Friday, 27 April 2012

Remembering Christina Rossetti

Remembered today in the Church of England Lectionary is Christina Rossetti, poet and sister of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, of the famous Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, which wrote and painted its way through the 1840s to the 1880s, producing such classics as Millais' Ophelia and Holman Hunt's The Hireling Shepherd.

Christina was never a formal member of the Brotherhood, Victorian gender roles disallowing such such a thing, but unofficially she was an important member of the inner circle, whose considerable poetic prowess revealed a life of rather sombre self denial and consequent devoted Christian faith.

She was twice unlucky in love. Her engagement to the minor Pre-Raphaelite, James Collinson, was called off after he became a Roman Catholic, and her love for Charles Cayley came to nothing when she became convinced he was not a Christian.

Her poetry is harshly uncompromising about the brevity of life and sweetly sad about the certainty of death.

                                When I am dead, my dearest,
                                               Sing no sad songs for me;
                                               Plant thou no roses at my head,
                                               Nor shady Cyprus tree.
                                               Be the green grass above me
                                               With showers and dewdrops wet;
                                               And if thou wilt, remember,
                                               And if thou wilt, forget.

She can do sensuous too, though, as in Goblin Market - a poem about female desire and temptation (is it God or patriarchal society which determines what is forbidden?) 

                              She cried 'Laura' up the garden,
                                             Did you miss me?
                                             Come and kiss me.
                                             Never mind my bruises,
                                             Hug me, kiss me, suck my juices
                                             Squeezed from goblin fruits for you,
                                             Goblin pulp and goblin dew.
                                             Eat me, drink me, love me:
                                             For your sake I have braved the glen
                                             And had to do with goblin merchant men
(definitely not a children's poem...)

For my money she is best when she turns her thwarted feeling towards the consolation of faith, as in the middle verse of the perfectly constructed A Better Resurrection:

                                           My life is like a faded leaf,

                                           My harvest dwindled to a husk;
                                           Truly my life is void and brief
                                           And tedious in the barren dusk;
                                           My life is like a frozen thing,
                                           No bud nor greenness can I see:
                                           Yet rise it shall - the sap of Spring;
                                           O Jesus, rise in me.

Her passionate nature was drawn to both ends of the Anglican spectrum - first Evangelical, then Tractarian, so today there is much to celebrate - Anglicanism in all its many hues; a woman railing against patriarchy; a Pre-Raphaelite poet and a Christian who found that putting one's hopes in this life alone is ultimately futile.

Monday, 23 April 2012


I wonder what flavour the next Archbishop of Canterbury will be? 

Even now, in vestries, parish halls and pubs, small groups of interested parties are weighing up the options and making pronouncements about the need for one churchmanship to prevail over another. We must get 'our man' in.

The papers will pit imagined candidates against each other, taking bets on possible outcomes and painting things in broad brush strokes for easy identification - 'Catholic', 'Liberal' or 'Evangelical' - terms which are at best only understood by select church people and at worst, properly understood by nobody.

So in an attempt to clarify, or you may say, muddy the waters still further, here is:

The Idiots' guide to Anglican Churchmanship - the three main types, the highs, the lows, the complications and the mix ups.


Highs: Incense. Barring a really sore throat, I'm all for it. Why not use all your senses in worship? The sense of smell is the only one of the five sense directly linked to the emotional control centre of the brain. Which explains why I suddenly thought the presence of God had come upon me while watching my son play football the other day. In a garden nearby someone was burning fresh apple wood - it just smelt like divine worship.

Lows: Unhealthy interest in arcane nomenclature of ecclesiastical vestments. To cotta or not to cotta? That is (apparently) the question.
Grown men in lace......................................enough said.


Highs: Permission to use your brain.
In other disciplines the word 'liberal' has a proud pedigree - it means freedom after all - so why is it such a dirty word among some? I've concluded that it's a 'good' word in direct proportion to to the extent to which you perceive yourself to be in a minority, or in a group that in some way has been historically restricted. So 'liberal' has always been good news for women who feel called to Ordination. This fact alone complicates churchmanship considerably.

Lows: A kind of scrupulousness and over-sensitivity about the more extreme and invigorating expressions of worship. The liberal middle ground can feel a bit safe. There's a jumpiness about intense Anglo-Catholic passions on the one hand, and on the other, a nervousness about heartfelt evangelical/charismatic songs which contain any hint of penal substitutionary atonement, the wrath of God, the certainty of faith, Christian truimph(alism) and Jesus being 'altogether lovely.' Apologies if occasionally us more enthusiastic types just want to jump up and down and punch the air and shout 'Our God is AmAzing, yeh!!!!!' - it must be terribly embarrassing for you.


Highs: They can find books of the bible (even quote great chunks of it) without resorting to the index. 
Lows: A bit wordy. You can feel like you have digested a lot of the same sort of food after 15 years of 35 minute sermons on the cross. Yes, yes, we all know Jesus died for our sins but what about mounting country-wide concerns about gross financial inequality/global warming/rubbish conceptual art/Britain's Got Talent?


The Charismatics
Can you actually get Charismatic Anglicans?
Two word answer: New+Wine.

Highs: Personally I find the idea of a lot of Anglicans in a massive camp site getting over excited about their faith quite refreshing - though you may need to take a couple of paracetamol. Also they do have some good tunes, thanks to a bunch of young guys called mainly Tim and Matt and some really groovy minor 9th chords:

Lows: A lot of the tunes are too high for ordinary people to sing: it goes back to the incense thing - after a while you just get a sore throat.

The Emerging Church
This is a biggie and complicates
everything still further.

Take the UK's Faith/Justice/Arts festival, Greenbelt for instance.

Where else would you find 1970s former charismatics rubbing alongside LGBT campaigner, Peter Tatchell; Franciscan priest, Richard Rohr; Chaplain to the House of Commons, Revd. Rose Hudson Wilkin and sacramental Fresh Expressions? (plus an awful lot of Anglican clerics going around incognito, eating vegetarian falafel pittas.)

The edges are blurring...I even went to an Anglo-Catholic Charismatic conference in Hertfordshire last year - Benediction of the blessed sacrament with people lying all over the floor, 'slain in the Spirit.' Loved it. Came back very confused.

Single issues such as poverty and hunger unite those from differing backgrounds under yet another label - radical - and get you into trouble with those who want to keep labels a bit more well defined. So contrast/compare Sara Miles, liberal Episcopalian and radical author of Take This Bread (Random House, 2007) and Shane Claiborne, 'evangelical' founder of The Simple Way...

All of which is to say that eating just the pink liquorice all sorts, or just the black ones, or sticking rigidly to the stripy ones, can be a bit boring (OR sensibly safe - after all you know you like those ones, you've always liked those ones and you know where you stand with those ones...)

And is variety always a good thing? I'm a big fan of a well organised supermarket but sometimes I get bamboozled by all the choice.

Have you ever felt the need to vary your diet/restrict it a bit more for simplicity? Does anyone out there want to ditch labels and get on with just serving one another in Christ? Or is that hopelessly naive, even dangerous to the true expression of the gospel/Church undivided?

Over to you.

Tuesday, 17 April 2012


It's End of Year Assessment time for Church of England Curates in training......whooppeeeee!!!

A bit of light hearted relief seems in order, therefore.

Prepare to take part in the alternative multiple choice test to see to what extent you are...


Answer A, B or C, according to which statement best fits. BE HONEST.

1. Vocation and Ministry
A. I can give an account of my vocation to ministry and mission and my readiness to exercise ordained ministry within God's church, wherever I am called, far afield or close to home, in poverty, in sickness and health; till death do us part. I am a natural leader, and an effective, even reflective, practitioner. I have entirely memorised Canon Law and am responsible for several successful ecumenical and interfaith partnerships across the known world.
B. I feel called to solitude.
C. Sometimes I literally wake up in the middle of the night and think 'O God, what on earth am I doing here?'

2. Spirituality
A. I am prepared to lay down my life in loving, collaborative, Spirit-inspired service, in personal discipleship, in diaconal, priestly (and, God willing, episcopal) ministry. My exuberant prayer life is continuously inspired by the gifting of God's grace and I am fully prepared for the stresses and joys that someone of my calibre will inevitably face in leadership.
B. I feel called to silence.
C. I normally say a few prayers in the morning. I have read a few books on spirituality - some were dull. I know what the letters BVM stand for. I fancy Rob Bell in his (liberal evangelical) glasses. I thank God for the smell of blossom after rain.

3. Personality and Character
A. I show insight, openness, maturity, integrity and stability in all my personal relationships. My leadership style is transparent and I have a sixteen step daily self care programme that I never deviate from. Obviously I look after all my less able colleagues as well.
B. I am drawn to the quiet life.
C. I am endlessly frustrated at the enormous gulf between by dreams for mission and ministry and my complete failure as a human being to be even civil in the early morning to those I love most.

4. Relationships
A. All healthy. They are characterised by empathy, respect and honesty. I can resolve conflict sensitively, even conflict about pews. I can form community within diversity and other long phrases.
B. I am more at home in the company of the Almighty than with anyone else.
C. I love people, except on occasions when they are quarrelsome, petty minded, judgemental and arrogant. Like me.

5.Leadership and Collaboration
A. I can manage others, lay and ordained, with my eyes shut. I exercise effective collaborative leadership and show an integration of authority and obedience at all times and in all places. In other words, I know when to be boss and when to let someone else think they are.
B. I love working alone.
C. I find this whole collaboration thing quite messy. Things were a lot simpler when I was a lay person and could complain from time to time about the dreadful clergy.

6. Mission and Evangelism
A. I have written extensively about the imperatives of the gospel and the nature of contemporary society. I can enculturate church for the post modern age - I have Fresh Expressions and cool acronyms coming out of my ears. When my single handed re-writing of  Common Worship was published, the entire Liturgical Commission was made redundant.
B. I pray daily that God will save the lost.
C. I really want to go out there and spread the word, but will they think I'm a crackpot?

7. Faith and Quality of Mind

A. I am a skilled (sometimes the only correct) interpreter of the bible and I communicate the fundamental traditions of the faith accurately, reading hugely and becoming a person of vision and general wonderfulness. I am disciplined in study and can give an account of how my personal commitment to Christ and discipleship is being shaped within the roles and expectations of leadership and oversight of very long sentences.
B. I love to read alone.
C. I get down when I get a duff mark after 52 hours of study and writing on Theological Reflection. I don't often feel like I'm losing my faith but occasionally I feel like I'm losing my mind.

Mostly As: You should apply to become the next Archbishop of Canterbury.
Mostly Bs: You should probably become a hermit.
Mostly Cs: You are a normal Curate and human being. Congratulations and keep up the good work.

Thursday, 12 April 2012

This is your (liturgical) life...

I think I may be getting the hang of liturgical life...After Holy Week there was a chance of a short break away. The change of perspective was everything. I was feeling much too religious around Easter - couldn't stop thinking about church. What I needed was a Dorset pink sky, some hills and the restless sea.

This post- Easter Sunday time of year feels like the top of a mountain that was sometimes arduous to climb during Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, all the way up to Resurrection. Now it's hopefully the greener downhill slopes of Easter-tide, Pentecost and finally Trinity Sunday and the long Spring/late Summer of Ordinary Time.

I used to have a low church despair of Anglicanism's insistence on giving every day things religious names. I still can't get used to 'Holy Saturday'. Don't we all need a breather between 'Good' Friday and Easter Day? I can't seem to cope with anything religious on that day. Please no liturgy. Just silence.

But people like to claim ownership I suppose, so inevitably anything that wasn't Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent or Easter-tide was going to be christened 'Ordinary Time'.
But now I quite like the idea. I'm sure God can be found there. During Ordinary Time I want to remember there is no sacred/secular divide. But I'm running ahead of myself in my new found attachment to liturgical time...Easter-tide goes on for weeks yet...

In our family we have two Christmas birthdays (bad planning); two Easter birthdays - and me in June - right near Trinity Sunday. Then we have no birthdays for exactly six months till it all starts again in December. We're always either celebrating or recovering.

So I know what 'Ordinary' feels like.
And now I know what recovery feels like.
They are both, like the 'ordinary' created order, 'very good.'

Sunday, 8 April 2012

Puzzled at Easter...

Sermon for Easter Day
Sunday 8th April 2012

Mark 16: 1-8
I wonder if there’s any truth in the saying ‘familiarity breeds contempt’?
There are parts of the story of the first Holy Week that would have been all too familiar to the disciples.
Many before Jesus had got into trouble with the powers that be for stirring up religious controversy.
Messiahs had come and gone.
Most of them had been flogged or crucified.
Everyone knew what happened after a crucifixion – the dead body taken down and buried.
In a sense it was no different with Jesus.
There had been such high hopes – he was supposed to be ‘The One.’
‘Are you the one to set us free from the Romans?’
‘Show us a sign that you are the Messiah.’
‘We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel…’
But then came the arrest; the trial; the crucifixion.
What a dreadful dead end.
He didn’t even last out on the cross as long as some…the soldiers found him dead already when they came to inspect the bodies at the end of the afternoon.
So far, so familiar.
And then we come to the beginning of our gospel reading from Mark 16.
‘When the Sabbath was over…’
That phrase ‘when the Sabbath was over’ really struck me.
When something is ‘over’ it is finished.
It is too late.
It has come and gone.
It’s as if the familiar part of the story is over and, for the first disciples, something very unfamiliar is about to begin.
But they don’t know that yet.
It seems that the disciples have completely forgotten
all Jesus’ predictions that on the third day he would rise again.
I think we can forgive them for that.
Would we have done any better?
A beloved leader being killed and rising to new life is, let’s be honest, completely outside of the scope of what is familiar and normal.
So the women come with their spices and without hope, to anoint the dead body of Jesus.
They’re worried about the tomb stone as it will be much too heavy to roll away.
But they come anyway.
Love and grief make you do strange things.
They just want to give him a decent burial.
Anointing a dead body is part of the familiar.
They’d rested on the Sabbath as the law demanded.
It’s now the Sunday – the first day of the week- not even a holy day – but something new is about to happen.
The old Jewish way of marking the end of the week – even this familiarity is going to be overturned as the old creation gives way to the new.
The garden is quiet, apart from the birds.
The sun has just risen (in the sky, that is!)
Mark 16, verse 4: the first sign of something unfamiliar…
The women find the stone, which was large, has already been rolled away.
That’s not right.
Something is seriously amiss, alarming even.
In an alarming situation a human being’s heart rate will increase. They may become breathless or light headed.
The unfamiliar can be frightening.
Mark 16, verse 5…the second sign of something unfamiliar – in fact, downright strange.
They enter the tomb and see a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side.
Note: he is not hovering around with a glistening halo on his head.
The text is very precise, almost prosaic.
The man is sitting on the right hand side of the tomb.
All who have studied the New Testament documents have observed that they tell it as it is.
They don’t add hype or gloss over apparent oddities in events. They don’t try and harmonize what sometimes seem like conflicting resurrection accounts.
So the women, hearts racing, pulses increasing, brains whirring, see this young man…who then speaks to them.
‘Do not be alarmed.’
It’s good to know angels can read human body language.
‘Do not be alarmed.’
Are we intimidated today about the alarming stories of religious decline in the UK?
Do not be alarmed.
Are we worried that new ways are eroding the traditional ways of worshipping?
Do not be alarmed.
Are we concerned that old ways are stifling the new so that we cannot grow?
Do not be alarmed.
Beyond all our worries and non comprehension is another reality where God’s purposes are being worked out, right here amongst us here in this place, with the help of angels and archangels and with all the company of heaven.
Do not be alarmed.
All will be well.
So the angel understands exactly the predicament of the women.
‘You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified.’
True – he was dead – we saw it with our own eyes…
Saw the spear which brought a sudden rush of blood and water.
Saw the stiff body being taken down and buried.
Mary even touched him, and so did Joseph of Arimathea.
So it doesn’t make sense, what the angel says next:
‘He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him’ (verse 6).
It’s like a crime scene from Agatha Christie: the area cordoned off with tape: the body was just there
…except that it’s not there now….
It’s as if the clock has been slowed right down, like an Olympic sprint photo finish.
Here are the frames, in fractions of a second:
The garden; the tomb; no stone; an angel; no body; the angel speaking:
‘Go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.’
It’s all too much; apparently the angel is giving instructions…
But the women are far too overwhelmed to take any notice at all.
Now, if you wanted to write a triumphal ending to your gospel, I don’t think you would have ended as Mark does, in verse 8: ‘So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid’ (verse 8).
That’s it!
That’s the end of Mark’s gospel.
If you were filming an adaptation for the big screen, you would have a few problems at this point.
Instead of rousing music and smiling faces – everything has turned out alright after all – you have terrified women running out of the garden, saying nothing to anyone because they are afraid.
And then the credits roll.
What kind of evangelists are they?!
In fact, as some of you will know, there are alternative endings in Mark, as though this original one is just embarrassing.
But I find this one very compelling.
These poor women, as a direct result of their devotion to Jesus, have been lead completely outside their comfort zone into the terrifyingly unfamiliar.
Isn’t this a sure sign of a genuine encounter with God?
So from the women, to us.
When did the Christian story last sound strangely, bracingly unfamiliar to you?
We have the familiarity of 2000 years of Christianity through which to filter our response to the risen Jesus.
This makes it quite hard to meet him afresh.
Perhaps the story isn’t as sharp as it used to be.
Perhaps it’s a bit too familiar.
We tend to like the familiar.
A much loved chair or bible, or a pair of slippers.
The familiar is comforting and stays within boundaries.
You know what’s coming with the familiar.
But, just in case it’s true that familiarity breeds contempt, we must pray, each of us, for a new meeting with the risen Lord.
We must never think that resurrection is familiar.
How can it be?
It is always awesome and strange and the means by which we are transformed to serve Christ in the world.
Jesus’ death and resurrection transforms us at an individual level but also corporately.
In a few moments we will meet the risen Lord together around the Communion table, in broken bread and wine outpoured.
We will cement our ties as brothers and sisters in the Christian family whose Saviour died and rose again that we may be one.
As we do so, let us pray for the grace this Easter time, to let the familiar become unfamiliar.

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

40. Phoebe - are you being served?

I'm trying to be fair here...yesterday I wrote about the conundrum facing some Evangelical women who recognise a vocation to teach the bible but who have faced, if not actual restrictions in this, at least demotivating suspicion and a lack of actual role models in the pulpit.

Today, this last day of the Fabulous Forty through Lent (sniff) I'm thinking about the suspicion and restrictions that come from other quarters regarding a vocation to be a priest and 'rightly and duly administer the sacraments.'

Can any fabulous female step forward?

Enter Phoebe.

As well as having a desirable girls' name (like Lydia, Hannah, makes me broody........for a nano second) she is introduced by Paul thus: 'I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant of the church in Cenchrea (...) for she has been a great help to many people, including me' (Romans 16: 1).

Here's the thing: 'servant', 'minister' and 'deacon' (as in ordained deacon) are all English words that derive from this word rendered 'servant.' So an equally good translation would read 'our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church', a designation which suggest a recognised public church role, usually ordained, which in the C of E at least, is now tied up with ordination, first to the diaconate, then to the priesthood and presiding at Holy Communion.

Ecclesiology is contested within Christendom and all our words are a jumbled mess in people's minds: I've given up trying to explain why I was first ordained deacon and couldn't preside at Holy Communion even though I was a Rev and wore a dog collar, and why I had to be ordained again (as priest) but didn't stop being a Curate at this point...and why I can be known as a Minister but not a Vicar yet...(but always a deacon in spirit...) 


I'm just glad that it would appear, in essence at least, that women's public ministry roles in the Christian church didn't start in 1994 with the C of E finally getting round to ordaining women, but perhaps a little bit earlier....

Monday, 2 April 2012

39. Priscilla - preach it, sister!

Is it different hearing a woman give a sermon, than a man?

For most of the first thirty five years of my churchgoing life I didn't really know the answer to this question as I had hardly ever heard a woman preach.

I spent some formative years in a world where conservatives were only happy about this new women's ordination thing if ordained women were going to be 'under the authority' of a man when they taught the bible in church. So as a female Curate, you would have to have a male Incumbent training you. Ultimately there would be a Bishop's authority (male) over you so that would be fine.

Even when the logical fallacy of this position became unavoidable (it wouldn't be too long before you were going to have a male Curate 'under the authority' of a female Incumbent, and pretty soon you are going to have female bishops...)

The whole ridiculous conservative problem hinges on the apparent refusal of St Paul to let a woman 'have authority over' a man in a teaching situation, and on a literalistic approach to the biblical text (though a selectively literalistic approach; e.g. slavery is not encouraged but women's submission is. Sorry, I meant the 'complementary role' of women...)

All this is of course tied up with the type of sermons which conservative evangelicals hold up as 'gold standard' - mostly intellectual exegesis with a personal challenge thrown in at the end; about 25 minutes long and takes half a week to write. 

From this narrow one gender dominated view of preaching I finally went in search of other models and began the long journey of finding my own woman's preaching voice. The journey is ongoing.

Which is why I love Priscilla. She and her husband, Aquila, were missionaries and church leaders who worked alongside Paul. On one occasion they listened to a keen convert, Appollos,  who had 'a thorough knowledge of the scriptures', and who 'taught about Jesus accurately' though he seemed ignorant of Christian baptism. They graciously invited him back to their house where together (though her name is consistently and unusually mentioned first) they 'explained to him the way of God more accurately' (Acts 18: 24-26).

Now I did start to read a conservative article saying that in fact the verb 'explained' here is not the same as the verb 'to teach', so Priscilla is clearly not teaching a man after all; it is therefore not BIBLE TEACHING as such.......but half way through I felt I was losing the will to live.

That learning from the Living Word can be tied up with gender restrictions feels increasingly like a long winded explanation that the earth is indeed flat.

Preach it, Priscilla!

Sunday, 1 April 2012

38. Tabitha - sewing and the kingdom of God.

Regarding desirable girls' names, I could never quite embrace Tabitha (having digested a lot of Beatrix Potter as a child, and Mrs Tabitha Twitchit being one of my favourites).

But the Tabitha of the early church in Acts 9 is a wonderful character - your archetypal one woman craft business whose personal discipleship involves 'always doing good and helping the poor.' 

She becomes ill and dies. Her body is  washed and laid out in an upper room in preparation for burial. Passing through the region, Peter is urged to come to Tabitha's house to see if something can be done.

Crowding into the room around the dead body are all the women mourners who show Peter the clothes Tabitha made when she was alive. What a great loss to the community. We bewail and mourn our sister Tabitha, God rest her soul, who has been cruelly snatched from our midst...Who will make our shawls and shrouds now...?

Luckily Peter's early training watching the Master raise a little girl from the dead comes in to its own. He turns the mourners out and kneels to pray, addressing the dead woman by name: 'Tabitha, get up' (Acts 9: 40). 

It's quite simple. If you have faith as small as a mustard seed...

Tabitha gets up and Peter presents her to the astonished crowd.

A bit like Peter's mother in law, we presume that she was raised to serve, and after a brief pause to perhaps brush herself down or have a small snack, no doubt she took up her needle and thread once more and continued to live out her calling as a needlewoman for Jesus.