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Stebbing, Great Dunmow, Essex, United Kingdom
The occasional blog of an Anglican priest in rural Essex

Sunday, 26 December 2010

Christmas Eve Midnight Communion sermon 2010, St Mary's Church, Stebbing

This sermon was preceded by a video of "Nothing But a Child" by Steve Earle . What follows won't really makes much sense unless you click the link or at least google the lyrics.

Readings, though we had them, were fairly irrelevant (OK for purists the gospel was Matthew 1 18-25).

You know, they say Christmas is for the children, but we mustn’t forget that it started with a child too. That’s what that song is all about – and my apologies to the purists who say we shouldn’t involve the wise men until next week.

I love that line “once again we all can be children for a while”. Christmas evokes many childhood memories for us – good, and maybe bad too.

We are all someone’s child, and many of us have children and grandchildren of our own. In this the first Christmas service, just few hours before the earliest little risers will be asking to unwrap presents, let’s spend some time in reflection, thinking about children. As well as that song you’ve just listened to, I’d like to stimulate that reflection by reading you a poem.

This was written by an atheist friend of mine. The poem is called “waiting”, and this is what she told me about it.

“’Waiting’ is about the birth and subsequent illness of my third son. He was in hospital until he was 3 months old."


always on the stairs,

or in a lift, or on a path or street or hill that is

not there, but on the way, or

going to. where you see

nothing all around you

unread books on dark-shut trains,

silent taxis.

windowless rooms.

at christmas

in the church, uncomprehending

looking at your life

and seeing not the star, but just

the hole where it should be, while you wait for him

and wait,

then wonder,

when he's given, from so far away,


for the one

who can't believe.

To be honest, it’s tempting to just leave it there, but if I do we’ll be singing O come all ye faithful too early, so I’d better continue.

You know there is only one thing about Christmas that I don’t like, and that’s having to sing “Away in a manger”. I know the children love it and are cute when they sing it in the nativity play, but in the middle 2 lines of the second verse that carol drifts into heresy – firstly because it claims Jesus didn’t cry. Now, he was a fully human child born on a cold night in in very rough conditions; he cried alright! Secondly, in saying Lord Jesus look down form the sky, “Away in a manger” perpetuates the myth that God is distant, disconnected from earth, and only interested in making sure we make it through the night. That couldn’t be further from the truth.

The heart of the Christmas message is the word made flesh – God coming to live and breathe and speak and work among us. And the great thing is that even though Jesus did depart this earth, his presence is still with us by his Spirit, whom he sent to be our comforter and guide. the Holy Spirit dwells in the hearts of those who believe. He is God, but not distant.

Having said all that – and I hope it didn’t turn into a rant – I perhaps need to give “Away in a Manger” another chance because of the third verse. Remember, we are thinking about childhood tonight.

We’re thinking about a child who was long expected but whose arrival was not as expected. We’re thinking about the difficulty of birth, of the fragility of a new human life and perhaps about the impossibility of parenting sometimes, when they get a little older!

We started with “Nothing but a child could wash those tears away, and guide a weary world into the light of day”. Jesus’ life and death, but supremely his resurrection, are what achieved that- the dawning of a new day, a new life, eternal life for those who believe. He didn’t do it all as a child, but he had to come as a human baby to fully live a human life, to fully redeem human life.

So you see, childhood is truly the heart of Christmas; in Jesus, God came as a child to remind the world that we are all his children. Even the adults are children, and for more than just a while.

If you tonight are in the church, uncomprehending, looking at your life and seeing not the star, but just the hole where it should be, then take a look with me at the last verse of Away in a manger. These words sum it all up really, in terms of how you get all this to work.

Be near me Lord Jesus I ask thee to stay

close by me for ever and love me I pray

bless all the dear children in thy tender care

and fit us for heaven to live with thee there.

The key word is ask – if you ask Jesus to be with you then he will come into your life. You may not feel any different – though some of you will – but a simple invitation is all he is waiting for, to come into your life, your heart and soul, and claim it again for his own. The hole where the star should be is filled by the presence of God’s Holy Spirit. If you still have any doubts about this remember that God wants to be with us, he longs to be with us – the Angel told Joseph that Mary’s baby would be called Emmanuel – that means God with us, and that is what he longs to be. He’s just waiting for us to ask him.

Remembering that we are all someone’s child, the last two lines of Away in a manger can be our prayer too – asking God to bless us, but also to make us ready for eternity.

And if you’re getting cynical and thinking this is just a one off in the spirit of Christmas, let me take you back to another line from that song. Now, the birth of any child is a special occasion, which can inspire us and change our lives. But the birth of the Child we celebrate tonight means that we all can have another chance allowed – forgiveness is what the cross we see there brings. Forgiveness and a new start.

Yet if you are still “the one who can’t believe” let me say I respect that position, but would want to challenge you with a final thought.

The validity of all this, of Christmas, of the gospel, of the church and Christianity, does not hinge on whether or not people believe it. In that sense our faith or lack of it has no impact. God’s amazing plan for the world, to save his children, doesn’t need our permission to be true, but Christ does need our permission to include us in the fruits of that plan

let us pray

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

'A life on every face

Ekklesia, The Church Mouse, Michael Wenham and Cranmer's Curate are among many people blogging away at the moment around the subject of the Pete Broadbent Facebook debacle and the Bishop of London's subsequent [overre-]action in withdrawing Bishop Pete from public office.

I have emitted many deep sighs about this sorry affair over the last few days, and probably need to write this post just to get stuff out of my system (but I shall be careful not to rant (too much)).

I like Bishop Pete. We met at NEAC, and  we were Facebook friends until I recently culled him along with a number of other "famous" people clogging up my wall  (mostly because he goes on about Spurs all the time).

He has been good for the church and good for Spring Harvest for many years. He is an Open Evangelical like me, and so there have been very few things he has ever said in public that I have disagreed with. Until now.

If you read the church press or read Anglican blogs or news feeds you will be fully aware of the kind of mudslinging that goes on between conservatives and, well, everybody else really, around the topics of Women Bishops, homosexuality, Flying Bishops, and so on and so on. On the Internet in particular feathers can fly. Very rarely does anyone get disciplined for (say) slagging off the Bishop of Chelmsford or Rowan Williams on the Ugley Vicar or slagging off Reform on Fulcrum. People lick their wounds and retreat out of range until things flare up again, or they (like me) get sick of the circular arguments and stop posting.

But Bishop Pete's Facebook discussion has elicited a big can of worms being opened. The comments, which weren't even as public as some stuff one reads,( e.g. the comments on the Guardian's Comment is free every time Christianity gets a word in edgeways, which can make your blood boil) have been splashed around the world, and the chap has been withdrawn from public office - I guess that means he's just doing a desk job.

One one level I'm thinking "you wally, Pete" - I don't think he should have posted what he did. But on another level, I'm bearing in mind cases such as that of the Priest who blessed a homosexual couple - and who received (from the Bishop of London no less) a letter slapping him on the wrist and telling him not to do it again. And that was for doing something that we have all been specifically told no to do; like, not ever. To my mind that applies, under church discipline, even if you disagree with it. Why wasn't he asked to "withdraw from public office"? After all, the daily mail (and yes those lower case letters are deliberate) hardly approved!

OK, breathe now .....

The wider issue I suppose is, do we take seriously what we have to do and say to be a minister in the CofE? All those ordained have to swear an oath of allegiance to their Bishop and to the Queen. Bishop Pete must have done that  - most recently at his consecration as a Bishop. Clearly he didn't mean it, as he is a declared Republican, but what is also clear is that being a Republican is not a bar to ministry in the Anglican church. Do the oaths mean anything then? Or are they just anotherr anachronism clogging up Ministry.

Don't get me wrong, I disagree with Bishop Pete about the Wedding and about the Royal family per se. I am just increasingly frustrated that both liberal and conservative words and actions go unpunished while leaving the church rather bruised and battered, and thus (actually, albeit indirectly) the Monarch under attack.

I can't see a way back for Bishop Pete under the current bishop of London. He was supposed to also be looking after the Stepney episcopal area during the vacancy there so that can't be much fun for them either.

I was going to call this post "Just remember there are two side to every story" from Billy Bragg's "It says here" but in the end went for an intriguingly relevant line from Talk Talk's "Such a shame"

Monday, 22 November 2010

Facebook books meme technical fail

I was tagged in a note on Facebook, but owing to my rubbish computer, I  was unable to comply there so am doing it here.

Instructions: Copy this into your  Facebook NOTES. Bold those books you've read in their entirety, italicize the ones you started but didn't finish or read an excerpt and underline the ones you’ve seen the movies of. Tag other book nerds. Tag me as well so I can see your responses!

1 Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen

2 The Lord of the Rings – JRR Tolkien

3 Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte

4 Harry Potter series – JK Rowling

5 To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee

6 The Bible

7 Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte

8 Nineteen Eighty Four – George Orwell

9 His Dark Materials – Philip Pullman

10 Great Expectations – Charles Dickens

11 Little Women – Louisa M Alcott

12 Tess of the D’Urbervilles – Thomas Hardy

13 Catch 22 – Joseph Heller

14 Complete Works of Shakespeare

15 Rebecca – Daphne Du Maurier

16 The Hobbit – JRR Tolkien

17 Birdsong – Sebastian Faulks

18 Catcher in the Rye – JD Salinger

19 The Time Traveller’s Wife – Audrey Niffenegger

20 Middlemarch – George Eliot

21 Gone With The Wind – Margaret Mitchell

22 The Great Gatsby – F Scott Fitzgerald

23 Bleak House – Charles Dickens

24 War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy

25 The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams

26 Brideshead Revisited – Evelyn Waugh

27 Crime and Punishment – Fyodor Dostoyevsky

28 Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck

29 Alice in Wonderland – Lewis Carroll

30 The Wind in the Willows – Kenneth Graham

31 Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy

32 David Copperfield – Charles Dickens

33 Chronicles of Narnia – CS Lewis

34 Emma – Jane Austen

35 Persuasion – Jane Austen

36 The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe – CS Lewis

37 The Kite Runner – Khaled Hosseini
38 Captain Corelli’s Mandolin – Louis De Bernier

39 Memoirs of a Geisha – Arthur Golden

40 Winnie the Pooh – AA Milne

41 Animal Farm – George Orwell

42 The Da Vinci Code – Dan Brown

43 One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel Garcia Marquez

44 A Prayer for Owen Meaney – John Irving

45 The Woman in White – Wilkie Collins

46 Anne of Green Gables – LM Montgomery

47 Far From The Madding Crowd – Thomas Hardy

48 The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood

49 Lord of the Flies – William Golding

50 Atonement – Ian McEwan

51 Life of Pi – Yann Martel

52 Dune – Frank Herbert

53 Cold Comfort Farm – Stella Gibbons

54 Sense and Sensibility – Jane Austen

55 A Suitable Boy – Vikram Seth

56 The Shadow of the Wind – Carlos Ruiz Zafon

57 A Tale Of Two Cities – Charles Dickens

58 Brave New World – Aldous Huxley

59 The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time – Mark Haddon

60 Love In The Time Of Cholera – Gabriel Garcia Marquez

61 Of Mice and Men – John Steinbeck

62 Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov

63 The Secret History – Donna Tartt

64 The Lovely Bones – Alice Sebold

65 Count of Monte Cristo – Alexandre Dumas

66 On The Road – Jack Kerouac

67 Jude the Obscure – Thomas Hardy

68 Bridget Jones’s Diary – Helen Fielding

69 Midnight’s Children – Salman Rushdie

70 Moby Dick – Herman Melville

71 Oliver Twist – Charles Dickens

72 Dracula – Bram Stoker

73 The Secret Garden – Frances Hodgson Burnett

74 Notes From A Small Island – Bill Bryson

75 Ulysses – James Joyce

76 The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath

77 Swallows and Amazons – Arthur Ransome

78 Germinal – Emile Zola

79 Vanity Fair – William Makepeace Thackeray

80 Possession – AS Byatt

81 A Christmas Carol – Charles Dickens

82 Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell

83 The Color Purple – Alice Walker

84 The Remains of the Day – Kazuo Ishiguro

85 Madame Bovary – Gustave Flaubert

86 A Fine Balance – Rohinton Mistry

87 Charlotte’s Web – EB White

88 The Five People You Meet In Heaven – Mitch Albom

89 Adventures of Sherlock Holmes – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

90 The Faraway Tree Collection – Enid Blyton

91 Heart of Darkness – Joseph Conrad

92 The Little Prince – Antoine De Saint-Exupery

93 The Wasp Factory – Iain Banks

94 Watership Down – Richard Adams

95 A Confederacy of Dunces – John Kennedy Toole

96 A Town Like Alice – Nevil Shute

97 The Three Musketeers – Alexandre Dumas

98 Hamlet – William Shakespeare

99 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – Roald Dahl

100 Les Miserables – Victor Hugo

My only comment would be that 100% of the classic literature titles here that I have marked as read I read before the age of 18 and probabaly haven't picked up since then - that's English and French S level in the 80's for you! So there should be a way of marking "read for pleasure" over against "read at school/college".
anyway, consider yourelf tagged if you are reading this

Thursday, 11 November 2010

I'll always remember

As I mentioned in a recent post, my grandfather died in 1942.
I only found out yesterday that 10th November is the anniversary of his death, for that is the date that his ship, HMS Martin, was sunk by a U-Boat off Algiers. He was 42, which is very old for a stoker. Had he lived, he'd have been one of those men who said "I fought in two world wars for the likes of you".

Just today, as I was doing my remembering, I started to look for songs around the theme of remembrance and stumbled upon "Union Street (Last Post)" by Show of Hands. you can find the lyrics (with comments) here. If you have Spotify you can listen here. Can't find it on Youtube.

The song makes reference to 14th June 1982, the day the Falklands fell - and my 16th birthday!

I pray that, by 2022, there may be fewer BFPO correspondences because our troops are home.

Incidentally did you know that Army chaplains can furnish you with the names of soldiers who would like to receive letters ...

Monday, 1 November 2010

happiness more or less

Recently, in a discussion on the Psalms, a friend used the expression "all human life is here". I had usually associated that with the News of the World, but it does work for the variety of emotions you find there - cries of joy, of anguish, of depair, of praise, of love and of revenge adorn the hebrew Bible's hymnbook. We concluded by saying it would be good if our worship gave enough space for such a breadth of emotion. It doesn't really though, does it?
I also concluded that it was about time I stopped suppressing my emotions when I am deployed pastorally. You know like when you are at a funeral you probabaly don't expect the minister to be overly emotional because (and cringe, I have used this phrase of myself0 they are paid to keep a straight face. It is quite hard to shock me, but now I am unafraid to weep at a funeral I am taking, if only because (like the psalmists, I feel) I would want everyone there to feel comfortable expressing emotion.
Then again, I watched Marley and Me tonight and blubbed like a girl ...

What do you think?
(btw since I am fasting from Fb this week please reply here)

Monday, 20 September 2010

With a mind made up

Odi et amo. Quare id faciam fortasse requiris.
Nescio, sed fieri sentio, et excrucior.

(for non latin speakers (!) a translation is here.)

You know, my paternal Grandfather was born a Roman Catholic. He died aboard HMS Martin in 1942, so I never got to ask him why he converted to Anglicanism. I'd often wondered whether it was in order to get married, but my dad thinks it was because in the Navy in World War 1 they had church parade on board ship - it was just for Church of England. If you were from any other church you had to scrub the anchor chain instead. Easy decision I guess, but in a strange way I resent that it was pretty much forced upon him by institutional religion (in this case the C of E).
And that is perhaps part of why I have such an ambivalent attitude to the Pope,which I have all the time and am only talking about now obviously because of the visit and the beatification of Cardinal Newman. On the one hand I respect the man as an elder, as a man who (let's face it)  has a very difficult job, and actually as a man who talks about Jesus a lot. I feel sorry for him becaus he is constantly in the media glare and everywhere he goes we will be reminded by tabloid and broadsheet alike that he was in the Hitler Youth etc. I also feel sorry for the guy because his is not  a job you can retire from. On top of that when he was criticised last week it was usually by people who are critical of Christianity per se so by implication I stood with him on some of those issues.

Roman Catholicism is the religion of my Father's family (though  they were originally Irish Quakers who were disowned for "marrying out") and if Grandpa had been a bit more devout I might have been in the crowd yesterday as His Holiness beatified John Henry Newman. I'm certainly with Macca when it comes to the Irish question.
On the other hand I frequently find it hard to respect him, or more spcifically the church he speaks for and leads. It is hard to avoid the terrorism of the IRA. It is hard to avoid (especially in my role as Child Protection Officer for the benefice) the complete mess that has been caused by the Catholic church's attitude to paedophile priests in the past. It is hard to avoid the hideous behaviour of the conquistadores' priests in Latin and South America. It is hard to avoid the current disater area that is Catholic Africa facing up to HIV and AIDS without the aid of condoms. In a nutshell it is hard to avoid the fact that the Roman Catholic church has had too much power and has let it go to their heads, doctrinally (Papal infallibility,  ) socially (the Christian Brothers, especially in Ireland and Australia) and morally (AIDS in Africa again). There are so many reasons to agree with people like Stephen Fry or Peter Tatchell.

But I just can't do that and its more than just a family thing. I suspect that my mechanism for coping with this love/hate relationship with the Holy See is to make a disctinction between religion and faith. It is religious ethinicity, not faith and spirituality that caused the Troubles. It was misguided imperialism disguised as mission, not genuine evangelisation (even in the Catholic sense) that decimated the aboriginal population of South America. Roman Catholic faith and devotion can be seen as admirable (though wasn't it ironic to have an epistle re-iterating the uniqueness of Christ as mediator yesterday!), even if the institution itself is hard to stomach.

So for every Cortez there is a Boff and a St Francis Xavier
for every Walter Kaspar there is a Mother Teresa of Calcutta and a Vincent Donovan

And let's not forget the rapprochement that the Charismatic movement has brought about. In many ways it is my charismatic spirituality that helps me find connections with Catholic devotion and spirituality. Franciscan and Ignatian approaches to spirituality, the Lectio Divina Bible reading approach, and the good side of hagiography have all enhanced my personal prayer life and faith over the years.

In a sense the Roman Catholic Church is like my dog; most of the time (to me anyway) docile and harmless, but occasionally prone to getting out of control with disastrous consequences for itself and others at a great emotional (and even financial) cost to me. I keep wondering whether to kick it out but can't bring myself to be parted from a faithful companion.

I laugh at jokes about the Pope but I secretly think I ought not to. Am I the only one in this place?

P.S if you can get the source of that lyric in the title without using an internet search then you probably ought to get out more

Saturday, 7 August 2010

I'll never be the same [again]

So, got back from New Wine North and East late last night. Still got lots to process (which I will eventually get around to blogging about) but we had a great week, so here are my top  (mostly humorous) reasons why Newark is better than Shepton Mallett (and maybe a couple why it isn't)

1: Its SO much easier to get to from virtually anywhere east of Reading. 1 hour 50 mins beats the 9 hours it took one of my friends to get to Shepton Mallett from Essex a few years back. No more M25 or A303 for me on the last day in July ...

2: The campsite is flat with short grass; no more marital disharmony levelling the van or putting up the awning!

3: It is smaller, only 6 and a half thousand people, so more personal and a lot less queueing.

4: Let's face it, there was less Boden and Joules and more scousers and tattoos and therefore it was more like real life (sorry LSE folk).

5: [Getting theological now, steady on] There was  more overt affirmation of women in ordained ministry from the stage. This week for me there was another watershed moment when the evening introductions in the Meeting Place (that's venue 1 in old money)were done by a clergy spouse, who was a man!!

6: There was a concerted effort to explain what was going on for the uninitiated; lots of "you may not have done this before..." This is in the spirit of 1Corinthians 14 for me.

7: AWACS and Red Arrows flypasts!

and 2 why not ...
1: It's just one week, so no cashpoint, no recycling, and a minimal shop. Takeaway food quite limited too. If we had another week, or a Soul Survivor, I appreciate these things would be easier to arrange.

2: Currys .... [you had to be there]

Wednesday, 21 July 2010


So, my wife is now the only person in Britain over the age of 12 and under the age of 50 who hasn't seen Avatar because I watched it last night. We got it off Love Film and I did love it.

I enjoyed it so much that I didn't even notice it was midnight when the credits rolled. Let me say that again, I really enjoyed the film, and as I said then, "I believe the hype".

That said, I did spend quite a lot of the time saying "that's like in so and so". Thankfully there was only one " 'ere, wasn't she in Lost?" However I have concluded that this was possibly the most derivative film I've ever seen, in terms of plot, characterisation and indeed props and scenery. So here's my Avatar hall of fame (or should that be shame?)

Well, obviously it owes a lot to the Matrix, in terms of the "special one", in terms of going in and and coming out of another world, and so on. When Grace and Jake were awoken and their avatars collapsed I couldn't help thinking of that scene I usually fast forward in the Matrix when Cypher pulls the plug ... The ending (btw as you gather from my opening statement, I'm assuming you've all seen it and won't mind that this is littered with spoilers) was also very similar to the end of the Matrix with the awakening in the other world.

The way Jake changed sides by association with the Na'vi (btw = Hebrew for  prophet) was to me lifted straight from Dances with Wolves (Costner's finest moment anyone?) even down to the journal style monologue voiceover.

The basic resistance movement plotline appeared to be derivative of the Magnificent 7/7 Samurai/Bug's Life storyline, or many other little vs big movies I'm sure you can identify. More from Bugs Life in a minute. One might even derive elements of the "fetch the clans" bit from the Lord of the Rings final battle scene.

Naturally the evil general was the usual stereotype, and of course I did enjoy that nerdy guy from Friends/Saving Private Ryan as the sort of evil middle management. Otherwise it was great that most of the characters were smurfs ... sorry Na'vi so you couldn't get distracted by trying to remember what else they'd been in.

To me Home Tree did in fact look exactly like Ant Island from Bugs life, but in HD. And while we're with Pixar do you really expect me to take seriously a giant blue character called Sully after I've seen Monsters Inc (a little research never does any harm!)

The armoured suits (like the one the general wore in the final showdown) were clearly actually borrowed from the Matrix props cupboard and just jazzed up a bit for low oxygen use.

The twin prop helicopters reminded me of the twin prop helicopters on Syndrome's island in the Incredibles, and the big gunship reminded me of the Millennium Falcon, except if it had been eating doughnuts since filming stopped on Star Wars.

And the whole Pandora background was like watching a Roger Dean poster come to life (and I know I'm not the only person to have noticed this).

So why did this happen? We're told James Cameron had the idea for this film ages ago when the technology to create it didn't exist. In many senses it was like watching (yet) another animated film like the ones my kids are just growing out of.

My take on it is this; Cameron had the idea for the movie and then he had a dream in which a mash-up of all the films I've mentioned came to him, and then he knew he was ready... He's obviously been watching a lot of Disney films and cartoons on TV (if there was any justice in the movie world, "The Last Airbender" would be called "Avatar") and I like to think he fell asleep looking at the cover from "Tales from Topographic oceans" or some such thing.

I think it was George Harrison who said that eventually all the songs possible would be written because of a finite number of combinations of notes. It seems to me with Avatar we have reached the point where art isn't imitating life, just other art.
But I still thought it was great and will watch it again tomorrow with my "looking out for spiritual reference points" hat on.

Sunday, 11 July 2010

Learning to Fly

Actually that's one thing Jody Stowell won't be doing while she's with us in these parishes. Even though she could ...

But my title is intended to paint a picture of ministers taking flight, both in terms of the ordinations that have just happened (I'm feeling surprisingly emotional looking at the from page of the Church Times with its pic of David Stancliffe taking part in his last ordianations before retirement) and more relevantly here, the arrival of Jody on placement from Ridley Hall in Cambridge to spend 4 weeks here observing what Anglican vicars do.

Although it was a long time ago I have to admit that my behaviour as a placement supervisor is entirely lifted from the bloke who supervised me all those years back. That is to say, carry on pretty much as normal except precede each encounter with "This is Jody, she's training to be a vicar", or "This is my colleague Jody" for short.

Of course you probably realise that when I'm talking about "what Anglican vicars do" I am referring to the business of grassroots parish ministry. Anglican vicars do other things, like battering each other in General Synod over the issue of Women Bishops (on which I have already written ages ago), but parish placements I feel should be about the coal face of gospel ministry, "being with God with the people", or to use our current jargon, making connections.

The best thing about having someone visit like this is it gives me the opportunity to look in the mirror a bit, and reflect on my own ministry. It is also goood to get an objective viewpoint of  situations we have observed together. I'm looking forward to the next time this happens, in the autumn.

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

sermons online

Just to remind local readers (and those further afield if they so wish) that the sermons from St Mary the Virgin Stebbing are available in audio format here

This is the most recent one available by me.

Monday, 24 May 2010

facebook tag: 20 most influential albums

this'll be interesting.
I was tagged over on Facebook (like you need me to do a link) to list 20 albums (with reference to vinyl which shows my age) which have had a big influence on me. This post is the response but I'm afraid if you've never heard these you're going to have to google or spotify them yourself.
1. Pete Seeger's Greatest Hits. My dad bought this in the late 50's/early 60's when he hitchiked across the USA. He used to play it to us kids when we were tiny, and I can probably sing most of the songs on it now.
2. Electric Light Orchestra "Out of the Blue" I never owned this on vinyl, but probably taped it off a mate (Charlie, was it you?) Got the CD off eBay last year, and hey presto, all the lyrics came flooding back.
3. AC/DC "Back in Black" Got into this on a French exchange to Grenoble in 1981. Still some of the greatest riffs ever, but the lyrics make me wince in some cases. It is a kind of ambition to use the title track as the recessional music for a licensing in the future!
4. "Heaven and Hell" by Black Sabbath. Bought this off Martin Finey when I was 15. I was never an Ozzy fan really. Again, great riffs and many lyrics that make me shudder now.
5. Michael Jackson "Thriller". Just when it looked as if I was descending into permanent denim/leather/spots/long hair territory, along came MJ with this. I can still remember hearing the guitar solo in "Beat it" (played by Eddie Van Halen) and thinking, maybe there is more to music than rock and roll!
6. Dire Straits "Making Movies". Soundtrack to an anguished adolescence!
7. Telephone "Un autre Monde" Why should the Anglophones have all the good music? It helps that this was the only cassette I carried with me through my year off living in France.
8. Billy Bragg "Life's a riot with Spy vs Spy". Genius.
9. The Wedding Present "George Best" Best live band ever.
10. Half man half Biscuit "Back in the DHSS" Funniest ...
11. The Housemartins "London 0 Hull 4" - all these three mark a new departure in guitar based but "alternative" (whatever that meant) music.
12 REM "No. 5 Document" suede coatrs and sailors caps everyone!
13. U2 "The Joshua Tree" I could pick any of their albums up to the present but this one (and maybe Achtung baby) came out at times when what I really needed to hear was a soaring anthem mixing bitterness and joy, which is what they give you.
14 Guns and Roses "Appetite for Destruction" full circle ...
15. The Rolling Stones "Exile on Main Street" Pure and dirty at the same time. I bought this to prepare for their 1990 tour - still the only time I've ever been to Wembley Stadium.
16. The Indigo Girls debut. Postmodern Angst at its finest
17. Neil Young "Weld" Noise and politics can mix, especially on his version of "the times they are a changing" and "Keep on rocking in the free world". 
18.Enya "Watermark" Honeynoon. 'nuff said
19. Dido "No Angel"
20 Crowded House "Recurring Dream"  These are both influential because they are music i enjoy with my wife

Pretty sure that shows that not much music has touched me for about 15 or 20 years; hmmm

Thursday, 22 April 2010

The Equaliser

If you like sport, especially football (and Edward Woodward) you might like this The Equaliser

Friday, 2 April 2010

Good Friday walk 2010

A much smaller body of pilgrims this year (due to adverse weather) began the day at St James Great Saling with refreshingly original reflections on the arrest of of Jesus and Peter's denial, before moving off to St Peter and St Paul Little (Bardfield) Saling for some excellent readings, reflections and poetry (by Carol Anne Duffy) imaginatively bringing to life the relationship between Christ and Pilate's wife, and Pontius Pilate himself.

Then, with some additional late risers we set out for St Mary's Stebbing, where there was a break for lunch and some liquid worship involving handprints in sand, a reminder of our baptism in to Christ's death, and some opportunities to lay our burdens at the foot of the cross. This was most effectively achieved by the placing of stones (picked up on the way or gleaned at the last minute from the churchyard) in a cairn befroe the cross, which we did in silence listening to "Jesus Remember me".

The highlight of that service though was an av presentation using images and music to express the need for salvation for the world, and the wonder of God's gift of the cross.
I wish I could share it with you but there are myriad copyright issues!
Instead you'll have to imagine it; you are looking at pictures of human suffering, war, terrorism and sin, listening to this. Then the images change to those of the passion and crucufixion of Jesus, and hte music changes to this.  I mean it was my idea, but it still reduced me to tears. I am very gratful to our av guru Richard for his hard work.

After that we set off in deteriorating weather conditions towards St Mary's Lindsell, where after rain and sleet and wind, we hled a service of an hour at the cross with more inventive and original reflections on the death of Christ.

Afterwards there were hot cross buns and hot drinks, most welcome!

Thursday, 1 April 2010

A Facebook Passion

I almost broke my fast to post this directly on Facebook - just hoping enough people bother to read this when it posts there automatically.

check this out for a different take on Easter

h/t dmk

Maundy Thursday Chrism Eucharist

This is a rare thing - I don't usually get to take photos at church! This was the assembly of readers deacons priests and bishops outside the Cathedral following the service, in which vows of ministry and service are renewed and oil for anointing is blessed (and distributed - one of my containers leaked so there is a trip to the dry cleaners scheduled for next week!)

The service was great as usual and I enjoyed a bit of networking before and after. Facebook friends will be tagged on Sunday

Happy Easter!
Posted by Picasa

Monday, 29 March 2010

Out of the Blue and into the Black

Avatar: the backlash ...

h/t The grumpy Cleric

Palm Sunday at Little Saling

Readings for this were Psalm 118 and Luke 19 28-the end. I had some help from Rootsonthe web, and Phil Ritchie told me about the Borg & Crossnan stuff.

At the time of Jesus, Jewish people interpreted Psalm 118 as referring to the victory of the coming Messiah. So it was natural that the crowds should draw on it to acclaim Jesus as he approached Jerusalem (v. 26; Luke 19.38. Luke substitutes 'king' for 'one' in the psalm, making the identity of Jesus unambiguous for his readers.)

A fascinating insight into this triumphal entry is given by the scholars Borg and Crossan, with whom I normally take issue on a number of basic points, but who have by their research concluded that the procession of Jesus into Jerusalem humbly riding on a donkey would have been happening at the same time as a procession of Roman soldiers coming into the city with Pontius Pilate who apparently always like to be there for the Passover. So the welcome received by the true ruler’s humble procession would have been in stark contrast to the attitude of the Jews to the arrival of the occupying forces – in other words, no wonder everyone welcomed him, given the alternative.

And of course, Pilate and his forces would have a role to play in the events of the next few days of Jesus’ life and death, so today we mark the arrival on stage of the key players in the drama of the passion

Psalm 118 is a processional one, in which different figures speak out different sections. The opening and closing verses (vv. 1-4, 26-27, 29) are calls to worship by the priest(s) A central figure – perhaps originally the king – praises God for his deliverance in verses 5-18, as the procession approaches the Temple. Then comes the dramatic summons of verse 19. 'Open to me the gates of righteousness that I may enter through them and give thanks to the Lord.' The procession has reached the Temple courts, and in verse 20, Temple officials respond to the king's summons. 'This is the gate of the Lord; the righteous shall enter through it.' The arrival in the Temple precincts is the ultimate, joyful sign that God has delivered his servants in their troubles, and verse 21 is another thanksgiving by the king, while verses 22-25 are words of celebration by the people, concluding with a petition for ongoing salvation (v. 25).

When the crowds use Psalm 118.26 to hail Jesus, they are saying 'In the name of the Lord our God you are blessed as you come'. This is what they would have said to the king in the old processions, and what they expected to say to the Messiah whenever he came. Matthew, Mark and John include an additional echo of the Psalm in their report of this incident, the word 'Hosanna', referring to Psalm 118.25, 'save us').

As we read the Gospel story through the lens of the Psalm and vice versa, profound depths of meaning open up.

First, the context for the whole event – as for the arrival of the king and his entourage in the psalm – is the praise of the Lord, Israel's God. As Jesus comes to Jerusalem, this is a fulfilment (the ultimate fulfilment, as we now recognise) of the 'steadfast love' of the Lord (Psalm 118.1-4). This is recognised by the praises of Jesus' contemporaries (Luke 19.37).

Second, the crowds around Jesus specifically link him to the central figure of the psalm, the one they had come to interpret as the Messiah-King they longed for. They not only praise God (v. 37), they bless Jesus in God's name (v. 38; cf. Psalm 118.26). The scandalous nature of this blessing is clearly seen in the reaction of the group of Pharisees (v. 39), but Jesus affirms the crowd's instincts (v. 40). Much is often said from pulpits like mine of how the disciples and the people didn’t get Jesus, didn’t appreciate or understand him for who he is, but here it seems corporately the people are led to acknowledge Jesus as their true king, as we have seen, perhaps in stark contrast to the ruler thrust upon them by the occupying forces of Rome.

Third, the Psalm helps us to enter a little way into Jesus' own thinking as he embarks on this fateful week. He will shortly enter the Temple (Luke 19.45) and we can imagine the summons of Psalm 118.19 in his heart, if not on his lips. He wants to go into the Temple and use it for its proper purpose, to 'give thanks to the LORD'. These are the 'gates of righteousness' – the place, as it were, where the righteous should be at home – but that is not what he will find there, as we see in Luke’s next episode, the cleansing of the Temple. Nevertheless, we can imagine him echoing the thanksgiving of Psalm 118.21 for God's rescue of him thus far. He will continue in faith, despite the sense of foreboding he has both for himself and for the nation (Luke 19.41-44).

Fourth, the events of Holy Week turned out to give a terrible twist to the traditional celebratory meaning of the psalm, used to rejoice in the Lord's reversal of the nation's fortunes. In the psalm they rejoiced that the nations, their enemies were 'cut off' (vv. 10 and11), while 'the stone [Israel/David] that the builders [the nations] rejected has become the chief cornerstone' (vv. 22). But in Luke 20, Jesus will use this very verse to point to the disaster coming on Israel (Luke 20.17). Now it is Israel's leaders who are the builders; Jesus himself is the stone they reject; and so the 'vineyard' Israel will be overrun by 'others', i.e. the nations (Luke 20.15 and16). It was a prophecy sadly fulfilled when Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE.

This psalm would be sung by Jesus and his disciples – as by all other Jews – at the end of their Passover meal in a few days' time (Mark 14.26). It is left to us to imagine the extraordinary mixture of faith and foreboding it would have expressed, and the hopes and fears it evoked, for both him and them.

For us, as we begin another Holy week, knowing what happens at the end, there is no fear, but may this slightly different take on palm Sunday increase our hope and strengthen our faith.

Friday, 26 March 2010

Cheer up, it's Friday

"If you don't like this song, there's something wrong with you, fact. Fact" - Chris Moyles, Radio 1, 26/3/10, 9:53am

Thursday, 11 March 2010

lying awake intent on tuning in on you

I'm very pleased to say that sermons by me and my colleagues recorded at St Mary's Stebbing are now available in audio format here. Enjoy! Please use this site, or if you are a member, the St Mary's facebook group, to discuss sermons.

Thanks Dave and Duncan for getting this sorted out

Sunday, 28 February 2010

Sermon for 28th Feb, Little Saling and Stebbing

Readings; Genesis 15 and Luke 13, 31 to the end. I am endebted once again to rootsontheweb, but also Mike Breen for the stuff on the chopped upp animals.

We are asked only to trust that the God whom we seek will come to us at the right time. How he come is usually up to him, not us.

In Genesis 15 Abram, too, is charged not to be afraid but to expect the fulfilment of God's promises. Abram's righteousness is his trusting response. He takes courage and waits for the Lord.

Genesis 15 is the first of two accounts of a covenant between God and Abram. This chapter focuses on the two promises of descendants and of land. The covenant ceremony described here is an ancient ritual in which the two parties pass between the slaughtered animal sacrifices as a symbolic action of their meeting and agreeing, accompanied by the threat of the fate of the slaughtered animals to any party who violated the agreement. Of course Abram does not see God here but the passing of the brazier and blazing torch between the pieces of the sacrifice show God’s commitment to the covenant. So in fact the emphasis is on God's action and responsibility.

God passes through the animals as fire and smoke as Abram sleeps. The important thing happened when Abram could not participate actively, he could only receive (presumably in a dream or vision) God’s promise. Abram’s deep sleep recalls Adam's, from earlier in Genesis when God created a partner from Adam’s rib as 'flesh of my flesh' (Gen 2.23). These two similar episodes show how human frailty is never a barrier to the plan of God, which for us I hope is a comfort!

The moving flame and smoke anticipate the cloud of fire that will lead the people through the wilderness back to the land promised to Abram. Even though that is a long way off, God’s purposes are already becoming clear to the reader. Abram is still passive; his part is only to trust that, despite present appearances – a childless nomad, God will fulfil the promise for the future of a land and a people to settle it. Abram does believe, and is not afraid. His trusting response is the righteousness recognised by God.

Our language differentiates between trust and belief; others, including the biblical languages do not; but for the purposes of what God is asking of Abram and of us, to trust is to believe. Even the English translations of the Bible vary in their rendering of verses like John 14 verse 1, some have believe, others have trust. We just need to get used to reading one word and understanding (and doing) two things.

And it is a subtle yet important difference that informs the faith of today’s church, or perhaps more accurately the faith of those who do not attend church.

Because to be a Christian is so much more than just to acknowledge that God exists, which is the question that people are usually answering on census forms and the like, giving the figure of 70% or whatever it is; it involves putting our faith – our trust – in God; not in the vicar, not in the building, not in the liturgy nor the music, but in him.

That is what Abram courageously did, and it is significant that he did it from a position of weakness and uncertainty; he did not think he would have any children, but God promised him descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky, and reminded him that he was the same God who had called him onto this journey from Ur in the first place.

Perhaps it was this reminder that prompts Abram’s faithful response to the Lord, but as we saw, he still has it in him to ask God a question – how can I know for sure you are going to get me this land?

God’s answer is the covenant ritual, and the promise that the people would return to the land, but that it would not be plain sailing. Abram’s courageous faith will need to be passed on to his descendants to accomplish this.

Genesis 15 is about a covenant that starts the story of Israel. Luke 13 on the other hand, is the point when Jesus’ focus shifts to his part in the sacrifice that will inaugurate the new covenant. He now is the one who takes courage as he goes on his way to die in Jerusalem. He must wait for God until the time of his own coming in the name of the Lord.

Just as God and man met in the covenant with Abram, as they both passed through the sacrifice, so also on the cross, Jesus, both God and man, passed through the sacrifice, but as victim rather than priest. So the two covenants have much in common. Both are designed to define a future for God’s people.

Herod Antipas is a 'fox', one of those that ruin the vineyard that is God's beloved Israel (Song of Solomon 2.15, Isaiah 5.1). Jesus continues to announce the prophet's good news for the people of God. The conflict will come to its climax in Jerusalem, at God's 'house', where the cherubim's sheltering wings will give way to those of Jesus, outstretched like a mother hen to include the whole cosmos in his love. He is on his way to Calvary and will be faithful until his death. By the 'third day' he will have finished his work and the world must wait for the God who will raise him to life as the one who will come in the name of the Lord.

And as we wait we too need courage, for just as Abram and Christ’s disciples lived with uncertainty, so do we. Lent is a time to reconsider the resources we have to fule that courageous faith; the scriptures, the traditions and wisdom of the church both now and in the past, and of course supremely our relationship with God in Christ.

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

and I think I better think it out again

I'm getting ready for meetings with my first couple of consultees as a Ministry Development Review consultant. In tandem with that, recent events here and elsewhere have also got me thinking again about my leadership style.
Not sure I could pull off this approach, but loved it anyway (h/t anneDroid a prison chaplain)

NB those reading this on facebook, I posted it through blogger and so have not broken my fast!

Monday, 1 February 2010

Candlemas sermon throughout the benefice

This sermon was preached three times yesterday, with various local additions depending on the church
The readings were Malach1 3, 1-5 and Luke 2, 22-40. I got the poem and some of the commentary from Roots.

Poem for Candlemas

by Susan Skinner

A candle flame floats

on the mind's eye:

A light from long ago

when old churches breathed

the sound of plain chant

in Rembrandt shadows.

The burnished flame holds

its shadow cone and burns

our winter days to spring.

As we meditate

its gold becomes a flower

of light that drinks the dark.

Now the flame sits

like a silent priest

in a long robe.

True to itself,

it bends but does not lose

its shining shape.

We pray to sit lightly

on our days and find

the shape of God's truth.

Our breath holds his movement,

Our mind holds his silence,

Our heart holds his light.

Luke emphasises the devout Jewish background of Jesus. His parents bring him to the temple and observe the usual ritual for their own purification. The old title for this event was 'The Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary' and it is now celebrated as Candlemas or the Presentation of Christ at the Temple, as the idea that women need to be purified after childbirth is now outmoded. These three names reflect three strands in the celebration;

• looking back to the nativity, in thinking about Mary’s first visit to the Temple following the birth of her son.

• looking forward to Easter, as we are reminded in the words of Simeon of the ultimate purpose of Christ’s coming

• and looking at our present situation; at this time of year there are a few shoots of green, snowdrops and daffodils start to emerge, but we will still benefit from the reminder of Christ the true light – for revelation to the gentiles and for the glory of God’s people.

That’s the link to candles, which traditionally would be blessed on this day. Our churches are now lit with electricity so the candles’ only purpose is to point to Christ. The main point of the narrative from Luke 2 is that the infant Jesus was brought to the place of worship by his parents and was recognised as Messiah by Simeon and Anna, two venerable, old saints. The beautiful prayer of Simeon has become standard in the church. It is worth noting the gender balance of this passage. The parents are mentioned together and of the old saints, one is a man, and the other a woman.

For me this gives a great picture of how the church should be today, men and women, young and old (let’s not forget Mary was quite likely to have been a teenage mother), together in the presence of Christ, sensitive to the Spirit’s promptings and worshipping God in awe. Most importantly, even though they were living in a country occupied by an invading force, in relative poverty, they were free to worship as their faith prompted them to. Confident and free.

And we are too! We can be confident that we will not be arrested just for being a Christian. Every now and then the media puts out a scare story, as this week with the vote in the House of Lords concerning the equality bill, but actually our Freedom in Christ is more important than our social or political freedom. In this culture, it is often hard to distinguish between the two, as many of the traditions of our nation derive from our Christian heritage.

As Anglicans we sit somewhere in the middle of national tradition and faithful discipleship, taking I hope the best from both of these worlds, and helping them, in our mission, to meet fruitfully.

Candlemas is a good time to consider being in the middle, as we are at the midpoint between Christmas and Easter; it is also a good time, thinking about freedom, to remember that Freedom in Christ is not the same as uniformity. So that’s where we’re going with this. The Christian way is not usually described in a positive sense as one of compromise, but our freedom, and our position in society work together to mean that if we share a vision, a common desire to see the kingdom come, to see the light revealed to the nations, we are promising together – com-promise – to walk in the way of Christ.

I was talking with a fellow priest this week who described to me how he came to see the importance of allowing Christians to grow as they need to, not as he wanted them to; he described watching his child playing with a toy in which different shapes had to be pushed through different holes. Of course the star shaped piece won’t fit through the circular hole, and the square piece won’t fit through the triangular hole. Being a Christian doesn’t mean you have to be the same as every other Christian. You have your own shape, and so do I. The important thing is to realise that shape and not try to be something or someone we are not.

Simeon and Anna were particular people with particular expectations, all met in their encounter with Jesus, because they were waiting for him. But their responses are different.

Simeon’s expression of praise starts from himself – he knows his life is drawing to a close as the messiah he awaited had arrived – and widens in scope to include the whole world. Anna however has had a selfless life of waiting, but her response is directly to Jerusalem. Two different shapes, if you will, of response to Christ.

So what is your shape? Do you know which hole you fit in?

If you’re not sure, return to the last stanza of the poem we started with

We pray to sit lightly

on our days and find

the shape of God's truth.

Our breath holds his movement,

Our mind holds his silence,

Our heart holds his light.

The shape of God’s truth is a cross.

Thursday, 28 January 2010

Mac the knife


cartoon from www.weblogcartoons.com
Cartoon by Dave Walker. Find more cartoons you can freely re-use on your blog at We Blog Cartoons.

thank you cartoon church

Wednesday, 27 January 2010


What's that thing called when you can't do anything right?

Monday, 25 January 2010

letter to Ross Williams

Facebook Inbox: "To :

Dear Ross,

I wondered if you knew that your companies (White Label Dating and Global Personals) are providing support to maritalaffair.co.uk which exists to encourage people to cheat on their partners? I really admire the work you have done in setting up some brilliant dating websites that bring people together and heard in the recent interview that ‘Your business is Love’. Maritalaffair.co.uk doesn’t seem to fit very well with your core business.

I am working to try and stop maritalaffair.co.uk being allowed to advertise publicly in the UK. I am part of a growing campaign to achieve this. We have contacted media groups, MPs and the local council where the advert is and plan to continue acting until we get these billboards removed.

I am writing to you as I believe your reputation is put at risk by being involved in this website.

We are asking you to commit publicly that White Label Dating and Global Personals will have nothing further to do with maritalaffair.co.uk. Can I ask you to clarify this by Wednesday 26th January 5pm. Please do this by posting a message on our Facebook page (‘Stop marital affair .co.uk advertising publicly in the UK’).

Thank you for your help – we hope you can help resolve this as quickly as possible. It seems so odd for you to be involved in such a horrible website."

Monday, 11 January 2010

Come fly with me ...

Ok I admit it, Facebook has seriously dented my blogging energies and time - it's only been sermons really recently, sorry. That's been messed up further by the fact that they are now written on a pc with no internet access.

This blog began (and starting a sentence with those words does not imply I am going to stop blogging!) as a reflective tool for my clergy leadership programme notes. If I'm honest it was also a means of getting things off my chest with my own moderation system in place - a little easier on the blood pressure than some discussion forums can be!

I could have done with my leadership programme notes (and Ruth's Arrow folder) in my back pocket a fair few times recently. This has been our fourth Christmas in the benefice - as many as we've ever had in a parish. It (along with some unfortunate and as yet not completely resolved conflicts) got me thinking back to when I was a curate.

I used to get frustrated that my boss wouldn't always want to go with the great new ideas I was coming up with (OK not just me others too). Now I know that it was because he knew he would get it in the neck from the elements of the congregation who make it their business to keep the church the same as it has always been. As curates together on what was then known daintily as potty training we would wonder what it was that turned keen trendy curates into cautious, stressed out vicars. Now I realise it isn't just a matter of the passing of the years, it's to do with where the buck stops. With a curate, it rarely stops at your desk, as incumbent it always does (even if in practice it doesn't, as with youth work)

What this is coming from inside me I guess is the paradox of collaborative ministry; shared leadership, WOOHOO, everyone loves it, but when things get difficult, it's "What are you going to do about it, you're the vicar ...". This works the other way too - much as I love collaborating, there are times when I feel like knocking heads together and shouting "I'm in charge here!" Not sure I'd ever actually say that though as there are elements who would like me to because they think the vicar should do everything! D'oh!
I understand authority in priestly leadership to be conferred by God via the bishop. It doesn't have to be earned. In the same way, respect for that authority, which some might say needs to be earned, I feel ought also to be a given. Not that the vicar is always right or deserves all the perks he or she can get in terms of freebies and the like, but that congregations and communities ought to remember that their vicar was prayerfully chosen and appointed to serve them; he/she is not a volunteer, neither in the sense of doing this for free (with every respect to NSMs out there) nor in the sense of just stepping forward out of guilt or an excess of free time.

When this understanding collides with other understandings of leadership, that's when you can get the kind of plane crash that Sam was talking about.