The tempting cloak of invisibility is in fact a curse

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Singapore has become the first city to introduce driverless taxis.  “It was like being driven by a ghost” said one of the first users and so we take another step in becoming invisible to one another.

I go to the supermarket and self scan my goods and so make no contact with the checkout staff.  I can pay money into the bank and take it out with never a word to the cashier.  I arrive at the GP surgery and confirm my arrival on the touch screen and the Receptionist is unaware of my arrival.

We are told that all these changes are for our benefit and we can rightly marvel at the technology that makes all these things possible.  They reduce waiting times, are more efficient and economical, but there is another cost – they reduce human contact.

We text and email where once we might have spoken to people.  People walk down the street talking on their phones rejoicing at this new-found freedom to communicate but do not even notice those walking past them.  The headphones surround us in our favourite music, shutting out the human conversations taking place around us. Intentionally or unintentionally we make the people around us invisible.

Taxi drivers can be rude, checkout staff  too busy talking to each other and receptionists can be unhelpful.  Those walking past us can bump into us and the conversations around us can be noisy and intrusive.  But they can also be helpful, chatty, caring and the smile from a stranger can warm the heart on a difficult day.

And that is the wonderful, crazy, frustrating, essential nature of human encounter.  It is not always wonderful, fascinating and perfect but good, bad, indifferent encounters are part of the human experience; they are part of what makes us who we are.  This is part of what it means to be human, to have relationship with one another, to be of help and service to one another, to engage with one another and talk to each other face to face – not just our chosen group but also people we may see only occasionally or even just once in a life time.

The so-called advances in technology that make all these things possible come at a very real cost – the cost of damaging the very nature of being human.  They tempt me away from the possibility of human encounter, they falsely cocoon me in a world shaped by me and peopled only by those I want to meet – and in doing so they make me less of a human being.

I do not want to ride in a driverless taxi not because I fear for my safety but because I fear for my humanity.  Give me a real taxi driver whoever s/he may be, however they behave, whatever their knowledge.  Let me have that wonderful privilege and honour that is meeting another human being.

Please know, you are not upsetting God

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A young man walks into a cathedral.  He is feeling unhappy and distressed.  He has come looking for answers but he is not sure how or why.  He finds himself standing before a large crucifix and beside it is a prayer board.  For a moment he hesitates and then begins to write a prayer.  He writes that he is lonely.  He writes that he is gay.  He writes that he does not want to upset God because God’s happiness is what matters most.  Then he pauses before adding “It hurts”.

The next morning, at the early morning Eucharist, the priest stands at the altar, before him are the prayers left in the cathedral the day before. He starts to offer the prayers that have been written and then comes across the young man’s prayer…and the priest starts to cry.

The priest longs to shout out: How has it come to this?  How have we managed to give the burden of guilt to a young man exploring his sexuality and the idea that he has upset God? When will the Church finally be free to celebrate the wonderful diversity of human gender and sexuality and affirm the possibility of long-term, committed relationships for all?

Trying to remain faithful, the priest continues standing at the altar.  Before him now are placed the bread and wine waiting to be offered, blessed, broken, shared, out-poured.  In response to the young man’s prayer come these symbols of God’s unconditional, undying love.

The service draws to its close, and as the priest leaves the chapel he glances vainly in the direction of the prayer board wishing the young man might still be there.  But he is not. More than anything the priest wants to find him, tell him God loves him whatever his sexuality, that being gay does not upset God and that what would make God truly happy would be him living his life in love and faithfulness to the best of his ability.

As the priest takes off his robes, he cannot forget the hurt captured in that prayer and resolves, in what ever ways he can, to embrace the rainbow and loudly proclaim, in word and deed, God’s love for all.

It is a queer Church that will not bless love

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My daughter has just engaged! Cue much popping of champagne corks and excited talk of plans for the BIG day.

I could not be happier.

They make a wonderful couple and their love for each other and commitment to each other shines out of them and is completely infectious. As a parent it is the most wonderful thing to see your daughter so happy and to have found a life partner to share all her hopes and dreams and to hold her hand when life is dark.

And I could not be angrier.

I will never be allowed to walk my daughter down the aisle.  The Church that I have worked tirelessly for, for over thirty years, rejects my daughter’s love and will not bless her marriage. For all the talk of inclusion, welcome, understanding, fighting homophobia, the brutal reality, that nothing the Church says can mask, is that the Church rejects my daughter and her choice of partner, and for all its weasel words implies my daughter’s love is less, even wrong.  I simply cannot accept that in this matter the Church is reflecting the will of God.

And please do not starting quoting Scripture at me.  I know the oft quoted texts too well but none of them speaks in any way to the committed, dedicated, deep love of my daughter for her partner.  Besides the Bible is not the end of revelation and we are told the Holy Spirit will continue to lead us into all truth.  And do not insult me by saying that I cannot recognise something that is so clearly and obviously of God as the love between my daughter and her partner. Nor is there anything in the Marriage Service, which I know and love so well, that it would not be right, proper and true for them both to publicly affirm.

And if you push me and say what if, in the name of God, I am wrong I reply this:  I think often of the parable of the unjust steward (Luke 16:1-9) who was commended by Jesus.  At Judgement Day I would rather stand before God and answer for being over generous in the name of love and too inclusive than be judged for being mean with love and exclusive in my relationship with others.

And to those who wonder why I stay with a Church that causes such unhappiness, I admit at times it is very hard.  Yet I also know myself to be a fallen individual, and I guess if the Church is made up of other fallen people then it should be no surprise that the Church itself is fallen and falls short – to reject the Church would in some sense be to deny my own fallen nature.  But there can be no denying that the attitude of the Church on this matter hurts, really hurts. It is truly a queer Church that will not bless love.

Come the BIG day, the cold-hearted Church will not be invited, but I know God will be there and will richly bless them.  And as my daughter and her partner say “I do” heaven itself will dance and sing and my heart will leap with joy.

Hurrah for the Olympics but shame about the flags

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The biggest cheer of the evening at Rio2016 Opening Ceremony was for the team of refugees; the one team with no national flag – what mattered was not their nationality but their stories.

The Olympic vision seems more important than ever in a fragile and fractious world.  Sports men and women from all over the world come together to take part.  For a few weeks the divisions and disputes between nations are put aside and the best in their field compete on equal terms.  All that matters is sport; politics ceases to matter – and there really is something for everyone.

The Olympics is my kind of sporting event – a range of sports I would never usually watch have me hooked.  Part of the fascination is discovering sports I have never watched before.

But the one thing that has me reaching for the remote is the raising of the flags and the playing of the national anthems.  Awarding medals is fine but what matters is that you are best in your sport not which country you come from.  It is the individual’s story that fascinates not their national fervour.

For these few weeks men and women come together under the Olympic flag.  All national flags should be laid aside at the stadium doors.  Here people compete as equals, members of the one global village.  Sporting prowess is enough.  The nationalism adds another dimension which is unhelpful, divisive and detracts from the sporting achievement.  The lap of honour is for your achievement not the national flag you feel compelled to wear.  Celebrate not with your national team mates but with your fellow competitors. All too soon this four yearly sporting festival will be over so don’t spend time with the national squad but build friendships with those from other countries.  It is these friendships that matter; the forging of such bonds is the reason for the Olympics – it is what makes the huge price tag worth it.

The legacy we need from each Olympics is not how many medals this or that country won, but the bonds of friendship forged which overcome national boundaries and which in some small way make the world a friendly, safer place.  We need the Olympics to show there is another way for the world to relate to one another – we don’t need it to be an excuse for national ego-trips.  Bring on the sport and forget the flags.

Remember the biggest cheer was for the team that had no flag.

Please don’t stigmatise my Black Dog: let’s be honest about mental health

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If I break my arm, you offer to write your name on the plaster.

If I tell you have cancer you are concerned for me but put your arm around me.

If I tell you I have had a psychotic episode you become fearful and avoid me.

Why does mental health attract such stigma?  This was the focus of two events at Norwich Cathedral this weekend.  We heard of the stigmatising attitude that can occur from those in other fields of medicine, of the wariness of employers, the misunderstanding of friends, alienation in the community and the self-stigma that we can turn upon ourselves.

When the world is dark and days are difficult, stigma makes the journey harder and can make the struggle seem impossible.  When I have a physical illness you still see me not just the illness.  When I am experiencing mental distress, to others my “I” becomes lost behind the illness. I am still here but seemingly this diagnosis makes the real “me” invisible.

Why are we so afeared of mental health issues?  Is it because of our lack of understanding, the limit of our knowledge?  Is it because we struggle when we experience something which is outside of our limited understanding of what is “normal”?  Is it because it leaves us feeling powerless and we find that uncomfortable? Is it because in some way it challenges the sense of our own well-being?

This stigma has to stop; it is an unnecessary additional burden to place upon others but there is also deep frustration as it seems this is a conversation I have been having for 30 plus years and the stigma does not stop.

But this weekend I heard Consultant Psychiatrists determined to make a difference and change the culture, I heard a well-known woman speak honestly and openly about her depression and a retired bishop speak honest of the mistakes the Church has made but also how it can be different.  And above all I saw the Chairs of two Foundation Trusts really listening and wanting to see lasting change. Just words perhaps but at least spoken with passion.

The road ahead is long and complicated and nothing may change overnight, but this weekend alongside the frustration I felt hope.  At least in one cathedral they are talking about it and they know this issue is not going away.

In the face of tragedy and mayhem, I am grateful for the silence of God

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When tragedy strikes, when mayhem is reaped, I can understand those who long for God to intervene, to make it stop, to change the course of events, to heal the hurt, to confront the perpetrator, to enforce justice.

But God is silent.  And to some, perhaps many, this is the proof of God’s absence.  But it is in this silence, I find the presence of God.  The silence reveals something deeper, and stronger than any intervention could ever do.

A small helpless baby is being sick all night and will not be comforted.  The baby is sick so often there are no longer any fresh cot sheets in the house nor any fresh pyjamas. Her favourite bear she wants for comfort lies wet and smelly waiting for its turn in the washing machine.  And her parents take turns to hold and cradle her.  The only possible expression of their boundless love for this smelly, screaming bundle is to take her in their arms and not let go, their tears blending silently with hers.

In the intensive care ward the only sound is the mechanical rhythm of the ventilator and the discordant beeps of the bank of monitors.  The broken body of the young woman lies too still except for the rising and falling of her chest in response to the sound of the ventilator. Sitting each side of the bed her parents each hold one scarred hand.  They smooth it, stroke it and occasionally kiss it.  Love holds them there in that room; the only way they can make their love real is by remaining in this vigil of silent holding.

On the road, amidst the mayhem, a man sits cross-legged beside the body of his loved one so suddenly and unexpectedly mown down.  There is nothing more he can do for this loved one but just to be there, to remain sitting in the road.  His presence, his silent faithfulness, is the only possible expression of his love.

As we struggle and reel in life, as our lives are shattered and our hearts broken, in our bewilderment and confusion, when it feels that the bottom of our world has opened and we are falling, falling, and have no idea where it will end;  in that moment when the sheer impossibility of it all overwhelms us, when we feel lost and utterly alone, even in that moment where all foundations are lost, we are held.  No words, no grand gestures; just held – and it is enough.

The solutions and the consequences, God leaves with us; God respects us, and our freedom, too much to take that away from us but crucially God does not let go.  Alone and abandoned as we may feel, still we are held – Love does not let go.  Love reveals its power not in words or interventions but in its refusal to let go.  On the cross Christ trusts not in the possibility of the intervention of legions of angels, but in the truth deep at the heart of creation, that God never let us go – even when we think God has.

In the face of tragedy and mayhem, I am grateful for the silence of God; a silent holding that does not take the pain away, but maybe, just may be will help me take the next step on this unlooked-for journey.

Moving in new circles: going beyond Bishops’ call for unity

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In the weeks prior to the Referendum, everyone I met spoke in favour of remain and their fears of Brexit.  I did not hear one dissenting voice in the conversations I had.

After the Referendum, almost everyone I met spoke of their shock and disappointment.  Pro Brexit voices were very few and far between.

And yet 52% of the nation voted for Brexit.  As a priest I like to think I meet a good cross-section of people but the truth is that I do not.  I move in limited circles and tend to mix with like-minded people.

There are many (too many) voices which are rarely, if at all, heard in Church circles and within the Church we spend too much time talking to ourselves and rarely consciously seek out voices which are different to our own.  The lesson from recent events is that the Church (as Westminster politics) is becoming quite insular within society; our reach is not what it once was.

Our Bishops have rightly and eloquently spoken of the need for unity but before there can be unity we need to be engaged with those who think and speak differently, who see the world from a different perspective.  Before unity must come deep listening, a learning to see life from a different ( and perhaps uncomfortable) perspective.

Quite simply if I am to be a more effective priest (and a better citizen) then I am going to need to move in different circles

 

Alban: the saint our nation needs right now

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The day before the referendum vote took place, the Church remembered Alban, the first English Christian martyr.  Alban is the patron saint I wish our nation had but even without that title his story still speaks to us and nevermore than following the referendum result.

Alban welcomed the stranger who came knocking on his door for help and took him in.  In the brief time they had together he listened to this stranger and took him seriously.  When the soldiers came hunting for this stranger, Alban let himself be arrested instead.  In the face of the threat of death he remained true and faithful and went bravely to his execution.

There is about Alban’s story a wonderful, almost breath-taking, generosity.  He shows himself open to both the stranger and his views.  Having offered protection to his new-found friend he remains loyal and unwavering.

No matter how we voted on Thursday, or how we feel about the outcome, we now need to show just such generosity to one another, to willingly embrace those who hold views different to our own, to listen to one another and be open to changing our perspective, standing loyal by one another and walking into an unknown future together.

This is not a time for “if only” or “what if”.  We are where we are and it is only in a generous and committed coming together, that we can build a future for our nation of which we can all be proud.  It may not be the future some of us wanted, and for all of us the exact path ahead may be unclear, and at times will no doubt be challenging, but it is only in loyalty and openness one to another that we can find a new and stronger place for our nation in the world.

It will not be easy.  For Alban it cost him his life.  But there is a story that tells us that where where his blood was spilt grew up the first English red rose.  From our present confused plight something new and beautiful can grow.

From a Christian perspective new creation and resurrection are always possible; in this ending there remains hope.

Blessed Alban pray for us.

 

 

Britain; a country ill at ease with itself

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Britain seems to be a country confused about its identity, an identity crisis that runs deeper than whether to leave or remain.

We are told we are the fifth largest economy in the world but with economic cuts and pressure on public services we feel anything but prosperous.  We are proud that the city of London is the financial capital of the world but remain suspicious of those who work in finance and the banks.  Is London’s success something to be proud of?

We are told that our armed forces are some of the best in the world but the recent forays into Iraq and Afghanistan leave us feeling bruised.  And is the cost of trident too high a price to play for a seat at the top table?  Two aircraft carriers but currently without any planes seems the perfect symbol of our uncertainty on the global stage.

We like to see ourselves as a relaxed, welcoming, generous, liberal society who dig deep for Children in Need and Comic Relief but we are wary of migrants and refugees.  Fear easily comes to the fore and hints of racism are not always completely hidden.  We are proud of our welfare system but anxious lest “others” exploit it, suspicious of an “undeserving” poor.  We are proud of the NHS but passive as it is increasingly privatised.

We surprised ourselves by our success in both organising and taking part in the London Olympics but so often on the global sporting stage we seem hesitant and inconsistent and never more so in the game we invented, football.  We boast big team names, but little success in Europe and we cannot forever keeping talking of 1966.

We claim to be proud to be British but the Union has never felt so fragile.  We promote the devolution of power but our anxious about our different nations gaining independence.  We say we want to be together but often act separately, focusing on our differences, struggling to affirm the common good preferring to affirm individual rights.

And the Church, perhaps because it is the Church of England, seems equally confused.  Does it want to be the focus of the nations diffused and unfocused spirituality or does it want to focus on mission and evangelism, banging the drum of faith and “being different”?

Leave or Remain we lack a clear vision of the kind of nation we want to be and come 24th June that will not have changed except that our divisions will be more obvious.  We will always be part of Europe and yet feeling slightly set apart.  We will cast around for a global role but still need partners and be uncertain who they should be and dream of more than we can achieve.  We will remain a proud people but unsure who we want to share these lands with.  We will strut our stuff on the global stage, uncertain of the part we will play and worried that others will take the leading roles.

In or out will not answer the deeper more important question.  Until we can unite around the kind of nation we want to be, until we can understand our own national identity, we will not truly know if we need to leave or remain.  The only thing that is becoming ever clearer is our confusion.

A referendum is poor democracy

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The offer of a referendum is often portrayed as the best kind of democracy as it puts the decision directly into the hands of the people.  It gives the people their voice and lets them decide.  Instead the very opposite is often the case and we are discovering a referendum often decides nothing. A referendum is actually the sign of a impoverished democracy.

Last year’s Scottish referendum result has not made the issue of independence go away.  Rather at some, yet to be agreed, it seems almost certain there will be another referendum.  Already some Brexit supporters have said that if the vote goes narrowly against them they will campaign for a second referendum.   June 23rd may well resolve nothing.

Mature democracy is not about dictatorship about by the majority.  It is about seeking a consensus, valuing a diversity of views, honouring minority opinions.  The present referendum is a reflection of the failure of our democratic process to build a strong coalition of views for the good of the nation.

Instead we are seduced into believing that a major issue can be reduced to a simple binary decision: in/out.  From BBC Radio 4 Today programme to the tabloid newspapers all major issues are too often reduced to a binary format: right/wrong, good/bad, left/right etc.  There is no room for subtlety of thought.

In reality the world is more complicated than this.  Even a seemingly apparent binary topic such as gender we are discovery has more diversity than simple statements about male/female and requires a more subtle and open conversation.

The Christian tradition has long understood the need to move beyond binary thinking.  A Trinitarian God affirms the need for a diversity of experience and understanding in even beginning to comprehend divinity.  We are offered four gospels of Jesus, not one authorised biography, recognising that it is only in the interplay and Matthew, Mark, Luke and John might we begin to fully comprehend who Jesus really is.  Jesus selects twelve disciples, not all rooted in the rabbinic tradition but from diverse backgrounds and with distinctive approached to life, placing right at the beginning of this new religious movement the certainly that the good news will be passed on in diverse ways and with diverse experiences.

In the modern era the Church of England has very near torn itself asunder by slipping into binary thinking over human sexuality and in particular equal marriage, echoing in its synods the worst of the Westminster Punch and Judy show.  But the discovery of the “shared conversation” process has offered a new way of exploring together, listening and learning from one another that moves the conversations beyond a brutal binary right/wrong approach.  Maybe in this experience the Church has something to offer to the nation at a time of division.

Whatever happens on 23rd June, the real task for our nation will only just be beginning.  How do we learn to live well together amidst our diversity and differences? How do we heal the bitterness and build a shared future?  The answer will lie not in another referendum but in a more mature democracy built not on simplistic binary choices but the valuing and holding together in creative tension of many and diverse voices.