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, 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 Croydon, Poverty and Justice

So why are you doing this, bishop?

Last night I presented the findings of Croydon’s Opportunity and Fairness Commission to the Borough’s Cabinet. It has been a privilege to chair the commission. I logoam immensely proud of the work put in by Commissioners, Young Commissioners, the support team from the Campaign Company – and happy that the process seems already to have led to some specific initiatives which will make a difference in Croydon, especially to the poorest. It’s been very nice to be thanked and congratulated. But no-one’s asked me why I’m doing it – why did I say yes to what turned out to be another part-time job for a year, when I am pretty fully occupied anyway.

So I thought I’d ask myself, and share the answer here. It’s all because of the incarnation of Jesus Christ. Behind my desire to make things better for people in Croydon; behind the pressing need to bring together parts of a fractured and sometimes mistrustful community; behind the desire to help Croydon tell a story of itself which will make its inhabitants proud to live here. All of those things spring for me from the incarnational mission of God in Christ.

God does not engage in a helicopter rescue for human salvation: he doesn’t lift out the lucky / righteous from the world while leaving the rest to burn: that doesn’t seem to me to be true to the biblical story. God comes among us, lives with us, lives as us, so that the whole world may be saved. God’s ambition is not so small as to want to save just a few: God wants to save the whole world. The whole world, not just the human beings – the whole of creation is in God’s sights for his renewing and saving love.

That is the gospel of incarnation as I understand it, and it is that that makes me passionate about working in the world for the good of the world. Why did I do it? Because I hope that in a small way, with all my imperfections and mistakes, I was joining in with God’s mission of love to the world.

Posted in Croydon, General, Poverty and Justice

Croydon to Zimbabwe and back

It feels odd to be back in Croydon. I’ve just spent a couple of weeks with others from the church in this area, visiting the Anglican churches in Central Zimbabwe. It’s a link we’ve had for a long time, supporting each other in many different ways. While we were there we dedicated a hospital the church is building (at present the whole area has none at all), and attended an anniversary celebration. If any of you find church services a bit long, in Zimbabwe they can be into five hours on special occasions like that.

What’s really amazing to me is what the people in Zimbawe achieve in a country whose economy is at rock bottom. Unemployment is 80% (that is not a misprint). The currency collapsed years ago so everyone uses US dollars, and it seems to me, they have to pay US prices. But they haven’t given up, or just sat there waiting for someone else to sort out their problems. Despite the country being in deep trouble, local people – especially in the churches – are doing extraordinary things for themselves and one another: building their own schools and hospitals, setting up projects to grow food and develop jobs. While I was away Croydon’s Opportunity & Fairness Commission, which I’m chairing, published its interim report. I was sorry not to be in the country for that, but I’ve come back all the more convinced that despite national and other forces we in developed countries have many of the solutions for our local needs in our own hands. If the people of Zimbabwe are able to do so much with so little, why is it we feel so powerless?

I’m beginning to think that one of the most profound difficulties facing us in the developed world is that we’ve developed such a strong sense of our own impotence that we’re scared even to try. And of course there are far more rules and regulations.

I’m not suggesting we all just ignore the rules of our society. I am suggesting that maybe we have, collectively, internalised a sense that someone else will always stop us if we do anything that pushes the boundaries, that’s really new or radical. Maybe we’re living a myth of powerlessness, while all the time having power we just don’t use. I think it could be worth finding out.

Posted in Croydon

Learning to speak ubuntu from Desmond Tutu

I have been privileged this week to meet Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who was visiting Croydon to see, and celebrate some of the work of the Tutu Foundation (whose first Chair was the late lamented Colin Slee). With many hundred others, I saw a dance performance blending south Indian music and rhythms with salsa and western dance music, and listended to music combining a drumming ensemble and classical musicians. These were emblems of the Foundation’s work to bring together people of different traditions and backgrounds, and to enable them to celebrate what each has to offer the other. The Foundation has been working in Croydon, as in other area of possible social dislocation and division, to promote ubuntu. What is ubuntu (when it’s not a computer operating system!)?  – here is the Foundation’s own definition:

Said to be the ‘glue’ which held together the volatile and fragile nation of South Africa after the end of apartheid, ubuntu teaches us to look beyond ourselves – and in so doing, to become more fully human. Ubuntu is a traditional Southern African philosophy which emphasis our common humanity; our connectedness and interdependence as fellow human beings.

“I am, because you are” says Archbishop Tutu; “how I behave impacts not only on me but also others around me because we all belong together.” So a person with ubuntu is generous, thoughtful and respectful towards others, appreciating the differences that together make us greater than the sum of our parts.

Reflecting on ubuntu also helped me to recognise the gift that I received from our recent visitors from the diocese of Central Zimbabwe. The most precious gift was exactly that sense I had when with them, that our human identity is something that springs out of our relationships with each other, rather than coming first. We are not first of all individuals, but first of all we are in relationship.

That is an insight of many centuries in southern Africa, and it is also profoundly Christian. Many Western Christians have lost sight of the fact that we are called into faith in a body – the body of Christ, which is the church. As Christ lives in us and we in Christ, we are also equally intimately linked to one another. Some Christians in richer countries worry about how our relationships with believers in places like Zimbabwe can be an equal one, when we have so much. We may need to heed again the message to the church in Laodicea, in the Book of Revelation ‘For you say, “I am rich, I have prospered and I need nothing.” You do not realise that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind and naked.’ (Revelation 3:17). The riches of human relationship which the philosophy of ubuntu opens up – and which the gospel teaches – are far greater than any amount of material wealth.