Posted in refugees

Crumbs from our table

The reading from Matthew’s gospel set for today is a tough read. Jesus is approached by a woman who is a foreigner – and described by Matthew as a Canaanite, the ancient enemies of Israel. She’s shouting, demanding help for her daughter. The disciples urge Jesus to get rid of this nuisance, and he agrees – ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel’. You’d have thought that would be enough to put her off, but she comes again, and kneels in front of Jesus. His response – to insult her further, using the racial slur of his day for non-Jews: ‘it’s not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs’. And in her grief and desperation and humility the woman takes the slur, and rather than rejecting it she turns it around: ‘even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table’. And it is that which makes the difference. Jesus praises her faith, and heals the woman’s daughter.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Get rid of them! They’re a threat to our identity, our jobs! Pull up the drawbridge, our own resources are just for us! Jesus’ disciples, and Jesus himself, sound in this gospel reading like first century versions of those who are happy to see asylum seekers ‘pushed back’ – or even left to drown. But that is not where the gospel story ends – and it’s not the message of Matthew’s gospel. Matthew is the most Jewish gospel – rooted in the Hebrew Scriptures, arguing passionately that Jesus is the fulfillment of Israel’s promise. For Matthew, this is indeed good news for the house of israel. But all the way through, from the beginning to the end, there is a counter-theme of faith coming from unexpected places, from the people who shouldn’t be part of the story. From the Gentile women in Jesus’ genealogy to the centurion at his death, the story of salvation keeps on including those who were not part of the Jewish people.

There is no Christian option for rejecting those in need. However much we feel the natural and human desire to put up the barriers and lock the doors, the gospel is clear that if we do so we are not following the example of Jesus. Do we want people to pay criminals to enable them to embark on hazardous journeys across the English Channel? Of course not. But while the United Kingdom makes it impossible for people to claim asylum here except by getting into the country – and smiultaneously makes it near impossible for anyone to do so – we leave those who are desperate no choice. We force them to accept our prejudiced view, making them ‘illegal migrants’ by denying any dignified or humane route. We aren’t willing to share even crumbs from our table. as a nation we should be praying again in repentance:

We are not worthy

so much as to gather up the crumbs under your table.

But you are the same Lord

whose nature is always to have mercy.

Posted in Church of England, spirituality

An unpopular post

Repentance is something that has fallen well out of favour with preachers for several decades now. There is one very good reason – which is that the preaching of repentance had far too much in it of trying to persuade people that they were sinners, and far far too much about the punishments God might have in mind. But repentance is not about making people feel bad – most people feel bad enough already; the question is what you do about it. And it’s definitely not about punishment: the call to repent is about turning round to embrace the goodness of God. The aim of repentance is not misery, but change. Change is what we face, in our world and in our church. Repentance is practical, costly change. It goes to the very heart of who we are and bears fruit in lives that are lived differently.

As we come towards the end of this phase of lockdown, the question is particularly acute: this is a moment for decision. Is the re-opening of churches for public worship to be a going back, or a moving forward? After all the insecurity and exhaustion of the last few months, nothing would be more comforting than to settle back, as far as we may, into what we were used to. There’s something genuine in that desire: we all need a break, we all need some sense of security again. As with all the most tempting temptations, it is very nearly the right thing to do. But I believe it is a temptation, and it is not of God. To settle back now would be to turn away from all that we have seen and learnt, very painfully in the days of the pandemic. God is calling us to go forward – in trust that ‘those who wait in the Lord will renew their strength’, as Isaiah puts it, repenting of those habits and ways which we did not until now realise were blinding us to our calling as disciples of Jesus.

We must repent of the ways in which we – we as a society, as a church, and often as individuals – have demonstrated both conscious and unconscious bias against people of different ethnic background, culture and language, in the church and beyond. We must be much more searching in asking ourselves about how our inherited expectations and systems place different pressures on people – essentially the more you differ from a white, male, middle-class university educated person like I am, the less easy you will find the church as a place within which to live and minister. That is not how we reflect the good news of Jesus, which forms a community in which all are equally brothers and sisters of that Middle Eastern man, Jesus Christ.

We must repent of our church-building-centredness. Why has it taken the coronavirus to make churches realise that there are huge numbers of people out there who want to engage with prayer and worship – for the first time, or far more regularly than usually – but can’t make it into church buildings at the time we say they should be there? We have become so wedded to gathering people together in one place, that we have been blind to all the other means by which we could be communicating the good news of Jesus and drawing others into discipleship. We are at the beginning of a voyage of exploration: we don’t know yet how or in what way we will be able to integrate the different worlds in which many of us have now learnt to live. But God’s call to us is to do so, not to shirk or refuse.

I am only too aware of the other accusation levelled at preachers of repentance, that of self-righteousness. I know that I have been complicit in the sins I have just spoken about. But there is always hope. Repentance which has no joy in it is not Christian repentance, but despair. Repentance is always about hope, hope for the new future God promises, and for the strength of his Spirit to walk into that future and discover in it more of the love and power of God.

Posted in Asylum, refugees

Joyful Resistance: welcoming Refugee Week

‘One of the most dangerous consequences of injustice is that it crushes the joy out of our lives.’

A lot of us have been counting the pennies a bit more closely over the last few months even than normal. If you’re furloughed, or you’ve lost your job – or if you’re anticipating that your income’s going to be going down rather than up – you’re one of a large and increasing number. At least there has been some relief for those most in need, as Universal Credit and Working Tax Credit levels were increased by about £20 per week at the beginning of the lockdown. That seemed fair and reasonable.

A few days ago, the government finally announced an increase to the support given to people who are claiming asylum in this country. Remember, they are not allowed to work, or to claim any other benefits. The increase? £1.85 per week – to the giddy heights of £37.75. That is supposed to cover a week’s worth of food, clothing, toiletries, travel, etc. – everything you need to live on except housing costs. And it’s not just for a few days – a claim for asylum can take many months to be processed by the Home Office. Could you live on under £40 a week? Every week? You can’t do it by putting off paying for more expensive items, because it’ll be the same next week, and the week after that …

We can’t ignore the effects of prejudice here. The majority of asylum seekers in 2018 came from Iran (3,320), Iraq (2,700), Eritrea (2,151), Pakistan (2,033), and Albania (2,005). I cannot imagine that we would treat people in this way if they looked and spoke like the White British majority. Asylum seekers are given the message in this country, by the way in which we treat them, that their lives do not matter very much – that the main aim of the process is to find a way of getting rid of them.

image

There are plenty of groups protesting against such policies, and rightly so, but I want in this blog to focus on something which doesn’t sound like protest at all. The danger when you’re protesting on behalf of someone else is that you forget that they are just as capable, interesting, able and creative as you are; they can become an object of your help, not quite really an equal any more. Refugee Week, which runs from 15-21 June, is an opportunity to celebrate the gifts of people from all around the world, including those who have been forced to seek refuge elsewhere than their own home country. In lockdown, there’s not the opportunity to meet in person, but on the other hand it’s possible to tune in to events happening all across the country – like the Sheffield-based Migration Matters Online Festival (https://www.migrationmattersfestival.co.uk/). Or from Manchester: a series of multi-lingual digital arts workshops for children, with refugee and migrant artists devising, delivering and filming a range of work including: story-telling, music, craft activities (https://www.youtube.com/user/CommunityArtsNW). Creativity knows no boundaries, it levels us all up in our common human identity, and even in the context of pervasive injustice it can enable us to break out into joy. And for the first time this year, there will be an Hour of Prayer with and for refugees hosted by Christian refugee organisations (https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/national-refugee-prayer-hour-on-world-refugee-day-tickets-108081282024).

One of the most dangerous consequences of injustice is that it crushes the joy out of our lives, most of all for those directly suffering, but also for all those who are passionate about seeking justice. When human dignity is denied, it’s all the more important to keep on celebrating, because by doing so we witness to the fullness of all that racial prejudice and ‘hostile environments’ seek to deny. Protesting against injustice is about living our lives differently. At the heart of overcoming prejudice in ourselves and in our communities is the breaking down of boundaries that we see most perfectly fulfilled in the resurrection life: ‘In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, Scythian, slave or free; but Christ is all an in all’ (Colossians 3:11). It is that unity of all in Christ that we witness to, by opposing all that denies the full humanity of another child of God.

So I encourage you joyfully to embrace all that is given by people of other cultures – whatever your own background may be, and to challenge the dismal injustice that tries to grind people down so that they are unable to live full and human lives. Do we really value human lives so little that it is right that people should try to struggle by on £37.75 per week? No, we cannot. Enjoy Refugee Week, and allow yourself to be enriched by the great diversity of God’s creativity exhibited in many languages and cultures. And then, do not forget. https://refugeeweek.org.uk/ 

Posted in Uncategorized

George Floyd and Black suffering – a guest post from Revd Darius Weithers

Darius is a priest in the Croydon Area, and when he called me to say what was happening for him, I asked him if he would share more widely – what he says is painful, challenging and powerful, and just what we need to hear (“we” being anyone who doesn’t have to worry about calling the police). Darius clearly and passionately links up events which in my mind all too easily slip into separate categories. I need to hear the way in which they are all part of one whole, and to recognise that reality as genuine and powerful. I don’t think I’m the only one.

 

“See, calling the police on Black people ain’t nothin’ to play [games] with!” These were the words of ‘Pops’ to his grandson in the US series ‘Blackish’. If, like me, you’re a fan of Black TV shows, you already know that this theme of our fear of law-enforcement keeps coming up. So last week in Central Park when Amy Cooper told bird watcher Christian Cooper (no relation) she would call the police and “… tell them that there’s an African American man threatening my life!” we all knew the narrative she was citing. Days later, someone called the police on George Floyd, and the white Officer who swore to protect him, suffocated him to death by kneeling on his neck.

“But that’s the U.S” I hear you say, “It’s not really our business is it?” Well, as the author, A.D.A France-Williams said in his blog yesterday,  ‘The death of George Floyd is the death of every black human’. When we saw the lifeless body of George Floyd, White knee on Black neck, we saw ourselves. We saw our brothers Stephen Lawrence, Michael Brown, Philando Castille and Eric Garner. We saw Colin Kaepernick Black-balled as the Black Sheep of the NFL, as he prophetically knee-led in protest of our suffering. In our peripheral vision we noticed Raheem Sterling and Meghan Markle being Black-listed by the British media. Then we took a step back, and we saw our ancestors, chained, whipped and shipped in boxes like cheap tat. We saw our great cousins, re-cast as “Strange Fruit” as their Black bodies swung from Southern trees. And in the same gaze, we saw Christ, hanging from a Roman cross, uttering over and over, “I can’t breathe!”

There is no Black suffering, that is not also the suffering of Christ. Therefore, there is no Black suffering that is not all of our suffering. Yet sadly, my experience has been, within the majority White church, that Black suffering is considered as something peripheral to the gospel of Christ.   As James Cone wrote:

An image from the Vie de Jesus Mafa project, a potrayal of Jesus as a member of the Mafa people of northern Cameroon.

‘The conspicuous absence of the lynching tree in American theological discourse…is profoundly revealing, especially since the crucifixion was clearly a first-century lynching.’

Eurocentric American theology failed to join the dots between Jesus’ lynching, and that of 5000 Black men and women. Therefore countless well-meaning theologians have had nothing to offer in response to that episode of Black suffering, but silence. Even though St. Paul wrote that  ‘If one part suffers, every part suffers with it’ we continue to suffer alone. Maybe we need to take the metaphor of the Church as ‘One Body’ more to heart. Maybe we need to learn afresh what it means to share in each other’s suffering. Maybe it’s time for all of us – black and white together – to heed the prophetic voices of Black British theologians like Robert Beckford, Anthony Reddie and writers like Reni Eddo-Lodge and Robin DiAngelo that have been calling out – for many years – from the desert, “prepare the way for the LORD’. As we do, we’ll see that the painful experiences of Black and Brown people in the UK (including that of an absence of mainstream theological response to our plight) aren’t as different to the USA as we would like to believe.

Two days ago my cousin, Dwaine, in response to George Floyd’s death, wrote a post on his Facebook, asking his friends to share stories of their run-ins with law enforcement in London. The responses flooded in. Then Dwaine himself wrote:

‘… one of the worst was when someone called the police on me because I had a foam dart gun, 3 armed vehicles, undercover feds and a helicopter turned up… I was 14 with 5 armed officers aimed at me…’

What often connects Black experience, both globally and historically, is the pain and trauma of suffering myriad forms of racism. Every story of police brutality against a Black body triggers that trauma. Black people know all too well that the systems we depend on are broken. Until we dismantle and rebuild these oppressive, sinful systems together; Systems that enable one person to kneel on the neck of another; Where Black people in Britain are 40 times more likely to be stopped and searched, and 3 times more likely to be arrested than our White counterparts; Where in 2020 we’re still talking about the Church of England system as “deeply institutionally racist”. Black people continue to struggle to breathe.

That’s why I, and others like me, are hurting so much right now. It’s why I relate so deeply to the rage that is consuming protesters both in the USA and here in England. For now, ‘Pops’ words still speak to all Black people everywhere. It doesn’t seem to matter whether you’re in Croydon or California, “calling the police on Black people ain’t nothin’ to play with!”

Posted in Church of England, coronavirus, Poverty and Justice

Radical Christian Equality

If you’d rather listen than read, you can hear this as  a sermon at buff.ly/2UizTaT (Apple) or buff.ly/2y75QdD  (Spotify) – with thanks to St Mark’s South Norwood.

I was struck this week by St Paul’s comment recorded in the Book of Acts – in passing, stating an obvious, incontrovertible starting point – when addressing the sceptics in Athens about this new religion he was preaching. “From one ancestor [God] made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence”. Paul rightly takes as his starting point the fundamental equality and common identity of all human beings, all created by the one God, all equally God’s offspring, as he  goes on to say. I’ve read that phrase many times without really noticing it, but this week, as the divisions within our society have been cruelly exposed by the different death tolls from COVID19, I had to stop and think again.

Although it may be a self-evident truth – to Paul, and to anyone not infected by that really powerful virus, racial prejudice – it’s also so very obviously not the way the world is. As a white middle class man in a professional role, my chances of dying from COVID19 are much lower than most. COVID19 disproportionately affects the old, the ill, the poor, and members of Black and Minority Ethnic communities. Among the conspiracy theories going around are ideas that all of that is deliberate – that the virus was designed to kill off people in precisely those groups, and especially people of colour. It’s not true; a virus which originally emerged in central China doesn’t know the skin colour of the people it’s infecting – as far as the virus is concerned, all humans are equally good targets.

What the coronavirus shows us – in shocking detail – is the inequality that already exists in our society. The virus isn’t targeted at anyone, but it finds it easiest to attack those whom our society values least – the old and the ill, those whose housing isn’t good, those in low-paid jobs, those who are regarded by society as less significant, less worth looking after, the ones at the back of the queue for PPE regardless of how much risk they may be exposed to. And in most of those groups people of colour are vastly over-represented: doing those jobs without which society would collapse, but which society doesn’t want to pay much to have done, suffering higher levels of poor health, living in substandard housing. Racial prejudice feeds into that spiral of inequality: BAME people are filling many less well-regarded jobs, and those jobs in turn are regarded as less important because of the BAME people doing them.

The coronavirus has shone a light on the structural inequalities in our society, had made us see the realities we mostly know are there, but invest a lot of time and energy in ignoring. We know that there is huge inequality in our country, justified sometimes by the language of austerity, but even better just kept out of sight and therefore out of mind. And now we do have to notice those doing the suddenly dangerous jobs, we applaud: which is good, and appropriate. But there should also be a reward for those who are due applause, an appropriate recognition of the service they have done for us. But that is a problem of course for our society: the debt we owe is not one that can be appropriately recognised merely by doling out applause for all, and medals to a few. The injustice that has been exposed is deeper than that – and far more expensive to put right.

We have discovered that the people whom society has treated as being expendable are really essential. Carers, cleaners, bus drivers, posties, refuse collectors – the list goes on and on – they can’t work from home, and society as a whole depends on them. The question is what we do with that knowledge.

And that’s where I return to Paul. As he introduced his preaching of the gospel to a crowd of Gentiles, he began by establishing the common humanity that he and they shared. Paul’s ministry was founded on breaking down the barriers that the Roman Empire took for granted – in Christ he says there are neither slave nor free, male nor female, Greek or Jew – he systematically disassembles all the ways in which society was kept neatly ordered. Along with ethnic and gender differences, he challenged power differentials by establishing communities of believers in which the rich did not have the authority by virtue of their money. Paul didn’t encourage Christians to rise up and fight the secular authorities – but he did teach a way of living which radically undercut the norms of the Empire.

That is what the Church should have been doing ever since. But instead for too many centuries the Church has found ways to baptise structures of injustice and oppression. The Church of England has the disadvantage of having been around a long time – there’s plenty of history of which our Church needs to repent. This time of coronavirus should help us I think understand what repentance means. It’s not just about feeling sorry – it’s about doing things differently. When confronted again by the inequalities of our society, we must look at ourselves and the ways in which we continue to reflect those inequalities in ourselves – and as Paul taught us, live differently.

The Church will come out of the coronavirus crisis poorer than we were. Will we also come out of it wiser, more aware of our calling? At every level, parish and deanery, diocese and nation (and in every nation), will we do the hard work of returning to that basic assumption that underlay Paul’s preaching and church-building – that all people equally are created, loved and called by God? And in our very different culture and time, will we use the resources we have to demonstrate that repentant return to the roots of our faith? It will be difficult – at a time of constraint, people naturally retreat to what they have known, defend what they have. But the light has shone onto the inequalities we have lived with too happily and too long.

If and insofar as we can change ourselves, we in the Church of England will also have something to say to our nation of which we are the church: and all Christians will equally have something to say to the societies in which they live. A truly radical sense of the equal dignity and worth of each individual is a political statement, because it has implications for the society in which we live. Human beings are indivisible wholes: bodies deserve to be treated with equal dignity just as much as souls do. It should be the desire and task of any society to enable all of its members to live healthy, purposeful lives, and a scandal and a sorrow when it is impossible to achieve that aim (and alongside that, to desire the same for all people worldwide). Through whatever political policies they may believe will achieve it, it is this end that we should ask and challenge our leaders to seek.

Whoever you are, whatever your background, age, ethnicity, wealth, (dis)ability, gender, sexuality – you are included in that universal love of God. You are God’s offspring. In a world and society which acts as if some people were more in God’s image than others, have the confidence to believe that God looks and sees in you God’s own image. And likewise God sees God’s image in everyone you meet, whether you can discern it or not. St Paul went into the marketplace in Athens and told those whom he met that they were made and loved by God. If you know it for yourself, will you also say the same to others? Then the good news of the love of God will truly be a power in our world, nations, our neighbourhoods, our communities.

Posted in Church of England, coronavirus

and after this our exile

The language of  exile has been around quite a lot recently as people have begun to reflect on the experience of these locked down times. Sometimes it’s The Holy Family flee to Egyptbeen used in reference to Christians being unable to gather in, or even enter their churches. That is a real and deep loss, and was especially so in Holy Week and on Easter Day – but I don’t think it’s all that’s going on. Exile is a powerful word. I don’t think many would reach for it to explain how they feel if there wasn’t something profound going on. Behind the regret about the closure of church buildings lies a deeper sense of loss, and a fear that it will be longer-lasting, and more profound than even months of locked doors. The power and tragedy of exile is not knowing when or whether you will ever get back home.

Bishop Peter Selby has expressed that deeper and more profound sense of loss in a recent article in The Tablet – Is Anglicanism going private?’ The Church of England is of course a limit case of this sense of privation, as the archbishops, after conversation with the diocesan bishops, have written to the clergy directing them not to go into their churches – and have followed suit by not using their own private chapels in their own residences. Bishop Peter sees this as a sign of a church losing its sense of its vocation and role in society:

That removal of Holy Week and Easter to the domestic realm reflects, without any element of challenge, faith becoming a private matter and our public life belonging to be the realm of practical secularity.

The CofE bishops will surely seem to have accepted the idea that Christianity is a matter for the domestic realm, that our cathedrals and parish churches are just optional when useful and available, no longer the eloquent signs of the consecration of our public life and public spaces.

I am not here waving a flag for the current policy of the Church of England. I do though want to take a different direction in trying to discern what is going on in the current situation, I hope taking as seriously as he does the issues Bishop Peter raises.

It is certainly true that for many there is a sense of radical displacement, of exile, in being excluded from the church building. What I believe we need to question is the nature of that grieving – and this is a hard thing to do in the midst of it. But if we do not take up that challenge now, there is a danger that we do not discern what God may be saying to us. Because it may be that in feeling so much at home in our churches, we may have forgotten that we are always in exile. Walter Brueggemann claims that

… we may take the exile as metaphor for the characteristic “human predicament” in biblical mode, a situation of hopelessness and homelessness, a sense of impotence about being able to change circumstance, and a bewilderment about how to be fully human now. And if we take exile as characteristic context, then we may take gospel as characteristic utterance in exile. The characteristic task and opportunity of the preacher are to asert, yet again, that the matrix of human homelessness is the very arena of divine presence whereby homelessness is made home-filled.

The Word Militant – preaching a decentring word

Brueggemann reminds us that there should always be something of exile in the Christian experience of this world. And that is the question with which we need to wrestle – whether we are perhaps too much at home in the ecclesiastical life we have lived up to this time? One of the other critics of the present restrictions points out, rightly, that

There is an iconic significance also to church buildings, for sacred architecture, too, seeks to express eschatological realities, a representation in brick and stone of the heavenly Jerusalem.

But it is also true that what should be an icon can become an idol. The prophetic establishment in the time of Jeremiah believed that Jerusalem was secure from invaders because of the presence of the temple within the city. It was Jeremiah’s task to tell them that the city would fall, that they would go into exile. The estrangement from God which had already happened within the people would be worked out in space and time.

“Let us then go to [Jesus] outside the camp and bear the abuse he endured. For here we have no lasting city, but we are looking for the city that is to come” (Hebrews 13:13-14). It is only by beginning with our fundamental homelessness that we are open to being brought home to God, by God. Only by recognising that we are exiles can we hear the good news of God’s salvation. Before we hasten to put everything back in its proper place and resume business as usual, whenever that may be possible, we also must ask whether that very desire does not also betray a dangerous comfort with what is – rather than a focus forward to the city that is to come. The heavenly Jerusalem is not here on earth; if our churches try to take its place then they will prevent rather than enable our worship.

This in no way entails an abandonment of the public life of our society, the privatisation of religion to which Bishop Peter is rightly opposed. Ironically, Christian religious practice has during the last few weeks become far more visible in one of the most significant public spaces of our age, the realm of digital communications. Streamed from dining rooms and kitchens and improvised domestic chapels, with varying degrees of technical competence, it is far easier to participate – at a certain level – than it ever has been. This is not solely a substitute reality. The digital world is part of the real world, because it is part of the living experience of many – and for increasingly many it has always been that way. If churches now retreat from that world again, it will be a significant failure to learn the lessons of this crisis – just as much of a failure as it would be if we forgot those who are not at home in the digital world.

But though the digital world is important, it is partial – only available to some, and not the whole of human relationship for any. And it is therefore not an answer to the core of the critique. Both the public, and still more the embodied nature of Christian discipleship and worship demand far more than a good internet presence.

Bishop Peter’s key claim is that

clergy are key workers, exercising an essential public function, one rooted in the architecture and layout of their churches and the liturgical function they carry out within them, especially in Passiontide and Eastertide … [and that] … the work is essential and the workers are key, not just for those who happen to opt in but as signs of hope and healing for our communities and our nation.

While agreeing with much that he says, I am not comfortable with the idea that the ‘essential public function’ of the clergy is ‘rooted in the architecture and layout of their churches’. It is rooted in the celebration of the liturgy, in prayer and teaching and acts of service – in the many things that those in ordained ministry are called to model for the church and show to the world. For those called to parish ministry, it is rooted in a particular place and a particular community. But though that function may be appropriately and beautifully exercised in a church, I don’t think it is rooted there.

Church buildings have been for centuries the signs of the presence of the church – and hopefully therefore also the presence of God, particularly in countries with a tradition of institutionally approved churches. Are they now? The answers will be various, in the widely varying contexts of our country and our world, but I don’t believe we can continue to assume that they will be a general ‘yes’. The public service of the church to the world cannot I think be assumed to be seen, heard or understood in our society simply because it is manifested in worship conducted in a church building. The task of being ‘signs of hope and healing’ is a complex and creative one, with as many answers as there are contexts, and church buildings may often be part of it – but the question must be asked, not the answer assumed. We must at least consider the possibility that exclusion from church buildings might make us understand more deeply what it means to be a church in the public square, not merely a religious club. Maybe this is what it takes to make us see where the mission of God is in our communities and our country?

The church must be a public body – and it must be embodied. Digital space is a real dimension of the reality in which we now live, but it is not the whole. Disconnected from the realities of physical encounter, it can become a realm of fantasy or nightmare. The church remains committed to a sacramental life of water, bread and wine, of touch, of embrace. The body of Christ is constituted by the eucharist it shares. It has been interesting to observe that most members of local congregations appear to have continued to engage digitally with their local and habitual place of worship – regardless of the ‘production quality’. I suspect that the engagement through digital means may be much deeper because of the other dimensions, of already knowing, caring for and being cared for by, the figures appearing on a screen. But that embodied, sacramental life is not dependent on a building. It is the life of a people on the move: the sacrament is always a viaticum, the food for a journey.

We are always in exile; we are always at home in Christ. I have a suspicion that we have forgotten something of the former – and so have been much less completely the latter. This time of exclusion, which feels like an exile, may also be a time for moving on with God into a life as a church which holds on to both of those truths more completely. If we can do so while re-inhabiting our church buildings, well and good: but let them be formed to our calling as disciples, not be the template which forms that calling.

At the back of my mind in writing this has been a haunting memory of the prophetic voice of Ivan Illich, and particularly his essay, published in 1967, ‘The Vanishing Clergyman’ (sic – Illich was deeply radical in very many ways, but male gender was still assumed). Illich had a vison in which:

The ‘diaconia’ will supplant the parish as the fundamental institutional unit of the church. The periodic meeting of friends will replace the Sunday assembly of strangers … The minister will be a man mature in Christian wisdom through his lifelong participation in an intimate liturgy, rather than a seminary graduate formed professionally through ‘theological’ formulae.

I foresee the face-to-face meeting of families around a table, rather than the impersonal attendance of a crowd around an altar. Celebration will sanctify the dining room, rather than consecrated buildings the ceremony.

Celebration of Awareness

I am not proposing this as an organisational plan for the Church of England, or any other church. It is I think a prophetic provocation – I hope it may startle us into thought.

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The title of this piece is taken from the Salve Regina, a medieval hymn to Mary. The whole sentence is

Turn then, most gracious advocate, your eyes of mercy towards us; and after this, our exile, show unto us the blessed fruit of your womb, Jesus.

After this experience, of dislocation, exile, distancing, my hope is that we will be led closer to Christ through listening at depth to what we may find it hard to hear.

Posted in coronavirus, Easter

This joyful Eastertide?

One of the many things I’ve been missing this Easter season is the hymns – that whole repertoire of song which signifies the  move from Lent and Holy Week into resurrection joy. Yes, I can sing along to myself, or to Youtube, but it’s not the same as being part of a congregation. But I was brought up a bit short when I read the gospel for this Sunday, the Third Sunday of Easter – which is the story of the disciples’ walk to, and run back from, Emmaus.

What made me stop and think was the different experience that I had of that story in this time and in the midst of this experience. Previously – and I  don’t think I’m alone – I had tended to skip to1200px-Duccio_di_Buoninsegna_Emaus the end of the story. The disciples having listened to Jesus teaching them on the road, and seen him breaking the bread, are so overwhelmed with the news of the resurrection that they set off in the dangerous night back to Jerusalem. But the previous twenty seven verses of the reading tell a very different tale. The disciples are despondent and bewildered, trying to make sense of what has happened to them, to Jesus and to all their hopes and expectations. The life they thought they were leading, the direction they were going, seems to have come to a dead stop.

And when Jesus gets through to them what has really happened, that he has risen, it is not as if their previous hopes are also resuscitated. The life they had been living has still irrevocably gone, but the future that is now opening up before them is one in which Jesus is alive. But it takes time to change course, to start really living in the light of resurrection. When Cleopas and his companion get back to Jerusalem, they tell the other disciples – but when Jesus then appears to them they are ‘startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost’ (Lk 24:37).

So much as I love the hymn, I’m beginning to rethink its second phrase. “This joyful Eastertide, away with care and sorrow!” Well yes, but care and sorrow are not switches you can flick, so that all is suddenly joy and delight. This is a different sort of Eastertide, one in which there is tragedy and sadness, especially for those ill or bereaved. Even for those of us not personally touched by COVID-19, there is an increasing sense of foreboding. What will the future look like? One thing is certain, that it won’t be an immediate return to the days before the pandemic.  For many, their personal future is uncertain, even bleak. For all of us, whevever we are in the world, there are economic and political uncertainties. This Easter is a season to live with the rest of the story, to join in with the uncertainty, the confusion, the fear even, as Jesus’ followers try to grapple with this new reality of resurrection.

Because that new reality is always our hope. We can’t flick a switch and move on into the kingdom of heaven, any more than we can decide we’ve had enough of coronavirus and get back to life as it was. But we can hold fast to the hope that lies before us, that beyond our anxiety and exhaustion and fear, Jesus is walking with us, joining us as we get on with our lives, living with us in our solitude or accompanying us in our workplace. Wherever we are, he will be.

Posted in coronavirus

Waiting in Hope on Holy Saturday

holy-saturdayFrom where I sit at home, I can hear the trains rumbling in and out of East Croydon station. I hear the cars attempting to drive too quickly round Croydon’s dual carriage ways and watch aeroplanes climbing and descending overhead. Now – well, it’s not exactly silent, but it is quiet. The hyperactive bustle has been replaced with the sounds of essential travel. The birds are no longer having to shout as they sing their territories.

This reflection comes on the quietest day of the Christian year, Holy Saturday. This is the day on which the eucharist is not celebrated, the day when all creation holds its breath, while Jesus sleeps in the tomb. That’s the spiritual and liturgical truth every year – but most years, in most churches, it’s actually full of people cleaning, preparing Easter liturgies, arranging flowers, printing off orders of service, finishing sermons, rehearsing music – etc., etc. For a day when nothing is supposed to happen, it’s terribly busy.

In this very strange Holy Week, as we prepare for an equally unusual Easter, I would like to invite you to join with me in the silence of Holy Saturday as a way into the mystery of God’s love which we celebrate at this season.

Holy Saturday is not a continuation of Good Friday, nor is it a prefiguring of Easter Day. It is in-between time, the time of uncertainty and waiting, the time of not knowing what will happen next, bad or good. Jesus has given himself into his Father’s hands as he dies on the cross. The ambiguity of ‘It is finished’ is as yet unresolved – we do not yet know whether it is a cry of failure or of triumph. We do not even have the security of knowing that the worst has happened, still less the certainty of resurrection.

Or at least, that is how it is in the drama of Holy Week. But we read it also from the perspective of Easter. We know that this day of waiting is the prelude to unimaginable joy, to the breaking from the tomb and the beginning of the restoration of all things which is the final consummation of God’s purpose, in the new heaven and the new earth.

It is that knowledge, I believe, which enables us –perhaps strangely – still to live with the stillness and not knowing of Holy Saturday. Our resurrection faith gives us the strength to bring hope into the emptiness of this day, without denying its power. Holy Saturday has its place in our spirituality, because it is still part of our human reality. The light of resurrection is the sure hope of a new dawn, but in this world the experience of emptiness and darkness is still real. Those of us given the task of ministry are called to accompany people there and be with them, to walk with them as Jesus brought the good news to the dead (1 Pet 3:19).

Holy Saturday is the process of the transformation of the tragedy of human existence: it is the experience of God descending into the depths of that which is lost and hopeless, opening up a way for us through the very powers that would otherwise destroy us.

Dermot Power, ‘The Holy Saturday Experience’, The Way 38/1 (1998), 32-39

It has felt to me that the whole of this Holy Week has had something of Holy Saturday about it, and that that will continue into Easter. So how do we celebrate Easter this year? Maybe not as noisily as we sometimes do, and certainly not by gathering together. I hope instead that in our own homes we will be able to experience the sheer wonder of the resurrection in a new way. The gospels vary in the exact number who were the first witnesses to the resurrection, but it was not many. Whether on our own (like Mary Magdalene in John’s gospel), in twos or threes or family groups, this Easter may be an opportunity to experience again the overturning of all expectation that the resurrection brought. Having gone to a tomb, they found new life. Going in darkness, they were overwhelmed by light.

In that light, then, we bring the good news of resurrection into the current crisis. For those who go to work, saving lives and keeping our essential services going, anxious for themselves or their families, as well as those who stay at home. For those who are sick, and those who pray and wait for them. For those who are sitting in the darkness of bereavement, and especially those who have not been able to say farewell to those who have died.

For our society as a whole, at a time when the superficial comforts of consumerism have been in part stripped away, the resurrection brings the good news that death is defeated, that God’s forgiving love is offered to all. The deepest realities of our human existence have forced themselves into the public realm, and require an equally profound answer.

I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, now powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord.

Romans 8:39

Thanks be to God!

 

Posted in coronavirus

I will fear no evil: for you are with me

Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil: for you are with me;
your rod and your staff, they comfort me.

The shadow of death has been cast across the world: here in Europe, and in the USA it is particularly dark at the moment; and who knows where it may fall next? Death, which had been almost completely pushed out of our minds and our lives is now out again and walking our streets. There is real, and justified, fear. The older you are, and the more other conditions you have, the more the danger. But the virus is no respecter of persons.

In these days we have no choice but to face again the reality of death. We continue to pray that the number of those who die may be kept as small as possible, but each individual death is an immeasurable catastrophe for those who grieve. However few or many there may be, in our own communities, our own countries or around the world, the fact of death is now present to us in a way that Western culture at least has tried to avoid. Those who sadly die are surrounded by a far greater number who walk into the shadow of death, who encounter the frailty of their mortal bodies as breathing becomes difficult, even impossible without oxygen. Around all of them again are the medical staff who care for them, and their anxious friends and family, often unable to be in touch with their loved ones who are ill. Death has broken out of its prison in care home and hospital, it is no longer an occasional and extraordinary visitor. Naturally, many of us are afraid, and perhaps those who are not afraid are not paying attention. The question then is how to respond to that fear. How do we live, live fully and freely, in the light of the death we can no longer ignore?

The readings set for this Sunday are all about death – and life. In the valley full of dry bones, bones with no possible life left in them, Ezekiel is commanded by God to bring them back to life. That life comes not with the restoration of their physical bodies, but when the breath of the Lord comes back into them. Then they live, and stand up. Jesus comes too late to heal Lazarus – three days too late. He is very definitely dead. And then Jesus summons Lazarus back, the dead man recalled to life. As he comes from the tomb Jesus says ‘unbind him, and let him go’. This being John’s gospel, we are right to look for more than one meaning in Jesus’ words. Lazarus is cut free from the physical shroud, which symbolises his being cut free from the cords of death, and let go back into the world of this life.

These scriptures bring us into the presence of death only in order to show, in dramatic form, that death is no equal to the life-giving power of God. We do not live in a world in which the powers of life and death slug it out like two evenly matched boxers, wearing each other down but neither able to prevail. The biblical message is that life always prevails because God is its source and also its end. Through whatever journey it may need to take, the destiny of all life is to be folded up into the everlasting life of God. It is that promise that Paul sets out in this Sunday’s other reading, from his letter to the Romans: 

If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.

Romans 8:11

These readings are chosen for today because today we begin to look towards the cross. As Lent draws towards its end, the focus narrows towards the events we remember in Holy Week, of Jesus’ last days in his earthly ministry. We are invited in reflecting on these scriptures to place them in the context of Jesus’ death – and to be reminded through them of his resurrection. These two weeks of Passiontide are bearable because of what concludes them, the event which opens up a new world of resurrection. But that resurrection life lies on the other side of Good Friday.

Jesus went to Jerusalem, walking into the valley, knowing the death that awaited him. In different parts of the world, we are in different parts of the coronavirus valley (or peak). In the UK, we are just beginning our journey through the darkest part, as numbers of cases and deaths mount up and up. Jesus went to his death so that our own journey into the shadow need never be alone, need never be the end.

Beside every person in hospital, struggling to breathe, Christ sits and suffers. Death by crucifixion was in part a death of suffocation; literally, Jesus has been where they are. By his Spirit, he connects those who cannot be physically together, as he prays for us all to the Father.

However dark our valley, however real and present our fear, we can also know that fear is not the last word, just as death is not. The word that overcomes death is life; the word that overcomes fear is love.

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