven’t done any permanent damage to your retina - so that you can still watch the Queen’s speech when it comes on the telly.
And some of you will probably get one of those giant posters of Yoda or Darth Vader or R2D2 (or one of the newfangled nonentities I don’t care about) that looks like the character in question from afar but - when you get close up, you realise that it’s actually made up of hundreds of tiny little stills of scenes from the Star Wars films.
Why am I telling you this? Because it’s the end of October. And at the end of October, the Church starts a period of remembrance. Now remember that for the Church, like for the ancient Jews, each new day begins when the sun sets, not when the sun rises. That’s why we celebrate, for example, the first mass of Christmas the night before, on Christmas Eve, and the first mass of Easter at the vigil on Holy Saturday night. So that is why we start to celebrate the feast of All Saints, the 1st of November - also called the feast of All Hallows - the night before, on the 31st of October, or “All Hallows Even,” later shortened to Hallowe’en.
I’ve already moaned about the shops being full of Christmas stuff two months in advance, but I’m amazed at how much the various purveyors of cheap plastic tat are now benefitting from Hallowe’en. Apparently it is becoming the United Kingdom’s second biggest celebration of the year after Christmas. Easter doesn’t get a look in: it seems our people are more interested in dressing up as goblins than in the mysteries of cosmic salvation in the Resurrection of Our Lord and Saviour, but there we go. And I suspect that people have even less of an idea about what Hallowe’en means than they do about Christmas or Easter. It’s all just Dracula, Santa Claus and a bunny with a chocolate egg, I suppose. Perhaps all three combined: a jolly consumerist Trinity for our days.
Well, you can count yourselves among the favoured few who still know something about the ancient religion of our land, because I’ve just told you what All Saints is really about. It’s about those Magic Eye books and Yoda posters. Well, sort of. The saints are those whose lives are so filled with holiness that they surround Christ like a ‘cloud of witnesses’ around him. Take them one by one, and each has some Christ-like quality of his or her own - and no doubt, each has faults and failings, too. But step back from the individuals and look at them all together - perhaps cross your eyes a bit - and you start to perceive one shape emerging from the melange: the shape of Christ. Christ incarnate, Christ crucified, Christ resurrected, Christ as nothing other than self-giving love: one and the same pattern emerges from the lives of the saints who are close to him, and even when we struggle to see the bigger picture, we can still look to them for inspiration and ask for their prayers - which is exactly what we do on All Saints, All Hallows’ day. May God indeed enlighten the eyes of our minds so that we can see what hope his call holds for each of us, as it holds for each and every saint. 

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/)