Choral Evensong; osteopathy for the soul

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Backs take a lot of punishment.  Bad sitting, too much standing, incorrect lifting, all take their toll.  The stresses and strains we carry work their way out in the tension in muscles and joints.  Over the counter gels and pills only go so far in bringing relief yet alone addressing the underlying causes.

So off to the Osteopath – once regarded as rather alternative, now increasingly seen as main stream.  The restorative massage, the careful manipulation, the gentle holding and the body starts to let go, to correct itself and restore balance.

As the Osteopath’s hands move with expertise the length of the spine and amidst the knots of muscle, there is a deep relaxation and a calm seeps through mind and body.  The Osteopath holds the body, gently rocking it side to side and the trust is absolute.  The only warning is a slight movement of the hand as it seeks the exact right place.  Then there is a sudden exertion of pressure and a rapid expelling of breath.  The joint clicks back into alignment, then the quiet rocking of the body continues, slowing until the body is still and the pain has been released.

Souls too take a lot of punishment.  Events that erode our confidence, damage our self-worth and build our guilt.  Mist and murk start to wrap the soul and the guiding light of God shines less brightly.  Mindfulness, mediation and prayer help a little but do not quite clear the fog.

So off to Choral Evensong – once regarded as a normal act, in recent times falling from fashion but now almost becoming alternative and growing in popularity.  A shape of music and words that echoes deep in the memory; calming in its rhythms,  restorative in its familiarity.

Swathes of scripture are heard and sung as psalmody, canticle and anthem wrapping and holding mind and soul safe and secure. Their balm eases the fog and mist that trouble the soul and the spirit relaxes and finds space to breath, lulled by gentle harmonies.  Then, seemingly without warning one chord, one musical chord strikes like lightning and in its spark the soul is illuminated.  In that moment the presence of God is neither felt nor believed but known with utter certainty, the divine light shines with a new brightness, stilling the body and refreshing the soul; a moment of pure undiluted worship.

The moment is often fleeting and impossible to describe and not necessarily to be repeated but it is enough; the divine osteopath has worked their healing touch.  Here amidst the ancient liturgies of the Church, set in prayer-soaked walls, word and music lift the veil to deep mysteries for which the soul with longing waits.

This may not be conventional wisdom, but for the healing of your soul take yourself to Choral Evensong in the setting of one of our great cathedrals.  There let words and music wash over you, let mind and soul relax and unwind and when least looked for or expected the divine healing touch may find your soul too.

Reflections on a small boy standing at the foot of the cross

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It is Good Friday Morning.  We are gathered in the Cathedral and at the foot of the cross.  Before us, beside the cross, are the instruments of the passion, dice, hammer, nails, spear and crown of thorns.  People are sitting on the floor, kneeling or standing.

Amidst our devotions a small two boy pushes his way through to the front.  He gazes at the cross and starts to approach it then turns and looks at all the people gathered around. His gaze moves between cross and crowd uncertain which is the more curious.  His mother looks on anxiously wondering if or when to intervene; her fear that in this solemn moment he will do something inappropriate.  The reverse in fact is the case for he has now become integral to the scene.

At two years of age he is the picture of innocence.  He does not understand the significance of cross and spear nor does he understand why the people have gathered around this strange scene.  For him it is just a matter of curiosity but unknowingly he has become part of the tragedy.  Despite the best efforts of his parents and of this community, this little boy will grow up and discover a world where people hurt and hate, where cruelty can too easily be inflicted on another human being.  There will be no escaping the darker side of life.  This much is certain, his innocence will be crushed.  There will be no protecting him from harsher realities.  Good Friday reminds us of what humanity is capable of; even God’s own dear Son cannot escape that truth.

At two years of age, unknowingly he is part of the tragedy of the scene but he is also part of its fragile hope. This strange object he is looking at, and which has drawn this crowd, is also the symbol of hope, and of love, that we gathered in this crowd pray he will also discover.  As yet, most likely, he has no concept of being beloved of God yet the hope is that he will grow up discovering that truth.  With the best efforts of his parents and this community, it is to be hoped he will be drawn into faith and to an understanding of the significance of this scene and why this day can be called Good Friday.  There is nothing certain about passing on faith; it is at best a parental, and this community’s, ambition.

But all that lies in the future.  Right now he is just two years of age and very curious and for we who are gathered his presence only serves to sharpen the significance of this day, its horror and its hope, the collision of love and hate, of innocence and corruption

Perhaps in his curiosity he will also wander into the Easter Garden and one day spot the footprints in the dew and discover that it is love not death which has the final word.

Footprints in the Dew

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This is one of the most beautiful times in the life of the Church as we journey through the events of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Day. Churches will be holding a wonderful range of services as well as public acts of witness and even passion plays.

There will be Passover Supper shaped Eucharists to draw us into the events of the Last Supper, the Washing of Feet as we remember Jesus’ new commandment that we love one another, and Vigils late into the night as we recall Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. On Good Friday the cross will have central place in many churches as we think of Jesus’ last hours on the cross and preachers will reflect on the final seven words of Jesus. On Holy Saturday many will be busy decorating churches ready for the following day and that night, bonfires will be lit and the first light of Easter will be brought into darkened churches and candidates will be brought forward for baptism and confirmation. Hardy souls will gather for sunrise and think of the first visitors to the tomb. Then as Easter Sunday fully arrives there will be shouts of “Alleluia” and “He is risen” and no doubt a few Easter Egg hunts as well.

These celebrations all seek to draw us deeper in to the events that lie at the very heart of the Christian story. It is the death and resurrection of Jesus that shapes Christianity. One of the very earliest Christian creedal statements was “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again”. This is the distinctive heart of our faith, for us this is nothing less than the salvation of the word.

But for all the richness of the liturgies, for all the wise words of the preachers, for all the joy in the shouts of “Alleluia”, I find myself increasingly wanting to shy away from all these words.

It is silence that engulfs my soul as I watch God’s Son take a towel and kneeling washes his disciples’ feet. I gaze in awe as bread is broken and wine is outpoured and I am commanded to do this in remembrance of Him. My heart silently breaks as I contemplate the loneliness and desolation of the Garden of Gethsemane. I stand rooted to the spot before the cross, unable to meet His gaze. Then a fearsome awe seizes my whole being as I spot the first foot prints in the dew beside the now empty tomb.

So forgive me if I only whisper “He is risen” and appear a little withdrawn amidst all the celebration. As I contemplate all that God has done for me in and through the death and resurrection of Jesus, I instinctively fall silent. I know it will take all my life and more to even begin to truly understand the significance of the events that we will mark in these coming days. Awe, mystery, wonder wrap themselves around me. The wisest words seem inadequate. Instead I am drawn to footsteps in the dew and know – if I can but comprehend it – that here is a truth that changes both me, and the world, for ever.

Sacred Space open to all

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It is 7.10am and it might be expected that, apart from colleagues also gathering for Morning Prayer, I will have the Cathedral to myself.  But each morning either just ahead of or behind me there are others entering the building.  Sometimes the same people but often different; all ages but often younger rather than older.  They come not to join us for the Daily Office but to light a candle or leave a prayer; this is how they choose to start their day.

Worship is the absolute heartbeat of the building.  Unfailingly, each day, every day, Morning Prayer, the sharing of the Eucharist and Evensong – familiar words that echo in and around the building, soaking the walls, scenting the air, permeating the space. It is a pattern that has been repeated for 900 years and that in its faithful repetition has created sacred space.

And into this space visitors enter, some coming deliberately and purposefully, others stumble and find themselves taken unawares.  The dazzle of the lit candles is testimony to the number of prayers/thoughts/desires offered, the written prayers but a small glimpse into all that these pilgrims are carrying.  Yet many more prayers are spoken silently into the space while sitting in a chapel, gazing at a statue, or wandering on floors made uneven by centuries of footprints.   For some of these wayfarers faith will be fully formed but for others it will be a more tender plant or perhaps riddled with doubt and uncertainty.

But where ever they are on the faith journey every visit is a valid visit, every prayer, fully formed or half grasped at, is heard and held by the One who is at the heart of the mystery of this space.  And by our smile, the kindness in our eyes, our words of welcome, the free offering of this space, we seek to affirm these travellers in their personal and private quest.

Whilst we might want to argue that every where is sacred, that God is fully present in all times and in all places, we humans have always sought out thin places which have spoken in deeper more profound ways to us.  And this Cathedral is one such significant place.

Our task as a Cathedral Chapter and a Cathedral Community is to remain faithful and unwavering in our offering of this rhythm of worship, affirming this as sacred space.  First and foremost this is always for the greater glory of God and this is the essence of it sacredness. But beyond that we do not create this space as something for ourselves, something for us to hold onto or even feel we have to protect.  We create this space to gift it to others; it is our offering to this city.

Some will not understand it, a few may mis-use it, but still freely it is offered and many, many embrace the gift.  We may in quiet and unobtrusive ways signpost towards the more that faith can offer, but never in a way that distracts from the significance of the encounter that is already taking place.  In what ever way and for what ever reason, it is enough that they come; this is why we are here.

This is not our space, it does not belong to us. This is sacred space open to all, we are but its guardians. Our welcome must be an echo of God’s welcome, who accepts each of us just as we are.

 

 

Please don’t give up chocolate for Lent

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With a great sense of virtue too many people announce that they are giving up chocolate for Lent, but before you follow in their wake pause and think.

We need to remember that our actions do not stand in isolation – giving up chocolate has consequences for more than just the chocolate eater.  If all Christians were to give up chocolate for Lent imagine the impact on the cocoa growers, the manufacturers and the suppliers.  We forget that a product that may be a luxury to us is the means by which others make their living.  Saying we are giving up chocolate for Lent shows how little we think of the growers and suppliers and their needs.

Don’t give up chocolate but switch to one of the smaller fair-trade suppliers, like Divine or Traidcraft’s More Than range.  And don’t look for it in the supermarket but head to your nearest Oxfam shop or support your local Traidcraft rep.  Instead of giving something up you are making a positive difference .  Suddenly eating chocolate can be an action for a more just and fairer world.  And when Easter comes make sure you are eating a Real Easter Egg.

And in addition to this, is “giving up chocolate” really the most fitting way to mark the great season of Lent?  It may be a big act for a small child to do but for an adult? As we re-call our Lord turning his face towards Jerusalem and so prepare to embrace his death and passion, is the best we can offer is giving up a small piece of confectionary.

As we journey into Lent the challenge is how can we each be a more faithful follower of Christ, how can our lives more fully reflect the values of the Kingdom of God, how can we help the world be more fully shaped to the creators intention.

To give up gossip, cruel words, and hurtful comments now that would be more of a Lenten discipline.  What do I need to give up that, come Easter and beyond, I might be a truer and more faithful disciple – and might that not be a more fitting response to the death and resurrection of our Lord and Saviour.  And more challenging still what do I need to take up to be all that Christ needs of me to be gospel for the world.

In keeping a good and holy Lent chocolate does even begin to cut each  Switch supplier and brand, yes, but keep the comfort food – we are each going to need it as we tackle the challenge of the things we really need to change in our lives.

When I meet the risen Lord in the breaking of the bread I will need to know in my heart that I have tried to make a real and lasting change this Lent.

Dethroning the mythology for a richer vision of marriage

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The Church of England has recently talked much about the sanity of marriage but much that has been said seems to owe more to an idealise, even mythological, view of an institution that in reality is much more diverse than often presented.

In the Old Testament there are examples of polygamy, the use of concubines and of wives discarded.  For much of the history of marriage it has been linked to deals on land and property with the bride just a sweetener in the deal. With the bride veiled looks were unimportant and the wedding ring now worn with such pride was in effect a means of branding a woman to show she was owned.   And often the poorer classes were excluded from the institution altogether.

It is only in the West, and then only in more recent times, that love has been the primary motivator for marriage – most marriage has been about learning to love a partner you might not, given free choice, have chosen to marry.  In the main marriage now comes not at the beginning of a relationship but more as the affirmation of an existing relationship, often after the commitment has been made to a joint mortgage and perhaps before the arrival of children or at least before they go to school.

And for all the vaunting of love there remain offensively high levels of domestic violence whilst we have learnt to accept high level of marital breakdown, playing down the known emotional costs to those involved, including the children, and the wider economic impact on society.  In honouring the significance of marriage there are bigger issues at stake than preserving it as the exclusive realm of one man and one woman.

The Church of England’s own liturgies reflect this evolution.  The Book of Common Prayer speaks of marriage being ordained for the procreation of children and the research does indeed show that a happy marriage remains the best place to bring up children.  Nevertheless we also need to recognise the role of marriage in caring for children born by donor, surrogacy, adoption and the blending of families.  It is better that the alternative preface in Common Worship speaks of marriage as the foundation of family life.

BCP also speaks of a remedy against sin and to avoid fornication.  Given the high levels of marital breakdown, the sexualisation of society and the pollution of pornography this remedy is clearly not all that it might be.  In a more positive vein Common Worship speaks of the joy of the bodily union strengthening the union of hearts and lives.  Sex is something to be celebrated not just contained.

Thirdly BCP speaks of marriage being ordained for mutual society, help and comfort.  This is the gift of God in creation.  Genesis has God saying it is not good for man to be alone.  Our knowledge of genetics shows us that there is also a strong biological driver with man and woman each only carrying half the DNA code for reproduction.  But if genetics shows us LGBTI to be also a gift of creation, why can this also not be accepted as part of God’s purpose?  Why should LGBTI individuals be denied the God-given gift of not being alone?

But it is when we come to the vows, that I believe we come to the real sacramental heart of marriage.  The vows call each party of the marriage to love the other unconditionally, even as God loves us unconditionally.  Marriage is the sacrament of the unconditional love of God.  Those of us blessed to be married know of the struggles to try to love one other human being unconditionally and can only marvel in awe and wonder at a God who loves each and every single one of us unconditionally.  In marriage we are called to be like God towards one other human being; this is indeed a high and sacred calling.

And it is precisely because it is such an honourable, significant and socially stabilising calling that I would want it extended to all couples, regardless of sexuality.  In reading the words of the Common Worship Marriage Service I find nothing that need exclude same-sex couples and much that can only enrich, inform, sustain and, yes, bless, their relationships.

The truth is that the nature of marriage has always evolved, is still evolving, and this wonderful and venerable institution is robust enough to embrace equal marriage for all.

How does a Church grow? #DioGrowthConsult

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This week dioceses from across England and Wales (and even a delegation from Brisbane) gathered for a national consultation on Church Growth and Evangelism.  Three days of wall to wall presentations on new strategies and programs, new visions of ways of being Church and promises of changes of culture and much re-imagining.  If the energy and enthusiasm in the room was anything to go by then the Church, even if facing challenging times, is in good heart.

This was a time to hear of both scary and exciting statistics, of mission action planning on a diocesan scale, of both moving beyond inherited church and of re-invigorating it.  There was talk of fresh expressions, Costa, Messy, Forest, Neighbourhood and Network, of church plants that plant churches that plant churches and of churches becoming greenhouses.  Some have decided to grow young, others that where clergy are fewer more Archdeacons are needed (and there is a good explanation for that) and that the future is lay – or at least non-stipendary.

We were reminded that Britain was not evangelised by Vicars but by religious communities and the parish system was about sustaining the faithful and so not suited to re-evangelising a nation.  We heard of the need to prepare the ground for change and about releasing finances and skills and encouraging rules of life. We were told we needed a change of mind and of heart to change how we do things.

At times it all felt terribly driven, more management speak than gospel, occasionally arrogant, presuming of God’s blessing and judgemental of those not with the programme.  It felt like an activist charter and hinted at a theology and ecclesiology  that drained the spirit from my soul.  It seemed more about placing a heavy yoke upon the laity rather than bringing comfort to the heavy laden.

It was good to hear of local churches resourcing one another and being resourced to resource others and a more co-operative and genuinely collaborative approach to ministry.  Although there was much big thinking we were reminded that satsumas are not failed oranges; small can be beautiful, even best.

I would like to have heard more about the role of Chaplains who have opportunities of meeting people in ways parish clergy never can, whether that be in hospitals, schools, shopping centres, coroners courts or a host of other settings.  Their role in the Church is too often unacknowledged and under resourced.  And following on from the recent Theos report it would have been good to hear more about doing God by doing good and the role of social liturgy – living the gospel, meeting people at their point of need, showing faith in action are the sermons most people understand – walk the walk don’t talk the talk. It is about the fruitfulness of the Church in the world, not just its growth; it is about changing the world not filling the pews.

When the last speaker finally sat down; what did I take away?  In a diverse world we need the modern diversity of expressions of Church, no one approach should be prioritised nor the inherited model be automatically seen as a bust flush.

There is no one perfect way of doing Church; what matters is that which ever way we do it, it should matter.  Whatever path we follow it is about being confident, compassionate and creative. It is about at least doing something and doing it well but also with deep humility.  We are but servants not masters of the future of the Church, not seeking success but to bring honour and glory to God.

In the end the abiding image is that shared of Gromit, in The Wrong Trousers, rapidly laying railway track as he chases the penguin.  For all our proposed strategies, we make the path by walking it. At least we have set out on the journey; God alone knows where it will take us.

gromit

 

 

 

Time for Bishops to learn a Quaker approach; listen to the John Woolman Story

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John Woolman (1720-1772) was a New Jersey Quaker and a tailor by trade.  At his Meeting he and his fellow friends proclaimed the equality of all people whilst their affluence was built on slave labour.

Woolman had a “leading from God” that slavery was a moral abomination and that Quakers should free their slaves.  He shared this at his meeting and whilst there was no doubting his personal integrity many were unwilling to free their slaves.  Since as Quakers they were prohibited from voting and majority rule, they had to keep talking and praying until unity was achieved. They were following the Gamaliel principle: if this leading is of God, nothing we do can stop it; if it is not of God, it will pass away.  The “sense of the Meeting” was divided.

In 1746 Woolman began a ministry which would last twenty years, visiting Meetings of Friends along the East Coast to explore his “leading from God”.  For two decades he lived in the tension between the Quaker belief of “that of God in every person” and the reality of Quaker practice which allowed slavery.  The reception he received varied from meeting to meeting.  Finally after two decades the Quakers reached unity on emancipation.  Quakers became the first religious community in the USA to free their slaves; it would be a long time before the rest of the nation followed their example.

The Shared Conversations undertaken across the Church of England on the subject of human sexuality echo the Quakers’ exploring of Woolman’s leading from God.  But too soon the Bishops have resorted to report and statement.  The Shared Conversations should not have been a one-off event but an on-going and continuing process.  The point of such conversation is that there is no immediate resolution or answer.  This is profoundly uncomfortable but that is precisely the point. We are not yet in a place where we can make a public statement which has any real lasting value or meaning.

The tension needs to be embraced and lived and not parked by yet another report.  The conversations need to continue.  We need to continue talking and praying, talking and praying until one way or another a unity of mind can be reached.  To say this will never happen is to close down the possibilities of the Spirit  For John Woolman it was two decades of conversations before clarity emerged.

There are good and sincere people of integrity on all sides of this debate, none deserve to be over-ridden, excluded or made to feel wrong or lesser beings.  Bishops and others may long for this topic to go away but it will not, we have to live the tension not pretend it is not there.  The Shared Conversation has only just begun; this issue is not going away and we must continue to talk and pray, talk and pray.

John Wooler’s story offers us a challenging but real engagement with discernment, costly, exposing, draining but surely a better way than the modern addiction to reports and statements, which satisfy no one, deepen entrenchment and delay resolution.  The continued repetition of a point by one or by many does not make it right. Rather it will be in deep listening and in genuine openness to learning that the path ahead will be discerned.  We need to stand together at the point of tension and love one another through to resolution.

 

Meryl Streep is right but she still misses the point

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Meryl Streep is a great actor and, judging by her speech at the Golden Globes, she is also a good orator.  I want to applaud her for saying “we need the principled press to hold power to account.  I agree with the Hollywood Foreign Press Association that she is a “class act”.

But for all that she speaks the words I want to hear sadly in the new politics she misses the point.  Trump just has to tweet that she is “overrated” and her message is dismissed and its power is lost.

The Hollywood elite having a go at the politics as represented by Trump just confirms, in this new political order, that they are out of touch and not listening.  The same happens when the political, religious or press elite speak out – their words, however well-meaning, just confirm that they do not get the point.

Those who voted for Trump, and in the UK for Brexit, as well as those who in 2017 may reap similar political shifts in other European countries, are determined that non-establishment voices be heard, that different priorities are given attention, that the over-looked take centre stage.

The old liberal consensus, however much-loved by some of us, has now become a symptom of being out of touch.  When we seek to defend those values, however important we want to claim they are, we just show ourselves out of touch. Until we have shown we are really listening and learning to move in different circles, our defence of those values just seems hollow.

For too long too many have felt overlooked, ignored, undervalued and now they want to play by different rules.  Brexit was the chance to give the British establishment a kicking and Europe was a convenient excuse.  Trump’s significance is simply that he is not like what has gone before.  Perhaps if the Democrats had had the courage to go with Bernie Sanders things might have been different because he too understood that the old order had had its day.

Trump may be brash, his behaviour may not be perfect, his turn of phrase not exactly polished, he may even make mistakes, but if he gives people their jobs back, makes them feel proud of their country again, allow different voices to be heard, then he will be forgiven many things.

Sadly much as I admire Meryl Streep, in the new political order speeches at the Golden Globes will no longer change anything.  The way to a better political order is to build bridges with those communities that have felt too long ignored, to show we are really listening and care honestly about their plight and then show that there is another way.

Looking on with horror as Trump tweets his way to the White House achieves nothing.  It is time to move onto his territory and show he is not the only game in town – others better than Trump can do it differently too.  It is time to get organised but not amidst the glamour of the Golden Globes but in the reality of run down housing estates and decaying factories.

What ever 2017 may bring, it will ask of us more love

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Erich Fried wrote:

It is madness
says reason
It is what it is
says love

It is unhappiness
says caution
It is nothing but pain
says fear
It has no future
says insight
It is what it is
says love

It is ridiculous
says pride
It is foolish
says caution
It is impossible
says experience
It is what it is
says love

(translation by Stuart Hood)

If such words seem too sentimental or over optimistic remember that poet and anti-war campaigner Erich Fried was born in Vienna to Jewish parents but fled Austria for London in 1938 after his father had been beaten to death by the Gestapo.  He did not write these words lightly.

What ever 2017 may bring, who ever comes to power, what ever catastrophes or natural disasters unfold, whether the economy booms or busts, the events the new year brings, welcome or unwelcome, will require only one thing from us – more love.

We may find stirring in us moments of pride, a sense of achievement, growing affection, wells of anger, longing for revenge, a sense of powerlessness, a cloud of despair – what each event, yet to happen, will need of us will be more love. And when we are tired and feel we have nothing left to give, the coming year will still require of us more love.

A baby lying helpless in a manager, a man nailed, arms outstretched, on a tree, a stone rolled back from an empty tomb, each stand to remind us of the unlimited, unconditional nature of God’s love. And in turn each of these three events invite us to echo that love in the lives we lead and to the people we meet.

In the face of all that 2017 may bring this may seem ridiculous, foolish, impossible but it is what it is says Love.  Hearts may be broken but it is most assuredly what the new year will need – more love. Prepare to dig deeper.