Welcome to part time priest. Bits of life come together - priesthood, part time worker, mum, wife, person. Not really part time ontologically, obviously, but I do have other things to do, quite apart from being...and one of them is enjoying sharing ministry experiences and reflections with you.

Sunday, 10 May 2015

Swimming against the blue tide

I don't think I've ever woken up to a Britain that felt so changed as I did the morning after the results had come in for the 2015 General Election. I went to bed with thoughts of equal red/blue and a generous dollop of orange (and hopefully some refreshing swathes of green) and woke up to a country of two halves - blue and yellow. It was an even bigger shock because the opinion polls had the Tories and Labour running neck and neck, so I had been imagining how parties would have to come together in alliances - even speculating that this was going to be the way of UK politics from now on, and a good middle way it seemed, to me at least.

I suppose it shows how unpredictable politics can be. When party politics was just blue or red, things seemed a lot simpler. It seems ironic that an election campaign which saw more parties represented in front of live audience sessions than ever before, should have paved the way for a political landscape which is more one sided than ever - both south and north of the English/Scottish border. And more oppositional. One can only imagine how it will be for David Cameron, whose party wants to press ahead with more austerity measures, to face Scottish Nationalist MPs across the bench, since their main aim is to oppose austerity. One might almost feel a tiny shred of sympathy for him. Almost. 

Waking up to a blue and yellow "United" Kingdom, I felt I was sinking into a pit of gloom all day, and am still struggling. This is to do with many things - the fact so many people now need food banks, the gap between rich and poor, the nagging feeling the NHS isn't safe, etc. etc. 

More pressingly, however, I'm gloomy about the following nightmare scenario: David Cameron's 2017 referendum on Europe is fuelled by a UKIP surge (after Nigel's short holiday) and a majority are persuaded our best interests lie outside Europe. This further worsens our relationship with Scotland as they want to stay in Europe, leading to overwhelming pressure for another independence referendum. This time Scotland votes YES. The morning after, I wake up, not even to blue and yellow, but to a blue with an increasingly purple tinge. I am no longer an EU citizen, or even a citizen of the United Kingdom, but a little Englander instead. My passport will be doubly illegitimate. 

Prof. Linda Woodhead has carried out research that suggests Anglican clergy consistently find themselves positioned to the left of their congregations politically:

She argues that England as a whole is now generally slightly right of centre, with Anglicans even more to the right politically. However, 'official church teaching is positioned much further to the left of both the population, and even more so, Anglicans.' I'm not sure what teaching she refers to, but she may have a point. Someone has quipped that Anglicans are 'Telegraph readers led by Guardian readers'. Why is this?

The calling to 'seek and to save the lost', is hard wired into clergy, so that any political party which appears to favour the wealthy over the poorest in society is going to be regarded with suspicion. Ideologically I find it much harder to map the Conservative vision onto a Christian vision, than I do a socialist vision. The liturgy of Ordination for new priests enjoins them to 'resist evil, support the weak and defend the poor'. After a while, it changes the way you see society. Of course, there are many ways of being lost, and lostness can equally apply to those with wealth who are spiritually poor and whose hearts are closed to those in genuine need, those who are unemployed through illness or disability; or who are working and still unable to live at any standard even remotely approaching comfortable. And you do see need when you're a minister. It sniffs you out.

As fortune, or the Lectionary, would have it, that gloomy Friday morning, 8 May, was the feast of Mother Julian of Norwich, whose most famous quotable quote was 'All shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well'. So I tried to take consolation from that. It's just that, as one of our typically slightly less than right wing church leaders tweeted: 'all manner of things may not be quite as well as some of us had hoped'.

Sunday, 26 April 2015

G(r)owing nowhere fast

There's a conversation going on at the moment within the Church of England, about growth (or in other words, how to halt decline), which is proceeding along depressingly predictable lines, as reported recently in the Church Times: 


This week it was the turn of the evangelical group, Fulcrum, to address the criticism of Reform and Renewal, the Archbishop's vision for the renaissance of the C of E. It was the contention of the Rt Revd. Pete Broadbent, Bishop of Willesden, that now that the Church of England is finally looking hard at some really important things, asking awkward questions like 'what actually leads to growth? (or, if you like, how do we get out of the mess we're in?) those more used to managing decline suddenly don't like what they see, and are resorting to accusations that the Church is adopting un- thought through secular management techniques, seeking safety in numbers, and ignoring the fact that sometimes priests do struggle on bravely in the toughest ministry circumstances, whilst numbers drop inexorably away, sometimes to zero.

The narrative of this increasingly polarised debate goes like this: liberals are hopelessly happy to preside over decline, stressing prayerfulness and holiness above numbers, and relying on presence as an evangelistic strategy, while evangelicals unquestioningly adopt secular management techniques, flog their programmes, pinch other people's churchgoers and rely on a certain sort of leadership mystique for numerical growth (thought they're always quick to add, as an afterthought, that growth is about quality, not just quantity).

Bishop Broadbent declared himself to be 'allergic to Rev.', the gritty, award winning BBC series about an inner city priest who struggles on despite having, to all intents and purposes a 'failing' church, with no money, smug authoritarian overseers, and a handful of oddballs for worshippers.

Being allergic to Rev. is also a predictable part of the narrative. Rev. has a decided 'liberal catholic' flavour, and evangelicals got short shrift in series 1, episode 2: Jesus is Awesome, with the satirising of 'smoothie bar' Christianity. Okay, maybe a bit unfair, but excruciatingly funny precisely because there was more than a grain of truth in it.

If you're primarily geared up to growth and how to achieve it, watching the Rev. Adam Smallbone lurch from one crisis to another in a church which is teetering on the edge of closure (which is in fact what sadly happens at the end of series 3), will of course leave you feeling queasy. But from a dramatic, and even a theological point of view, anyone who's 'allergic to Rev', for me, is dangerously close to saying they're allergic to the underdog, therefore allergic to the Beatitudes, even allergic to the possibility of resurrection...?

It's a cloudy picture, this debate about decline/growth/leadership etc... In the mix is another unseemly argument around the word discipleship, a word I admit is beloved of evangelicals, but also a rather hard to ignore idea in the New Testament. I admit I'm keen on the word and do not share other people's scruples about it. Anyone brought up on David Watson's 1981 seminal book of that name is likely to read a critique (see link below) of the concept as an attack on the very foundation of a serious lifelong commitment to following Jesus, which is how I interpret discipleship.


So there you are - I love Rev. and I don't want to 'diss' discipleship. And I'm desperately hoping that instead of arguing about growth, we Christ followers could just get together and 'seek first his kingdom and his righteousness', then 'all these things' (numbers; or at least, the people God is calling, which are not always the same thing) would maybe be added to us as well....

Is it too much to hope for? Or in our little camps, promoting our own brand and dissing the others, are we just going to be going (growing) nowhere fast...?

Saturday, 18 April 2015

On the Third Day

Easter Morning Sermon

John 20:1-8 'I have seen the Lord'.

The Resurrection of the Body (Maia Press, 1995) by author Maggie Hamand (whom I was privileged to meet recently) features a vicar with a crisis of faith. Revd. Richard Page shepherds a church in a London suburb; he has a loving wife and two small sons, but for him the resurrection of Jesus form the dead is more a spiritual thing than anything that could strictly said to be physical. He's a good man, with strong convictions, but he cannot reconcile the historical Jesus and the Christ of faith. Until, that is, he has a dramatic experience in church on Good Friday.

During the sombre Good Friday service, while the congregation in quiet prayer and contemplation of the saviour on the cross, a man stumbles in, bleeding from a vicious knife wound, and collapses inside the church. The paramedics are called, the congregation is distraught and the vicar unable to complete the service. The man is taken away to hospital where he later dies. The subsequent disappearance of the body is made even more mysterious by his later reported appearances in the local park, fish restaurant and ‘upper room’ of a flat in the town. The vicar sets out to try and find out what is really going on, and in doing so, nearly falls foul of the police, his congregation and even his wife. Is he going mad, or is the man still alive somehow? What would it mean if it were true? In addition one of the congregation is also convinced she has seen the man alive and wants Richard to corroborate this, whilst others doubt.

It makes the vicar reassess his crisis of faith.
In the end we’re left wondering if he has re-found his faith in a living Jesus.

The truth remains for us that we believe that Jesus rose from the dead. Our Creeds declare, ‘on the third day he rose again’)

Why this confidence?


Who dunnits are a favourite genre with me.
In any reconstruction of events, the testimony of a witness is of paramount importance.

We will consider 1) witnesses then and 2) witnesses now

1)Paul’s account in 1 Corinthians 15 reads rather different from the gospel account - he seems to miss out that it was the women who first say Jesus on that Easter morning. 

In the gospel accounts, women feature heavily as witnesses: ‘the women in the gospel narratives are the first people to find the tomb of Jesus empty. Moreover 'they are the only witnesses to the empty tomb who had seen Jesus buried and therefore could vouch for the fact that the empty tomb really was the tomb in which Jesus’ body had been laid two days before’ (Richard Bauckham)*.

Let’s reconstruct the events from our eyewitness accounts.
In our gospel today, Mary is the first to witness the empty tomb.
She runs to Peter and John and says: ‘they have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have put him’.
Resurrection is so far from her mind, she naturally takes something known (theft of a body) and assumes this is the case here (the intriguing ‘we’ do not know where they have put him is suggestive of others with here – we know from other accounts that there were at least three women in the garden that morning – but John focuses on Mary Magdalene).
The next witnesses to the empty tomb are Peter and John.
I love the personal details: John outruns Peter but doesn’t go in; Peter goes into the empty tomb after arriving there and sees the linen cloth for the body wrapped up in a different place from the head wrapping.
It seems Jesus just passed through it (compare this to the raising of Lazarus, where Lazarus came out still wrapped in the linens...)
We’re not told what Peter made of this, but we are told that John looked in and believed: ‘he saw and believed’.
Seeing is not always believing, but in John’s case it is, though all he has seen is the absence of a body...
So we are building up a picture of the witnesses to the resurrection:
·      The empty tomb.
·      The empty tomb now seen by three disciples: Mary, Peter and John
·      The grave cloths wrapped up neatly inside.

Now we go to a different segment of the resurrection story.
Bauckham* points out that in each of the gospel accounts, we have the same narrative pattern: the discovery of the empty tomb – the appearance of Jesus to his disciples and their commissioning – and in the middle and transition: in this case, it is the personal experience of Mary Magdalene.
Added to her witnessing the empty tomb, she now sees the angels and meets the risen Lord.
The evidence of her eyes is battling with her preconceived ideas of what is actually possible – dead persons do not generally come back to life, so she thinks Jesus is the gardener.
In some way he must have looked different – though also the same – she does recognise him with her ears, when he says her name: MARY.
There is something intimate in the recognition.

We have seen that our belief in the risen Jesus is based on eyewitness accounts of the resurrection: that

·      Mary was a witness to where Jesus was buried; to the empty tomb, to the angels and finally to Jesus himself.
·      Peter and John witnessed the empty tomb, the linen cloths and eventually, on the evening of the first day of the week, Jesus himself in the upper room.
·      Paul attests to the very basic fact of Jesus’ resurrection, to Peter, the 12, James and to himself.

This leads us to our 2nd point:

2)Where/who are the witnesses to the resurrection today?
You will have realised that Paul never actually met the physical person of Jesus – he was born too late.
However he testifies to the risen Jesus because he met him on the road to Damascus.
This is our clue: today, the witnesses to Jesus are us, those who have met him and know him to have changed our lives.
A witness is the word ‘marturia’ – martyr.
A martyr is simply one who testifies to Jesus.
I’d like us to think particularly about this idea of witness as we start a new year with the PCC.
In each generation, the Church has continued because of the witness of the followers of Jesus.
Where that witness stops, the Church stops.
How can we be witnesses, if we have never seen the Lord?
Mary said ‘I have seen the Lord’
Can we say the same?
What does a witness need to do?

·     Witnesses gather for worship.
·     Witnesses when love one another
·     Witnesses care about the community.
·     Witnesses point to Jesus 

We started with Revd. Richard Page, struggling to believe in the historical resurrection, wondering if it weren’t all a myth – a nice myth, but a myth nonetheless. You'll have to buy the book and read the final 2 pages to see what happened in the end...it changes everything...

*'The Women at the Tomb: The Credibility of their Story'. The Laing Lecture at London Bible College.

Saturday, 28 March 2015

The subversiveness of Palm Sunday

Joseph Mawle (centre) as Jesus in BBC's The Passion, 20019

The BBC produced a two-part film called The Passion in 2009, staring Joseph Mawle as Jesus.
It traced the last events of Jesus’ life, from his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, up to the Crucifixion.
In it you get a strong sense of the subversiveness of that entry, during Passover, when all the crowds hailed Jesus as King, riding on a donkey, in what we now call Palm Sunday.
To understand the subversiveness of this act we need to paint a picture of what was really going on that day, a political, religious and spiritual picture of authority.

Politically, it was a tense time.
Judea was an occupied territory, governed by the Romans, who in their turn were trying to keep the peace.
Passover was the single most important Jewish festival in the whole year – the time when Jews from all over the known world would flock to Jerusalem and recall their release from captivity under the Pharoah.
Because of this there was a strong sense of national religious fervour around the theme of liberation, which, given the occupation, made Passover a highly charged time, emotionally, spiritually and politically.

So here are the Romans, not really understanding the religious significance of Passover, trying to keep the peace, perhaps complaining about these zealous Jews, not wanting any unnecessary trouble.
Because we all know that crowds have their own dynamic, and it can be for good, or for evil, such is the energy generated when thousand of people gather in one place, for a common purpose.

We might think of the thousands who gathered in Paris after the Charlie Hebdo shootings on January 7th this year.
It was a protest in which there was a strong crowd mentality of solidarity with those innocent people who had been killed out of nowhere by extremists. It was a positive thing.
Or the so called Arab Spring of 2010, in which social media was the astonishingly successful channel for rousing civil resistance from Cairo to Tunisia, resulting in several leaders being toppled from power and fleeing the country.
Some of these protests were peaceful, others less so.
Other mass gatherings have turned to bloodshed – we can think of the Tiananmen Square in 1989, in which students protesting against hardline government were shot down and massacred as the tanks rolled into the square.

The things about crowds is that they are volatile  - a sudden change of feeling and they can turn nasty.
It might be thrilling to be caught up in a march for justice, but there will always be the troublemakers who stir people up.
This is what the Romans were worried about.
In The Passion, Pilate and his wife are gearing up for the heady crowds of the Passover, these troublesome Judeans they are obliged to rule over.
‘A Judean will start an argument in an empty house’, says Pilate’s wife.
‘Priests are the worst’, agrees Pilate.
‘There are always troublemakers during Passover week. The usual whining – taxes are too heavy, our soldiers too rough.
Pilgrims gather at the Western Wall of the Temple, in the bathing houses and markets. Any trouble will start there. Five years ago there was a riot. We had to finish it by breaking bones (…) I want patrols in the lower city – it’s a nest of thieves, beggars and whorehouses. The Temple Guard are supposed to be keeping order, but don’t you believe it.’

We perhaps have a tiny bit of sympathy as we see it from his point of view.
Crowds gathering, pushing, shoving, religious fervour, lots of them loving Jesus and his rousing speeches…
It’s all incomprehensible to Pilate and his soldiers – and a recipe for disaster as far as he’s concerned.

Then we have the religious leaders.
The BBC film very subtly portrays the High Priest, Ciaphas, as a man torn by conflicting impressions of Jesus.
He has heard that the Jewish people are turning to him, but Jesus doesn’t do things the normal religious way.
He is a radical. He claims that he will tear down the Temple and rebuild it in three days.
This is blasphemy.
He forgives prostitutes and heals lepers without making the usual sacrifices.
He doesn’t appear to need, or even like Temple life – hence the scene when he overturned the tables.
He is dangerous at this Passover time – the people will forget the old ways and then Judaism will be finished – just what the Romans want.
It is vital that Jesus is in some way contained, but how to do this?
Jesus has followers, a band of men and women who walk around with him wherever he goes, hanging on his every word.
What is a High Priest supposed to do?

Ciaphas is not a monster – in the adaptation he has a loving wife and a family, and his thoughts trouble him.
‘Am I too soft?’ he asks his wife, before kissing her tenderly on the lips.
It’s a hard tightrope to walk, between loyalty to God and not enflaming the Roman authorities.

And into all this, at the height of Passover, comes Jesus.
Jesus knew the Scriptures.
He had read the prophet Zechariah: ‘Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion, shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem, behold your king is coming to you, righteous and having salvation is he; humble and riding on a donkey’ (Zech. 9:9).

(There's a wonderful clip of it, 6.23 mins into part 1, here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=25oUqfPfqbg)

What better way to announce your kingship than enter the city of the great king, riding on a donkey?
And this is just what Jesus does.
Yes, he is humble, as our first reading expresses – he did not grasp at equality with God – otherwise, a horse with armour plating would have been perhaps more appropriate.
Horses were for the military – a donkey for the Messiah.
So Jesus knows exactly what he is doing.
It is a challenge to the high Priests in fact.
When Ciaphas hears Jesus is coming into the city on a donkey he is horrified because it’s blasphemy.
It’s the last straw. Jesus must be silenced.
It is better for one man to be given up for the people, than the whole faith is lost.
Little does he know of the heavy irony of his words.
One man will be given up for the people, but not in the way Ciaphas imagines.

So amongst the crowds, the Romans and the Jewish priests, the whole of the Palm Sunday narrative weaves around the true nature of authority.

Pilate has political authority.
He is the legitimate ruling power, taking his orders from the Emperor himself.
Ciaphas has religious authority because he upholds the ways revealed to God’s people through Moses – the elaborate sacrificial system designed to purify them from sin, designed to be held by the male priests directly descended from Aaron.
And then there’s Jesus.
Knowingly coming in through the East Gate of the Temple, the gate through which Messiah will enter, on a donkey, as predicted by Zechariah.
In one sense it is a provocative act. An act of religious subversion.
Jesus is claiming to be the true Messiah of Israel, and Saviour of the whole world.
Only Jesus knew that political and religious authority were nothing without ultimate authority, and he was about to turn that on its head.

We might like to reflect on the true nature of authority as we approach the General Election.
‘You will always have the poor’, said Jesus.
There are always those at the bottom of the pile and the ultimate test of a just society is how we deal with the growing gap between the haves and the have-nots.
What does our Christian faith say to the hot topics of today’s political debate – Immigration, terrorism, the NHS and financial ethics?

As we approach Holy Week, let’s take away the image of Jesus on a donkey.
As an image it is as subversive as it can be.
The King of Heaven come to earth and humble, riding on a donkey.
What does this image say to power?
It says to power: you only have authority as far as God allows.
And God’s authority is on God’s terms – it’s not for us to wield.
It is a model for us, that we divest ourselves of any pretension to power or control as we share the message of Jesus Christ.
Because God’s authority is demonstrated by a Saviour who emptied himself, taking on the form of a servant and only then was highly exalted by God, that at the name of Jesus every knee shall bow, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.