Posted in Church of England, climate change, politics

The End of Moderation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Church of England, Croydon

Not so doubting Thomas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Church of England, racial justice

God looks like you

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

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

Christ as Masai

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

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

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

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

Posted in 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 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 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.