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

Sunday, 25 December 2011

Sermon for Christmas Eve Communion at Stebbing

Well since last year’s Christmas Eve sermon arose from an American folk song I thought we should have something a little more English this year.

I first heard this song at the funeral of a friend of mine called Bill. He was a big fan of the Port Isaac fishermen, and his family chose the song because it fitted well his personality.

The thing is, if I’m honest, Bill had a bit of a downer on himself -  he liked to think that God considered him as something only slightly higher up the food chain than a worm, a bit of a no hoper. Though he was a successful businessman several times over and had a loving family, he was content to think that God didn’t think much of him, and indeed that he deserved it.

If you know me you’ll be able to tell straight away that Bill and I didn’t exactly see eye to eye on this one!

And I chose to share Bill’s funeral song with you tonight, not because I think you’re all a bunch of no hopers jokers and rogues, because clearly you’re not.

Christmas is a time of hope – a time of thanksgiving, but the thing is, there may well be some others like Bill here tonight who think they’re no good, who think that God wouldn’t be interested in blessing them.

If that’s you, I have news for you, even from a song about doubt and adventure.

St Paul writes to Titus, “for the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people”
To all people – salvation is on offer to everybody, not to some self-selecting elite or exclusive clique.

So if ever you have felt left out by the church, if ever we have seemed more interested in ourselves than in the wider life of this village, I must apologize to you and ask your forgiveness. Church is not a club for perfect people, in fact it would more accurately be described as a bunch of no hopers jokers and rogues – but ones who have experienced God’s grace, and who know that even with all their failings they have significance and value in the eyes of God.

We all do, you see. We all have that significance because God doesn’t only love the church; he loves the whole world.
And this love is not the same as human love – we have to decide to love, even our family relationships can be strained by difficult circumstances, but God’s love is eternal and unchanging. There is nothing we can do to make God love us more than he does, nor is there anything we can do actually to make God love us less than he does, because it is his very character to love – God is love.

So does it matter how we live then, if God loves us anyway? Last week the Prime Minister called for a return to traditional Christian values, as a way to fix the problems in our society. I guess I would cautiously welcome that statement, but would want to say that it is not Christian values in themselves that will fix anything. Paul writes to Titus that it is the grace of God that teaches us to say no to ungodliness and worldly passions. I understand that to mean that we need again and again to experience God’s grace, that our lives may be transformed into the likeness of Christ. We do not achieve this in our own strength by obeying rules, but by allowing God to shape our lives, our attitudes and our behaviour. Only then will society truly be changed. Jesus (and St Paul actually) were all about grace, not law. Trying to stick to the rules did not get God’s people very far before Jesus came, and actually it hasn’t got them very far in the time since his first coming either.

You see the thing is, though I’ve already said I don’t want you to think I am deliberately comparing this congregation to a bunch of no hopers, jokers and rogues, actually even the most upright of us has fallen short of the glory of God- the ideal standard set by God for what human life should be.

If you miss a target by 1 mm or 1 mile, you’ve still missed it. The Bible’s way of explaining this is that we have all sinned, we have all done things that are wrong, and so none of us really are in a position to judge others whose moral behaviour when you see it on the news or in the papers may seem to be worse than ours.
And it does matter how we live because sin cuts us off from God. Our imperfections cannot stand in the presence of his perfection. It does matter how we live, but it also matters who we get to help us live.

And don’t forget, God’s love for us is eternal and unconditional. Just as we still love our children when they are naughty, God still loves the human race even in our wrongdoing. The first Christmas was part of his plan to rescue humanity.

And this is what He did. The fact that Jesus lived and walked on this earth is historically undeniable. There is more evidence of the existence of Jesus than there is of Julius Caesar. He was born in Bethlehem, lived a perfect life never sinning once. He loved & healed people, taught them about God and was then falsely accused and crucified by the Romans outside Jerusalem. He did all this willingly because He loved you so much that He wanted to save you. None of us can save ourselves from moral downfall, no matter how much the Prime Minister encourages us. Only God can do that. That’s why Jesus came. That’s what the first Christmas was for.

So what? You might be saying. God loves me, that’s fine thank you. Thing is, you have to make a decision. To benefit from the consequences of Christmas – and of Easter – we all need to choose the life God offers us. He is saying “Come”, but this is not the road to nowhere, it is the highway to heaven, and to truly find hope and purpose in life we must all declare our intention to take this journey with Jesus. A journey that leads not up a ladder to the stars, but to a new life in Christ, that lasts for eternity.
My friend Bill was able to accept the challenge to journey with Jesus before he died, but I don’t recommend waiting until the last minute.
There is a strange ambiguity in the line from that song “everybody knows that this reality’s not real”. For our lives today are as real as they can be – with all our struggles, joys and sorrows. I wouldn’t want to deny you the reality of what we live. Yet at the same time this world is not all there is. There is more to life, there is hope, a future, salvation, freedom and forgiveness – in the Kingdom of God, an alternate reality brought in by the coming of Jesus, which will be fully present when he returns.

So, in summary, the Christmas message is
God loves us all
We have all sinned
Jesus was born and died to save us from separation from God

And the question is, what will we do about it? Where will we get our hope from?

Sunday, 18 December 2011

Stebbing Carol Service Sermon 2011

So, what do you want for Christmas?

Let me start by saying that other department stores are available – borrowing their idea does not imply endorsement of that particular one.

Gifts you can’t wait to give.
All I really want to say tonight is that like that little boy, God has a gift for you that he can’t wait to give, that he longs to be able to share with you.
And in spite of appearances sometimes, like that little boy, God is more interested in giving to you than receiving from you or from me or from any of us.
It probably isn’t a gift you’ve asked for, though if you’ve heard about the Alpha course we ran this autumn you may have it on your list.

It isn’t anything you’ll need to unwrap, nor is there is a danger that you’ll want to take it back to the shop and exchange it for something else.

It isn’t embarrassing like those socks or that scarf or that hideous tie, and it won’t break after a week. Its batteries don’t run out – indeed it has its own eternal power source.

Money can’t buy this gift, as the Beatles sang many years ago, but as Michael Ball sang not quite so long ago, it does change everything.

That little lad in the John Lewis ad had been waiting impatiently for a few weeks to give his gift, but God has been waiting for the entire history of the universe to give you – yes you – a gift.

That little lad kept his gift a secret, hiding it away in the cupboard, but God made plain his gift to everyone, a long time ago.

The reason we give gifts at Christmas is to remind ourselves of the gift God gave us that first Christmas – the gift of his love, expressed in the coming to earth of his son born as a poor baby in a small village in the Middle East; Jesus, the Christ.

Money can’t buy love, but as we shall see, love changes everything.

The coming of Jesus was an amazing act of love – that the eternal God should stoop to become a mere human being. Yet the most amazing gift was yet to come, when Jesus died on the cross.

The cross, and the empty tomb of the resurrection are God’s way of saying “I have a gift for you”. In a way then, this gift has been on clear display under a metaphorical Christmas tree for 2000 years, waiting for us to notice it, and claim it as our own.

And many people have done just that. 2.3 billion people, that’s 33% of the population of the world are Christians today. And tomorrow there will be 80,000 more Christians, as across the world 80,000 people accept the gift that God longs to give, the gift of his love in Jesus Christ.

The compelling thing about that little lad in the advert is that we are set up by the music and pictures to think that he is waiting impatiently to receive gifts, not give them. 

What makes it so moving – or creepy depending on which YouTube channel you watch, is that he confounds our expectations and walks past the gifts piled up for him to fetch and give a single special gift to his loved ones.

And some people here I am sure are thinking that God only wants to take from us, just wants to receive our worship, our money our time and so on. Yet as I have already said, God is more interested in giving than receiving, and that’s true all the time, not just at Christmas.

We give of those things willingly if we have received the gift God gives – the gift of his love, the gift of new life in Jesus Christ.

And how do we receive this gift, how do we get this eternal life, you may be inwardly asking.

It is by invitation only. That is, you have to invite the giver into your heart.

When we come before God and ask forgiveness for the things we have done wrong, and invite Jesus to enter our lives, to become a part of who we are, he comes willingly and gives freely of his love.

Now don’t get me wrong, God’s love is always there for everyone, but to really know that love we need to ask Jesus to give it to us. We can also ask to be filled with the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Jesus. What a gift that may turn out to be for some of you tonight.

One final thing though. That advert has a pleading refrain – “please please please let me get what I want …”
As much as God longs to give you that gift, he won’t badger you or beg or plead. Look at this picture – its called “The Light of the World” by Holman Hunt.

 It depicts Jesus standing by a door, waiting to enter. The painter explained that this represents our hearts, our lives that Jesus longs to be part of. His critics said “but there is no handle on the door, how will he get in?” Hunt replied, “ the handle is on the inside.”
The handle is on the inside – Jesus can only enter our hearts if we open the door and let him in.

I started by asking you what you want for Christmas. I know what God wants – a relationship with you. And if that’s what you want too, your wish can come true tonight.

At the end of the service our trained prayer ministry team will be glad to help you ask for and receive the gift that God longs to give you, but for now, let us pray …

Sunday, 9 October 2011

I-dolatry?  A sermon involving Steve Jobs

This sermon was preached at St Mary's Stebbing on 9th October 2011
The readings were Exodus 32, 1-14 and Matthew 22 1-14.

Steve Jobs, founder of Apple Computers, who died this week, said in 2005 “You’ve got to find what you love”. He meant in terms of career choice, but I’m stealing his wisdom for us today as we look at what our priorities should be as Christians. This is not a re run of our “your church needs you” thing from last month, though if you hesitated then you might not today!

You’ve got to find what you love. You’ve got to find things in life that will nourish strengthen stimulate and grow you to be the person God made you to be. You need to work it out. That sounds as if I’ve gone all heretical and forgotten about grace, but our working out of course will involve God, or at least it should.

When we read the narrative of the golden calf, once again we are going to be likely to identify ourselves with Moses, who remained faithful and who intervened on behalf of Israel so that the Lord relented. Yet I am convinced that every church today and down the ages has its Golden Calf. We have a golden calf and we need to allow God to break it down and burn it up as Moses did with the original.
What is our Golden Calf? It could be many things, but I think watching this video might help us see what we need to do to root it out - by the way, ignore the captions, they are a bit distracting.

So what’s more important to us – rules, or love? For 5 years I’ve been working towards a situation here where our church is seen as inclusive and welcoming of all people of all ages and all social groups, and I know I am not alone in rejoicing at the fact that there has been a sea change. You only have to look at our Alpha course to see that the village community does not see itself as so separate from the church community any more. At last more and more people are beginning to trust us, beginning to realize we are not that weird and that we are committed to the transformation of this community.  But there are still more steps on this journey.

The thing is when the Israelites made the golden calf they did it with the co-operation and direction of their acting leader Aaron. He was trying to keep the community focused on God – after the calf and its altar are made he says “Tomorrow there will be a festival to the Lord” – in his mind this is still Yahweh worship, not idolatry. That’s a hugely important lesson for leaders – or potential leaders, in the importance of authority and of faithfulness to the truth, to God, to his Spirit and his Word. If we lose that, we don’t just lose direction for ourselves, but for the people we lead.

Now, I’m not going to compare myself to Moses and I could point you to some Aaronesque leadership mistakes I have made in the distant and recent past, but preachers I feel work best when they include themselves in the teaching – we, rather than you …

The consequences of the idolatry of the Golden Calf was a reduction in numbers of the people of Israel by about 3000, after Moses commanded the Levites to effectively cull the people. Our golden calves, our over adherence to the way we do things, to the expectations we have of what church is for, even our reliance on technology, all have the potential to destroy this fellowship if we let them get in the way of the task that God is calling us to – to reach out to the people of this community with the good news of the love of God. We are not a stiff necked, stubborn people, are we?

Now Alpha is the most significant way in which that has been done during my time here, but I am convinced there is more to do. Alpha is not for everyone – in fact church was we do it today is not for everyone.
We are unlikely in the short term to be setting up a skate park or a rock venue, but at least we are trying to express church differently – in Feast and Soul Space, in YouthConnect and Scamps. If you don’t get what is going on in those contexts don’t panic cos to be honest it probably means they are not designed for you. There is an argument that says fresh expressions of church can be spoiled if too many established Christians go to them1 Perhaps we should be encouraging people to come with us if we do go – as happened on Sunday at Feast.

Worship can sometimes be a golden calf – as in the kind of church we like to go to. That tends to function more on an individual basis, but it is true that we can make an idol out of worship itself – as addressed in the song “the heart of worship” by Matt Redman. As I will never tire of saying, worship is not primarily supposed to entertain us, it is supposed to bless God, and  in so doing we are also uplifted and nourished then that’s great, but the primary focus of our worship must be God, and not the quality of our playing or singing, the snazziness of the visuals or the sound system or the lights.
Worship is not a consumer product to be bought and sold on iTunes, it comes from our hearts and goes to the heart of God. It may come as a surprise to you but God does not have a favourite form of worship. He just longs for us to share in the celebration of his Kingdom.

And to bring our two readings together, the presence of a golden calf, an idol, disrupting the spiritual life of a person or a church, is likely to be a reason why that person, that church, end up being cast in the role of the invited guests, who miss out on the wedding banquet because their priorities are wrong and they put themselves first, not God, not the Kingdom.

And those who are on the edge of church – who get married here, who come to a funeral here, who bring their children for baptism, who are on Alpha, or who come to Soul Space, to Scamps or even some of the families who come to Feast, in my mind these are the ones – both good and bad please note – that the servants of the king go out and invite to the banquet.

The sad thing is in the long view, many of us started off there, as seekers, as people who were invited to church, to socials to Christmas services and so on. We came to faith through the witness of the Christian community, but somehow we have become infected by what has been called churchianity, where the church – what we stand for, how we think people should behave, how we want things to stay, all that has become the rules that we live by, replacing or strangling the relationship we should be living by – a relationship with God in Christ, a saving relationship.
Now to my mind the way to shake the burden of that idol off our shoulders is to look outside the church – no one could fail to be moved by the stuff Becky shared with us about Uganda, or the stuff we hear from Ukraine, Romania and India – but just as we are blessed to hear the testimony of those who come to faith, let us resolve to keep our faith as fresh and new as those people we hear about.

By engaging with those who do not yet know Jesus, we gain an understanding – or in my case a reminder, of what it is like to live like that. Moses had to plead with God for the Israelites, and I’ve spent a fait bit of time recently pleading with God for the people of this Christian community and those whom he has chosen who are currently beyond it.
God is at work out there, and as we have been saying a fair amount recently, we need to look for what the Spirit is doing, and join in. If that means we have to take risks then that’s fine, in fact I’d say its more likely that we will coincide with the work of the kingdom if we are taking risks, and if it means we fail then that’s also OK as long as we get back up and keep going – let’s not forget Apple sacked Steve Jobs in 1980.

In the same speech in which Jobs said you have to find what you love – which reminds me by the way, we should do that because that’s what God did, that is the message of the parable of the lost sheep -  in that same speech to Stanford University graduating class in 2005, Jobs gave 2 other pieces of advice which are relevant to our situation. He said, “Stay hungry, and stay foolish”.

If we let our spiritual hunger, our desire to know God more intimately, to get deeper into his word and to walk in step with his Spirit, if we let that subside, we risk the creation of a golden calf, the idol of static faith that thinks it has got there, thinks it has arrived and got everything sorted. That’s when relationship with Jesus turns into relationship with rules.

And if we never want to appear foolish, if we are always going to play safe and keep ourselves to ourselves, we won’t be able to take the risks necessary to reach out from our comfort zone into the world we don’t know any more.

You’ve got to find what you love

Stay hungry

Stay foolish

For many are invited, but few are chosen.

Sunday, 8 May 2011

Jesus loves Osama - now that's got your attention!

Now that Lent is over I am back to using a script (just so that I can meet the challenge to deviate from it when prompted) I can post here the sermon from this morning. It will soon also be available in audio format at the St Mary's Stebbing website.

The readings were Acts 2, 36-41 and  Luke 24 13-35

Luke 24 verse 14 & 15

“They were talking with each other about everything that had happened.”

Well this week there has certainly been a lot of stuff for us to talk about in the news, nationally and internationally. From the Royal Wedding to the death of Bin Laden to the elections on Thursday, opinions continue to be divided in homes, shops, pubs, newspapers and across the world via the internet.

“As they talked and discussed these things with each other, Jesus himself came up and walked along with them.”

I wonder, would our discussions of world and local events differ, if we remembered more frequently that Jesus is walking with us, and wanting to inform how we think and act in response to what we hear.

That’s exactly what he was doing on the road to Emmaus, bringing clarity and understanding, restoring hope and faith and ultimately revealing himself in the breaking of bread.

At Easter I usually teach on counter arguments to objections to the resurrection, and this year was no exception. It was therefore a slightly strange experience this week to be reading of a death, and the non-appearance of a body, leading to claims that the person wasn’t really dead.

Christian voices around the world are saying quite a variety of things about the death of Osama Bin Laden. Almost as soon as it was announced, the internet news media were flooded with various versions of a quotation from a 1963 work by Martin Luther King, who said,

• "Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth. Through violence you may murder the hater, but you do not murder hate... Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness:

only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that."

He of course was speaking of how the life and ministry of Jesus inspired his own life and ministry, yet those words cut to the heart the uber-patriotism of the chanting crowds at Ground Zero.

And since then both Bishop Tom Wright and Archbishop Rowan Williams have expressed disquiet about the raid on Abbottabad. I am sure they both did that prayerfully and after serious reflection. In other words, they allowed their relationship with Jesus to shape their thoughts. The Emmaus road experience, of having Christ at our side to make sense of things, can be a useful one these days, and not just for Archbishops!

So how do we tune in? How do we access that experience that Cleopas and his companion were blessed with?

Well there are three things we can say about Emmaus.

The first is, “they were talking” – the sharing of thoughts, emotions, worries hopes and disappointments in fellowship with our brothers and sisters, is a way we can learn how God works, how we are the body of Christ. It’s a big reason why Christianity is not am individual but a corporate faith. So an Emmaus principle is “talk to someone about it, and listen to others”

Related to that is “we had hoped” – the two were unafraid (because they didn’t know it was him) to tell Jesus all the things they had hoped for – even as they thought they had lost them. I’ve said it before, and I’m sure I’ll say it again, that we are the walking wounded, not a triumphant conquering force. The way of the cross is a way of suffering, not of human power and authority. So let us be unafraid to express our struggles, our doubts, our difficulties, for in so doing we may grow in faith and confidence – even if only because we realize “it’s not just me then”.

The second is “in all the Scriptures”. If we want to know how Jesus’ mindset was formed, we need only read the Old Testament. We need Jesus to guide us thought it too, we need New Testament coloured glasses to read the stories of genocide and invasion, otherwise we are liable to fall into the trap of those Ground Zero chanters again.

Jesus explained to Cleopas and his companion how God’s plan was laid out in the Hebrew Scriptures; they shared a knowledge of those scriptures but Jesus gave them new meaning. How often do we share things we have learnt or read in our Bible study with our friends or family? One of the legs upon which our fellowship stands is the Bible. Let us then be accountable to each other in reading it and sharing that experience.

Another of those legs is our tradition. “Then their eyes were opened”. This is the third resource that Emmaus gives us.

The Emmaus story is one of the reasons that I am such a sacramental person. Cleopas and his friend and family had their eyes opened to Jesus when he broke the bread. Now, we don’t see Jesus like that in communion, but I see here a strong encouragement from Christ to his church to break bread together, that we may continue to grow in faith, to tap again into the Emmaus road experience – a knowledge of Christ’s presence with us along the way.

And that final thought brings us to the Acts reading, about which I could go on at great length, but that’ll have to wait for another day. Suffice it to say that here also faith is expressed in what we now refer to as the sacrament of baptism – repent and be baptised. A key verse, which will bring us back to where we started, is verse 39 “the promise is for you and your children and all who are far off”.

I have 2 things to say about this as I conclude.

First, the promise is for you and your children. I don’t think that means “your children when they grow up” it means the children standing next to you now. That’s why I remain an advocate of the baptism of infants, and of the admission of believing children to communion, as well being committed to an all-age church.

Second, “all who are far off”. This is ambiguous to a degree – I’m sure there are missionaries who read this and were called “far off”, but it most powerfully speaks to me of the people who are far off from the gospel, from a knowledge of the love and saving power of God. It is easy to forget, to quote a church poster displayed across Australia in 2006, that Jesus Love Osama.

So let us allow the Emmaus experience to build our faith and our fellowship, that all who are far off may hear and respond to the message we declare.

Friday, 22 April 2011

Good Friday 2011 The Way of the Cross

One of the blessings of the late Easter this year is that our annual Good Friday pilgrimage across the benefice was never going to be troubled by the horizontal snow and high winds, rain and hail that we had enjoyed on the same walk in previous (earlier) Holy Weeks.

This year the weather was hot; very hot. It was always a relief to reach the next church and enter, to feel the cool air suround us. We used the Common Worship Way of the Cross, with a dramatised passion narrative ably performed by members of all 4 churches. There is already talk of upping the ante a little next year with the addition of costumes and the possibility of setting Peter's denial in the White Hart in Stebbing High Street.

People of all ages from 5 to 75 (at least) took part, and although not every pilgrim walked the whole way, everyone was glad of the hot cross buns and drinks at the end of the journy in St Mary's, Lindsell
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Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Nothing compares ...

Once again the old steam driven tower pc I persist in using won't let me cut and paste into a Facebook note so I am replying to one I was tagged in here.
It is the "Favourite Music for Worship" meme, following hot on the heels of a previous one about your least favourite chorus, which I declined to do (as it would have taken all day to decide which one of many cringeworthy things I have sung over the years would get that title).

So here are the questions
1.What is your favourite piece of music for congregational singing? Why?

2.What is your favourite piece of music for performance by a group of specialist musicians within a liturgical context? This might be a worship band or a cathedral choir or just a very snazzy organist or something else entirely, but the point is that it is not congregational singing and it is live music in liturgy.

3.What is your favourite piece of music which makes you think about God to listen to outside of your place of worship? Why? This could be secular music.

4.What is one thing you like about the music at your usual place of worship? Have you told the musicians about this lately?

And these are my answers. Reading this? You're tagged!
1. My favourite piece of music for congregational singing would have to be Keith & Melody Green's "There is a Redeemer". It was a close run thing between this and "Thine be the Glory", but I went for it in the end because it was sung at my ordination, and also because it was one o f the first songs I learnt following  my conversion in the mid 80's. The slight downside is that I usually end up thinking about Rory McGrath while singing it because he kind of looks like Keith Green...
2. I don't like the idea of performance in worship (justabout getting used to the concept of worship musicians having a "set list") but I am always very blessed by the worship team at St Mary's Church, Stebbing, when they play during the distribution at communion services. It doesn't really matter what they play!
3. The title of this post gives this one away. "Nothing Compares 2U by Prince (or more usually Sinead O'Connor). It's like a Psalm for me, a lament, though I know not all the lyrics really work. I'd love to do just the chorus in a Taize service one day.
4. See 2, and also, the organists in Lindsell and the Salings (who are both reading this via Facebook) never cease to bless me with their dedication and talent and desire to diversify.

Monday, 24 January 2011

What have I said Now?

This Sunday we were hearing in church about the calling of the first disciples from Matthew's Gospel. I'd never really paused to think much before about what Zebedee [no giggling at the back] thought when his sons James and John got up from their nets and followed Jesus. In terms of the theology of vocation, it may be (as in this case) that the effects of that calling, that conviction, are positive for those who are called, those who come to that conviction, but less so for others around them, family, colleagues etc.
On Sunday morning I preached about calling from this story (Matthew 4, 12-23). In the sermon I uttered words I never expected to say again after I said them last when I was about 7:

I am Zebedee
 (we were playing on a pogo stick ...)

You see I suspect that even if James and John and their father had already heard of or about or even from Jesus before this lakeside encounter, with the best will in the world, there must have been a little bit of a sarcastic "oh, well so long and thanks for all the fish then" from Zebedee. Perhaps he did have an appreciation of the validity of his sons' calling, perhaps not, but the stark fact is he was 2 crew members down. That can't have been easy to swallow.

I am Zebedee

 because the diocese of Chelmsford lost 300 or more people over the weekend. They followed their own convictions, their own calling (the clergy among them would probably go with the latter) into the Ordinariate [?sp] - Pope Benedict's accommodation for Anglicans departing to Roman Catholicism. I am Zebedee even though I don't personally know any of these people, but we are a fair few crew members down as a result of their expression of their calling or conviction. My opinion on it is not relevant to the decision, but it has an effect on me because the family that has been torn apart is my family, the Anglican diocese of Chelmsford. Oh yeah, great timing too - a happy "Week of Prayer for Christian Unity" to you too Holy Father ! [rant over]

They would say I'm sure (as James and John would say) "We have to go". They don't have to go, the Church wants them to stay and the diocese of Chelmsford is working hard to support them and others like them, but they want to go - it is their conviction, based on their opinion of the matter in hand (namely the making of women Bishops among other alleged 'departures from tradition'). I happen to disapgree with them enormously but I think it is a mistake to go.

Which brings me to the whole concept of the power of personal opinion. This weekend on Sky Sports Richard Keys and Andy Grey expressed personal opinons, which were broadcast unknown to them. The opinions (which I wont repeat here but if you live in a vacuum click the link) were widely condemned as unacceptable. Grey and Keys clearly hold convictions about women in sport which are a little old fashioned to put it politely. Had they been savvy enough to realised their mics were live I'm fairly sure they'd have been more discreet, but now we all know what they think, even though they have apologised.

I don't think those opinions are God-given. When it comes to the Ordinariate, that is a harder thing to say, as I do believe, even if I disagree, that many of those 300 or so souls genuinely did seek God's input on their decision to cross the Tiber. whether they found God's answer for anyone beyond their own selves is another question.

In all of this one thing we should remember (as Yoda might put it); forgiveness is not the same as saying it doesn't matter.

And finally, to bring two great films together in one pastiche, since I am married to a woman priest I can say ...

I am Zebedee and so's my wife

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

When your heart's not open

For Christmas this year I received "The Ballad of John Clare" by Hugh Lupton. It is without doubt the best novel I've read since 1981 (When I read "To Kill a Mockingbird"). It is a fictionalised biography covering a year in the life of the poet John Clare. It is set in 1811, at the time when in the countryside between Peterborough and Northampton where Clare was born, the land was being enclosed, following earlier legislation. At the heart of the story is the enormous feeling of injustice felt by the poor ands the smallholders when their rights to graze stock or grow crops on common fields were taken away. Lupton quotes the 16th century verse that arose from the first protests against enclosure:

"The law locks up the man or woman,

Who steals the goose from off the common.

But leaves the greater villain loose,

Who steals the common from off the goose."

So this year marks 200 years since that part of countryside (along with a lot of the rest of it) was effectively privatised, having previouslyy been either held in common or at least in the hands of a greater number of individual owners and tenant farmers. Those whose livelihoods were removed fell into dire poverty. As the industrial revolution got underway, many moved north to the city to try to find work in mills and factories, leaving their families and their roots behind.  It was a turning point for England.

There has been a lot of talk in the media and the blogosphere this week about another anniversary, the 400th birthday of the King James Bible (KJV) first published in 1611. This date was also a turning point, but for very different reasons.

I'm going to stick my neck out and say I think that 1811 is the more significant anniversary. Much has been made of the importance of the KJV in terms of its contribution to the English language - we all use phrases in our written and spoken language today that arose from the text of the KJV, there's no getting away from that. 1611 also marked a pause in the very turbulent place that was the English religious landscape of the 16th and 17th centuries. The KJV was for centuries a unifying text, to which the Christian Anglophone world looked. The British Empire took it with them in missionary endeavour, and even today the likes of Bono and Melvin Bragg wax lyrical about the beauty of its language.

Which is where the problem starts for me. The Bible wasn't written to sound nice, it wasn't meant to be a preserver of language or culture; it was meant to tell a story, the story of God, and to introduce us to a person - Jesus Christ. Now, no one Bible  translation is perfect, indeed the modern science of translation has a lot to say about the impossibility of actually properly translating anything. The KJV, I feel, was a good tool for its day, but like the ancient farming tools that were overtaken by the seed drill and the subsequent mechanisation of farming, it has been superseded by better, more accurate, more scholarly and more comprehensible Bible translations, and we need to let it go. It may have been a thing of beauty, but the KJV also contains (to our ears) myriad words and expressions that are not only meaningless but also in some cases do not do justice to the original text. Just google "kjv inaccuracies" to get a flavour of this.

Now, I realise 1811 is a bit of a non-specific anniversary, but I still feel that 200 years since the end of widespread smallholder and common land farming is a more important anniversary to mark. The injustice of it  led in some cases to open conflict between the landed gentry and the peasantry - a real live class war. For today's protester this intense and bitter disappointment and feeling of being crushed has come to the surface again. Our class structure and social and economic landscape was formed by the consequences of  enclosure. It contributed at least as much as the Industrial revolution to the breakdown of family ties and rural roots. Never forget, the nuclear family didn't exist in the pre-industrial, unenclosed age. People lived much closer to their relatives in multi-generational groups.

1611 and 1811 do have something in common though. They have both caused us as a nation to idealise - the Bible and the countryside respectively. After enclosure, the corporate mindset of the rural population always looked back fondly upon the pre-industrialised farming villages. This formed the "chocolate box" image of thatched cottages and winding lanes that we still operate on today as an archetypal rural scene. It wasn't really like that though (or at least not for long), even if people have been trying to recreate rural life in that image ever since.( I'm often tempted to suggest middens and no running water should be included in planning permission in villages where the planners want to preserve the chocolate box!)

After its publication the KJV froze in time the religious language of the late 16th and early 17th centuries, and froze alongside it a set of religious assumptions (behind the translated text, from the minds of the translators) many of which have long disappeared, especially with regard to gender, to race and to the created order. We haven't changed our theology of these things by abandoning biblical (read: KJV) truth, but by studying the original texts (i.e. Hebrew and Greek) and discovering (sometimes also though science) that ther are other ways of understanding. To look back at the KJV is to idealise language in the face of a snowballing development of newer words and forms of language (innit?) I hesitate to suggest, but I believe it to be true, that those who also look back to the KJV for an idealised "traditional" faith, are holding back the church in mission, strangling us like a dog on a choke chain. It wasn't ever really like that, and can never be again.

The landscape of rural England is changing again in this age. Eco-town, anyone? Maybe not, but something has to give in the quest for more and better housing (but that's another story). Chocolate box villages are only on chocolate boxes; everywhere else has Range Rovers and Sky dishes and youth crime just like anywhere else.

The landscape of religious England is also changing in this age. I don't know how its going to turn out, but it is by trusting a person (Jesus) rather than a book (the KJV) that I intend to ride the storm.

Languages are meant to evolve, not to stay the same. English will still be English even when the KJV is long forgotten (that's "when" not "if") . I'm not sure 'evolve' is the right term for Christianity, but I do believe our faith is meant to adapt to each new culture in which it finds itself. You wouldn't take the KJV to an undiscovered tribe in the Amazon now, so why make the descendants of the disenfranchised farmers of 1811 read it here?

Not properly researched, I know, but there you go!