Sunday, 24 January 2016

"The bible says..."

The Archbishops argued, but they also washed each other's feet
and prayed for each other in their diversity.
Anglican Archbishops from all over the world met recently to discuss, among other things, disagreements over human sexuality. Since then, Christians on social media have responded either with sadness or with satisfaction at the outcome, using a variety of ways of appealing to the bible to support their view. If you are going to appeal to a source of authority for your standpoint, it is often helpful to know not just that you are using that source, but how you are using it, and what other factors might be influential too.

Everyone has sources of authority, be they values we imbibed as children, influential books, political positions, or philosophies. The person who tells you they make up their mind entirely free of any influence, doesn't know themself. From time to time, unpicking your sources of authority can be unsettling, especially if you have held a position on a subject and then find that as you look at how you have got to your position, you can honestly say that your position is weakening. We can see this if we reflect on how attitudes towards marriage have altered from one generation to another.

So, for example, it's widely accepted today, at least in the UK, that a couple who come to the Church of England with a marriage request, will normally have lived together already. Not many C of E priests I know even think of this as in any way strange. We go right ahead and welcome them, of course; me included. But 200 years ago, social mores were very different. Imagine how society (let alone the church) would have reacted then to an unmarried woman living intimately with an unmarried man. And yet the bible hasn't changed. It says various things; it doesn't mention others; and all sorts of people appeal to it for various positions. We who take moral stances and say 'the bible says.....' have sometimes forgotten that morality has its own fashions.

To realise you are a child of your generation is to realise that the things you find morally 'normal' are different from what your parents thought of as 'normal' and (more challenging) will be different from what your children will think of as 'normal'. What is actually going on? Is it that as time goes by, things are genuinely going downhill morally, OR, are things actually improving morally? Your answer to this depends a lot on your perspective. Or perhaps it's neither of the above; it's just that culture alters, and sometimes these alterations appear to be in line with God's good purposes for humankind, and sometimes they don't. 

The tricky thing (and, surprise, surprise, exactly what the Archbishops found) is that not everyone agrees on how to read the intersection between faith and culture.

This is why, on the subject of human sexuality, we need to be gentle with the consciences of those with whom we disagree. It is not a good idea to ride roughshod over someone else's conscience, because though you might be 'unshackled' yourself on a particular topic, one day you might wish that your conscience be given some leeway on another. St Paul, counselling the church over a change in attitude towards religious practice and food, asked that those with a 'stronger conscience' defer to those with a weaker one, so as not to 'lose' them, as it were (1 Corinthians 10:28-9).

When someone says 'the bible says x, y, or z', they're probably referring to a text, or group of texts, which say certain things about the situation for which they were written, and which might have a much wider application too. So there are many texts about marriage. All of them are about heterosexual marriage, and that has been taken to mean entirely opposite things: that marriage between persons of the same gender is wrong; or that since the bible doesn't mention them, gay unions can't be that wrong. Different people read 'the argument from silence' completely different ways. So it's complex. The challenge for believers (and for all people with sacred books) is always how to interpret the texts...

(See this from the archive, for instance)

And we don't interpret them alone. We interpret them with each other and (especially) alongside those with whom we don't agree. Whatever the Archbishops did or did not achieve, at least they sat down with each other to talk. 

Anglicans value Scripture highly, but reason and tradition are also important tools in interpretation, something the great Anglican Doctor of the church, Richard Hooker explored in his 16th Century work The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity.

Hooker inaugurated the Anglican 'via media', the middle way between the Roman Catholic and the Puritan answer to doctrinal matters. The middle way appeals to me as a concept - I like to think it's reasonable and respectful - but is seen by some as a hopeless liberal fudge. 

Hooker's Scripture, Reason and Tradition can be seen as a three legged stool in all matters theological and ecclesiastical. No believer is outside a tradition - we all develop our beliefs and faith practices within one - and we may as well recognise the nature of our particular one, whether Conservative Evangelical, Catholic, Pentecostal, Methodist, Charismatic, Liberal, or whatever. 

A three legged stool of Scripture, Reason and Tradition is stable - a chord of three strands cannot be broken. Three is good. Fast forward a few centuries and Wesley also stressed experience, going one better and giving us the 'Wesleyan Quadrilateral': Scripture, Tradition, Reason and Experience'. When Christians make decisions about what God thinks on a particular topic, they could do worse than consider these four in conversation with each other.

For example, for centuries, until 1994 in fact, the Church of England officially interpreted scriptures concerning female leadership in the church as prohibitive, not even imagining that women could be priests. Many bible texts taken at face value appeared to point in this direction. Scripture and Tradition held that female ordination was absolutely no-go. And for years, that was the norm. But reasonable voices began to question it. If society was changing to embrace women in all levels of public life, and if women themselves were saying they thought God was calling them to ordination (voicing their experience) shouldn't the church think again about women's leadership? 

And that is what the Church of England did. Other Christian denominations got there faster, some have yet to arrive. It took a long time but eventually we embraced the idea, even though the bible had not changed. Yet how it was interpreted changed. In addition, the C of E, along with many other denominations, also redefined marriage to include those who might re-marry after divorce, something our Anglican forebears would have baulked at. Because society was accepting that although marriage is ideally for life, sometimes things go wrong and people want a fresh start.

Some Christians get nervous at the mention of 'society' and the re-interpretation of biblical texts. They think the church is capitulating to social pressure, being moulded by the times, etc. etc. without realising that 'society' and 'church' are a lot less separate than we imagine. If we believe that God is active throughout the world, surely it's not just through believers that good change can be brought about. (But what is good change?!)

So next time you cite a bible verse in support of an argument, ask yourself, why have I chosen this verse and not another; how has my Tradition interpreted this subject in the past; how does reason handle texts which say different things about the same topic, or nothing about the topic; and whose voices (with different experiences from mine) should be brought to this topic?

And whatever you do, avoid pointless and hurtful arguments on social media. Some people genuinely want to engage and some only want to win the argument.

Sunday, 17 January 2016

Not very dry January

Sermon for Epiphany 2.

1 Corinthians 12:1 Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed.

John 2: 3When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, ‘They have no wine.’ 

Despite its being 'Dry January', this morning we're confronted with an overwhelming abundance of wine.

When Jesus turned water into wine at the wedding in Cana, the amount of wine produced was staggering. In fact I did some maths on this, and discovered it far outstrips the amount of wine purchased, even, for the ‘world’s 2nd most expensive wedding, between Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes (2006), which cost $2m ($2.2m when adjusted for inflation).
Held at the 15th century Odescalchi Castle outside Rome, this wedding featured a five-tiered white chocolate cake decorated with marzipan roses. They were joined by Will Smith, Jennifer Lopez and David Beckham, among others. Costs included $900,000 for guest airfare and accommodations and $180,000 for 300 bottles of wine.’ 

According to John’s account, the six stone water jars, which provided the water for the wine, each held 20-30 gallons…
If 12 bottles = 2.378 gallons
720 bottles= approx. 120 gallons (assuming the stone water jars had 20 gallons in each).
100 guests need…. 50 bottles?
720 bottles therefore, would do for 1500 guests…

It speaks to us of abundance. (‘I have come that they might have life, and have it abundantly’).


First, four interesting details of the story:

1. Jesus was invited to the wedding party (Are you the kind of person people want at their parties?) What do we deduce from this? He was a fun person to have around/he was someone who made warm friendships/he was connected in the community and known/he hallowed the most ordinary of life events by his presence (his presence at this wedding is alluded to in the Preface to the Marriage Service).

    2. Mary noticed the wine had run out and thought it noteworthy to mention to Jesus. Why? Was she embarrassed for the couple? Maybe they were not that well off and had not been able to afford enough wine. If you are welcomed into a home and not offered a drink it is in some ways a failure of hospitality. Other wedding failures one reads about have included various mishaps ironically connected to drinking too much; wearing too little; behaving embarrassingly at the post wedding dance and saying unforgivable things at the wedding reception.

Why does she ask Jesus? It shows she was used to him sorting things out – NB. she didn’t specify what he should do. This is a trap we fall into in our prayers. She didn’t say: ‘they’ve run out of wine; it might be a good idea if you tried a miracle here – you’re obviously gearing up for one; how about turning the water into wine?’ It was probably a million miles from the imagination of Mary that Jesus would do what he did, in fact. And that is how it is with how God moves by his Spirit today. In church life, especially where gifts and calling are concerned, sometimes the people who end up coming forward are not those you would have picked; sometimes money comes in from unusual places; sometimes provision comes at the last minute from unexpected sources. In fact when we’ve stopped being surprised by God, it may be a sign that our faith is growing stale.

3. Jesus appears to be reluctant to respond. He says to her: woman, what concern is that to you and to me?’ The Gr. literally says ‘what to me and to you, woman?’ (the translators insert ‘concern’). The King James says ‘Woman, what have I to do with thee?’ which makes it sound as though he doesn’t want anything to do with his mother: it seems to me rather he is questioning whether now is the appropriate time to reveal his glory. He says his hour is not yet come. The Message renders it well: “Is that any of our business, Mother—yours or mine? This isn’t my time. Don’t push me.” However, as the other gospels show, Jesus often does respond to being pushed: he’s good at planning but good at spontaneity as well: recall the Syrophonecian woman whose daughter had a demon – even the dogs eat the crumbs under the table – for which response Jesus heals outside of the house of Israel, in Gentile territory, responding across religious, ethnic and gender boundaries in the process.

4. When he does agree to do a miracle (or sign, as John would have it) it is not advertised with a loud shout. The Chief Steward makes the comment about the good wine being brought out first, whereas in this wedding party the best is left till last, but he does this without knowing how the good wine has materialised. And Jesus makes no attempt to advertise the sign. Those who will read the sign, understand it, as John makes clear when he writes 'Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him'.

So what have we discovered?

1. Jesus is good company.
    2. As soon as there’s an issue, Mary turns to Jesus but doesn’t dictate what he should do.
    3. Timing is important to Jesus but he can be opportuned. (this suggests an open future that our prayers can affect).
    4. And finally, some of the most amazing things spiritually, happen in secret.

We started with the abundance of God though, and this is the image I want us to take away.

Focus your 5 senses on the first sign of Jesus; the sheer overwhelming abundance of wine: the colour of it, the smell of it; its power to make glad the heart, and even to intoxicate. But mostly its overwhelming abundance.
We’ve said that the stone water jars each held about 20-30 gallons and were used for ritual washing.
In turning them into wine, Jesus is redefining religion to be one of celebratory abundance, to an almost embarrassing degree.
The wine would be equivalent (at the most conservative estimate) to 720 bottles. 
Remember at the 2nd most expensive wedding of all time, as recorded by the Telegraph, there were only 300 bottles of wine. This is more than double – enough for 1500 wedding guests. What was Jesus even thinking of?
It’s almost as if, once you unleash the abundance of God, you cannot really control it.

Interestingly this is what happened in the early church in Corinth. We had our first reading from Corinthians and it was about spiritual gifts... 

God not only poured down his Spirit at Pentecost, he sent gifts to his church as well. Do you know that if you’re born of the Spirit, if you confess Jesus Christ as Lord, you are able to function in the gifts of the Spirit? It’s a lovely thing to look round the family of God and see them in action – we have amongst us prophets (they say the hard things in love); teachers (they bring the Word of God alive for us); those with gifts of healing, tongues, miraculous faith and discernment. All these and many other gifts God showers on his people but the Corinthians got themselves into chaos with the gifts. They had so many people displaying so many gifts, all simultaneously; they couldn’t function properly during worship. Read on in the letter to the Corinthians to find out what happened. And when we’re in danger of having so many people volunteer to go on the PCC and use their gifts, that we’re in chaos, I’ll let you know.

Of course, often we seem to suffer from the opposite problem: and I suggest that it is one unfortunate characteristic of rural English Anglicanism. Instead of perceiving abundance we appear to see only scarcity. Not enough people, not enough money (apparently), not enough interest in Church.

I leave you with the thought that if the Lord we worship turned water into more than 720 bottles of the finest wine, and didn’t even advertise the fact, we might have got it wrong when we complain of scarcity in the Church.

As we gather round the Lord’s table and fill ourselves up from the abundant grace of Christ, may we each take out of this church the conviction that God is more than enough: for us, for our neighbours, for our community and for our church.

And may we, like the first disciples who recognised his glory, not miss the signs of God’s great abundance this Epiphany tide and throughout the new year.


Saturday, 16 January 2016

Know thyself

The 16 types of the Myers Briggs (personality) Type Indicator (MBTI).

The first time I encountered the Myers Briggs personality test (MBTI) was during ordination training for the Anglican Church. I think it was in vogue then, in certain types of training that heavily emphasised the pastoral (colleagues in other training colleges were too busy having three years of intense preaching experience and leading missions to spend time wondering which personality they had). I found it quite stimulating and helpful as a tool to understand my motivations, but let's just say once is probably enough. 

From time to time various shortened versions of the MBTI come up on social media and people fill them in in five minutes and arrive with some result. It's meant to be a lot more nuanced than that. A proper full length MBTI questionnaire takes time to fill in, is expensive, and only recognised practitioners can give you an accurate 'result'; i.e. your combination of 4 letters, from a possible set of 16 combinations. Each letter also has its 'opposite'; the pairs being  E-I (Extraversion-Introversion); N-S (iNtuition-Sensing); T-F (Thinking-Feeling) and J-P (Judging-Perceiving). 

Each pair represents the 2 ends of a spectrum, and in deciding if you're one letter or the other, what you're really doing is indicating how strong a preference you have for one over the other. Not only does the test give you the letters, but it gives them in differing numerical relationship to each other. It's like right handedness and left handedness: if you're right handed you prefer to do certain things with your right hand, because it feels normal; but if necessary you can do stuff with your left - it just feels less obvious.

There's a bit of technical language to understand, so for instance, the Extraversion/Introversion questions try to ascertain to what extent external things (other people, places, events) energise or drain you; and perhaps whether solitude is a habitual and sought out refreshment or a boring state to be endured until something more stimulating comes along, for example.

The classic scenario in our house is those who have 28 tabs open on the laptop while watching TV, texting and singing their latest favourite song (having left the radio on loud in the room they just walked out of) vs. those who are doing one thing at a time in silence in a corner, in the three hour break they need to rejuvenate themselves between one external/social stimulation and the next.

iNuition and sensing are about how you take in information from the outside world. iNuitives (N) add meaning and infer abstract things from what they see, hear, feel, taste or smell; while Sensers (S) are more likely to take the information coming at them at face value, i.e. they use their 5 senses and leave it at that (a slight confusion: the iNtuition is given N as its letter, to distinguish it from the I for Introversion).

I didn't grasp the iN-S distinction at all till the aforementioned C of E training weekend. After some preamble in our assigned conference room, we were told to go outside to the grounds of the place where we were staying and spend 20 minutes there before coming back to report on what took place. It was a pleasant sunny day but I remember being frustrated at this unnecessary interruption, feeing bored, half noticing a pond, which made me think of depth as an abstract concept; feeling generally impatient and then returning to the room hoping the programme would proceed without further ado. 

Once inside I was amazed to discover that some of my colleagues came back and reported on the intricate pattern of tiles on the roof, cited the names of six different trees and grasses, the shade of blue in the afternoon sky and the exact sound a certain bird had made whilst flying overhead. It won't surprise anyone that I'm not very far down the Sensing end at all.

Thinking and Feeling seem more self explanatory, but a preference is not always easy to discern in my case. The scenario we were given on this: you have to address a group of people who were all hoping to go on a foreign trip you had organised, but there was a mistake and only half of them will now be able to go. How do you react when telling them some will be disappointed? I figured only really hard line Thinkers would not feel upset that some people would not be going on the long hoped for holiday, and I felt I would worry about telling people, and so in that discussion I came out as a F. However in the pre-prepared questionnaire result, which was less emotive, I had scored as a T. 

With some people, of course, it's easy to guess a preference in either direction. How do you normally decide on a course of action? Do you weigh options up cooly and logically, mastering feelings and taking the reasonable path (T) or do you decide with the heart, feeling strong empathy for those affected by the consequences of your actions (F)? I'm still unsure whether I'm an "F" or a "T". I tend to vacillate, and some scores give me 'no preference for F over T' (which presumably also means 'no preference for T over F'). I think it could be that during ordination training I had to be pretty T-oriented, with all the new concepts, but in pastoral ministry I find my "F" more to the fore. I've also noticed that with those who are strong on "F" I feel very "T"; and vice versa.

Perhaps the oddest pairing is the final one: J-P. Judging-Perceiving refers to how you make sense of and order the world about you. Do you like to impose a structure and a plan, which you then stick firmly to (J) or do you simply observe the world as it comes your way, and respond accordingly with whatever option seems appropriate at the time (P, because you simply perceive the word and do not try and control it). Along with iNtuition, this is my more obvious result - I consistently act J in most things, and am not at all good at leaving certainty and exploring down the P end. Decisions that are last minute; people who seem passive and people who are flaky about time keeping I find personally challenging. No, definitely a J.

What practical use does it all have, and what was a Myers Briggs Training weekend doing on an ordination course? I think it all depends where you're coming from. On our course, many poo-pooed it (but they were mainly the scientists and the more P-oriented, who can't bear being categorised anyway). Interestingly, some research file:///Users/clairealcock/Downloads/religions-02-00389.pdf
has suggested that the 'typical' MBTI combination for Anglican Clerics is INFJ; that is, we are often introverts who are happy conceptualising, who feel strongly about things and who have a pre-thought out structure for the world, in which case, I fit in 50% of the time, or in 2 out of 4 of the typical letters associated with priests. Thankfully, this is only a trend, not a rule, but it might account for some suggested bias in the C of E selection process - I wonder if selectors generally are nervous of people who appear to be spontaneous and unpredictable....(a classic P).

In some settings the typical INFJ makes sense in the C of E, all that empathy you're supposed to show as a minister; plus believing certain things makes you (possibly) less likely to be open ended and spontaneous about life, so you end up J. 

*All our seats are in rows, for a start...
I felt certain echoes of this when I first began attending events with large groups of clergy. Putting it very bluntly, as an ENTJ, there seemed to me to be a surfeit of niceness (all those Feelers) and a reluctance to look outwards (all those Introverts). I seem to remember that after collating the MBTIs of all the ordinands on the weekend mentioned above, there were not many spontaneous 'living in the moment' types (P) so although I'm not one myself, in terms of ordained priests who are strongly P, I feel quite sorry for them, trying to function inside our particular institution. It must be maddening*.

How does all this personality stuff sit with growing in holiness? As far as I understand it, the MBTI is a good starting point but I never could get beyond that, to see how it accounts for growth. Presumably the idea is that whilst you remain more or less true to your type through life, you become more adept at exploring down the other ends of the spectra. I think this is noticeable when you meet people who are really mature - they pick the appropriate way to respond in any given human situation and don't get stuck in a habitual series of reactions which are extreme, unfortunate or difficult for everyone else. 

In pastoral ministry I often find myself trying to identify the MBTI of other people, to try and understand them better, and to understand how we are reacting to each other. There's some danger in this because it isn't necessarily appropriate to identify something as nuanced as another's personality and you can be wrong. At the best however, the MBTI is a useful tool, among others, for knowing yourself better. And 'know thyself' and knowing God are two things that are much closer together than you might think.