I came to bear witness to the truth

15tue_hhdl-adt_12x8

Faces of the Divine

Homily for the Feast of Christ the King 2015

The Archbishop of Canterbury’s recent statement that the Paris attacks caused him to doubt the presence (or was it existence?) of God gave me cause in yesterday’s sermon to lay into the intellectual poverty of our leadership. The implication that God is a European; the blindness to the fact that Islamic fundamentalists were originally recruited and equipped by the US for fighting Russians in Afghanistan; the lack of acknowledgement that the UK and US fawn over the ISIS-connected House of Saud. Is the former oil executive blind?

Look at the West’s involvement in the middle East over the last century: the partitioning of the Arabian peninsula, the partition of Palestine, the formation of Jordan and Iraq, the military campaigns that are seen as Christian wars, modern Crusades. And people wonder ‘why Paris?’

I wonder what His Grace’s musings say about his notion of God. That God is ready to jump in and solve problems for ‘people like us’ in a city that is such a nice place to live? He said something like that too.

The Gospels tell us that the Pharisees were afraid to go after Jesus because people hung on his every word. Where is there a Christian leader of whom that might be said? Pope Francis perhaps? Certainly no Anglican now that Desmond Tutu has left the main stage. Nobody in the Church of Ireland says anything at all for fear of the brain dead eejits in the North, and in the Church of England all we get is ignorant bluster.

At least Dalai Lama has balls: “We cannot solve [the attacks in Paris] problem only through prayers. I am a Buddhist and I believe in praying. But humans have created this problem, and now we are asking God to solve it. It is illogical. God would say, solve it yourself because you created it in the first place.”

I ‘came out’ in the pulpit yesterday. I said that Jesus was a Buddhist in everything he said and did; that all he asks is that we follow his example; that arguments about atonement are piffling; that what matters are compassion and the death of self.

I said that we were now witnessing the oozing into place of the third world war and that the future is bleak. Of course, none of this absolves the evil perpetrators of evil deeds, but we might at least recognize our complicity in the sin of the world through our own ego and pride.

I said that there is no hope until people realize that the Kingdom of God is not about life after death or about an ideal political system to be gained by bashing people over the head until they agree with us. My kingdom is not of this world.

It is an inner kingdom, here and now. It is certainly not a kingdom of control, It is a kingdom of beauty. I came to witness to the truth – that is, beauty and imagination in all their manifestations. Beauty and imagination do not conquer by forcing, but by freeing.

Conquering kings their titles take, from the lands they captive make; Jesus, by a nobler deed, from the thousands he hath freed.

It was St Cecilia’s day yesterday, so we sang:

When in our music God is glorified, and adoration leaves no room for pride, it is as though the whole creation cried Alleluia!

How often, making music, we have found a new dimension in the world of sound, as worship moved us to a more profound Alleluia!

Beauty and truth seem pretty interchangeable to me. I came to bear witness to the truth. I said I’d probably be sacked after a sermon like this.

Fragrant chaos

censer-incense-burner-01There’s a fuss in Burton about a proposed new Mosque. The far-right are planning a protest march.

I had a lift from a Muslim taxi driver. I invited him into S Paul’s. He took his shoes off at the door, stood and gazed, wandered around. I said I wished that some of our people were more like him and other faithful Muslims, respectful and with a sense of the Divine. Churches might be thriving.

If there is a protest about the plans for a new Mosque—and I hope not—I pray that the protestors will repent. But idiots are idiots, whatever their idiocy.

It is a fact, though, that church is irrelevant to many people these days. What does ‘church’ mean to those who’ve never set foot inside, whose parents and grandparents have never set foot inside?

In the film Chocolat there are two visions of church. The first is cold, gloomy, repressive, and governed by people who use power to oppress and control. Then, the wind blows open its doors. God the disturber exposes unhappiness and hypocrisy hiding behind a façade of judgmental pomposity. ‘Church’ that was an oppressor becomes a liberator.

As for the faith, it’s seen by most people as life-denying and over-regulated. This is criminal. The mission Jesus gave the apostles was simply to teach others what he had taught them. Rather than making dogmatic statements about how to get to heaven, Jesus modelled and taught how to live now—here on earth, and he said that this was heaven! Despite this, neurotic church people have made Jesus’ death and resurrection into a bookkeeping tally, good behaviour rewarded with the promise of a kind-of club class after-life. We make his love too narrow by false limits of our own; and we magnify his strictness with a zeal he will not own. No wonder people dismiss church.

I think Christianity is really quite simple:

  • Every one of us has the divine light within, a bit of the Divine, like a pilot light on a gas stove.
  • All we need to do is let that inner pilot light grow to fill us from the inside. That’s the incarnation. We don’t need to do anything; we just let it happen. O holy child of Bethlehem … be born in us today.
  • As the flame grows it brings to light our egotistical desires and all the vain things that charm us most, then consumes them, often very painfully – that’s the crucifixion …
  • so that we ascend to the heights, unburdened, unshackled, to be lighthouses lighting the path for others and lightening their burdens.

That’s it. All the rest—doctrine, dogma, rituals—is poetic window dressing, some of great beauty, and some well past its sell-by date.

During my ordination training I visited a Hindu Temple in Leicester. It quite took my breath away. Smells, colour, activity, incantations, devotions – quiet and not- so-quiet murmurings soaking the Temple. People coming and going. A family having a blessing here, people preparing a meal over there. Children playing here, adolescents chatting there. Religious bric-à-brac that knows nothing of middle class notions of good taste or the stifling conservation police. Facilities for hospitality, pastoral care, social action, learning and devotion. No moaning about how things used to be, but rather living in reality.

The building is used. There’s no scruffy notice apologizing for the Church being locked outside the one service every fortnight. There’s no rivalry between flower arrangers or intercessors. There’s nobody saying ‘you can’t sit there, that’s my seat.’ The temple is a place where people talk to each other, listen to each other and acknowledge the presence of something infinitely bigger than themselves. It’s life affirming. I suspect that heaven—if I ever see it—will be fragrantly chaotic like that Hindu Temple. I hope it will.

Is this an unrealistic dream: a church that is fragrantly chaotic, open in every respect? Not simply beauty of craftsmanship, but beauty of the human spirit, open and saying ‘yes’, like Mary was open, saying ‘yes’? Is it an unrealistic dream that Christians might learn from other faiths?

Let’s celebrate life abundant, not life resisting, life enabling not life denying. Let’s be a church, as Pope Francis says, that like a Mother always seeks the good and salvation of all her children.

Knowing one’s worth

You would think this would do for the ABC

You would think this would do for the ABC

In today’s Church Times, The Archbishop of Canterbury seeks a Diary Manager, salary between 23K and 30K. My stipend is 23K, so when you add in the cost of housing I suppose the Diary Manager might be costing much the same as a parish priest. It’s good to know one’s worth in the eyes of the Pope of Canterbury.

The Diocese of London is thinking about having a seventh bishop. The Diocese of Leeds (formerly Bradford, Ripon and Wakefield) is appointing a sixth bishop. This diocese has four bishops. And if you’re regular C of E kind of guy or gal, you’ll know that each year the Dioceses ask for more and more of your money. You might think that there are questions to be asked about how the church spends its money. The place to ask them is … well, I can’t answer that. There isn’t one.

Deanery Synod might be the place, though a recent meeting I attended seemed concerned only about writing a mission statement. Deck chairs and titanics spring to mind. Nevertheless, Deanery Synod is the nearest to the decision makers that hoi polloi like you and me get, and it would be good to see meetings become a teeny bit relevant.

Some of my friends thought that the ad was asking for a ‘Dairy’ Manager. Quite a nice job, some said, looking after the Archbishop’s cattle, herding them, feeding and watering them, milking them. Well it might be in rolling Staffordshire perhaps, but in Lambeth I suspect it would be udderly tedious. Boom, boom.

We plod on. There were 12 people at today’s 1230 Mass. No gimmicks, just the work of the church in all its glory and tradition and continuity.

Courageous Pope

Pope_Francis_2013Il Papa needs to watch his back. He is ‘courageous’. Francis has listed fifteen ailments from which he thinks the Vatican Curia suffers. Here is my interpretation of them.

  • They treat the church as a private club. They form cliques. They show off. They suck up to people more ‘powerful’ than themselves. They think the more they have the better off they’ll be.
  • Everyone thinks he is in charge, so without coordination, nothing gets done.
  • They confuse looking miserable and/or pompous with seriousness of purpose.
  • They build walls around themselves and their own creations. They are inclosed in their own fat, and their mouth speaketh proud things. ( Psalm 17:10, BCP 1662)
  • They think that driving a computer is more important than dealing with real people.
  • They are hard-hearted. They are delighted when a rival comes a cropper. They ‘kill’ others by gossip and backbiting because they lack courage to speak face to face.
  • They plan too much so become inflexible, they think activity means progress, so they never reflect on what they have done or what the consequences might be of planned action.

Sound familiar? Entitlement. Masonic intrigue. Petty rivalries. PCC meetings. Church processions. Church politics. Mission Action Plans. Fawning to bishops. Church flower rotas. Church choirs—oh Ye Gods, church choirs, may the Lord save us and protect us.

I spent three years of my life dealing with a particular manifestation of such as this. I resolved when I got out of it that I would never again tolerate such self-obsessed behaviour. And I mean it.

Back in the fourth century AD Evagrios the Solitary wrote that the demons that fight us in the front line are those entrusted with the appetites of gluttony, those that suggest avaricious thoughts, and those (worst of all) that incite us to seek the esteem of men.

Nothing has changed. I’m with the Pope.

Church parasites

Heartworms

Heartworms

Today’s Church Times announces that the good old C of E is thinking about using human resources managerial strategy to train people for high office. Nothing has quite spoiled my Friday morning as much as this has – not even the prospect of a politically correct Christingle for a non-church and significantly Muslim school later in the day.

I know from selection conferences when I was an Assistant Diocesan Director of Ordinands that people, even at that very early stage, are labelled as potential high fliers. This is woeful enough in an institution that claims to be about service. But to institutionalize it is shameful.

The problem about wearing the clothes of other creatures is that one picks up their parasites, and in this case the parasites that come with the coats of corporate managerialism will at best disable and at worst consume the host. This is the sort of policy that drives me towards the former ‘flying’ bishops for a vision of the church that accords with what has been handed down to us.

I suppose the people that come up with this are so struck with guilt about what they have allowed to happen to the church – or rather, they should be – that they now flail about like headless chickens. ‘Something must be done’ they say. Maybe, but Ye Gods not this.

It’s like medical education. You qualify as a doctor (it’s a conveyor belt – don’t let anyone tell you otherwise – there’s no intellectual content, it’s all memory), then you train in obs & gynae, GP, physician, surgeon etc. Then you get 8-10 years under your belt and find yourself approaching divorce, middle age etc. And you are BORED. You have done 5 gall bladders a day every day. You have looked up the orifices of 7 zillion people and you are NUMB. So then you take to the bottle, or whatever, and start to attend meetings (with expenses of course) at the Royal Colleges where you sit around in panelled rooms on committees that interfere in things that don’t need interfering with. You impose your ‘new’ ideas and force reorganizations and generally foul things up even more. But at least you are not bored any more, and you can wait in line for your gong.

Now put all that in the context of the church. I’m long enough in the tooth to say to Church apparatchiks that I shall go on as I am. By the time they get round to disciplining me for not going along with unimaginative fads I shall be either dead or retired. But I pity the poor souls who are at the beginning of their ministry.

Fair perceptions

S Modwen's in the background

S Modwen’s in the background

Today I blessed Burton’s Statutes Fair. A 600-year history I gather. The Mayor spoke, I blessed, children from Holy Trinity School prayed and cut the ribbon, and I splashed a lot of Holy Water about. There was no need of this actually, for plenty of the natural stuff was dropping as the unstrained quality of mercy.

On my way to the ‘green room’ beforehand I bumped into the President of the Showmen’s Association of Great Britain who pointed to the showmen’s prayer on the back of his card. I was wondering what I would say at the grand opening, having left my preparation in the hands of the Holy Ghost, and so this was a gift from heaven. ‘Coincidence is God’s way of remaining anonymous’ Albert Einstein is reputed to have said, so this happenstance must prove that there is a God and that she was listening to my concerns.

The quote about coincidence is also attributed to Lauren Pederson, of whom I had not heard. Is it another name for Einstein? or vice versa? I wonder if Lauren and Albert were ever in the same room at the same time. Would that have been coincidence?

Anyhoo, back to the plot. The circus owner, who had himself been President of the Showmen’s Association, told me the story of how that prayer came to be. At an Association meeting in Rome, members were told gather in a certain place at a certain time. They were taken in a bus with police escort to the Vatican and in due course issued into the Presence. Lengthy and enthusiastic conversations ensued, and the chain of office much admired by His Holiness. That is where the prayer comes from, a product of Pope John Paul II.

Chatting to civic dignitaries after the Fair blessing, I was sounding them out about increasing the profile of S Modwen’s in the town, and how best to make it known that the church was at the service of the town and everyone in it. After all, the building is in the Market Square, and it’s a real shame that it’s locked most of the time. The dignitary was sympathetic and helpful, but agreed that we are up against the widely held perception that the church as a whole was standoffish and stuck up. The same thing was said to me in similar circumstances in Portlaoise about the Church of Ireland.

I remember the first time that it really dawned on me that perceptions were often more important than facts, because it’s perceptions that we have to deal with. It was at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland when a colleague and I were discussing some issue that was causing great student unrest. My colleague was holding to facts, while I said  facts didn’t much matter because what we had to counter were widely held perceptions.

O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!
It wad frae mony a blunder free us,
An’ foolish notion:
What airs in dress an’ gait wad lea’e us,
An’ ev’n devotion!

 We have work to do.

Trespassers will not be prosecuted

il_340x270.433804045_renxWe’re going back to the ‘old’ Lord’s Prayer. When I announced this at a PCC meeting, there were smiles and several utterances of ‘oh good’.

The rhythm of the ‘old’ rolls off the tongue more easily. It’s more like poetry, and so is easier to say, easier to remember, and it more quickly becomes familiar.

The ‘new’ is neither one thing nor the other. It ‘modernizes’ some things and not others. The trouble with modernizing is that it needs to be done regularly as words and concepts change meaning. This strikes a blow at the idea of having a text known by all ages in all places, and it detracts from the notion that The Divine is immortal, invisible, in light inaccessible, the Ancient of Days – which must be true because we sing it with gusto. The new version retains hallowed but ditches thee, thy and thine. Hallowed is not in daily use, but thee, thy and thine are in many parts of England. Your will be done on earth as in heaven implies that it is not done in heaven, but might be one day. Give us today implies a grasping entitlement that excludes the sense of tomorrow and yesterday that comes with daily.

The ‘old’ form is that used in English-speaking Roman Catholic churches and many other denominations. It’s used in most schools that teach it, and that includes Shobnall and Holy Trinity. Because it’s an Anglican translation, and one that even then is used in only some Anglican churches, it’s like the membership song of a posh club. It excludes people rather than includes them. This matters at funerals and weddings and other big occasions.

Enough!

If you prefer the new one, you can have it back when I’ve gone. Until then, enjoy trespassing.