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Posted in art, coronavirus, Fragments

Fragments on Fragments: being human in a pandemic

Over this last year and more, all our lives have been shaken up in unpredictable and often painful ways.

This book brings together the reflections written by Jonathan during the pandemic (and published on this blog), with Alison’s ‘Broken Beauty’ art work, originally exhibited as a reflection on the terrorist attack at London Bridge in 2017. We hope you will enjoy the conversation between words and images.

If you’d like a copy, you can find it here

Posted in Church of England, coronavirus

Treasure in alabaster jars

And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that Jesus was eating in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment. She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment. (Luke 7:37-38)

Christian faith is not supposed to be polite. Many centuries of effort in the church have tried to eradicate from it the truly radical nature of faith, but it can’t be wiped out altogether: by the grace of God’s Spirit it keeps on bubbling back. In particular as we slowly, hesitantly and eventually emerge from the coronavirus pandemic, it’s time for the us in the Church of England to stop imagining that religion is just ordinary life with a few added morals.

Individually and as a community, we have come through trauma over this last year and a half, and it hasn’t gone away yet. Part of our natural human reaction is to try to forget about it, to get back to “normal”, and ignore those who ”keep on going on about it”. But trauma doesn’t go away like that, it just gets buried – but it’s still there, like an inner zombie gnawing away at us. As a society we need time to weep, to mourn and to tell the stories of our pandemic experiences. Some of us will have experienced personal tragedies of illness and bereavement. All of us have been part of a national and global crisis on a scale that few have experienced.

The church’s role now is not to paper over the cracks and try to make everything normal again. Quite the opposite: we need to be those who allow the wounds in our society to heal properly, from the inside out, gradually regrowing healthy tissue. We should not be concerned about our reputation, or respectability, but with the realities which it is difficult to acknowledge.

Our job as the people of God is to move beyond politeness into reality, to step out of the myth of self-sufficiency and to admit the utter dependence on the grace of God which is the condition of all Christian life. That is the deep truth which has always been there at the heart of the church: but it has also often been a deeply hidden truth. The mission of the church in this time is to open up its treasure of grace and to pour it away in vulnerability, so that our sins and brokenness may also be healed and forgiven, and we may go in peace.

Posted in Church of England, climate change, politics

The End of Moderation

Today – you may not know this – is the World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation, and the beginning of the season in the church when we are asked to give special attention to the Creation of which we are part, and which we have as a species failed so spectacularly to look after. It is perhaps symptomatic of our continuing ignorance that I didn’t know until I started to write this post that the World Day of Prayer for Creation even existed, let alone when it was. Like so many other worthy things that people ask the church to remember, the idea that there was a season of creation around now was there in the back of my mind, but never centre stage.

This year, that needs to end. Caring for our common home has to move to the front of our list of concerns, because if it doesn’t we may not have one. We are now at crisis point: in the very literal sense of the word crisis. Krisis in New Testament Greek does not mean ‘impending disaster’ – it means ‘judgement’. We are now at the time of judgement in relation to our planet and its future. The time for lengthy discussion and moderate action was a generation ago, and collectively we did nothing – or so very little that it has left us still looking at disastrous changes to our planet. The need for action is as urgent and as great as it was when the coronavirus epidemic began to spread. Over the last few years the strategy originally developed by tobacco companies has been used very effectively: the 3 D’s of deny, delay and deflect. Climate change is now becoming undeniable, but the dragging of corporate and government feet, and the reluctance of us as citizens and consumers to actually change our lives, continues to delay real change. And if all else fails there’s always the final tactic, of trying to get us to think about something more palatable or entertaining.

For the churches and for us as Christians, this is not some side issue: this is about God’s judgement on us as disciples. The excuses are gone, the argument is over: if we are to take seriously the mandate of creation, to be stewards of God’s creation, we have to act, and we have to act now. It will be costly, and complicated, and messy – but we have no alternative. The church’s purpose in existence is to live out and call others into the life of conversion: to join in with God’s purposes of love for the world. At this present time, that joining in with the mission of God calls us to be converted from our destruction of creation in order to restore and care for it.

It may feel to you – it certainly feels to me – as if this is yet another emergency when we’ve had quite enough. Sadly emergencies don’t form an orderly queue or wait until you’re feeling strong enough to deal with them. By definition, they have to be responded to right now. But for us as Christians there is always also hope, and even joy, to be had when we are doing the thing which is God’s will for us. Caring for creation is also caring for ourselves: we are a part of that whole ecology of which we are stewards. In focusing again on this calling, we are also focusing on our own wellbeing. One of the paradoxes of the ongoing process of conversion is that when we allow God’s Spirit to be at work in us, painful as it may be, the new life that opens up for us is more joyful, more fulfilling, and most of the time just happier than the life we were living. Even neuroscientists are catching up with the fact that acting with kindness makes people feel better – well, who knew? Caring for our world is not a chore or a penance, but an invitation to joy, an invitation to be part of the original purpose of our creation. Remember, the command to be stewards of creation came before Adam and Eve ate the unfortunate apple. It was what they were to do in Eden, in the world as God wanted it to be. It’s rooted in our humanity, deeper than our DNA.

Caring for creation is mission; it is witness to the difference that Christian faith makes; it is conversion to the way of Jesus Christ. As we begin, however slowly and tentatively, and still carrying levels of exhaustion, to emerge from the pandemic, now is the moment to think about how the church will look in the years to come. The strapline for the Church of England’s national initiative is that we should be ‘simpler, humbler and bolder’. I think those are the right words – as long as they are held in combination, each qualifying the others. And a key part of being bolder, I believe, will be having the courage to recognise where we must speak and act. The Church of England has an honourable history of not wanting to exclude any who disagree, the downside of which can be a paralysing inability to take a position on anything except the most anodyne of issues. We need to move that balance, and recognise that in some things moderation is not a virtue – in fact it is a sin.

The future of the church, if it is to have one, is in the renewal of parishes as communities of action, as the conscience of their locality, as leaders in witnessing for a changed society. I have focused here on climate change: if only that were the only issue that requires our attention. Don’t let it be thought that I’m ignoring the needs of the world’s poor, of refugees and asylum seekers like those we have seen desperate to escape from the Taliban in Afghanistan, or victims of racial or other discrimination. And I am only too aware that coronavirus hasn’t gone away, and that there is much pastoral care to give as we continue to deal with that threat. It is only by God’s strength that we can be sufficient to these things.

The situation we face around us must drive us to prayer. One of the most appropriate prayers for our present time comes from that ancient observance of Rogationtide – days of prayer for the fruitfulness of the earth and human labour.

God our Father,
you never cease the work you have begun
and prosper with your blessing all human labour:
make us wise and faithful stewards of your gifts
that we may serve the common good,
maintain the fabric of our world
and seek that justice where all may share
            the good things you pour upon us;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Posted in Church of England, Croydon

Not so doubting Thomas

This is the sermon I preached today at the ordination of priests in Croydon Minster.

Our readings today are those for the saint whose feast it is – Thomas, sometimes called ‘doubting’. It might be more courteous to use the title he is otherwise known by, ‘Thomas of India’ – from the tradition that he was the apostle who went furthest, beyond the boundaries of the Roman Empire, with the good news of the gospel. Poor Thomas! All the other disciples had seen the risen Jesus, and he’d been left out. Surely it wasn’t unreasonable for him to want the same proof of this incredible story, this unbelievable resurrection? And when Jesus does appear, he doesn’t wait for Jesus’ command to believe – before Jesus says or does anything, he cries out in joy and recognition, ‘my Lord and my God’. Joyful, believing Thomas, whose story is told for our own benefit: it all leads up to the punchline: ‘blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe’.

Thomas illustrates a pattern which is at the heart of all Christian faith – in fact it may be one of the things that characterise Christianity as different in kind from other faith traditions. Our faith is paradoxical: we understand its greatest truths most clearly when we look at them through what might seem their opposite. It was the depth of his doubt and scepticism which opened Thomas up to the profundity of the resurrection. Knowing what an unbelievable thing this was, when he saw that it was true he also realised that this must mean that Jesus was not just Lord, not just teacher, but God – and so he is the first to directly address Jesus as God.

That paradoxical pattern is shown most profoundly right there, in the death and resurrection of Jesus. It is in the cruel death of a human being that we see most deeply into the nature of God. It is only through that lens of powerlessness and pain that we be led into the infinite love which is at God’s very heart. The coming together of that love and God’s creative power in the miracle of resurrection reveal to us who is the God whom we worship.

And that pattern of paradox is repeated through the life of God’s people, the church. It is the nature of our fallen condition that we can only see the truth when we recognise that we are always trying to split in two, things which God sees as one. Power and love are not contradictory but united in the heart of God.

So as you come now to begin your ministry as priests, I would like to reflect with you on how that pattern of paradox works out in the ministry of the church, and in its ministers. Because it is by demonstrating in yourselves that same pattern of being, far more than in the activities you do day by day, that you will demonstrate the love of God to those whom you serve.

Firstly, you will be teachers insofar as you are learners. Your calling is to lead others into the truth. You will only be able to do that insofar as you yourselves are still exploring. Do not be afraid to ask the difficult questions – and first of all, to ask them in your own studies and in your own prayers. The church needs preachers and teachers who are able to speak authentically from their own experience of faith, and with conviction from their understanding of the tradition. When you speak, the truths of the faith that will resonate in other peoples’ lives will be those which come from both your heart and your head, together.

Real thought can’t happen, though, when the answer is already decided. The possibility of changing your mind has to be a real one. Some might see that as faithlessness; I see it as the precondition of an informed faith. Keep your minds open to the new things that God does, and sharp to discern what is of God and what is not. And remember that you don’t have to have all the answers; if that was a requirement, no-one would be in ordained ministry. Your role is to encourage your fellow pilgrims, guiding them yes but as someone walking alongside, on the same journey.

That is the second paradox: you will be able to guide others only insofar as you are walking alongside them. The church does not need any more Messiahs; it needs more disciples. In your own life, in your own ministry, give space then for your own relationship with God, and allow it to grow and develop. The life of prayer changes as we change, but the God whom we are seeking through it does not. Have the confidence to allow God to be present, and even more challenging, have the confidence to speak of your own walk with God. Not just the wonderful bits! One of the conditions of the present age is that people have hyper-sensitive hypocrisy detectors. You don’t need to share everything about yourselves – in fact you really shouldn’t – but let everything you share be the truth.

When Thomas saw the risen Jesus he realised that in the resurrection God is showing us that we are personally loved, personally invited into a relationship with the Creator of the heavens and the earth. Not to be bowled over by gratitude at that love would be strange indeed. I’m sure you will already have had times in your spiritual lives when it hasn’t felt like that, though – times when you’re more full of anger, or questioning, or grief. And sometimes it all just seems to shrivel away, as if it were nothing at all, and that is the worst. But when your experience of prayer becomes dry, remember that your own feelings are not all that there is. If faith were just an interior, private thing, the absence of experience might be a real problem. But what each of us is invited to receive as individuals is a promise of redemption for the whole of creation. Christian faith is public truth, for the whole world, or it is no truth at all.

And that is the third dimension of which Thomas reminds us: Christian faith may be individual, but it is anything but individualistic. The revelation of the resurrection comes to him in the context of the disciples gathered together. You are called to an office of leadership in the church. You will only be able to exercise that ministry authentically if you do so as servants. Remember that you will always remain what you still are for a few minutes: deacons, servants of God and of God’s church. In order to help the church be the church, you will have to be the servants of the church for God’s sake.

The church is not just an organisation that happens to have existed for a long time: it is a divine institution, through which the Holy Spirit is at work. And despite all its manifest imperfections, we cannot just ignore the tradition and teaching of the church if we don’t fancy it. The church is the body of Christ; what the church believes is part of what we believe too, if we count ourselves Christians. Your calling as leaders and servants in the Christian community is to enable the church to be a healthy and safe place, in which the good news of Jesus Christ is authentically lived and continually renewed.

You are called to enable the church to be itself, the community of the brothers and sisters of Jesus. And if the church is to be itself, it exists in turn for the sake of the world. As those who stand at the centre of the Christian community, it is your responsibility above all to make sure that the church’s focus is not on you – that the people of God gather to meet God, and are sent out with and in God into the world. Those who preside at the eucharist do so precisely because they are called to stand at the heart of the church; they are trusted with the responsibility of bringing the people together in God’s presence. And those same people are given the responsibility of blessing the people in God’s name so that they go into the world knowing that they do not go alone.

Faith is not something we attain, and then stop; it’s a pilgrimage of becoming a new creation in Christ, of growing into God’s gift to us of new life. You will in a moment become a priest; you remain a deacon; and you are along with all God’s people a disciple, a worshipper, a follower of Jesus. That baptismal identity is the one which is the very heart of you as of all of us. Never forget that. As you listen again in a few moments to the responsibilities of the priesthood, accept them as a gift, knowing that you also have the gifts to fulfil those responsibilities, knowing that all we have is given to us to give back to God in a wonderful exchange. Let your faith remain wrapped up in wonder, and in joy – the wonder that led Thomas to cry out ‘my Lord and my God’. And you will receive abundantly the promise with which our gospel reading ends, the promise of God’s blessing.

Posted in Poverty and Justice, refugees

World Refugee Day

https://www.theguardian.com/culture/gallery/2021/jun/14/no-human-survives-alone-misan-harrimans-portraits-for-refugee-week-in-pictures

A great privilege to be included, but the article left out an important part of what I wanted to say – this was my contribution in full:

All human beings are of equal and infinite worth, regardless of their wealth, ethnicity, or anything else that can be used to mark people off one from another. It is that belief which is at the heart of my Christian faith, and which inspires me to recognise the dignity of those who are forced to seek sanctuary far from home. Among refugees I have seen countless examples of extraordinary courage, tenacity, patience and kindness. It is an honour to me to be able to offer what support I can, to walk alongside on part of the long journey towards sanctuary.

Posted in coronavirus, Poverty and Justice, racial justice

A pandemic for the poor?

The BBC has a page with all the info. you probably don’t want to know about the coronavirus vaccination programme in the UK. Until very recently (not sure why they’ve stopped) they included maps of your local authority and its region, helpfully colour coded to show where vaccination rates were lowest and highest. The Guardian has something similar if you want to take a look.

In each case, areas with fewer vaccinations are in a lighter colour. And wherever you look, it’s area of (primarily urban) deprivation which have the lowest vaccination rates. The UK Government makes much of the overall rates of vaccination, which are impressive – 75.8% of adults have received their first dose up to June 4th. But in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets it’s 41%. In Nottingham it’s 43%. In Southampton it’s 51%. And the same story goes across urban areas all over the country.

And what goes for this country goes even more for the world. Across Africa virtually all countries are in single digit percentages, and many are less than 1% vaccinated.

So now we come to the crunch time, the really difficult decision: will the rich and powerful continue to think the coronavirus is really important when it’s no longer an issue for them personally? In the UK, will decisions about further loosening of restrictions be made on the basis of those who will be most affected? Or will they be ignored in the rush back to entertainment? In the world as a whole, will the governments of prosperous and vaccinated countries put real energy into making us all safe? Or will they spend that money on building barriers to keep out the infected hordes?

Up to now, it’s been in the interests of the powerful to protect everyone. Now that that isn’t so much the case, what will we see? It’s clear to me what’s right. In the UK, we should measure our actions by the effect it will have in the least vaccinated places, not the most. Tower Hamlets should be our guide, not East Suffolk. Across the world, we must keep on investing until we are all protected.

Posted in Church of England, racial justice

God looks like you

I was struck, and struck hard, when listening to Radio 4’s Start the Week, by both Chine McDonald and Jeet Thayil’s reference to the Head of Christ, by Warner Sallman. By their accounts, this picture of Jesus as a white man was everywhere among the Christian communities in which they were brought up, Nigerian and Indian respectively. As they talked about its effect on them, I realised that I had also seen that image, but only as far as I can recall in the homes of parishioners of African Caribbean heritage. I cannot remember once seeing it in a white Anglican home. Similar images abound of course in stained glass windows and much other Christian imagery. But not in the home, hanging over our dining tables, or taking prime space in our front rooms, alongside the family pictures.

That, I think, is what ‘whiteness’ is all about, especially in a British context. The absence of Sallman’s picture from (my) white experience is a powerful metaphor for the difficulty many white people have in seeing what is so obvious to our GMH (global majority heritage) brothers and sisters. White people don’t need to look at an image of Jesus as a white man to think of him as such. In fact we need not to do so. Seeing Sallman’s picture would be dangerous – it might bring to consciousness the assumptions of ethnic primacy which operate at an unconscious level, embedded in our culture.  Most white Christians, most of the time, are able quite honestly to disavow any racist intention in their conscious thoughts. But the frame of their experience, and of the black experience, are both formed by the idea that Sallman’s picture expresses: Jesus looks a whole lot more like white people than those of any other ethnicity.

Christ as Masai

I don’t think Sallman’s picture is great art, but I have no problem with him depicting Jesus as someone of his own ethnic background. The mystery of the incarnation is that in Christ God adopted human form, for the sake of all humanity. Depicting Christ as ‘someone like me’ is only part of Christian spirituality, but it is an authentic part when held in balance with a broader understanding. I once had a set of pictures of Jesus showing him as Inuit, and African, and Japanese, and many other ethnicities, and those different pictures expanded my own spiritual understanding of Christ. So there shouldn’t be a problem showing Jesus as a white man.

The problem – and it’s a huge problem – is that that image also carries with it the weight of hegemonic whiteness. It tells me not just that Jesus is like me, but also that he’s not like those who have a different skin colour or appearance. It makes it easy to accept a world in which leaders (religious and otherwise) look a lot more like the white Jesus than people of any other ethnicity. Like it or not, it reinforces the false message of white superiority. Some white people find that reality hard to accept; my answer is that we would have to have very good reason to reject the testimony of our GMH fellow believers. Whiteness has deprived people of many GMH origins of the sense that Jesus was really, truly, like them.

So how do I, a white Christian, get out of this bind? Not by denying that Jesus is like me – that would also be denying an important dimension of God’s saving act in the incarnation.  It’s not the Christian way to balance that act of deprivation with another deprivation in the opposite direction. That is not the way that leads to a renewed Christian identity which celebrates all as equally made and loved by God. The perpetuation of hegemonic whiteness needs to be overcome by conscious, deliberate repentance and also by hopeful celebration. There must be repentance, because I need to turn around and go another way – and so does the whole Church – in repentance for benefitting, knowingly or not, from a sinful structure which has unjustly privileged those like me. But there must also be celebration, because repentance is ultimately joyful, a journey closer to the love of God.  The celebration must be of the whole, full picture of Jesus as one of us, a Middle Eastern man who was also the Son of God embracing the whole of humanity.

The Church of England’s Anti-Racism Task Force has set out for the CofE some practical steps to take. It’s really important that things are done; it’s equally important that the things we do are signs of a change in culture. Only when the disparities of ‘whiteness’ and ‘blackness’ are gone will we all be truly free to be who God made us. Maybe one of the signs of heaven is that we no longer need to say for ourselves ‘God looks like me’, but all find an even deeper joy in saying to one another ‘God looks like you’.

Posted in coronavirus, Fragments

Fragments on Fragments 40

For an introduction to this series, look here

Any day stands equal to the rest

Now is the time. The place in which we are living, this moment which is always passing away, this present is the time to make the choice. Not usually a significant or life-changing choice, but in every moment in which we are awake we are continually choosing how we will live our lives.

In particular, when the future is uncertain, it’s essential that we do not put off living for another day, whether in anxiety about what might happen next, or hope that it’ll all be back to normal. Life may feel as if it is in fragments, but each fragment is an opportunity to choose and to live one way or another.

In writing these fragments of my own, I have been trying to think through what sort of choices I can make to try to live as fruitfully as possible, caring for myself and for others, staying faithful to my principles while circumstances change. I hope that you will be able to make your own contribution to the conversation that we all need to be part of, as we find our way through unprecedented times.

Detail from Heirloom, part of the Broken Beauty residency in Southwark cathedral, 2018. Photo credit: Alison Clark
Posted in coronavirus, Fragments

Fragments on Fragments 39

For an introduction to this series, look here

They raise their voices to idols as if they were carrying on a conversation with a wall, they have understood so little of the gods

This is not the rudest of Heraclitus’ criticisms of his opponents, though it is in my view the funniest. What’s helpful for us is not the difference between his view of divinity, and the older Greek traditions he’s criticising. Much more relevant to our situation, he’s not at all impressed with those who mistake the image for the real thing.

Much of the contemporary world’s best energies are expended on getting us to do exactly that. The advertising industry is dedicated to creating an image of whatever they are selling which carries as many suggestions as possible that only this product will make us happier, healthier, more popular or richer – and if possible several of those. As we become more sensitive to the techniques of advertisers, they in turn become more subtle.

There are many problems with a world dominated by advertising, but I will mention here only one: there is a danger that everything becomes an advert, or at least that we start thinking as if that were the case. ‘What are they selling?’ becomes the question which is asked everywhere and of everyone, even of doctors warning us against a potentially lethal disease.

We have become so used to lies that it is difficult to believe that anything is the truth. Worse, we take for truth whatever is so well packaged that we can’t see its bias, and discount as a lie anything which makes an obvious, unvarnished appeal.

In a world full of lies, half-truths and spin, discerning the truth is hard work. None of us should believe we can do it on our own; multiple perspectives can reveal more than any one of us on our own. But if we can honestly bring into conversation what we see of the truth, and also bring in the possibility that we might need to change our own minds, we’ve got a good chance. Otherwise we might outsmart ourselves to death.

Detail from Heirloom, part of the Broken Beauty residency in Southwark cathedral, 2018. Photo credit: Alison Clark
Posted in coronavirus, Fragments

Fragments on Fragments 38

For an introduction to this series, look here

Everyone can share in knowledge and understanding

One of the distinctive things about Heraclitus was that he believed that understanding, self-knowledge and wisdom were equally accessible to everyone. That’s a radical thought, and not one commonly shared even in our present democratic era. But I think it’s a really important truth. It’s not a claim that all people are equally intelligent, in all the different ways intelligence manifests itself: that’s clearly not true. Abandoning intellectual or spiritual elitism is not about trying to make everyone the same: it’s about celebrating the diversity of each person’s gifts, and looking for the specific talent or skill that someone has.

The churches have, slowly in the case of mine, woken up to the fact that everyone is gifted, though we’re still not good at living out that belief. Too much tradition has built up around believing that certain groups of people were the only ones to listen to (bishops, sometimes). But that is not the root of the Christian tradition. It is fundamental to my faith that all people are equally loved by God, and that all those who are disciples of Christ are equally his brothers and sisters.

When I was a parish priest, I learned not to set boundaries on who I might learn from. I remember particularly one parishioner who usually just repeated the same sort of thing, whatever the conversation was supposed to be about. But every now and again, very simply they said something which was a pearl of wisdom. Whatever you may think of yourself, or of others, there is no-one so wise that they are always right, or so foolish that they can’t hit the nail on the head. If we’re going to work out what the signs of the time mean, we need each other.

Detail from Heirloom, part of the Broken Beauty residency in Southwark cathedral, 2018. Photo credit: Alison Clark