Never forget: hospitals are holy ground

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One of the many privileges of being a priest is visiting people in hospital, of being allowed to be alongside people at a moment of need.

Hospitals are like large villages, communities in their own right with their own distinctive rhythms of life. They are also places full of stories. Each of those receiving treatment have their own unique story as to why they are here and all that has happened to bring them to this place, at this time. Walking along the corridors the faces of the visitors also tell their own stories – many hurrying, anxious and clearly burdened with worry. Some are visibly crying. Others show relief – there has been good news and the cloud has been lifted.   Then there are staff coming on and going off duty, or hurrying between wards and departments. Each intent on playing their part, doing their best, but each carrying their own story, their own burdens, which they try their best to lay down for a while in order that they can help others.

On each visit to a hospital I find myself for a brief moment caught up in all these stories and have a profound sense that I am walking on holy ground.

Hospitals are sadly often quite invisible to all but those needing to visit them. Increasing they are built on the edges of towns, almost unseen amidst the daily life of town and city. And yet we need to be conscious of their presence.

Hospitals stand as a reminder of the vulnerability of being human. They remind us of part of what it means to be human, a part that we try hard to forget or at least ignore. We are at best only every temporarily able-bodied. Illness and disability are never far from us; indeed they are part of what it means to be human. Illness, pain, anxiety and sorrow are not the result of life gone wrong, they are part of what it means to alive. Death too is an essential companion in the journey of life.

A massive industry is based on helping us resist aging, and with it the unspoken reality of dying. Yet to ignore these realities is to fail to grasp the true nature of what it means to be human. Only by understanding these inevitable realities will we understand the truly precious gift that is life. It is only when we face up to illness, pain, sorrow and anxiety that we will begin to get our priorities right and understand what really matters.

Hospitals are sacred places precisely because they remind us of the true nature of what it means to be human. This is not because hospitals are places of doom and gloom, rather it is because they are places of compassion, care and love. They are places where human beings learn to be honest about themselves and one another, try their very best to help each other and face up to their limitations. They are places where life is known in all its fullness in triumph and in tragedy. Although death is a reality here, life is also experienced in all its rich diversity. And in the encounter between staff and patient, acknowledged or unacknowledged, so often the presence of God is made real.

This year our National Health Service celebrates its 70th birthday. It may not be prefect but we should learn to be profoundly grateful for its existence. Many of us have very personal reasons to be grateful for the skill and dedication of the staff. Our hospitals should not be places hidden away on the edges of towns but rather been seen as places which should be at the very heart of our communities. We need to be regularly reminded of all that they stand for and all they can tell us of the nature of what it means to be human.

If you find yourself walking down the corridor of your local hospital and see any staff hurrying by, smile at them and just simply say “thank you” as they hurry on by. And remember as you walk on your way, you are walking on holy ground, you are in a place, which if you will let it, can tell you the true meaning of being human and give you a proper understanding of the priorities of life.

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To Pride or not to Pride; that is the question.

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I asked them both if they would be willing to help with Christians@Pride. I suspect I knew what their answers would be and sure enough they both declined, and both for the same reason. They, and those they know, have been too hurt by the Church. In all conscience they each tell me, they could not promote an organisation they have each experienced as deeply homophobic.

I both respect and support their decision. They are of course right. Despite all the talk of welcome and inclusion, in the end there is still a big and insurmountable “but” – a road block that shows no sign of going away. A welcome “on our terms” is not really a welcome.  However it is dressed up, to many this just feels like and looks like homophobia.

But despite that I still want there to be a Christian presence at Pride. To not have a presence would feel like a betrayal of God. The Church cannot be allowed to keep a good God down. I want to say loud and clear, what ever message the Church may give out: God loves you and cherishes you for who you are. I want to say to all who are struggling within the Church, and outside it, that there are other voices; officialdom is not the only point of view and many (even a majority?) see it otherwise.

Being there is my small act of protest, and one in which my wonderful daughter, and (hurrah soon to be) daughter-in-law, encourage me to continue. It is one that others at Pride seem to appreciate. The only people who object – and often quite vocally – are other Christians who see us not as the voice of a loving God but as the siren voice of the Devil!

It does not get any easier being an ambassador for the Church. Too much time has to be spent apologising and explaining. The Church really does test those who try to remain loyal. It is all too easy to understand those who give up and walk away. Some of us remain only by the skin of our finger tips.

Those of us who will gather under the banner of Christians@Pride have no illusions about the fineness of the line we are treading. Both to be there and not to be there is to be compromised, but in the end, for us, the only way we can stay in is to stand with those who are out.

Brexit: the unfinished business of the Reformation

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As the debate about leaving the European Community continues, it becomes increasingly  clear this is not an evidence based exercise but a matter of political faith and, as so often with matters of faith, with this comes the worst zealous intolerance.  And all is done  by claiming to know what the people really, really, want – or at least what is in their best interest to want.

Some five hundred years ago, we were playing out a very similar debate with similar levels of intolerance.  For lovers of Hard Brexit read Puritans, those who wanted to overthrow the influence of Brussels – sorry Rome – and ensure a strict Reformation, free of popery, rituals and corrupt clergy.  For Remainers read devoted Catholics, affirming the Pope as the true heir of the Apostle Peter, to whom Jesus had given the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven.

Each claimed to be the upholders of the true faith and each saw in the other the work of the devil.  Each proclaimed their path alone led to Salvation.  Project Fear was as much alive then as now.  Then it was the seizing of lands, arrest, torture and execution, now it is outrageous claims of financial benefit or loss, the threat of movement of people (in or out) and exaggerated statements about our place in the world. And all, as ever, in the supposed name of the will of the people.

In response the Church of England emerged claiming to be both Catholic and Protestant, a typically English compromise, avoiding extremism.  Scotland followed a different path much as they would like to again. Soft Brexit supporters see in this Anglican response  their hope for the future – out of the EU but still fully engaged with Europe; like the CofE offering the best of both worlds. But this time the Brexit Puritans are determined to triumph – leave means leave and no compromise is allowed.

But those longing for a middle (soft) way need to remember that the Anglican settlement was hard-won over hundreds of years with much feuding, violence and bitterness on both sides and played its part eventually in civil war.  It would not be until the mid 1800s that Catholics won emancipation and still to this day the catholic and reformed wings of the Church vie for influence.  Parishes are advertised on the basis of high or low and only two weeks ago a Church Times columnist was complaining of an evangelical takeover.

Whatever deal is or is not struck it is an illusion to think that when we finally leave the European Union the matter will be settled.  The lesson of the Reformation is that our relationship with Europe will continue to haunt our politics for generations to come.

Too many are too entrenched on all sides of this debate.  Only when we can learn to understand none of us hold all the truth, and that those who hold opinions contrary to our own also hold important truth, and there is a genuine desire to come together for the common good, might there be a possibility of finding resolution.

Those who fail to learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat the mistakes of history.  Tragically despite the supposed enlightenment of the 21st century, we seem cast back into the bitterness of a new Reformation, with all its unfinished business promising more hurt than healing.

 

 

 

When Trump visits don’t protest – do something more powerful; ignore him

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Now that it has been announced that President Trump will be visiting Britain, plans are also being put in place for large and loud protests. So much that he has said and done in his brief period as President cries out for protest, but may this achieve the very opposite effect to that intended?

When at some Award event, actors line up to attack Trump or at a Press Dinner speakers tell jokes to belittle the man, he quietly rubs his hands with glee.  He knows that for his supporters such gatherings are all the evidence needed of why it was important to vote Trump and also to ensure he has a second term in office.

The script is that it is the liberal elite doing their usual complaining, not listening to or understanding the real needs of ordinary Americans, especially those who feel too long their views have been overlooked by those in power.

So Trump visits Britain and people protest and the script will be about ungrateful Western countries who don’t appreciate the support American has given.  All of which will confirm the Trump America First policy – it is the needs of America that matter not so-called allies.  The very act of protesting against Trump is more likely to confirm his supporter base in their views and make them more determined to vote him in for a second term of office.

So is there an alternative?

Imagine nobody comes out to protest.  In fact the public decide to complete ignore his visit and the newspapers give it only the very briefest of mention – and no pictures.  The presidential motorcade driving through deserted streets – now that would be a powerful message and a president who craves attention might start to get that message.

Or if that is too much to imagine, then all who do turn out falling silent as the motorcade comes by and turning their backs.  Silent, powerful and an act that would be noticed across the world.

The chances of either of these happening is perhaps nil but the same old, same old will not work.

To satisfy our own need to do something, the protesters will come out and the placards will be waved.  We will have vented our anger and frustration but it will all be sound and fury meaning nothing.  More likely it will affirm both president and supporters that they are right and prove our lack of understanding.  Such protest will be a badge of honour he will wear with pride.

We need to understand the old politics of protest no longer work in the modern age.  Something deeper is need than the shout of “Trump: out, out, out!”  But to unite in ignoring him – now that just might be a protest that was noticed.

What kind of nation do we want to be?

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It has been an uncomfortable time listening to the stories of family members of the Windrush generation who have fallen foul of the latest attempts to tighten up Britain’s immigration policy. It has been heart breaking to hearing stories of employment being denied, medical treatment being refused, and loved ones trapped abroad unable to return to the country that they thought was home. Is this really the country we want to be?

All this is part of the government’s desire to create a “hostile environment” for illegal immigration – a “deport first, ask questions later” approach in order to drive down the immigration figures. Meanwhile the Labour party is being asked to face up to – and deal with – issues of anti-Semitism within its ranks.

But before we use this as another excuse to give our politicians a good kicking, we need to pause and consider our own part in all of this. A major part of the referendum debate was about taking back control of our borders. Meanwhile newspaper headlines regularly have screamed about driving down the levels of immigration. And this was the argument that won the day. But is that the kind of nation we want to be?

As a society we are reaping the seeds we have sown. Where were our voices when those seeds were being sown? As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks reminded us in his recent Thought for the Day on Radio 4: All it takes for evil to flourish is for good people to do nothing Today I see too many good people doing nothing and I am ashamed.

So what kind of nation do we want to be?

Britain is leaving the European Union. It is time to stop replaying the referendum debate and willingly, and with enthusiasm, embrace this new future. What matters now is the kind of country we want to be. Will we choose to embrace the Christian heritage that has shaped this country for the last 2000 years or will we turn our backs on that heritage and become a more inward looking, less caring and more self-focused society?

As we come together to understand our nation’s future role in Europe, and the wider world, this need to be a conversation that embraces more than the usual decision makers. For too long too many people have felt unheard by, and unrepresented by, the main stream political parties (and main stream churches) and so have been willing to be wooed and won by smaller and often more extreme, parties, feeling they are the only ones that are listening. We need to travel into this new future for our nation together, striving for the genuine common good – a future that is good for the many and not just for the few.

Again and again in the Bible, the people of God are told they will be judged by their care for the most vulnerable in their midst. What matters they are told is not the number or size of their sacrifices but whether they have learnt to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with their God. A Christian society can never tolerate creating a “hostile environment” for any members of its community. Whatever future we are to build together it must begin by reaching out to the poor, the forgotten and the neglected.

All the heartache our nation is currently going through over Brexit will have been for nothing if we just continue the same inequalities and injustices that blight our present society. Surely if our Christian heritage is to mean anything then we have to emerge a more generous compassionate and tolerant community or surely there will be nothing great about Britain.

Not in my name: the message of bombs

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We are told it has drawn a line in the sand.  We are told it has sent a clear message.  But what message has our bombing in Syria sent?

We want to say that chemical weapons should never be used.  They are vile weapons but the reality is that the chlorine used in the chemical attack is widely available for numerous legitimate reasons and no amount of bombing will rid Syria of its stocks.  Bombing did not stop them using chlorine bombs before, why will it now?

Chemical weapons are bad but in reacting to their use are we saying that so-called conventional bombing is OK? The intense bombing of civilian areas is always hell whatever the type of weapon.  This has continued daily in a siege that has been degrading and dehumanising. What are we doing about that?

Or was it just to re-enforce the message: West and its allies – good;  Russia and its allies -bad? Was it another chess move in a proxy world war (or warming Cold War)?  It is perhaps worth remembering our history that at key moments in global upheaval Russia has often proved to be our ally.

The bombing mission was undertaken without UN approval and without the approval of our own parliament.  So it is now OK for one country to attack another because they think this is the right thing to do.  How will we feel when other countries practice the same doctrine in the future?  How would we feel if it was us being attacked in this way?

And in a parliamentary democracy should the Prime Minister be able to act in this way or is this just yet one more case of the Executive side-lining parliament?  And if the fear is that parliament would not have supported such an action, how is it right that the Executive does that which parliament does not support?  Is it not exactly this that makes people question the value of our democratic processes or feel alienated from them?

And even if we had the moral and legal authority to act in this way, where is the evidence that such actions actually work?  Bombing did not bring a new beginning for Libya; just new chaos.  Shock and awe did not help us win the peace in Iraq. Airpower gave no lasting legacy in Afghanistan.  Politicians in the West love their superior air power – it enables them to make statements with the minimum risk to their own nation but the truth is they more often than not add fuel to an already out of control fire.  The Syrian government is not bowed and their opposition is not satisfied.

As other nations grow in wealth and power, the West will not always be top dog.  Other nations may decide it is their turn to play at being the world’s police.  If they decide to copy the example we have set, we may not like the results.  The lasting message from this week’s bombing is that, if you have the resources, nations can do whatever they like.

When the poisoning happened in Salisbury we expelled Russian diplomats and they expelled the same number of ours.  When we find ourselves not understanding the actions of a nation do we not need more diplomats not less?  We will never understand one another better by digging into our respective trenches?

We may find the United Nations slow, cumbersome and we fear it is ineffective but rather than bemoaning its shortcomings let us work towards making it more effective and less cumbersome.  Maybe it is time to change the membership of the Security Council and do away with the idea of permanent members.  This original constitution may have helped keep the peace in Europe but has locked all other conflicts into the same unhelpful East v West showdown.  It is time to affirm changing global patterns of power and influence and strive for greater equality between all nations.

These seemingly quick fixes to complicated problems often have long and dangerous legacies.  Whatever other messages this latest bombing campaign has given, one thing is clear, there has to be another way.  It has solved nothing.  The real work of peace making is still waiting to be begun.

 

Reflection for Easter Sunday: Beyond Common Sense

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Mary in the Garden thinks he is the gardener.  She has no expectation of meeting Jesus.  He is dead.  The idea that the person standing beside her is Jesus is beyond sense.  In the same way the two men on the road to Emmaus have no expectation that the stranger could be Jesus.  In both cases it is not a failure to recognise, but minds seeking to process that which is beyond processing ,and so all the mind can do is come up with the best possible alternative.  For Mary it just must be a gardener and for the two travellers it must be a stranger who has somehow managed to avoid all the gossip in Jerusalem.

We may sing with great gusto “The Day of Resurrection” but in truth our minds cannot really imagine it. The imagery offered is all very anthropomorphic but none of it can really do justice to the reality of life beyond death – how can the seed imagine what life will be like when finally it bursts through the soil?  Between seed and plant there may be absolute continuity but the one could not be more different from the other.

So on Easter Sunday what can make sense of that which is beyond sense?

A single frail flicking candle processed into the vast darkness of the cathedral.  It changes the space, it draws the eye but only penetrates a little of the darkness.  It is full of unrealised possibility.

A woman smiling after her confirmation and saying: I have waited 80 years for that.  A sense of excitement and expectation, with the best still to come.

The organ in full thunder, accompanied with drums and brass and the ground shaking beneath my feet.  The sheer physicality of the music in that moment transports me beyond myself, beyond words and opens me to a profound and deep sense of the Other.

My experience of Easter comes in glimpses, individual moments that both reveal and hide something that seems to lie just beyond my senses, even beyond my best imaging.  There is an encounter with a mystery beyond mystery that draws me, fills me with expectation, and takes me beyond all my knowing.

Mole and Rat come closest to speaking for me in their encounter with the Piper of Dawn in The Wind in the Willows:

‘Rat!’ he found breath to whisper, shaking. ‘Are you afraid?’ ‘Afraid?’ murmured the Rat, his eyes shining with unutterable love. ‘Afraid! Of Him? O, never, never! And yet – and yet – O, Mole, I am afraid!’  Then the two animals, crouching to the earth, bowed their heads and did worship.

At Easter I find no need to make sense of it all. Rather my heart finds afresh “the fear of the Lord” – and it is wonderful.  There is only one response possible; to kneel and worship.

Reflection for Holy Saturday; the day when nothing is something.

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Nothing happens today.  Jesus has been buried and the disciples are locked in the upper room. They are fearful for their own lives but more crucially all their hopes have been crushed.  All they have been caught up in for the last three years is gone.  There is nothing left to do but sit and grieve their beloved friend.  Today is a day of nothingness.

But even in nothingness something is happening.  In the Christian tradition Jesus goes to hell, a triumphant descent, bringing salvation to all the righteous who had died since the beginning of the world.  Some have spoken of Jesus meeting Judas, their reconciliation and Judas becoming the first to know the new life in Christ. In the darkness of the tomb something deep is germinating.

And in churches, behind the scene much is happening, as flower arrangers descend and buildings are transformed, dressed ready for the Easter celebration.  There is a sense of quiet excitement.

But we must be careful not to rush to soon away from the nothingness; it is a vital a part of this drama as any of the other days of this holiest of weeks.  There is a danger in the need to be ready for the morrow that it is lost.  Perhaps too we are uncomfortable with just being in the nothingness – we are more content when something is happening but pre-emptying the story runs the risk of missing its meaning.

The truth is much of life is lived in Holy Saturday.  Too often we experience pain, hurt, upset and see no hope, no purpose no resolution.  Like the disciples in the upper room, we feel locked in, cut off from hope and joy crushed.  Well-meant, some want to tell us of hope, resurrection, new life but when you are living in Holy Saturday none of that makes sense and just makes me feel that you do not understand what I am experiencing.

Most helpful are those who will sit silently with you in the darkness, holding your hand perhaps, but not speaking, just content to be there.  In the upper room the shared bereavement, that time of living without hope, is part of what forges the disciples together as a fellowship, is part of what, unknown to them, is preparing them for the unlooked-for new chapter they will need to face together.

Nothingness is something and needs to be valued for the experience that it is, not ignored nor talked away.  Nothingness needs to be valued for itself, uncomfortable although it may be; this discomfort is part of the journey.  It is a dis-service to try to “make it better”.

The deeper mystery is that even in nothingness, when all our foundations are gone and we feel we are in free fall, we are still held.  Although we do not see it, and it can seem as if it is not there, we are still held by a Love that will not let us go – in life, in death, in life beyond death.

A reflection for Good Friday: when there is only one answer

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A small little girl, proud in her pink jacket, walks down the Nave aisle carrying a sharp, and all too real, crown of thorns.  And I find myself wondering why does so small a child need to know of such things?

An older child asks me very directly: Is it true Jesus died of drowning when on the cross?  She has done her research all too well and the answer is a heart wrenching, yes.  And I find myself wondering why a child needs to think about such things?

In the silence we keep at the foot of the cross a toddler cries out, unhappy wanting to be comforted – followed shortly by the giggle of happiness only a toddler can give.  Her  responses echo around the building and feel strangely appropriate.

The truth is whilst we in our churches approach the cross in solemn silence, the original site of crucifixion would have been anything but a place of silence.  It would have been full of raucous laughter, jeering and abuse.  Some might have rushed by with just a sorrowful glance at the suffering on display, others would have stopped for their few moments of sport.  The sheer commonplace nature of the event would have meant others would have just chatted to a passing neighbour or friend, almost oblivious to where they were.  Children would have run in and out of the gathered adults, the signs of suffering just another part of their childhood, toddlers crying and laughing and, children being children, asking question.

Whilst in the privileged West we try to protect our children from such sights, many, too many, children, still grow up in the midst of poverty, violence, war and see things that really no child should have to see, and be faced with realities we would not want our own children to face.

Later the choir move us with their singing of the Reproaches and their final notes are left hanging in the air: Why what have I done to you? Answer me.  There is no real answer as to why we treat people the way we treated Jesus or why still children, and adults, have to live in fear, amidst violence or among the ruins of war.  We know it is wrong yet we seem helpless to change it.  We wring our hands but the suffering goes on.

Is there an answer to all this pain hurt and suffering?  There is only one answer I know although others will think it inadequate, unrealistic or may be too idealistic.  The answer lies with a man who lived a life, 2000 years ago, to show us what God is like, to reveal the depth of divine love that not even death could destroy, who accepted the mocking crown of thorns, and embraced a death, strung up on high, and drowning in his own bodily fluids, rather than deny Love.  This thing that looks too much like failure reveals itself, with a folly the wise will not understand, as victory.

For those wanting a quick sound bite, a ready fix for the world’s ills this scene will not satisfy.  Yet as I kneel in the safety of a cathedral before the cross, I know that somehow here lies the answer, in power made perfect in weakness, in love amidst the pain, in the wholeness that comes from brokenness.  It will take all my life to fully comprehend it yet, half hidden, and almost beyond my grasp, lies the answer the world needs. Not all will understand but this is the Saviour of the World.

 

Reflection for Maundy Thursday: A prism into the Church of England

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As the congregation sung, they entered. A rag, tag and bobtail bunch of humanity, some immaculately dressed and others frankly scruffy, varied of height, girth and hair colour, glasses perched on top of heads, ends of noses and hanging from string, both fleet and stumbling of foot, male and female (and if we are honest some still exploring), faces wrinkled, smooth, made up, bearded and just unshaven.  This beautifully odd bunch in procession are none other than the clergy of the Church of England, gathered to renew their ordination vows.

And God forbid it should ever be otherwise.  This diverse slice of humanity are the true Church of England.  The Church is not Archbishops, Church House, Synods or even Cathedrals.  The heart of the Church of England is its parishes and its idiosyncratic parish clergy, each as different as the places they serve – and their congregations are at their best when they too are as different and as diverse as can be.

May those who long to centralise and standardise the life of the Church always be frustrated.  As Malcolm Guite has so beautiful put it, each of these parish clergy is a micro brewer, taking local ingredients to ferment a brew local to their own patch, reflecting the unique local soil and their own particular shaping.  To the frustration of those who have oversight for the affairs of the Church, these local brews are wildly unpredictable but the strangest brews can slake the local thirst.

And those who gathered around the table with Jesus for the Last Supper were every bit as much a rag, tag and bobtail crew as you are every likely to find sharing food together. Those who follow in their footsteps should be just such a motley crew.

So thank God for the deniers, the betrayers, the doubters and the ones who ran away, the ones who got the wrong end of the stick and did not understand, the ones who hoped for a place at the right hand of God and the ones who are still trying to understand the last parable but one – because this feels like a crew where I might just feel right at home.

And it is for this rag, tag and bobtail bunch that He walked to the cross, and with arms nailed wide, embraced them all.