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.

Christmas offers a different way to look at the world

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Sheenagh Pugh puts it this way:

Sometimes things don’t go, after all,
from bad to worse. Some years, muscadel
faces down frost; green thrives; the crops don’t fail,
sometimes a man aims high, and all goes well.

A people sometimes will step back from war;
elect an honest man, decide they care
enough, that they can’t leave some stranger poor.
Some men become what they were born for.

Sometimes our best efforts do not go
amiss, sometimes we do as we meant to.
The sun will sometimes melt a field of sorrow
that seemed hard frozen: may it happen for you.

And at Christmas we dare to add that sometimes Virgins are with child by God, husbands do remain loyal, innkeepers can be kind and a stable can be enough.

Sometimes both shepherds and Wise Magi do get it right, Angels cannot help but sing in the sky and God does appear in human form.

Above all sometimes the birth of one baby really does change the world.

At Christmas be open to the art of the possible, to seeing the world in a different way, to holding onto hope in the midst of the darkness.

The Arab Spring that became the West’s Winter

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When the first signs of the Arab Spring dawned, the West smiled knowingly.  Democracy and the voice of the people would always triumph.  The Velvet Revolution that saw the Soviet Empire rolled back from Eastern Europe proved peaceful transition was possible.

Tunisia changed and all seemed hopeful.  The people gathered in Cairo, the military dictatorship fell (hurrah! – albeit that he was once the West’s friend).  A free election followed (more cheers) and the Muslim Brotherhood came to power (boo! – it must have been rigged).  More street protests and the army returned to power, less gentle than before.  A once stable nation suddenly felt less safe and our friendship less assured.

Perhaps a little help was required to ensure Spring was sprung.  Bombs fell and Libya was free of dictatorship.  The British and French leaders were treated as heroes – and then the nation fell apart.  Once again the West had intervened, brought about change and had no real plan for what would happen next.

The lesson unlearned, when popular protest emerged in Syria surely Spring was really here.  This time a rather half-hearted shaking of the tree in the hope Assad would fall but there was no united opposition and other regional powers started to vie for power.

Bloodshed and chaos followed, the West looked helplessly on while Russia took centre stage.  Meanwhile millions were displaced and most decided to flee to Europe.  The West had vaunted itself as the beacon on democracy but did not want this kind of attention.

The Arab Summer never came but the West’s Winter had arrived. Europe’s proud boast of freedom of movement suddenly became half-hearted and borders were once again fortified.  The community of nations suddenly became more nationalistic, right-wing parties started to prosper and in the cold winds of change the West has started to shiver.

The West’s arrogant belief that it could interfere in other countries in the name of democracy and capitalism has rebounded upon itself.  The hope of Spring has been long forgotten and Winter has set in – the kind of Winter where it always snows and Christmas never comes.  Despite Brexit, Trump and the political changes which 2017 threatens, the West seems to have still not learned its lesson – it no longer has the authority to strut its stuff on the world’s stage.  Spring will only return when we recognise and adjust to a changing world order.  It is no longer all about us.

Time to jump off the discipleship bandwagon and become the Church for England again

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Where ever you go in the Church of England at the moment it seems someone will want to talk to you about discipleship.  We are urged to grow in discipleship, grow more disciples and get involved in discipleship courses.  The “D” word is everywhere and no church meeting is seemingly complete without it.

It seems such an obvious and good thing.  To speak against it would be as strange as being critical of motherhood and apple pie.  But discipleship was not always on everyone’s lips and perhaps there were good and valid reasons for that.

The present emphasis on discipleship can come across as a recruitment drive by any other name, drawing people into membership of a religious organisation yet the Church of England has never been a members organisation.  This change of emphasis runs the risk of the Church retreating into a religious sphere instead being engaged in the very warp and weft of society.

The call to grow in discipleship must be careful not to imply the judgement of a religious elite that others need to be “better” disciples; that their existing faith is somehow inadequate or insufficient.  It can even run the risk of suggesting clergy “good”, laity “bad”.  Or perhaps growing in discipleship is another way of saying we don’t have enough clergy so let’s get the laity doing more.

The emphasis on discipleship courses also suggests a loss of faith in our liturgies, that worship cannot make disciples only courses can.  Are we formed in our faith on our knees or in the lecture hall?  Worship at its bests, feeds us, shapes us and moulds us.  We gather to have the Word of God broken open before us, we share in the very Body and Blood of our Saviour, dying to sin and rising to new life to be sent out in the cause of the Kingdom.  What could be more discipleship forming than that?

And to busy and burdened members of congregations we demand that they must attend more and do more, ignoring the discipleship they are already living out daily.  In their places of work, caring for mum with dementia, supporting an over-worked partner, trying to love wayward children, helping their struggling neighbour, they are already living out their discipleship.  When they come to Church they come for rest and refreshment not to be made to feel guilty because they are not growing in discipleship.

The point of the Church of England is to be the Church for England, to be there for the people in their moments of need, to be a gift to them and not a demand upon them. When we are engaged with people’s lives, when they see we care, when they notice the difference we make, then they are more likely to want to know more and the faith conversation can begin.  It begins with relationships and not a course on discipleship, with the pastoral and not the missional.

In the Lord’s Prayer, “Thy Kingdom Come” is not a call to evangelism but a call to build a more just and equitable world, it is about our engagement with unjust structures and the overcoming of the inequalities that blight society.  When the Church is seen as making the community a better place then disciples will not need to be called they will want to come.

 

Trump will be the next President of the USA – that is democracy so deal with it!

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In every General Election and Local Election I have ever voted in the candidate of my choice did not get elected. And this is the reality of democracy.  Often the people you support do not get in and the people you did not want to get in, do. Currently there is no political party that I feel I could support wholeheartedly and if there is an early General Election I have no idea who I would vote for.

Despite all of this I do not feel disenfranchised.  Frustrated and disappointed yes, but at least I had the chance to vote. I would rather live in a democracy where I never get what I voted for than live under a dictator.  Democracy is far from perfect but it is better than any of the other options.

There was nothing about Donald Trump that I liked.  Much that he said caused me grave concern yet alone the way he actually chose to say it.  Everything I have read and heard makes me feel he is far from suited to be the President of one of the most powerful countries on the planet.  But in the end he was the man elected to office and no amount of protestors saying “not my president” can or should change that.

Once again the political and media establishment express shock and surprise at the result but this only confirms how distant they have become from ordinary voters.  As with Brexit too many people feel they have been overlooked and ignored for too long.  They experience life very differently from the traditional Washington/Westminster bubble.

The issue is not whether you approve or disapprove of the election of Donald Trump (he has been elected so we have to deal with it) rather the issue is what is the result trying to tell us and how will we ensure in future that the overlooked are seen and the ignored given proper attention.

When the politicians you do not want are elected and policies are adopted that you feel certain are wrong there is only one response – love more.  Tempting as it is to head for the barricades, the lasting answer is the reach out, build bridges, to listen, to seek to understand or, simply put, to love more. Where love really counts is where life is not going well and the people around me are not my kind of people.

The shocking gospel message is that Donald Trump is beloved of God.  It does not mean I have to approve all he says and does but it does change how I respond to him.

There is a new reality here, like it or not, which I have to learn to live with.  Moaning or silently shaking my head achieves nothing.