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?

Friday, 2 November 2012

Needed: a wide space

I've been in a wide space this half term, in more ways than one. Tall grey skies; autumn leaves; dramatic  cloudscapes. A stay in Holland brings you close to the calm of water. Modernist houses, composed of interlocking cuboids, are softened and reflected downwards. Even without the vistas through vast glass windows, you could almost tell the weather by looking into the water below. Clean straight lines speak of egalitarian, ordered Dutch life; the press of water held back by dykes a constant reminder that nature is a force less easily controlled.

Hermitage Museum, Amsterdam (left of picture)
If holidays are about more than the absence of work, they have to be about that restoration of life and energy that expand the spirit. Thanks to the Van Gogh exhibition, temporarily rehoused at The Hermitage Museum, Amsterdam, I remembered how beauty, design and colour are part of that expansion. Each room in the museum was painted in a Van Gogh type colour to offset his paintings to the maximum effect. Outside - tall, brown and grey rain spattered houses leaning over canal boats. Inside - moss, bottle green, turquoise and charcoal painted rooms and all the joy of swirly skies, rushing cornfields and urgent Van Gogh landscapes.

The lingering colour of the trip was grey. It rained a fair deal. But I'm a great fan of grey. There can be a lot going on in grey. 

Brick grey lit up by a splash of sinking evening sun.

The cool high grey of a cumulonimbus sky, viewed from a boat as the blue is just breaking through. 

Or grey and brown setting each other off on an elegant  Amsterdam waterway. 

Colour, texture, design, beauty. The natural world was fuel for Van Gogh's vision. His inner world sadly proved just too grey, in the worst sense of the word. But with a break from the usual landscape and thanks also to sympathetic friends, I discovered the inner spirit had time to expand and embrace life; life in a wider space. 

'He took me out into a wide place; he was my saviour because he had delight in me' (Psalm 18:19, Bible in Basic English).