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.