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.

Sallman: Head of Christ

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 Church of England, Living in Love and Faith

Living in love and faith – and peace, with justice

Along with a number of episcopal colleagues, I have been sent a letter recently concerning the Living in Love and Faith process on which the Church of England has just embarked.

The letter comes in response to the video produced by the Church of England Evangelical Council, and released on the same day as the LLF materials, and also to a video produced by the group calling themselves Christian Concern. Suffice to say of Christian Concern that I do not wish to associate myself with them even so far as to link with their video, and I will not discuss it further. The letter writers, along with many others, are deeply distressed by the videos, and I fully understand why. The CEEC production sets out an uncompromisingly conservative view of sexual ethics, and includes discussion of possible schism within or from the Church of England if its teaching were to include further recognition of same-sex relationships.

The LLF resources have been produced to “encourage and enable engagement and learning”. It seems to me that the CEEC production has taken up one of the possible range of meanings of the word “engage”: to engage the enemy, to begin the battle. Viewing the video, it feels to me like a call to arms. That is not the sort of engagement that the LLF process is about. It seems quite reasonable to me that those who identify as LGBTIQ+ should feel as if they are under attack. CEEC’s attack may be couched in polite terms, but it clearly invites its viewers into combat – and where there’s a battle, there’s an enemy, even if you don’t name them directly.

So what happens next? There has been a pre-emptive attack, a theological initial salvo: how to respond? The writers of the letter seem to me to be trying to enlist to their side. I think they’re going about things the wrong way.

Firstly, and speaking personally, this feels more like the press gang than an invitation from friends. The letter sets up a binary choice: either publicly declare that you agree with our position, or we’ll walk away from the process. But you don’t build an alliance by making a public challenge to a certain group of people to join with you – or else. That’s important not just for me personally, but because it leads to the second, much more fundamental problem. By looking to recruit to its side in this way, the writers of the letter are accepting the terms of the debate on the grounds that the CEEC video proposes. Everyone is either an ally or an enemy in the battle to be fought: the question is who has the strongest army.

Enough of the military language: I will not be recruited, because I refuse to see this process as a fight. LLF invites us to listen to one another at depth, to hear each other’s stories as well as sharing our understandings of scripture and tradition and contemporary society. To take all of this and let it become a battleground would be a tragedy – more than that, it would be a sin.

What I will do my best to achieve is this: I will try as hard as I can to keep the LLF space safe for all. LGBTIQ+ people are much the most vulnerable, so I will particularly try to ensure that they are able to participate in this process to the full. That will involve listening to the voices of those who are not as safe, privileged or powerful as I am, and using what power I have to remove barriers that might prevent them speaking confidently for themselves. It will involve being mindful of the intersection of safeguarding and safety. I will call out the language of conflict, or of other abuses of power, wherever I see it, and seek always to bring our conversations back into the place that LLF has tried to create: one in which we are living together in love and in faith, seeking as God’s people together to discern the movement of the Spirit.

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 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 (Apple) or  (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.


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 Church of England, coronavirus

Keep calm and carry on? or Be afraid, be very afraid …?

How worried are you right now? Yes, about the new coronavirus and the disease it causes. Whatever your personal state of mind, this is a time to think about what it means for you – and in this post I’m talking to those who identify as Christians. As Christians we are called to follow the example of Jesus – Jesus who associated with the poor, the sick, the marginalised. We are people whose first calling is not to meet our own needs, but to the bear the burdens of others. So we can’t really think about what it means to respond to this outbreak without first thinking about what it also means for others, for our whole community.

So what do we do in the face of advice to self-isolate, to avoid contact, to reduce our contact with and exposure to others? In a world where enough people are lonely already, where many people go around the whole time with their guard up, suspicious of strangers, how do we continue to witness to the love of the God who breaks down barriers, who reaches out to embrace us, who heals and reconciles us by the gift of his own body, his own blood?

Those questions drive us back to the roots of our faith. They make us realise that our response to the coronavirus can’t be merely pragmatic, still less fearful – it must be informed by our faith in God. We come into God’s presence recognising our weakness, our sin and our fear – and opening ourselves to be filled again with God’s gifts of faith, hope and love. In the incarnation of Christ, God comes to share all our human state, including our desire to avoid suffering – ‘Father if this cup can pass from me’, he prayed in Gethsemane – but with complete trust and commitment to do whatever was the Father’s will. Because he has passed through death and defeated death, we too can approach whatever may come, knowing that God will be walking with us.

We live in uncertain times, in many ways, and none of us know how quickly or widely the coronavirus outbreak will spread. We do not come to God for a heavenly insurance policy, to exempt ourselves from what may happen to other people. Our faith does not prevent us getting ill. But it does mean that we know we are always profoundly healed – whether we live all the time with disability or illness, or whether we are afflicted in passing, at root we are whole in Christ. In the light of that wholeness and that promise we can live the life we are given with the joy that Christ gives, day by day, looking forward to the fullness of eternal life. How can we, then, healed and reconciled, continue to be agents of healing and reconciliation to our neighbours and communities?

Well, firstly, what it doesn’t mean. It doesn’t mean ignoring government guidance, or deluding ourselves into believing that if we’re praying enough then we won’t be infected. The authorities in the UK have adopted a sensible and measured approach, and we are all well advised to follow it: to follow it in adopting sensible precautions, and also in not panicking ourselves or encouraging others to feel more anxious than they need.

As for what it does mean? – well, someone else has done the thinking for me, and I suggest you have a look. Alan Smith, Bishop of St Albans, has suggested four golden rules – which if we can follow, will make this epidemic/pandemic into also an opportunity for Christians to demonstrate the difference that Christ makes.

Posted in Church of England, Croydon, Poverty and Justice

Suffering – the little children

It’s been nearly a year, but this has provoked me to return to the keyboard …

In the last few weeks, OFSTED judged children’s services in the London Borough of Croydon to be inadequate – the lowest rating. Last year, the same thing happened in Wandsworth and the year before in Lambeth – and that’s just in the diocese of Southwark. Across the country, the services that local authorities offer to the most vulnerable children are buckling under the pressure of (rightly) increasing expectations coupled with decreasing resources.

The normal range of reactions have followed. Those who are sufficiently distant look on in alarm and anger; those who are more nearly involved, or who think they might be able to make something of it, begin to look for ways to cast or shed the blame. Among the many failings identified in the OFSTED report are suggestions that some people may have focused more on making the systems look better, rather than responding to the practices which were putting children at risk. When things go wrong it’s a natural though not a noble human reaction to try to cover your own back.

It’s a normal human reaction – and maybe one that we all share, particularly when we look on, and don’t think about how we might also be in some way responsible, or what we might do in response. There is more to it than being involved in the work of children’s services, in Croydon or anywhere else. We are all connected to one another in our society, so it doesn’t feel at all right to be angry at the conduct of others without asking the question ourselves about how we might need to answer for this state of affairs.

When something goes wrong so often, and so drastically, it asks a question of all of us, not just those of us in Croydon (or in Wandsworth, or Lambeth, or …). What is happening in children’s services is an effect of a wider phenomenon for which we are all responsible. As many commentators have said, UK voters demand Scandinavian standard services while only being willing to pay USA level taxes. That contradiction is now paying out in the lives of the poorest and most marginalised. At that national and political level, it is all our responsibility.

But in our local church communities as well, in our schools and chaplaincies, it is our responsibility actively to work for the wellbeing of our communities. It is at the heart of our mission as God’s people. Of the five marks of mission identified by the Anglican Communion, the third is ‘To respond to human need by loving service’; and the fourth
To transform unjust structures of society, to challenge violence of every kind and pursue peace and reconciliation’.

At a time when statutory authorities are struggling more and more, will we just criticise? Or will we take our part in mending a broken world?

Posted in Church of England

Singing new Songs: receiving the gifts of black and minority ethnic Anglicans

This is the sermon I preached last night at the farewell service for Ven Danny Kajumba, Archdeacon of Reigate 2001-2016:

God’s calling can take you in many unexpected directions. I would never have imagined, as a good evangelical boy going off to university, that I would end up who I am or where I am, still less in what I’m wearing (a cope, if you’re wondering). Still less could Danny have imagined the twists and turns, the opportunities and roles, that he has been called to undertake in God’s service.

Let me remind you of a little of his biography: Having been exiled to Britain during Idi Amin’s regime in Uganda, Danny worked at different times in a factory, as an auxiliary nurse, a youth officer, deputy warden of a Christian hostel and as proprietor of a home for the elderly before training for the ministry on the Southwark Ordination Course. He was ordained in 1985, serving a curacy in St Albans Diocese before returning to Uganda in 1987 where he served as a non-stipendiary minister whilst working as a senior executive in the Ugandan Government and later as the Secretary General of the Kingdom of Buganda, in what is now southern Uganda. He came back to this country and served as Team Vicar in the Horley Team for a couple of years, before becoming Archdeacon of Reigate in 2001. Since 2009 he has chaired the Committee for Minority Ethnic Anglican Concerns of the Archbishops’ Council. He is, of course, in the Ugandan context not merely Archdeacon but also Prince Danny. His other trusteeships and interests are too numerous to mention, though before the evening is out I will ask about Adonai Paintball in Kampala, which sounds fascinating – is it perhaps a Christian version of paintball where you compete to offer yourself most quickly to the others’ weapons?

Danny is a man of many gifts and talents, as that brief biography makes clear. I have benefitted often from his wisdom and canny business sense, and equally from his infectious joy and enthusiasm for the gospel. I know that many sitting here will have much to give thanks for in his ministry in the Reigate Archdeaconry, in the Diocese of Southwark, in the Church of England, in this nation, in Uganda … he has been a busy man. No wonder he’s needed so many mobile phones! But he has always used his gifts and talents for the benefit of others, not himself. Danny is a man of great generosity.

In particular, Danny has been an example and an encouragement to those called into the church’s ministry from black and minority ethnic communities, and among so many, it is that aspect of your calling, Danny, I would like to emphasise and reflect on tonight. The Church of England has wrestled for years with its failure to attract black and minority ethnic people into positions of leadership, and especially into the ordained ministry. The recent initiative entitled Turning up the Volume aims to double the number of minority ethnic clergy in senior positions by 2024 – we have long lead-in times in the Church of England. Given what I have seen of the calibre of many BAME people within the church, I can only applaud that target, and regret that we have set it to ourselves so late in the day. But I would also like to suggest what we can do more.

We definitely need to turn up the volume, to give conscious and deliberate attention to BAME representation in the church. To continue the analogy, we also need as a church to learn to sing some different tunes. I should make it clear that I’m not talking about hymn books here – I’m talking about our culture and patterns of working as a church. Being one myself, it is difficult at first to discern how many of the ways and customs of the church are specially adapted for middle-aged, middle-class white men. I swim in my own natural waters. But the less like that you are, the more unfamiliar are the cultural waters of the church. I speak not only of my work with Danny over the last four years, but my previous experience of multi-cultural church life in Islington and Hackney: I have seen how much those who don’t fit – and this applies to many women, and to white working-class people too – have to swim against the tide of the unspoken and often unconscious assumptions about how things are, or how things are done, of what’s proper.

We sing a particular song, if you like, which is familiar and comfortable. But it’s not the same song that many other members of our society sing. It’s not better, or worse, but it’s unfamiliar. And if we are to be the Church of England, and not just the Church of the middle-class English, we have to find ways in which all of those different songs can be woven together in one body of Christ.

That does not mean creating protected spaces in which minority activities can flourish. It’s far more radical than that. In Croydon where I live we are all ethnic minorities, because there is no one group which is in the majority. That’s certainly not the case in the Reigate Archdeaconry, or in most of the country, so it is all the more of a challenge to incorporate those songs of different cultures and ethnicities as equal partners into the church’s one hymn of praise which is its life together.

Today is the day when the church remembers Bishop Edward King. At the turn of the last century he was taken to court for un-Anglican innovations like mixing the water with the wine at the eucharist. That was a small concrete symbol of the new song of Catholic spirituality which he was helping to weave into the life of the Church of England. He is remembered now not for being a firebrand campaigner – because he was not – but for his holiness and his devotion to those he was called to lead and serve in ministry. The church in his time was renewed, despite the fears and anxieties of many, through the introduction of new ways of being that seemed deeply foreign.

Danny’s ministry has been a living reminder of a calling for the whole church – not just those who are BAME. I know that at times he has felt unable to offer his gifts fully in ministry, because the church has not been able to receive them or make use of them. But that very frustration has also been a sign of what we need to do – to learn new ways of working, new songs of faith for a new, more diverse people who are now in our churches – and for the very many more who do not see that their song could be sung in our space.

One of the joys of my time working with Danny was when he, the Archdeacon of Croydon and I went together to visit our brothers and sisters in the church in Zimbabwe. Even though none of his languages are supposed to be particularly closely related to Shona, he managed to make himself understood, and clearly felt right at home. I on the other hand was continually trying to work out what I was meant to do next. For all that I understood the liturgy perfectly well, it was enculturated in a different way of being, sung in a different song. I would be glad if I found that in more parts of the Church of England I was slightly out of my own comfort zone too.

There are many gifts given to the church, Paul tells us in the epistle reading; as we gather here to celebrate we do so as one part of Christ’s body the church, one body with many gifts. Tonight we recognise all that Danny has given to that body, the many ways in which he has enriched our lives and our discipleship. But this is a celebration of the gospel, not of one person. We are met here by our Lord in word and sacrament; in the eucharist Christ always invites us all to come and be transformed. If we are to give Danny the gift tonight he would most wish, we should go out to live our own lives of discipleship enlivened yes, by all we have received – and will continue to receive – from Danny, but most of all by the Spirit of God who lives in him and in us.

Danny as I said is a generous man – not someone to be jealous of others’ gifts. At this time of passing on of ministry, I know he shares with Moses the prayer, ‘Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets’ – let us all go out to proclaim and live the good news of Jesus Christ, and inspire others in their turn to do the same.

Posted in Church of England, Croydon, Poverty and Justice

A living wage you can actually live on

In case you’re wondering, that’s the difference between the real Living Wage, and the government’s rebranding of the minimum wage as the ‘National Living Wage’. The
genuine article is calculated to provide a basic income which will enable a family to live without needing to get extra jobs – which will enableparents to spend time with their children, and have some of the rest and recreation time we all need. It doesn’t give anyone a luxurious life, but it should enable people to live with dignity.

That’s why I don’t believe wages should be set purely according to what the market will pay. The market will always pay the least it can get away with and still obtain a decent product. That’s what markets do. To treat wages as purely an affair for market forces means thinking of people as no more than the work they do. I can’t think about people like that, and I don’t think any Christian can either.

Markets are powerful and effective at many things, but they should not dictate our beliefs about human beings or our decisions about how we live together in society. This morning’s reading from the prophet Isaiah at morning prayer reminds us what a society is like that forgets its purpose, and what is the remedy:

Cease to do evil, learn to do good;

seek justice, rescue the oppressed,

defend the orphan, plead for the widow.

I believe that the Living Wage is one of the ways we can do in contemporary society what Isaiah was telling the people of Judah God wanted of them. As simple as that.

It’s very encouraging to see that a good number of dioceses and other church bodies have taken the step of becoming Living Wage employers, and some big employers have signed up, which is great news for many many people. I’m very glad that the London Borough of Croydon has now become an accredited Living Wage employer. But there are still many many others who haven’t taken that step.

Many parishes and churches are also employers (have a look here for one story), even if only of very few people in many cases. And many may be paying the Living Wage anyway. But it would be a great witness to society at large, and to the many employers who are members of church congregations, if each church which can was to sign up, and display its commitment to a society which exists for a higher purpose than the market: which exists to ensure to all its members the dignity of a decent human life.

Posted in Church of England

Sheep and shepherds

I’ve just devoured James Rebanks‘ The Shepherd’s Life, which is a fascinating and brilliantly written account of his life as a shepherd on the Cumbrian fells (with a little international consultancy on the side to help with the bills). As near as I can reckon, it tells us non-farmers what it really means to live with that connection to a place and to a way of life which is almost completely foreign to a market society. Looking at it from the outside, why would anyone work so incredibly hard for such little reward? But that question only makes sense when you’re thinking of ‘work’ and ‘life’ as two different things. You contract for work in order to have enough money to get on with the things you really want to do.

But for farmers – or at least for Rebanks – it’s not like that. The life and the living are one and the same thing. You have to make enough money to survive, so you work as cannily as you can to maximise your return. But that’s not the heart of it. Rebooks begins by talking about the way sheep on the fells are ‘hefted’ to a specific area. Even though there aren’t any fences, they know their territory, and that’s where they stay. It’s their space. As a one-time walker on the Cumbrian fells, I can attest to the indignation of a Hardwick sheep when confronted by a stranger carrying a knapsack. One definitely gets the feeling that they’re thinking ‘if I had proper teeth, I’d be after you …’.

Rebooks leaves the reader to makes the connection with himself and his fellow farmers. But they too are hefted to their places. Not necessarily the individual farm, because people move from time to time. But to the area, the territory, they are inextricably linked. A lot of Church of England clergy feel just the same about their parishes.

Given the centuries of describing Christian ministry as ‘pastoral’ (pastor = shepherd), `i couldn’t help starting to think about the connections. Ito s an important part of our Anglican life that the normal way of ordaining or licensing any priest (or for that matter bishop) is to a specific place. We are not free-floating; our ministry is always to a place or to a community. Sometimes nowadays the community on question may be a non-geographical one, a virtual community, but there is a community nevertheless. And the great strength of the parish model is that it reminds clergy in the Anglican tradition (even those not licensed to geographical parishes) that our ministry is not just to the gathered congregation, but to all.

The parish system was set up for a pattern of ministry in which it was expected that the majority of people – in principle, all the people – would be connected to their parish church for at least the rituals of living and dying, and often much more. We no longer live in that world, and less so as the years go by. The reduction in the number of people identifying as ‘Anglican’ may not make much difference to church attendance (they mostly didn’t come anyway), but it does make a difference to baptisms, weddings and funerals. Parish priests (already in many places; increasingly so in the future) cannot expect to be have a key role in the lives of the families of the parish, just by virtue of their role.

Does that mean then that we give up on the parish as a unit of organisation? Not according to the clergy of the Church of England, for whom it remains a key and valued part of what our church means. That response rejoices my heart, but I’m also all too well aware of how stressful parish ministry is for many clergy. I want to see parish ministry continue and flourish, but parishes and their clergy can only do so if the patterns by which we have worked are transformed. In order to preserve what we have, we need to change it.

Firstly, we need to start thinking of the parish system not as a gift of an existing set of pastoral relationships, but as a specific and special field of mission. Parish clergy can’t expect the parish to come to them, but they know where the focus is for their reaching out with the good news of the gospel. (See my last post for some more of what I mean …). That doesn’t just provide a piece of territory: it sustains a particular view of the church’s mission, which is what maintains the continuity with the earlier model of the parish. There is the same care for the whole community, the same openness to all, the same rootedness in place – now offered to a wider community that does not any longer think of itself as belonging to the church, and which does not speak the language of faith. The worshipping community also is committed to its place and its parish, but also knows that it has something distinctive and different by virtue of being the church, which it offers to the parish of which it is also part.

Secondly – and this is really where I get back to James Rebanks – if the parish system is to thrive, it will only do so by re-thinking the messages that underlie our pastoral model of ministry. My perception of the Anglican ideal, at least as it has been expressed in many traditions within the church, is that the pastor should be continually, intimately involved with the life of his flock. He or she knows the details of their lives, is aware of all the different currents of joy and sorrow in the community, lives the life of the flock day by day and minute by minute. I suspect it’s always been a myth, but it was maybe once a myth with power to inspire and encourage. As the number of clergy decreases through retirement – and the number of worshipping communities remains very much the same – that vision can increasingly only be one which demoralises and defeats the clergy. And when it is also the expectation of the people of God in a local church, it can lead only to frustration and a sense of having been abandoned, when the clergy are no longer able even to aspire to such a form of ministry.

So we want to renew the parish system, with a vision for mission in each local place, and simultaneously to liberate both the lay people of the church and the clergy from an unsustainable ideal of pastoral ministry.

So, what about the sheep on the Cumbrian fells? Herdwicks live for months of the year on their fell – their place, their territory, even their parish – without seeing a shepherd at all. When times are all right, they fend for themselves. Rebanks talks about going onto the fells when the weather is bad, and finding that the older ewes, experienced in storms, have already led much of the flock into the most sheltered places. Does that mean that Rebanks is no longer their shepherd? Of course not – he searches out the sheep who haven’t made it to safety, he ensures that there is feed for the flock. And when the flock need to have closer care, especially at lambing time, he gathers them off the fell and is there night and day to take care of sheep and lambs.

The church’s model of the shepherd always there, always nudging and urging, correcting and caring, is not the only one. Being a shepherd can also mean equipping a flock to organise themselves, being there for the key moments of celebration or crisis. The sheep know who their shepherd is without needing to see him or her every day, and s/he knows the flock likewise.

Could we dare to think about pastoral ministry this way? For worshipping communities to become able to sustain and maintain their lives much more independently, knowing and loving their clergy, and being known and loved in return, but leaving behind the dream of an impossible intimacy? It wouldn’t just mean change for clergy, but for the whole people of God. But it might be what enables the renewal of parish ministry for the next generation of the church’s life.