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.

 

 

 

The Appeal of the Poppy: what to wear and why

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When FIFA made their decision that the players at the Scotland v England football match on 11th November could not wear the poppy symbol on their football shirts, they showed their complete failure to understand British culture. The poppy is neither a political nor a national symbol. It is quite simply an Act of Remembrance; it is an honouring of the dead of the two World Wars and those of more recent conflicts. It does not seek to make a political point nor is it an expression of nationalism. Other countries may not wear poppies but it is our way of giving honour the dead of wars and FIFA should respect this.

In some ways it is strange how the further we have moved from the two World Wars the more the poppy is worn. Far from dying out with the passing of time, the poppy seems to have become even more central to our culture. There can be no doubting that more recently conflicts have brought home the sacrifice paid by our soldiers and helped the poppy to have renewed significance for our own age.

And now poppies come in every size, form and style from the glitzy to the hand knitted as well as those from reclaimed ammunitions.   I do not doubt for one minute the sincerity of the wearers and I hope the Royal British Legion are benefiting from the funds raised by these different styles of poppies: the money raised is vital to support work with injured service men and women and the families of those killed in action. Nevertheless I am left uncomfortable as the poppy seems to become more a fashion icon with the ever-growing range of poppy merchandise.

The Poppy Appeal could do well to learn a lesson from the Church. We have watched as the Cross, our most treasured symbol, has become just another fashion accessory, worn without reference to its true meaning and significance. A symbol of profound suffering and life-changing love has become just another broach, one more necklace lying in the jewellery box. In the very over familiarity with this symbol it has become empty of its true meaning. As the poppy becomes accessorised it runs the same danger of becoming empty of its true meaning.

It is for this reason I still favour the original paper poppy. It is fragile, easily damaged and all too easy to lose. And in that it is like the real poppy growing in the mud of Flanders; a ray of colour amidst the bleakness of the mud, too easily trampled underfoot, one strong wind and the petals fall to the ground soon to be lost from sight. It is this that makes the poppy such a poignant symbol of the horror of war.

Amidst the destruction of the battlefield, this flower alone seemed to survive; its flowering a symbol of hope amidst the slaughter. Its blood red echoes the sacrifice of lives and its fragility reflecting the fragility of human life in face of terrible onslaught. And yes each year I find myself needing to buy several poppies as they fall from my coat or jacket and get lost but when this happens I remember how easy it is for memories to be dropped, to pass out of memory and how important it is to return again and again to remember.

At 11am on the 11th of the 11th month, I will stand still and it is whilst gazing at the simplicity and fragility of the traditional paper poppy that I find myself taken to that place where I most need to remember. It has about it an honesty that in its yearly wearing makes me deeply thankful, and demands that I do not just stop and remember but also dedicate myself afresh to the cause of peace.

Three words that silenced the soul: I Daniel Blake

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As Daniel Blake’s funeral drew to its close, and the film credits started to roll, there was silence all around us in the cinema.  There was none of the usual post-film chatter.  People were slow to leave and as they did they gathered up their possessions silently.  What words were appropriate after gazing into this mirror held up to this too easily forgotten image of Britain today.

The one ray of hope in an all too stark landscape was the kindness of the food bank staff.  But the queue outside the food bank was a reminder of how small and frail this one ray of hope was in a sea of misery.  And the depth of the need being addressed was powerfully brought home by Katie taking a tin of baked beans from her “shopping” and immediately opening them and starting to secretly eat the contents – driven by raw hunger.

And how should one respond on leaving the cinema?  Yes we will continue to support our local food bank but that seems a poor and inadequate response.

Walking back through the streets, passed the all too familiar figures huddled into doorways, there is an awareness that the silence after the feel was masking a quiet but very real anger.

Anger at the way food banks have become so quickly a normal part of society and that we feel no shame at the need for their existence.  Anger at the way some exploit the poor and vulnerable as we watch Katie being drawn into prostitution.  Anger looking for someone to blame.

Anger at the Job Centre staff and their petty rules, inaccessible forms, Kafkaesque systems and robot like approach.  But in truth are they not as much victims of this approach to welfare given rules, targets, contracts that mean they have no alternative but to deny their humanity and not letting themselves be pulled to right or left knowing that if they do chaos beckons?

So anger then at their political masters who praise the value of austerity from the midst of their comfortable lives and seem to provide protection for some in the economy but not others and who themselves seem to pass unscathed from the consequences of the policies they watch over. And anger at Her majesty’s Opposition for failing to offer a more effective challenge and the vision of a real alternative.

Each of the above must in some way take responsibility for the plight of the poor and excluded in our land, as portrayed in the film I Daniel Blake, but I know in my heart of hearts it does not stop there.  I know that the stilling of my soul at the end of the film was something more personal.

Whether or not Ken Loach has exaggerated or spun the truth portrayed, I recognise that the way I live my life, the circles I move in, all mean there are significant parts of life in present Britain that I avoid or choose not to see.  For all my claim to social engagement and talk of justice and equality, I remain untouched by other people’s realities; too protected by my own comfortable life.

Ken Loach achieved something the Church often fails to do; he helped make the comfortable uncomfortable and in that is the beginning of the possibility of change.

 

 

 

Slow worship: the essential antidote to a busy life

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The words of the Magnificat weave, re-weave and weave again around the cathedral; the word’s of Mary’s Song are sung, echoed and repeated until the soul of the listener is wrapped in staves of music awakening, refreshing and sustaining the soul with each new note.

In the setting of Choral Evensong the music takes the long way around, the psalms are many and the readings substantial.  In the main the worshipper responds in silence, absorbing not participating, following a particular phrase or musical chord where ever it takes the heart and mind of the listener.  The particular content may be lost as the experience washes over those gathered.  All that matters is to be there, no need to be religious, just be present.  How you engage, what world view you bring, your faith, questions, uncertainties matter not; it is enough that you have come.

In the world of the soundbite, the 140character tweet, and the promise of an advert break after no more than 15minutes, this experience is profoundly countercultural and its sheer rarity is why it is so special.  In the midst of the busy-ness of life to stand, to sit, to kneel, and be caught in something so different and beyond the normal everyday is to be given a glimpse of another way, a different possibility.

The mind starts to cease its turnings, breathing becomes slower and deeper, the heart beat returns from its racing.  When the echo of the final Amen fades amidst the ancient, prayer-soaked walls, problems have not gone away, but life is more centred and the next step seems more possible.

Some may long for something, shorter and snappier and more participatory.  That may be more culturally attuned but that only seeks to confirm not challenge the mantra of busy, trapping us again in our doing and not our being.

As others have discovered the virtue of slow food and slow towns, to this cathedrals offer slow worship.  By discovering the value of slow, deeper connections are made and a different rhythm calms, heals and restores.  Slow worship allows the soul to stop and stare – in that moment of stopping is opened up the possibility of wonder and mystery, an essential pause that adds perspective and proportion.

To the busy and time pressured, the cathedral offers slow worship with its gift of, yes catching up with ourselves, but more important still, catching up with God and all the possibilities that can bring.

Don’t hurry by, stop and come in and taste slow.

When the God of Choice reigns over a world without Down’s Syndrome we are all the poorer

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Sally Phillips explores in her recent BBC documentary the possibility of a world without Down’s Syndrome in the face of new, less intrusive and more accurate screening.  At each turn her desire for a more positive attitude to Down’s Syndrome was trumped by the mother’s right to choose.  Even Sally accepted that mother’s should have a choice.

Choice is an essential human right.  To be so poor or to live in a totalitarian regime where there is no choice is rightly seen as dehumanising.  The freedom to choose is a good thing but in Iceland the freedom to choose means 100% of women decide to terminate an embryo diagnosed with Down’s Syndrome.

With advances in our understanding of the human genome and improved screening, we will soon be able to terminate embryos with a wide range of conditions.  Why would a mother make a choice to proceed with a pregnancy knowing her child might face significant impairment or be at risk in the future of a debilitating disease?

As long as the argument is framed in terms of choice then mothers such as Sally Phillips will be a lone voice.  But in the end is this just a matter of choice?  When we are deciding who may or may not be born this is not about choice; it is something much more profound.  To reduce everything to an individual’s right to choose is to diminish the nature of human experience.  It reduces life itself to a series of impoverished binary choices of good v. bad, right v. wrong, and most worryingly normal v. abnormal.  The human experience is infinitely more complicated and multi-layered than these simplistic binary choices imply.

This is not for one moment to lessen the very real challenges of bring up a child with Down’s Syndrome but equally it is to affirm that I for one know my life would be the poorer if it were not for the friendships I have shared with young adults with Down’s Syndrome.

There are no quick easy answers here but to silence the voice of Sally Phillips on the altar of choice is to do us all a dis-service.  We owe each other better than that.  There is a deeper conversation to be had about what it means to be human and the recognition that choice is not the beginning and end of human dignity.  There are many voices that need to be heard in this conversation, not least the voice of those with Down’s Syndrome.

Without diminishing one once of the complexities to be addressed, for me the world felt a better place as I watch Sally Phillips join in with the Down’s Flash Mob dance in an undisclosed shopping centre – after one hour of difficult viewing my heart finally danced.

Running Wild in Holy Space

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It is 8.30pm and Norwich Cathedral is glowing in unfamiliar colours of red, gold, green, purple and blue.  250 people are locked in the building, the Dean has welcomed us, the Bishop has blessed us and the Lord Mayor has just launched a giant inflatable ball over a sea of up-stretched hands.

Nothing could be in starker contrast to the solemnity and glory of the Liturgy that is usually celebrated in this glorious space, with the voices of the choir soaring heavenward.  And was our Founder, Herbert de Losinga, turning in his grave?

Norwich Cathedral is a big place.  Its vastness hints at the greatness of the God to whose glory it is built but its size also echoes the breadth of God’s embrace.  This space is able to take under the shadow of its wing the widest range of human experience; within these ancient walls all of life, in all its many dimensions, can be safely held.

Underneath the Reliquary Arch a lone tent and dirty blanket sits in the coldness of a hazy blue light and reminds those locked in the safety of the Cathedral of those homeless on the streets.  Where for hundreds of years Bishops have entered the Cathedral hangs a washing line of painted pillowcases, each decorated with images of home.  In the Bauchon Chapel our Lady of Pity looks down on young people playing “Shelter from the Storm’, a simulation game about natural disasters.  Through the South Transept snakes a queue for the Café where hot dogs have just gone on sale – no matter how late the hour food brings comfort.  In the Cloisters gladiators do mock battle on a giant inflatable, the passing hours not dimming youthful energy levels.  In the Locutory, where once Monks were permitted to speak to each other, a Skype link unites us with young people in Brazil.  Beneath the great West Doors, safely caged, twelves hours of non stop, two against two, football keeps the competitive spirit alive whilst in the Nave Sanctuary Guvna B raps his stuff and hands are lifted high in praise.

And in the relative stillness of the Presbytery lies a UV lit bed, its pillow a tv monitor showing the face of a child sleeping.  And on the bed’s white sheet young people write their prayers and one prayer stands out: “Thank you for letting us run wild in this holy space”.

Set against the backdrop of the daily rhythm of worship to which this building is most familiar all this activity might at first glance seem like “running wild”. But in these 12hours together we brought the whole of our lives before the presence of God and affirmed the presence of the sacred in every aspect of our lives.  Eating, sleeping, dancing, kneeling, playing, painting, talking, singing, in the loudness and in the silence, God was known, affirmed and worshipped.

Looking and sounding as it has perhaps never before, for this one night the Cathedral was, as one mum put it, strewn with living, sleeping young people alongside the effigies of the ‘sleeping’ saints.  For one night the Cathedral became their shared home, and as the young people were were allowed to “run wild in this holy place” may be, just may be, they began to understand that this ancient shelter house of prayer is also for them too.  And perhaps Herbert was quietly smiling, rejoicing to see his building so full of life and being so loved.

 

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.