Sunday, 30 December 2012

A discomforting fairy tale at Christmas

I went to the Ballet recently - a post Christmas treat.

It was Matthew Bourne's Sleeping Beauty, an adaptation which brings to completion his reworking of all three of Tchaikovsky's great ballets (Nutcracker, Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty).

He has admitted that Sleeping Beauty was the hardest to adapt
owing to its less than exciting plot line and lack of dramatic tension between the two lovers, i.e. in the original tale they don't meet until the Prince discovers the castle behind the overgrown brambles and happens upon the sleeping princess, waking her with a kiss. Can you fall in love with someone you have never communicated with?

The evil Caradoc leads Princess Aurora towards a devilish wedding 
To add spice, therefore, Bourne's Sleeping Beauty falls in love with her Royal Gamekeeper before being overcome by the 100 year slumber, giving her a primary reason to wake up. Her lover must then be immortalized in order to last out the 100 years too (a vampiric 'kiss' from the male 'Lilac fairy' achieves this).

To further increase the tension, the pricking of the royal finger is brought about not by a spindle but by the tempting advances of another, much more sinister suitor, in the person of Caradoc, the evil son of the original dark fairy. Princess Aurora loves the Gamekeeper, but this new raven haired man is a smooth, sophisticated, intoxicating tempter. It is the thorn from his black rose which causes her to sleep and it is he who first awakens her and leads her terrifyingly towards a 'wedding'/sacrifice at his murderous hands before the happier denouement with the Gamekeeper eventually takes place. As a young, inexperienced girl on the threshold of womanhood she faces the Adam and Eve-like dichotomy of good and evil and the apparent excitement of the forbidden.

Re-writing stories is what artists do, whether ballet, Shakespeare or film adaptations. We want the original truth to survive, of course - the Princess must be essentially good and her successful suitor a man of noble heart. There must be good and evil and good must triumph eventually. The details - mood, atmosphere and style, however - are up for grabs.

And the style is decidedly Gothic. Crimson and black roses; a discomforting, sensuous pas de deux with a bad man and a sleeping girl; a mock wedding with hints of S&M; blindfolds (they're all asleep you see...) it's all going on...

It's about those ancient tropes of fairy tales whose power lies in the resonances within our subconscious. A Christening - every parent has dreams for their baby; how will she turn out? Our progeny carry 'the hopes and fears of all the years'. Will life be blessed or cursed? Our first parents were 'pricked' with the bite from an apple; they did not die; they 'slept' outside the garden of life until Jesus Christ the Apple Tree bought the way back.

Sleeping Beauty, then; a tale of coming of age; romance, sex (Chaucer employed that reference  to 'pricking' widely and gleefully); awareness (you can 'slumber' in more ways than one, as Jesus knew); magic; healing; awakening; resurrection.

There's nothing as bodily in all the arts, as dance. For good or ill you remember your humanity when you watch dance. Every emotion is communicated through the body; there's no hiding. We are for ever embodied, subconscious and all. And we are shaped and defined by the truths of our ancient shared stories. Re-telling them with freshness and provocation is an art rightly to be celebrated.

Friday, 21 December 2012

Language rich enough to eat

We're on number five of seven of the Advent Antiphons in our stately march (aka mad rush) through the final days of Advent before Christmas.

The 'O Antiphons' developed in the early church as sung prayers before and after Mary's hymn, the Magnificat. They refer to different names of Jesus from the Old Testament Wisdom and prophetic books.

And they do sing. Even if you don't know any Latin, it's like having swallowed a slug of something rich and fulfilling that will last you throughout the sometimes tiring preparation for Christmas. They're a veritable feast of words and allusions.

O Sapientia: 17 December.

Sapientia - wisdom. The feminine divine?
The word drips juice. Sap. 
'Sweet the rain's new fall, sunlit from heaven, like the first dew fall on the first grass...' She was there in the beginning.

O Adonai: 18 December

Adonai - Lord. 
Beautiful One. Christ identified as God Almighty. Can it be any clearer than that?

O Radix Jesse: 19 December
Root of Jesse.
Like the male version of Cinderella: 'Are these all the sons you have?'
'Great David's greater son'.
God's only son.
Radix: root. Radishes. Radical.

O Clavis David: 20 December

Clavis: key.
The key which opens and no one can shut.
The key which locks and no one can open.
Be on the right side of that key then.

O Oriens: 21 December

Morning Star: 
'O Morning stars together proclaim the holy birth, and praises sing to God the King, and peace to men on earth.'
(I thought the morning star was Venus, hanging there in the dewy mist as the day breaks....?
Or it there some biblical image I've missed?)

O Rex Gentium: 22 December

King of the people.
'God rest ye merry, Gentium...'

O Emmanuel: 23 December

Know this one. God with us.
'O come, O come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel.'

I think of the O Antiphons like an Advent plum pudding - rich and full of goodness; ancient and long lasting. A wonderful mixture of things which fill and nourish in ways supermarket Christmas food adverts cannot compete with.

Happy munching.

Friday, 14 December 2012

The Blues at Advent.

I had a 'moment' this week. 

It's Advent and I like to play Advent hymns on the piano at home. However, as I sat down innocently one evening, the words 'Oh don't play any more hymns PLEASE' brought me up short. 'Can't you play Blues or something?' was the plea. So I thought: is it possible to get too religious?

Look around the house and you will see religious books, religious pictures on the wall (of my study at least), religious hymn books, worship music strewn across the floor and not a small number of tea lights. Not that tea lights are a sign of being religious necessarily but...

I'm not sure how it happened but over the last seven years I seem to have read an awful lot of religious books (Trinity, church history, pastoral theology, the sacraments, mission and evangelism, preaching, spirituality, theological reflection, leadership) and listened to a lot of religious music (Taize, Iona, New Wine, choral). On the other hand, novels, poetry and all sorts of other creative experiences have probably suffered. At the risk of separating sacred and secular, which is always a bad idea, I think I just want to live a little more...

If creativity is stifled I'll become a bore and worse than that, my spirituality will probably suffer too. 

So we didn't have Advent hymns this week. Instead I played along to All Blues from Kind of Blue by the legendary Miles Davis; discovered it was Harry Nilsson, not The Beautiful South who first sang Everybody's Talkin' and went out with my camera into the very cold and frosty Advent countryside. 

Which didn't make me feel blue at all. 

On the contrary.

Friday, 7 December 2012

The REAL A - Z of Ministry in the Church of England.

There may be a common misconception that Anglican priests spend a lot of time being holy and pious, praying and reading the bible and the Prayer Book.
The real truth is revealed in this A - Z of real, actual day to day preoccupations; things which irritate, preoccupy, keep us busy and define the happy days of ministry in the real world. Mostly they are things nobody talked about at theological college.

A is for.......... Acronyms.
Like any organisation, there's plenty of jargon. You could in theory spend the morning on IME (Initial Ministerial Training) working on your MDF (Ministry Development Folder); attend your MDG (Ministry Development Group) in the afternoon and go onto an evening governors meeting at the local C of E school where you will need to know the difference between an SEF (School Evaluation Form), an SDP (School Development Plan) and an RAP (Raising Achievement Plan).

B is for..........Bat droppings. 
Bats are a protected species in and around many ancient churches. They sit up in the roof. Which means the priest must protect the Chalice after filling it up with Communion wine, or the consequences could be liturgically complicated, not to mention unhygienic  Very important, that little cardboard square covered in white linen (the pall).

C is for..........Coffee.
You will consume vast quantities of it. You will long for it when it's unavailable and drink too much when you don't need it. Some will be delicious, some will be undrinkable, but you must plough on regardless as it's part of the etiquette of pastoral visits. 'Come in...would you like a coffee?' (Thinks: that'll be my 4th this morning...) 'Yes, that'd be lovely, thank you!'

D is for..........Driving.

Multi parish ministry is so spread out these days you may find you're spending quite a lot of time in the car. This can be an opportunity for prayerful reflection, or an opportunity to pick up two speeding tickets, one on the way to an important church meeting and one on the way back, for instance.

E is for.......... Enervating meetings.

Obviously we don't have any in this parish, but I have endured my fair share in other ministry contexts. Random thoughts during these times have included: 'What a strange green lampshade';  'Is that clock actually working?' and 'Will I be home in time for Waterloo Road?'

F is for..........Freezing cold.
A burial in the snow; a February 8 o'clock Communion; being able to see your breath as you preach; fingers too cold to pluck guitar strings. We praise God heartily for heating that works; otherwise we soldier on with many jumpers. I once wore a green woolly hat during the Eucharist. It was Ordinary Time.

G is for........Gaps.
Gaps in perception - your perception of 'success' and what you can in reality achieve; gaps in the perception others have of you, and what they think you can achieve; gaps in rotas; gaps in the night when you can't sleep; gaps into which you think you can squeeze your car when you're late for a meeting. I suppose it's life and death and all that mess in between: there are just a lot of gaps.

H is for..........Heating.
If you have some that works and doesn't cost equivalent to the GDP of a small country, you are blessed beyond compare. Even then, someone will need to think about when it comes on, how long it stays on, how efficient it is, how often it's checked, how you read the meters, who reads them and what to do if the electricity company overcharge you by 1000%.

I is for..........Ignorance.

There are the things you know you don't know which you can ask about and which others will kindly tell you about. Then there are the things you know you don't know but no one else has a clue about either. And then there are the things you don't know you don't know which everyone else does know, but is too embarrassed to point out to you. This last category is the one to worry about. Except you don't know about it. Proving, after all, that ignorance is bliss.

J is for..........Juggling.
I guess everyone who works does it, but working from home makes it interesting. And combining ministry and motherhood makes it even more interesting. It occasionally feel like rising river levels - bits of work seeping into other areas that are usually boundaried. On the plus side I can prepare sermons with a background of drum practice; I know exactly how many minutes it takes to drive from the Crematorium to the school bus stop and evening meetings at least get you out of onerous maths homework duties.

K is for..........Keys.
It goes like this: you need something from the church safe. You find the car keys, go out of the house, lock the house, unlock the car and get in. Then you remember you haven't got the church keys. You unlock the house, find the church keys, relock the house and drive to the church. Once there you lock the car, unlock the padlock to the porch, and the main church door, open the safe door with a key and a metal lever carefully hidden in special designated place, pick up the item, relock the safe, hide the metal lever, relock the main door, padlock the porch, find your car keys and drive home, lock the car and let yourself in with the house key. 
You can see that with all these variables the potential for something to get lost/go wrong is quite substantial.

L is for..........Laminating.
Once you start it's very addictive. It makes your assembly visual aids and church posters look vaguely professional. If they're bound for outdoors, however, laminating posters only protects them from the water ingress if you learn the subtle art of trimming the poster to exactly 1cm smaller than the laminating pouch and only putting the drawing pins through the edges that do not touch the paper. Otherwise within two days your poster will become a soggy, pulpy mess no one can read.

M is for..........Muscles.
You need them for moving the following objects: pianos; photocopiers; crates of wine; piles of hymn books; Curate's Training files and large babies presented for baptism.

N is for..........Noticeboards.
They are specifically designed not to admit any drawing pins except some kind of industrial strength variety that you would need to blast in with a power tool. Once in they can never be removed. Prepare for chipped fingernails.

O is for..........Onions.
It's a strange thing but the more you think about it, every ministry situation is like an onion with many layers. The more you peel back, the more you see. And sometimes it will make you cry.

P is for..........Paperwork.
I thought I had a lot of files until I became a Curate. Even the files I do have are now full to bursting and most weeks I go out to buy some more. The lever arches usually collapse after a few weeks and I shove everything into a drawer with a fancy label on it. I recently received an email with 14 attachments. I couldn't bring myself to print them out.

Q is for..........Quiet moments.

These occur when you have lost your voice; when someone's just said something in a meeting that's gone down very badly, and when you're reminded in the middle of a bad day that the clouds are still skimming the sky and the Church of England is still standing.

R is for..........Revising.
Revising your theology in the face of life; revising ministry expectations in the face of illness, retirement and relocation; revising the service mentally when a couple of children turn up unexpectedly (or are unexpectedly absent). You will always be revising.

S is for..........Sugar.
If you're out and about a lot you can never tell if you're going to be offered food mid morning. You may need that energy to get you through the next 3 hours before you get home to the kitchen. And so I find myself in an endless internal debate about whether to ask for sugar in coffee or not. If yes, AND a biscuit appears you are going to be over sweetened; if nothing appears AND there's no sugar, you're going to go under. Best to be over than under I find.

T is for..........Treats.
You need things to look forward to. Chocolate, obviously; a solitary coffee shop hour; dropping off on the sofa in the middle of the day whilst watching Waterloo Road on iplayer. Everyone needs something.

U is for..........Underestimating.
Morning Prayer, a planning meeting, a mid-morning bible study, bring and share lunch, two hours admin and two pastoral visits before an evening governors meeting is likely to be too much to pack into one 'day'. Not only do we underestimate the amount of time it will take up but also the amount of energy. You are not a super-being.

V is for..........Voices.

Think of it from the point of view of the congregation. If it's squeaky  whiney, monotone, irritable, shouty, too high, too low or too sibilant, life is going to be miserable for everyone. Make yours interesting, mellifluous, dynamic and audible.
If you yourself are hearing voices, seek professional help.

W is for..........Worrying.

Given our Lord said don't do it, it's extraordinary how much time is spent on this. I think I speak for most fellow clergy. Or maybe not...? 
Now that's a worrying thought...

X is for..........Xtreme temperatures.
It will be at least 25 degrees in the local Care Home, with all windows shut. The churchyard can reach minus 8 for a burial in winter. Employ layers.

Y is for..........Yo-Yo-ing.

Only you might know the really sad news just received about someone in the church, but meanwhile you put on a brave face and turn up for the primary school Carol concert. You could do a funeral visit and a baptism visit in the same evening, in theory. Talk about up and down emotions.

Z is for..........Zzzzz
Whatever you do, just get as much as possible as often as possible.

Saturday, 1 December 2012

Advent: a never-ending story

1 Thessalonians 3:9-end
How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy that we feel before our God because of you? 

Luke 21: 25-36 There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see “the Son of Man coming in a cloud” with power and great glory. 

A good story always begins with ‘Once upon a time’ and today the church’s story begins all over again with the first Sunday in Advent.

It is good to tell stories. Humans have done so down millennia to remind themselves of who they are, where they come from and where they’re going.

And the story of the church is the same.

Or perhaps we should say ‘the story of the kingdom’, because the origin, power and end point of the story is God and God’s everlasting kingdom, in which we have a part to play.

So let’s tell the story again.

Once there was a garden, planted east of Eden.

In it the Lord God placed a man and a woman as co-workers to till the soil and walk in fellowship with him and with one another. They were to enjoy all the fruits of the garden, except the fruit of the tree of good and evil. To enjoy the fruits of this tree was to choose to be god.

The heavenly host looked on in anticipation. Their purpose and meaning was to glorify and praise the King of Heaven for ever.

But they were sentient beings with the choice to praise, or not to praise.

Among them was one who wished for autonomy. In other words he wished to be his own god. He fell from heaven, bringing down a third of the host with him, like stars falling to earth.

He took the form of a serpent, the craftiest of beasts and came to the woman in the garden.

‘Did God really say…?’

And so the woman and the man chose to disobey. They said ‘we know better than the God who made us’.

As for the pattern of evil brought in by the serpent, God said ‘I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will strike your head and you will bruise his heel.’

The sons and daughters of the first man and the first woman populated the earth.

They all had the same choice: the way of fellowship with God or the way of autonomy.

There was an increase of evil; a flood; a new beginning; the choosing of the nations and the special call of God’s people, through the Patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

Leah and Rachel built up the House of Israel with twelve sons who became a nation.

But famine brought Jacob's sons to Egypt where they lived and multiplied; God’s people in an alien culture, until they were oppressed by Pharaoh.

God called Moses to lead them out to the Promised Land and to give them his holy laws under which to live, caring for the widow and the alien in their midst.

Judges gave way to Kings. King David was promised a faithful descendent who would rule over his people for ever.

But God’s people did not allow God to be King amongst them. Unfaithfulness led to oppression by foreign powers as they brought God’s judgment upon themselves time and time again.

But there was always the hope of something better to come; The hint of an everlasting kingdom.

There would be a leader who would call God’s people back to faithfulness; the Son of Man who leads his children like a shepherd leads the sheep.

But there would be judgment too: ‘There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see “the Son of Man coming in a cloud” with power and great glory.

The Prophets were the ones to call the people back to faithfulness; Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel; their words sometimes falling on deaf ears, sometimes on willing. Kings came and went, good and evil growing together until the harvest.

When evil predominated, God’s people went into Exile. ‘By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion.’ ‘How lonely sits the city that once was full of people! How like a widow she has become, she that was great among the nations!’

Daniel prayed. Nehemiah acted. Ezra taught the law. God was on the move once more. The walls of Jerusalem were rebuilt; the exiles returned. Prophets foretold the birth of a baby, born in the city of Bethlehem, where Ruth had brought her longed for son into the world.

‘Everything works together for good, for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose’.

‘Behold, a young woman shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name ‘Immanuel’’.

And yet that pattern of good and evil…. ‘Then the dragon stood before the woman who was about to bear a child, so that he might devour her child. And she gave birth to a son….who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron.’

Jesus ‘went out with his disciples across the Kidron valley to a place where there was a garden…Now Judas, who betrayed him, also knew the place…(he) brought a detachment of soldiers together with police from the chief priests and the Pharisees, and they came with lanterns and torches and weapons…’

Why didn't you arrest me in the Temple? I was there every day. But this is your moment, the time when the power of darkness reigns."

Zechariah told us this: ‘They will look on me, the one they have pierced, and they will mourn for him as one mourns for an only child, and grieve bitterly for him as one grieves for a first born son.

‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only son so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.’

‘And I will pour out my spirit on all flesh.’

Finally the way was opened for us to be reconciled directly with our Maker. The kingdom was breaking in and continues to this day. The kingdom of God is inside you. The kingdom of God is here and yet still to come.

We have heard the story a thousand times. It is a story in progress. We each have a place in the story. How did you find your place?

Who first told you the story?

Are you living the story?

How will the story play out in this place where we live?

Who else will become part of the story through the witness of us as church?

This Advent Sunday we anticipate the end of the story – the foretelling of a kingdom brought in by judgement and mercy; ‘the kingdom of this world has become the kingdom of our God and of his Christ’.

The story of our lives now, connects with the story of the kingdom.

This world is not our home: we look to a home that is to come.

Meanwhile we live with joy as children of the kingdom, proclaiming his death and resurrection every time we eat the bread and drink the cup, until he comes again.


Saturday, 24 November 2012

We need to talk about women

I don't normally get back ache.

When I think back to the day it started, I remember it was Tuesday 20 November, the day the Synod of the Church of England voted against the Measure to ordain women to the Episcopate.

I have tried to rationalise this back ache in other ways - it's been quite a busy week, tiredness can creep in, I raked up a lot of leaves in the garden last weekend. But none of this is the real explanation. As it creeps up my spine and along my shoulders into my neck and head I know in my bones it's nothing short of a huge spiritual sadness over a missed opportunity and a deep sense of injustice.

I've never thought of myself as radical but I can feel my patience to listen to those who take issue with women bishops running out somewhat. Before Tuesday, if you had asked me, I would have said that proper provision needs to be made for those whose reading of Scripture is different from mine. 

There are two distinct theological sets of objections to women bishops. There are those, like members of Reform who take St Paul's injunctions to the NT churches about women leading and teaching men as a trans-cultural mandate for what they call 'headship', concluding that women cannot ever be priests in charge, Incumbents, Bishops or..............'dignitaries' (this is the list from the Reform website. Sorry...dignitaries? what? what?) 

Under this prohibition I'm assuming that women may be ordained priest but must always serve under an ordained man in some way. I can't quite imagine how this theology is worked out in praxis, but I don't expect there are hundreds of Reform women queuing up to be ordained so maybe it doesn't feel like a problem to them.

Then there are also those on the Catholic wing who cannot accept women's ordained leadership because it involves (as I understand it) receiving the sacrament from someone whose gender debars them from embodying the true priesthood of Christ, rendering the sacrament 'ineffective'. They also argue that the church universal has stood by this traditional interpretation for 2000 years (a little more than the time we stood by slavery): departing from it puts our relations with the Roman Catholic church on a parlous footing and flies in the face of unity.

I am a reasonable person and I take seriously Paul's teaching that those 'with a weaker conscience' should be respected (1 Corinthians 8:7-13). I may have a 'weaker conscience' on some issue one day and I would like my views to be respected then. But I like to think that during that time I would be searching the Scriptures and reflecting on culture and tradition to see if perhaps I was wrong on that issue and needed to embrace something that other Christians have already come to accept as God's will.

But the question I'm asking myself now is when does respecting someone's conscience turn into a growing feeling that they're just plain wrong about Scripture and tradition? Did St Paul not also imply that theologically some people have been on baby milk too long and need to move onto solids now (1 Corinthians 3:1-4)? As one blogger said this week, perhaps Conservative Evangelicals 'need to get out more'.

But therein lies the problem. When we operate in churches and groups where everyone subscribes to the same view, and that view is reinforced every time the church gathers and no one sees a women in charge, or a woman with teaching responsibility or a woman standing behind the altar, then of course the very thought of it is going to seem peculiar and 'wrong'. Many who were unsure about women priests at first, after actually seeing them in operation couldn't really remember what all the fuss was about. Take The Vicar of Dibley's David Horton, Church Warden from Hell, 'converted' to the reverend's biggest fan by the end of series three. 

The further worrying thing about enclaves of like minded objectors is that other aspects of 'theology' group themselves around their primary theological objection One such is the idea that women in the Episcopate will adversely affect mission as 'young men' in the conservative traditions are deterred from offering themselves for ordination.   Well, I could speak of the young women who are, even now, reconsidering whether the church whose founder treated women with radical equality is really a welcome place for them now. 

I am not sure that after nearly two decades of women's ordination those with 'consciences' are going to change their minds about any of this. Reform-types are always going to take some bible texts and build 'headship' out of them, whilst ignoring the NT injunction 'slaves obey your masters'  for cultural reasons. Forward in Faith are always going to elevate and particularise priesthood so that only certain men can preside whilst ignoring the anointing given Jesus by a woman in Matthew 26: 6-13, which Jesus described as 'a beautiful thing.'

It is in theory possible to change your mind though. The cross fertilization of the charismatic movement with evangelicalism has brought with it a welcome theology of female inclusion - after all, the Spirit gives as he wills (1 Corinthians 12:11) and if that means he gives leadership and teaching gifts regardless of gender, we'd better not ring fence those gifts. And there are also those faithful women within Roman Catholicism who believe the Holy Spirit is calling them to the priesthood. I have listened to both Evangelicals and Anglo Catholics who, after being exposed to such influences and having an informed mind towards Scripture and tradition, have concluded that the hermeneutical direction of Scripture is towards equality of role as well as of being. 

But at the end of this week, back ache and all, if I were Paul, surveying the fall out from a Synod which voted NO and did so for theological reasons, and I looked around and saw the negative impact of this on the standing of the Christian gospel in the nation, I would be absolutely exasperated.

If I were Paul (or Peter for that matter) I think I'd just be very tempted to say: 'It's time to grow up'.

Friday, 16 November 2012

Apocalypse Now.

Daniel 12:1-3 'There shall be a time of anguish such as has never occurred since nations first came into existence...'
Mark 13:1-8 'You will hear of wars and rumours of wars...'

I’ve just finished reading a novel by William Golding (Lord of the Flies) called The Spire.
It is the story of a Cathedral Dean in the mediaeval times who has a vision, apparently from God, to build a magnificent 400 foot spire on top of the Cathedral.
The fictional cathedral is thought to be modeled on Salisbury, which boasts the tallest Cathedral spire in England.
In the novel, Dean Jocelyn is transfixed by this calling – he thinks the spire will bring glory to God; it will be a visual sign for miles around that the kingdom of God is ultimate and reigns over all.
Unfortunately for Jocelyn, and for everyone else, it gradually becomes clear that the present Cathedral is resting on foundations which will not support the weight of the planned spire.

The Master Builder, Roger, tries to tell Jocelyn this but Jocelyn interprets it as resistance to the heavenly vision.
Faith alone will be enough to secure the spire, the completion of which will represent a triumph of faith over adversity.
As the novel unfolds, we get the longest and most detailed description of a church building project that is probably recorded anywhere in fiction.
It’s all about joists and pulleys and octagons and ropes and scaffolding and geometry in decidedly pre-technology days.
It quite outclasses even the paperwork we have had to complete for our faculty application to install phase B heating in our church (which, by the way, happily begins tomorrow morning!)

The rest of the novel unfolds with melodramatic intensity as Jocelyn becomes unhealthily consumed with his passion for the spire and the Master Builder turns to drink to alleviate the stress of building a huge structure that the foundations cannot support.
By the end of the novel, Jocelyn is a ruined man, disgraced amongst fellow clergy, mentally unstable and living in constant fear of the imminent collapse of the spire.
It is a gloomy but salutary tale about what happens when we put all our faith in earthly projects to shore up our faith in the divine.

Jesus had a run in with the Jews of his day over the Temple in Jerusalem.
This incredible building had been built on the ruins of Solomon’s Temple, by Nehemiah and the returning exiles, about 350 years before the time of Jesus and was extensively
renovated by King Herod in about 11 BC.
With some stones weighing up to 400 tonnes each, it was capable of accommodating up to a million people.
In Jesus’ day it symbolized everything that was important to the Jews about their religious heritage, their identity as God’s people who were now oppressed, and their determination to keep their religion pure.
We know that Jesus went in and out of the Temple like any other observant Jew.
One day as he comes out, one of his disciples points out the fabric of the building with great pride.
‘Look, Teacher; what large stones and what large buildings!’

Now I don’t know about you but I do often wonder to what extent the things Jesus said made his disciples cringe.
It would have been best for everyone perhaps, if at this point, Jesus had replied: ‘Yes, aren't they wonderful; we’re so blessed to have this Temple for our worship. We’re so grateful to Herod for all his renovations. Praise God for our architectural heritage.’
Unfortunately, he immediately replied with apocalyptic words, dire words about the Temple's destruction which, I imagine, would have been taken rather badly:
‘Not one stone will be left here upon another. All will be thrown down.’
You can imagine the awkward silence afterwards.
Not one mention of the beauty and significance of the building.
Not one mention of how important it was for the Jews to preserve it as a sign of their being set apart by God.
Not one acknowledgement that faith in God was in any way bound up with a religious building.
We imagine them all walking off in silence looking awkwardly at each other as they came down the steps, thinking to themselves, ‘What on earth was all that about?’
We know his words went down badly with the authorities because they come back up at his trial:
‘This fellow said ‘I am able to destroy the Temple of God and rebuild it in three days.’’
Of course it’s a catastrophic misreading of Jesus’ words: they can only think literally and see their building and their religion threatened.

As for his disciples, whether upset, angry, or just plain puzzled, they needed to continue this conversation urgently and so they come to him later that evening.
They go to the Mount of Olives, a place where you can be still and ponder the significance of events and conversations that have happened down in the busy city.
On this hillside within sight of the Temple they sit and ask Jesus about his enigmatic words: ‘Tell us when this will be and what will be the sign that all these things are to be accomplished?’
As Jews they would not have been strangers to the apocalyptic – the idea that God will bring history to a final, even sudden conclusion.
They had the book of Daniel – our Lectionary is working through it at the moment.
Daniel is a remarkable book about the things that will happen at the end of time, things that will usher in the everlasting kingdom of God.
It tells of the rise and fall of kingdoms and of the everlasting nature of the kingdom of God.
The apocalyptic approach to history – the idea that things will come to an abrupt and terrifying end - is one that is perhaps easier for mankind to grasp than it used to be, as we survey our ecological ruination of the earth.
Of course Jesus’ answer to the disciples’ question doesn't mention the temple at this point at all but jumps to the end times, which will be characterized by false Messiahs, wars, earthquakes and famine.
You don’t have to be a believer in the bible to see that a lot of this is happening already.
These are the beginning of birth pangs.
Jesus’ earlier prediction about the Temple came true of course with the destruction of Jerusalem by the Roman army.
The Roman Generals apparently sat surveying the incredible building and hesitating slightly before destroying it, brick by brick, in AD 70.
The temple which was destroyed and built again after three days was, of course, the temple of Jesus’ own body.

And here we have the heart of what all this means for us today.
Countless builders, architects and Christian visionaries have given us a legacy of church buildings which dot the skyline throughout Europe, and all in their own way have testified to the greatness and the majesty of God’s own kingdom – a kingdom which cannot be destroyed.
This is an encouraging message which persecuted Christians need to hear again and again, not to mention any of us who have ever felt marginalized or irrelevant in society for continuing to hold onto an alternative way of living – kingdom living.
We are not to be like Dean Jocelyn in The Spire, who mistook the bricks and mortar for the everlasting kingdom.
When we are stripped of bricks and mortar, we remember that our faith is in a risen saviour who gave his own body to death on a cross and who lives by his spirit in men, women and children who follow him today.
Buildings can house our memories and give us sacred space in which to pray, but they cannot be the living stones – that is up to us.
As we come near to the season of Advent we remember, as did Daniel in Exile, that all the kingdoms of this world will eventually come to nothing – only the everlasting Kingdom of God’s Messiah will be eternal.
As members of Christ’s own body, let us put our hope in that kingdom and strive to bring in that part of it which God calls us to be locally involved in, together here where we live.
And let us also, particularly at this time, pray for the peace of Jerusalem and for justice to be upheld in that region.

Saturday, 10 November 2012

Re-imagining Remembrance

They say that everyone has a  good novel inside them. Similarly I had one good Remembrance sermon inside me ...but I gave it last year ('Blessed are the peacemakers'). That was it.

But now it's that time of year again I have to come up with another one. My heart sinks.

I find it so hard thinking about War.  I'm pretty against it, to be honest. I look at it almost entirely from a mother's point of view and mothers do not generally want their sons and daughters to go off to fight, kill and die. 

I'm getting the feeling the rest of The Church of England has a somewhat ambivalent relationship to Remembrance. It's a time of year when a peculiar alliance of Church and State brings thoughts about the war dead into focus for many who have no specific religious views at all. I don't know many clergy who relish it, and quite a few who dread it. One friend found himself in conflict with a uniformed society who wanted to lay their 'colours' on the altar during the service. The altar is only for remembering Christ's sacrifice, right? Or wrong? How can the church be prophetic about the horrors of war, preach Christ as the 'ultimate sacrifice' and at the some time fulfil its role as national church, providing a liturgical framework for honouring the dead?

This ambivalence is reflected in the confusion over readings. The Lectionary has Jonah 3, Hebrews 9 on sacrifice and Mark 1, the calling of the first disciples. Rosalind Brown in the faith section of Church Times this week writes: 'Today's readings make no special concessions to Remembrance Sunday, which is appropriate, because war makes no special concessions to our lives'. All very fine but what is a preacher supposed to do? Preach as though it isn't Remembrance? She then tries to link the Remembrance-inappropriate readings to Remembrance.

The Anglican on line 'Visual Liturgy', by contrast, offers 'Remembrance Readings' from Micah 4's vision of peace, something from the Apocrypha that my Protestant self has never read; Romans 8: nothing can separate us from the love of Christ  - and no gospel.

And herein lies the exact problem for a Minister of the gospel. Is it just another Sunday where we are preaching the Good News, with whatever reference to Remembrance feels appropriate, or should all normal preaching be abandoned and the preacher 'preach' on war and the 'pity of war'? 

Should I be wearing a white poppy as well as a red?

What if you're a pacifist? Can you still 'do' Remembrance?

Perhaps as fewer people alive actually remember either World War, we will have to re imagine remembrance somehow. What will that look like?