Friday, 30 December 2011

Christ and the media

The new Sherlock Holmes film was enjoyable, in a kind of top-hatted swashbuckling way, and it made me think how much media such as film and TV influence us. Messages inside film can be powerful and a popular film may even be culturally influential, so to people who are sensitive about the spiritual temperature of society, it does matter what kind of things we are watching. Downton Abbey (much as I love it, especially that kiss in the snow) is really just escapism with a lot of nice frocks thrown in. Reading an Arthur Conan Doyle short story does a lot more for me than seeing 117 highly choreographed shots of Victorian men beating the living daylights out of each other. On the other hand, the recent BBC adaptation of Great Expectations was brilliant and thoughtful - being steeped in the Christian faith, Dickens' writing shows a deep understanding of the human condition which he lays bare inside a fantastic story, infused with the biblical motif of the Prodigal Son. So why aren't we praying for and encouraging more writers who are Christians to use their creative talents in the world of the media? We pray for teachers and vicars, nurses and maybe policemen, but when were you last in church when a Christian screenwriter or advertiser was mentioned? One such is Rhidian Brook, whose TV drama Mr Harvey Lights a Candle (2005) was one of the best written, most thought-provoking and surprising successes that year. The gospel was hidden right in there inside the brilliant script about a has-been RE teacher (Timothy Spall) who takes a group of ungrateful teenagers to Salisbury Cathedral for the day. Brook has since released an uplifting and positive film - Africa United (2010) about a group of African children who walk 3000 miles to see the World Cup. Rev Richard Coles, Anglican priest, musician and journalist, writing about the influence of Christianity in pop music in last week's Big Issue is another example of someone who's 'in there' making a difference. To fulfil the Christian vocation to be 'salt and light' in the world, we could do with a lot more like them.

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

The wonderful Rev.

Reaching for the alka seltzer at 5.30am; crib services; school nativities; carol services; visits to the lonely; difficult parishioners; awkward relations and an awful lot of mince pies. This is what Christmas means to Rev. Adam Smallbone, hard-pressed vicar of St Saviour-in-the-Marshes, inner city London. It has been difficult not to be transfixed watching this unlikely success story on TV. Our Rev. is endlessly used and abused, suffers doubt, discouragement, envy, lust and everything else normal human beings (and priests) feel. Each week something goes wrong - generally he is not blessed with a large, responsive congregation - even the local school children are rude and ungrateful - and the weasly Archdeacon is constantly on his back. The Christmas episode (19.12.11) was no exception. An untimely death, a difficult father-in-law, a blow to the eye from Colin the tramp and the sheer grind of daily ministry at the church's busiest time of the year all take their toll, coming to a head at Midnight Mass. A rowdy bunch of strangers gather in church, calling out, mocking and interrupting worship, letting off party poppers while the Rev. patiently offers bread and wine for consecration on the altar. A man starts up drunkenly: 'And did those feet in ancient times...' Hardly a carol...but at the precise moment he reaches the line 'And was the Holy Lamb of God/on England's pleasant pastures seen?' Adam holds the host up for all to see. A few more rowdy, irreverent comments, and Adam sighs: 'Great is the mystery of faith.' The Holy Lamb of God not in pleasant pastures perhaps, but in the world, in the mess, and certainly amongst those who do not even recognise him.

Sunday, 18 December 2011

Missing out on Mary

As a Protestant born and bred, I feel I have missed out on Mary. The Catholics have the BVM (blessed virgin Mary) all sorted - but where does that leave my tradition? That's why I'm glad for the Anglican liturgical reminder of Mary, observed today, the fourth Sunday of Advent (okay, so we actually just had our Carol Service but I managed to get the Collect about Mary in at the end.) When Christians get divided, theologically, historically and politically over some major issue, usually one side claim monopoly of ownership while the other side happilly throw the baby out with the proverbial bathwater. So I was heartened when the novelist Catherine Fox wrote an article about her (Protestant) thoughts on the mother of God in a National newspaper a couple of years ago, in an article wittily entitled 'The Virgin Mary can test everyone's assumptions' (pun on the Feast of the Assumption celebrated by Catholics in August.) In it she described how she didn't really consider Mary seriously until she herself became a mother and realised that for all her fierce maternal love, like Mary, she couldn't protect her child for ever. The Pieta, a sculpture of Mary holding the body of her crucified son in her arms, is one artist's depiction of Simeon's prophecy to Mary in Luke's gospel, that 'sorrow, like a sword, will pierce your soul also.' I love the words to a WC Smith hymn, which say 'Then the Spirit of the highest/to a virgin meek came down/and he burdened her with blessing/and he pained her with renown.' This fourth Sunday in Advent I look to Mary for a fresh reminder that bearing Christ in the world today might be a costly undertaking, but one which, like Mary, I want to say yes to.

Sunday, 11 December 2011

Hospitality Church

This week we were excited to be opening our new Parish Room  - obviously it called for a community tea party, a Bishop and an evening bash with wine (any excuse.) It represents a major step forward in our mission as it is somewhere to offer hospitality - a 'third place'* where all sorts of people can gather, be refreshed and meet others. A space like this, with a warm welcome and nice, comfy surroundings (yes we are proud of our tasteful green carpet and carefully chosen charcoal grey chairs) is integral to a church which believes that hospitality and welcome are in the heart of God. The room is currently our Good News and will hopefully be a vehicle for the same. Wherever society meets authentic Christian Good News, something positive nearly always results.

This week members of the Occupy London Protest met with a Bishop, a Christian Investment Banker and the Chief Executive of the FSA for the next stage of ongoing discussions about financial ethics and inequality....where did they meet? At The Centre for Reconciliation and Peace at St Ethelburga's, London. Destroyed by an IRA bomb in 1993, the current Centre was built on a site where there has been an ongoing Christian presence in the community for more than 800 years. Their mission 'is  one of hospitality, welcoming and learning from the stranger in the spirit of St Paul's reminder to the Hebrews that "some people have entertained angels unawares"' (Hebrews. 13:2). I can't help thinking that those protesters, faith or no faith, will go away from these encounters with a more positive impression of Christ than they will have gleaned from the media. And the blessing will be two way, a gift that results from an honest, face to face, equal encounter in a safe space, all sides listening.

In our ministry Team this week we also had a mutually beneficial sharing with the staff of a local hotel who often put on wedding receptions and thought it might be nice to actually meet some of the clergy who do the church weddings around the area. Inspired community joined up thinking! Whilst the freshly baked muffins, hot coffee and pastries which accompanied our meeting, tour and sharing of websites, were an obvious highlight, what was best was the sense of them discovering that the church ain't that bad after all, and us realising we still have so much to offer. Before the refreshments, we prayed the Morning Office looking out over the Thames and it felt good -  not being hidden away in a church office, we benefited from the hotel's hospitality and welcome. Let us be anything but shut away inside our Sundays where none but the faithful ever encounter us.

*The third place is a term used in the concept of community building to refer to social surroundings separate from the two usual social environments of home and the workplace (The Great Good Place, Ray Oldenberg, 1989.) It is an important idea in mission within the Emerging Church movement, where people are not always ready to come inside traditional church buildings to experience what the church has to offer.

Sunday, 4 December 2011

Why we all love the Military Wives

I was going to blog about comfort, from Isaiah 40:1-11, which will have been preached from many pulpits this morning. Then I thought, hey, who wants to hear about Isaiah when we could talk about THE MILITARY WIVES CHOIR (no disrespect to the honoured prophet...) This wonderful, inspiring and possibly unlikely group of women is a true 'zeitgeist' phenomenon touching a national nerve. Numbers at Remembrance this year were up so I guess it's not surprising that the waiting wives singing their hearts out to while away the lonely weeks till husbands return from Afghanistan was going to be a media hit, causing even the most heard hearted to reach for the tissue box as soon as their killer song Wherever You Are plays anywhere. It scores high on power to reduce us to snivelling wrecks - memorable tune; lyrics taken from real letters; the pure soaring voice of an unlikely tattooed soloist. Added to this is the power of gathered, single minded females expressing love in the face of danger, even death. In terms of Advent, it couldn't be more appropriate. Like the wives we wait for the return of the Beloved. In the meantime we need godly comfort, not like comfy slippers, but more the comfort of His own strength (com=with; fort=strength.) So Isaiah 40 - 'Comfort, O comfort my people' - got in there after all. Happy waiting.

Sunday, 27 November 2011

Advent medicine.

Advent Sunday was nearly a wash out as I went to bed the night before feeling poorly.  A poorly priest on the eve of a Sunday is a very bad thing. Next morning - that really difficult decision - do I struggle out of bed, feel worse and start the working week on the back foot (tricky as loads of important things brewing up this week) or be sensible, stay in bed, let other people use their gifts and learn the very difficult lesson of being dispensable...? A strange thing occurred liturgically at that point. I had a real Psalm 137 moment - 'How can we sing the Lord's song in a strange land?' i.e. the thought of missing Advent Sunday, the candles, the wreath, the purple, the Collect (give us grace to cast away the works of darkness') the singing ('O Come, O come, Emmanuel') was unbearable. I couldn't bear to be left out of the worshipping action, like those Israelites weeping by the rivers of Babylon. It 's the beginning of the church's year. I'm an Anglican priest. I have to be there! Being in church actually made me feel physically better. Never mind paracetamol, give me the first Sunday of Advent any day.

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Some King

Feast of Christ the King - and I thought maybe this Sunday could be the first time I reused a sermon - last year we had Jesus and the penitent thief - 'Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom' and Jesus promising 'today you will be with me in Paradise'. Then I realised (liturgical ingĂ©nue that I am) there was a different reading set for Christ the King this year, that of the separation of the nations at the end of all things, into sheep and goats - righteous and unrighteous. The Son of Man, sitting in kingly glory, meets out a seemingly final judgement, but by what criteria? - how well we preached, prayed or read the bible? No, it' s about practical action. Those poor goats, they had no idea that every time they turned a blind eye to the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the sick and the prisoner, they ignored Jesus, incurring judgement upon themselves. The sheep, by contrast, had no idea that whenever they ministered to these ones they ministered to the king. Some king. There's no escaping the discomfort you feel in the story. With this king, forgiveness and judgement seem both to be part of the package.

Sunday, 13 November 2011


Of all the services I have presided over and preached at, Remembrance Sunday filled me with the most disquiet. Something to do, perhaps, with being young (ish) (who am I kidding, but it's all relative...); being female (?) and having come from a long line of Wesleyan pacifists. 

Then I was conscious that Remembrance is one of those unique confluences of civic, religious and local life which, if done well can bless many and enhance the gospel; and if not...Well, we prepared for possibly 50 attending the local War Memorial - perched precariously on a hill which is also the busy main road between two village settlements. Cars ground to a halt and all around, people could be seen walking down the hill and up the hill to converge at the Cross. We ran out of service sheets and still they came. In this tenth anniversary of Afghanistan, perhaps we were even more conscious of the need to honour those who are dying there every week, as well as those lost in the two World Wars. 

The theological and liturgical challenge was to be a Minister presiding over a community-owned Act of Remembrance, whilst also being a Minister of the Gospel. Not all decisions about war can be uncritically baptised by anyone wearing a cassock and surplice. But pacifism and politics aside, people clearly still wish to honour the memory of the fallen, and 'it is meet and right so to do'. And so we made the most of this annual propitious mingling of church and state; gospel and harsh reality of war.

Sunday, 30 October 2011

Frustrations at the Cathedral

It's been a frustrating week for anyone who longs for the church to break out of the 'private, ineffectual religious club' image that it seems to suffer under in the UK. At just the point when there was a ready made group of people literally on the doorstep of St Paul's Cathedral (what amazing opportunities - quick what shall we do? go and mingle; be seen in dog collars; have outdoor discussions/services...?) the Cathedral closed down, to bizarrely reopen a few short days later. The heavy symbolism of the church shutting its doors just when the action was hotting up was not lost on journalists, who on the whole seem to have shown a slightly better grasp of the many ironies than anyone towing the official Cathedral party line. 'What astute Anglican (...) could look out over a sea of the best behaved civic protesters (...) and see a problem instead of a vast, synergetical opportunity?' asked Lucy Mangan in the Guardian. Astute Anglicans indeed. I don't like to think (and nor did Giles Fraser) of how this is going to end but at least it's shown that the supposed Christian messsage isn't entirely lost on commentators - and when there's a meaty subject to hand, the church has a vital role to play in contemporary life and many rich, if sometimes squandered, opportunities.

Sunday, 23 October 2011

aaaaagggggghhhhhhh, the sermon.

The sermon. 

Long, short, boring or riveting, at some point in an Anglican service the priest is expected to stand up and spout. As an exercise in balancing bible with current events; doctrine with experience, it's pretty challenging. Cardinal sins: too much personal information/too little personal information; too much enthusiasm/too little enthusiasm; for a mother - talking about your children too much, especially if they are unfortunate enough to be in the congregation. Evangelicals like 'em long; middle of the road-ers are happy with 10 minutes; Catholically-minded brethren insist on calling them homilies (?) Increasingly I'm wondering how they sit with education theory and practice which rightly values interactive learning. Didn't Jesus do something along those lines too? I sometimes come home and imagine what would have happened if I had just stood up and asked a whole lot of awkward questions that needed debate, stirred things up a bit. After wanging on for a while and noticing that some are looking at the floor/ceiling/have head in hands (clearly responding in profound repentance so that's okay) I do wonder sometimes....and Anglicans are so polite - you never can gauge a response ('Nice sermon, thank you').
So what are people expecting from a sermon? (Thoughts welcome) and what is the general point of it? (Thoughts welcome) And as for the pulpit - in this egalitarian, de-constructing, post-modern era, is it not a totally anachronistic piece of church architecture? Or am I just stirring things up a bit?

Sunday, 16 October 2011


Being a priest is all about connections. I get depressed about the loss of connection between God and the rest of life that is perceived by society and underlined in the media. And the church can collude - we act like a private club where people who 'are into that sort of thing' can sing hymns, pray, etc., while 'normal' life continues for everyone else.
But some glimmers of light this week - Frank Skinner's 'I don't worship the great God normal' lifted me - and the Radio 2 broadcaster, Janey Lee Grace, a bold positive advert for women, said 'I pray all the time, for everything, big and small. It's a conversation with God - and apparently he listens' (Church Times). Also Jeanette Winterson (she who wrote so scathingly of oppression in Christianity, in Oranges are not the only fruit) celebrated the Sixty-six Books bible- as- theatre project at the Bush Theatre - writing that it was 'an intellectually alive, socially aware challenge, not afraid to explore spirituality in a secular society'.
It is a constant priestly challenge to connect people and God in a two-way conversation about life, hope, fear, sadness, loss, joy. Good liturgy is able to touch someone in that moment, in that experience. Connection is a particular challenge at funerals; this week some more light broke through - literally: I took an ashes interment of a gentleman who was fond of quoting St Matthew: 'The sun shines on the righteous and the unrighteous alike'. At the moment of interment the sun beamed down through a gap in the autumn branches, directly onto the grave - nowhere else - to the comfort and delight of all. It was quite a moment of connection.

Sunday, 9 October 2011

X Factor - love it or loathe it?

It happens every year - I swear I am not going to watch it, then one of the children switches it on and over the weeks I get hooked. So how many other Anglican clergy watch X Factor and what do they think of it? Do Christians talk about it after morning worship? How often does it feature in a sermon? Love it or loathe it, you can't ignore it. Why? Firstly it's about people and stories - preferably an 'underdog made good' story, with tears. This can be moving or mawkish. Then it's about gift, dreams and delusion - some can really sing but don't know it - others really can't but embarrassingly think otherwise. At its worst it's the modern day freak show, like the Victorians with their Elephant Man or Bearded Lady. And it's about mentoring, the judges passing on their expertise to the less experienced who want to grow and need someone to believe in them.
Does all this have anything to say about how we do church? Church is people and if we don't hear each other's stories we're like strangers to each other. It's also about gift - discovering yours and putting it to work. It's about believing, hoping, dreaming, celebrating. So in true X Factor speak, I want to follow my (God given) dream; 'nail it' and put 110% into this thing called church.

Sunday, 2 October 2011

Amongst the many images of priesthood garnered from 'worthy' books on the subject (...priest as companion, pain-bearer, witness, risk-taker, pray-er, reconciler...makes you exhausted before you even begin) the only really helpful one which remains for me is Justin Lewis-Anthony's priest as 'Weaver' (from the memorably entitled If you meet George Herbert on the road, kill him.) Amid the often disparate and sometimes peculiar things that a priest is asked to respond to in any one week, the picture of the weaver has helped me to try and tie some of them together. Apparent randomness and unfruitfulness (pointless paperwork; house over noisy with 3 simultaneous music practices; no sermon because I had a virus all week) it can feel as though things are falling apart at the seams (to continue the sewing analogy.)
So here's some weaving: this week my own incapacity made me reflect on what it's like for those who daily experience real suffering...meanwhile the hot October sun shed its heat on good and bad experiences alike... and in the garden, the overwhelming fruitfulness of the apple harvest continues to have nothing whatever to do with my usefulness as a human being. It's just sheer blessing.

Sunday, 25 September 2011

an oxymoron for starters

Is it sacrilegious to speak of being a part time priest? Isn't the phrase an oxymoron? (Perhaps it is but it is also pleasantly alliterative, so I'll stick with it). But part time priest? Isn't priesthood an all encompassing calling for life which is rightly held up as a serious undertaking which cannot simply be switched off when you've 'done the hours'? Yes - however a 'non-stipendiary' Curacy in the Church of England comes with a certain number of hours per week, and this suits me, because I have another 'job' - and have had for nearly eighteen years - my job is the work of motherhood. I'm saved, if you like, by that little phrase 'part time' - it reminds me that amidst funeral preparation, sermon writing, study, phone calls and PCC meetings, I do need to hold back time and energy for my 'other job', even if it only really begins at 3.30pm with school pick up time.
So are demands of motherhood and priesthood in unredeemable conflict or do they merge beautifully into one joyful holistic experience? The clue is in being rather than doing. Whilst I do often switch off from both the sermon writing and the ironing, what I generally find is that I'm always a priest and always a mother.