Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Picking through the rubble

Today at noon I stood, as I often do, at the chancel steps and invited visitors to be still for a few moments, to join in a defining act of prayer, something that is part of our DNA here at Coventry Cathedral, our Litany of Reconciliation.
I told those present that the litany emerged as part of our response the morning after a dreadful event that had changed the city of Coventry forever, that it represented a hard, challenging choice to seek peace and reconciliation, even in the face of violence and anguish. I talked about how the medieval nails that had fallen from the roof of the burned cathedral were formed into a cross, and how that cross of nails became the symbol for all the work that has spread out from Coventry around the world, about the Community of the Cross of Nails, and the different ways in which its members seek paths of reconciliation in the face of real challenge, difficulty and even danger. I talked about Provost Howard's decision to have just two words written in the sanctuary of his ruined cathedral
"Father, forgive" - reflecting that he deliberately turned away from any partisan "them" and "us" response which might demonise any one group.
I dared to say that, as we all ponder the impact of last night's events in violence, which left children - children, Lord help us, - dead, wounded, traumatised, we have the same choice before us.
We can opt for anger, heap vitriole on the people of violence, increase the polarisation of society as we build ever higher walls to separate "them" and "us"....OR we can recognise that each of us carries within us the seeds of anger and cruelty that, left unchecked, can lead to such disaster and resolve to live by a better rule.
There IS a choice. Always.
"What we need to tell the world is this....that we are trying, hard as it may be, to banish all thoughts of revenge....We are going to try to make a kinder, simpler, more Christ-child-like sort of world in the days beyond this strife"

With a new urgency I begged those gathered (a larger crowd than usual, as people came in to be quiet, to light candles, to pray and process all that happened last night) to choose, in their turn, to be people of peace. Then we kept silence for a minute, before I prayed the words that came to me early this morning as I read the first accounts of last night's violence and terror
Lord, you have been our refuge from one generation to another.                                                                                                                      Be with all who cry out to you today:                                                           the weeping, the wounded, the angry, the terrified,
And, in your mercy, receive all the departed into the light and peace of your kingdom,
For we ask this in Jesus's name.

Then together we prayed the Litany - as we do every day.
Precious, holy words that offer a better way of being.
Words that make space for reflection before over-hasty reactions escalate violence.
Words that are a gift in time of trouble

All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.
The hatred which divides nation from nation, race from race, class from class,
FATHER FORGIVE
The covetous desires of people and nations to possess what is not their own,
FATHER FORGIVE
The greed which exploits the work of human hands and lays waste the earth,
FATHER FORGIVE
Our envy of the welfare and happiness of others,
FATHER FORGIVE
Our indifference to the plight of the imprisoned, the homeless, the refugee,
FATHER FORGIVE
The lust which dishonours the bodies of men, women and children,
FATHER FORGIVE
The pride which leads us to trust in ourselves and not in God,
FATHER FORGIVE
Be kind to one another, tender hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.


 

Praying for Manchester

Lord, you have been our refuge from one generation to another.

Be with all who cry out to you today;

The weeping, the wounded, the angry, the terrified;

And in your mercy receive all the departed into the light of your kingdom,

For we ask this in Jesus’s name. Amen.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Thoughts for Open Easter 5 14th May 2017 John 14 1-14

Lord, we do not know where we are going. How can we know the way?

It has been truly said that while you live life forward, you understand it backwards...and that on the whole we don’t get a map to show us the way our lives will work out. I remember once at vicar school spending an evening discussing with fellow-students whether the - or Bible might be such a map, or whether it was more a guide-book, pointing out the main features that we might expect to run across, without actually prescribing a route from here to there….

Not that I’m great with maps, actually. Before the advent of sat navs, if setting out on a long car journey I had to write out a list of land-mark towns as the pressure of trying to work out where I might be on a map at a motorway service station was simply too much for me. So last week when a small group of us elected to do an independent cross-country journey across Iona, disliking the idea of being herded along in the official pilgrimage that stuck to metalled roads, I was very much NOT in charge. There were five of us that day, 2 younger and fitter, 3 of us substantially less so, and friendships were made or strengthened as we adjusted to one another’s needs, for space, for silence, for time to breathe though the challenges and delights of the day.
I learned a lot.
About myself – how knowing that there ARE people who will help when I’m feeling stuck often means that I don’t need to ask for help at all; and that there is sometimes more kindness in not jumping in to assist than there is in hasty intervention; that actually, given time, I can do things that seemed well beyond me to start with.
I learned that we all tackle challenges in different ways and that for me sometimes it’s easiest to negotiate obstacles (specifically steep descents on boggy ground) on my bottom, or (if going uphill) on my knees.
That might have made a nice little parable, if I hadn’t found myself kneeling in the very bog that I’d been trying to avoid slipping into...because appearances are deceptive, and it’s not just the obvious muddy patches that turn out to be squelchy and unreliable.

We climbed Iona’s one serious hill, Duni, early on...and that path to the summit was the only obvious route of the day. Once we left the hill-top cairn behind us, it was by no means clear which way to go, as the whole hillside was criss-crossed with sheep tracks – and, as we learned early on, just because a sheep can get down somewhere, it doesn’t follow that 5 middle-aged clergywomen can follow them. Lots of paths – but which one was THE WAY?

My US clergy friends were peculiarly fascinated by shaggy Hebridean sheep, so there were a fair few jokes about lost sheep and about good-enough shepherds as the day went on….the latter, of course, referring to the brave soul who undertook to be our pioneer, striding ahead and exploring the territory for we who came after.

For all the joking, actually she reminded me of some important truths.
That a good leader knows where you are actually aiming for, and has a sense of the overall course of the journey….
That she isn’t too proud to admit mistakes – and to use her own experience as a learning point – DONT put your foot on that stone, it’s so wobbly I’ve just landed up to my knees in muddy water.
That she will not only have an eye to immediate hazards, but an overview of the wider terrain (so easy to lose the path when you’re simply intent on taking the next step safely), and will sometimes forge ahead simply to encourage from the hill-top
The view from here is incredible”.

A good-enough shepherd indeed, as all of her flock made it home safely., but as I wobbled across the slough of despond on the stepping stones of uncertainty, some other words were echoing in my thoughts – words drawn from the reading we have just shared and used, as it happened, in the Iona Community’s own liturgy for Communion.
Then, just as we think we’ve got it right as to where we should go and what we should do;
Just when we’re ready to take on the world you come, like a beggar to our back door saying “This is the way. I am the way.” and offering us bread and wine….

I am the way – he says.
A way we can rely on, without wobbly stepping stones or unexpected mud baths.
A way that may challenge us, draw more out of us than we had believed possible but will lead us to see unexpected beauty – the view from here is incredible.
A way that stretches out clearly in front of us, unmistakeable...leading each of us safely home to our Father’s house where there are so many many dwelling places….

But what does that mean in practice?
No-one comes to the Father except through me”..seems pretty clear and non-negotiable, so much so that sometimes Christians have behaved as if they thought of Jesus more as a road-block than a route to wholeness and happiness with God.
Of course it is true that the only way that we will get home safely is by taking the route that Jesus forged for us on the cross, the route of self-giving love that is stronger than death.
That is what it means for us to be fully human,
I don’t think, though, that this means that only card-carrying Christians can expect a welcome home.
The Jesus-event – life, death, resurrection – is indeed once for all but it IS truly for all – and in those many dwelling places of our Father’s house there is surely room for everyone who lives according to his law of love.

When it comes down to it, I cannot believe that the God whose love is without limits will intentionally exclude anyone….and nor can I believe that those who seem to be turning their backs on his gracious invitation in this life will do so when they see for themselves that beauty of God that is beyond all words.
I’m pretty certain that those who seem to reject Christianity in the here and now are rejecting not the truth in all its beauty but the broken partial way in which all too often, we, the Church, present it…

But fortunately it doesn’t matter how I see things...what matters is how God sees things, and we can be confident that his perspective is wide and generous beyond our widest and wildest dreams….because, you see, that is how Jesus is….pure, unbounded love….
And he and the Father are one. To see Jesus is to see God. To walk the Jesus way in open-hearted love is to find ourselves on the road safe home, to the place where we all of us belong.

Here is the way. I am the way, Walk in it.



Saturday, May 13, 2017

"Who is the funeral for?"

That's an oft-set essay question during training for ministry, but really you'd think that I would know the answer 14 years after ordination, having conducted on average one a week for 11 of those years.
500 funerals and I still don't know!
Really?!?

My theology suggests that an all-loving, all-forgiving God is not going to rethink his plans about anyone's eternal destiny on the basis of a Requiem Mass, no matter how well-attended, how beautifully conceived and offered. God's will is that none shall be lost, and so though it makes perfect sense to continue a loving prayerful relationship with those who are gone from us, I don't on the whole expect that prayers for the departed will materially affect them, though in God's providence perhaps those prayers, expressions of our on-going love, may be diverted to that time when they are most needed.

So it makes sense for me to pray - and to celebrate the Eucharist too, because that is where we can once more eat together, as we experience a foretaste of the heavenly banquet, where all find their place. But I don't really imagine that the funeral is actually for the departed and, while I'm certain that God rejoices to see loving relationships wherever they are expressed, I don't think that we gather for God's benefit either.
Common Worship says that we are there to remember and to give thanks, to commend, commit and seek comfort - and that is what I tell my families too. "We're here" , I suggest,  "to say thank you to God for X and to X for all they have been and all they have done, to ask God to care for them til you are together again, and to care for you, because this is hard and it hurts, and we're here for your friends to do what they can to show love and care as well. "
That sounds OK - even convincing - and for the most part my funeral families seem to go away having received the comfort and strength that they need, for the moment at least.

I'm not sure that my own experience altogether matches those expectations, though that may be as much to do with the one-size-fits-all impersonality of the Book of Common Prayer service for the Burial of the Dead which marked my parents' passings. No eloquent tributes, indeed, no opportunity to even name the departed - and precious little comfort, beyond the reference to that "sure and certain hope" at the committal. The modern Roman rite is no cosier, nor does it allow any scope to celebrate all that has been at this moment of farewell....and yet it would never occur to me to suggest, even for a moment, that the funeral was somehow unnecessary. 

It is hugely important that those who are left behind can consciously, deliberately, hand over the departed into those open, everlasting arms, and ask for the help they so badly need with the onward journey.

Interestingly, it seems even more important if you are on the periphery - mourning, right enough, but not part of the inner circle. 
So I found it deeply painful and distressing that I could not be with my Gloucester diocesan family when, together, they said Goodbye to Bishop Michael. To be absent, even on beautiful Iona, felt, in anticipation, like an act of colossal ingratitude, a failure to "pay respects", a with-holding of the one gift that I could still offer, which was so very much +Michael's due.
But there was no getting round it. 
I had promises to keep and I knew in my heart of hearts that +Michael would not for a moment have approved of one of his priests failing to honour an existing commitment....and after all, I would only have been there for my sake, really.


So, I found rituals of my own to mark that day.
I re-read his final letter, with its emphasis on the Communion of Saints, as I prepared to celebrate the Eucharist.
I consciously carried him in my heart, my prayers and my thoughts, and heard his voice joined with the multitude whom no-one can number at the Sanctus - and later, in the beautiful brokenness of the Nunnery ruins, I prayed aloud the Commendation, as I knew others were doing in the Cathedral I loved.

And those rituals, that conscious letting go, was by God's grace, enough. 
I discovered for myself that when you ask, you do receive "strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow".
Alleluia!
Amen.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Sermon for the Cathedral Eucharist, Easter 3 A

Today, with our Cathedral's AGM taking place early this afternoon, it’s perhaps a good time to think about what we stand for...so I spent a bit of time yesterday exploring the far flung corners of the internet, to seeing what others believed we were about.
Thus I read that that “cathedrals and churches architecturally prepare our souls for the beauty of the Eucharist” - a line that made me think instantly of the journey from West Screens to High Altar which is so integral to the very shape of our building. If you're visiting this morning and have yet to make that journey - we really do recommend it.
I read too that they are “Flagships of the Spirit”, (presumably because the bishop whose seat gives a cathedral its name, is the nearest thing to an admiral that a diocese has…In a landlocked diocese like ours, make of that what you will! )Finally, in a wonderful essay by the Dean of the National Cathedral in Washington, I was reminded that cathedrals, like those very bishops who sit on their “cathedra”,must be apostolic, prophetic and prayerful

So let’s consider what that might mean for us.

Are we apostolic?
The word itself might make you anxious, suggesting a focus on looking over the shoulder to confirm that our line of succession is just as it should be, - but actually, that’s not heart of the matter at all. To be apostolic is to be always on the move, to be SENT. Think of those weary men running – (yes, I know Luke doesn't actually say so, but somehow there's no doubt ..)RUNNING back to Jerusalem to share the news of their encounter with the risen Christ.
That’s what it is to be apostolic!
Cathedrals, no less than parish churches, are always on a mission…less an institution, more a movement...despite the fact that there is no getting away from the building, with all its beauty and all its demands. Whereas as a parish priest I could say to visitors "I'm sorry. I can show you the building, but the church is out and about - at school, in the shops, walking the dogs, working in Sainsbury's", here there is no escaping the fact that the cathedral IS the building....though of course it needs your presence if it is to be anything beyond a rather imposing shell.
It is a building where we gather as people on a mission...apostolic people...
Using the model that is currently part of our diocesan DNA, this part of our calling is to “Need oriented evangelism” - because, like it or not, we do have good news to share.
We may not feel ourselves fired up like Peter preaching at Pentecost, but just think for a moment about what brought you here, here to this particular place rather than any other
Many of you, I’m sure, were drawn by all that this cathedral represents...the very fabric demonstrating to the post-war world that international peace and co-operation was a serious option, that reconciliation was worth striving for, committing to as a way of being every single day.
You came to stand in the apostolic tradition, to live into the truth that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself and has entrusted us with the ministry of reconcilition.
And that calling is no less real, no less immediate now than it was in 1962.
We have a gospel to proclaim….

And of course, that calling to Reconciliation, is also prophetic, speaking truth to power, offering challenge, modelling another way for a world that is all too quick to jump from posturing to action.
So far, so good then.

What about being prayerful? On one level, that’s peculiarly easy for us. Maintaining the tradition that has been part of this place since Leofric and Godiva established the Benedictine community of St Mary’s, we live each day within the bookends provided by the Daily Office, Morning and Evening Prayer, which holds together all that we do and all that we are. You might argue that it’s sometimes a rather vicarious exercise. It’s relatively rare for any members of the cathedral community to join us, unless they are already on duty as stewards...but vicarious faith has long been part of the mission of the Church of England and certainly that structure of daily prayer and worship provides the trellis on which faith and ministry can grow in this place.

But – is it growing? That’s maybe a question we’d prefer not to engage with, on a day when we want to be able to celebrate all that has been good in our shared life over the past year. Certainly I don’t want to draw us down to wallow in a slough of despond...but I wonder if you found yourself wistful, maybe even envious, as you listened to this morning’s readings, with stories of lives transformed in an instant.

Time for my favourite question, then.
I wonder where you are in the story?

Do you feel excited or guilt ridden listening to Peter’s preaching. He’s truly on fire for God, in a way that might make the rest of us feel just a little inadequate. But don’t forget – this is the same man who denied his Lord three times, and who was so haunted by his own fears that he couldn’t even bring himself to stand at the foot of the cross. Perhaps his inadequacies might, after all, match our own – but here, at last, is his moment of transformation.
Finally – FINALLY – Peter has become the rock that Jesus always knew he could be. He is ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven, and so he sets out his stall in unmistakeable, uncompromising terms. No beating about the bush.
He is offering eternal truths and wants there to be no room for confusion.
Therefore let the whole house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified”

What about it? Are you among those swayed by his preaching – one of the three thousand whose lives were changed then and there...or are you still asking questions on the edge of the crowd? I wonder where you are in the story.

Perhaps you simply feel weary, like those dis-spirited travellers who were making their way out of Jerusalem, desperate to put the scenes of the recent horror behind them, to get right away from the hostile crowds, the soldiers on street corners and their own all-embracing disappointment
We had hoped he was the one to redeem Israel”
So many hopes, dashed on Good Friday. 
"They stood still, looking sad". What else could they do? Where could they go? It seemed their exciting adventure had ended at a brick wall. It wasn’t supposed to end this way, and those unsettling rumours of missing bodies and unexpected angels just seemed to make everything worse.
More questions than answers, that’s for sure...and now the company of a stranger who is so out of the loop that he doesn’t appear to have heard anything at all about all that you’ve been through.
The road to Emmaus seems longer, more tiring than ever before – except that somehow this man’s impromptu lesson in faith and history is strangely engaging, even energising.
Despite yourself, you feel more alive than you’ve done since that last meal in the Upper Room.
Perhaps, like those travellers, you are waiting for a moment of clarity – for Jesus to make himself known to you unmistakeably...to satisfy the hunger you can barely articulate….
You are longing to encounter your Lord, unexpectedly, waiting your energy and your faith to be restored in an instant as you meet him in the breaking of the bread.
Is that where you are in the story?

Or is it just too far off and long ago for you to place yourself in the story at all?
Is a God of broken body and broken bread not quite what you were hoping for?
Though we know here, better than most, the unexpected strength and transforming hope that can emerge from brokenness, it may still seem too long since our hearts burned within us as we came to worship.
Are we disappointed with God, wanting to ask him “Is this it? There must be more, surely”

Time, then, to listen again to Peter’s sermon...to hear these words and claim them for our own...
You will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. This promise is for you and for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him”
This, surely, is the answer to our inadequacies and our weariness, the key to that “passionate spirituality” which is one of the hall marks of a healthy growing church.
It’s not something we can do for ourselves, not something that demands further efforts, an outlay of time or commitment that we struggle to muster.
It’s a gift...a gift waiting to be claimed...a gift that brings with it all the extraordinary life-giving power of God.
This promise is for you and for your children
For we who are part of the Coventry Cathedral story here and now, and those who will come after
A gift from the one who makes all things new.




Sunday, April 23, 2017

Seeds of faith – reflection for St Giles, Exhall 23rd April 2017

I agreed to be with you tonight a good few weeks ago, at a time when a comfortable interval had elapsed since the death of anyone whom I loved. I thought that it would be a purely professional matter for me to come here and share with you whatever God gave me to say as together we ponder the sadness of farewell and the hope of Resurrection.                                             I should know better by now! That kind of thinking is often misplaced...and, in fact, the reality is very different.                                                                         You see, on Easter Monday a much-loved mentor, my former bishop, died – far too early, thanks to a brain tumour. Among many other gifts of holiness and wisdom, he was a life-long teacher, and had continued his ministry as a teaching bishop even as he approached death, leaving his wife with a wonderful letter which she sent to us, his friends, together with news of his passing….                                                                                                   Despite the letter, which shone with faith and confidence, I found myself plunged into all the stormy uncertainty of grief that will be familiar to many of you...and wondered if it would, after all, be possible to bring anything at all helpful to the table this evening. But actually, most authentic preaching begins by speaking to the preacher...and somehow the past week has, in fact, reaffirmed my own confidence in that “sure and certain hope of the Resurrection to eternal life”.                                                                               It’s not about science, though.                                                                         It’s all about mystery, about faith…which is deeper and more wonderful than anything that can be demonstrated q.e.d.                                                           So, let’s go with that as our launch pad.

A seed is an act of faith.

If I knew I was going to die tomorrow, I should plant a tree today..
So Martin Luther King summed up the faith and hope, the determined investment in the future that is represented by each seed consigned to the earth.
When we look at a single seed it is so ridiculously tiny and fragile – it doesn't look as if it could amount to anything.
I dropped an open bag of poppy seeds in my kitchen last year – and despite my best efforts to retrieve them so many individual seeds were quite simply lost, among the dog hair and house dust on the floor.                                 Lost – and yet within themselves, each and every one of those seeds was replete with potential.

We recognise this potential whenever we place a seed in the ground.
We trust that, though most of us probably don’t understand exactly how it works, given a bit of care and reasonable conditions, that seed will germinate and grow to provide new life where there was none before.
And we are able to believe this because we’ve seen it happen for us, year after year…but nonetheless, each planting is, truly, an act of faith.

Jesus talks about a grain of wheat falling to the ground to die - and we know that, if we dug up a seed a few weeks into the germination process, there would be little of the familiar shape left. It can only reach its potential by ceasing to exist in that original form. That's the sort of truth it's quite hard to deal with, when we use it as an analogy for our own experience of loss.
Most of us are here because we have had to face the reality of of saying Goodbye to a beloved body, put aside by the person we love. Perhaps we have seen it laid in the earth – and we certainly don’t need anything else to remind us of just how perishable, how fragile that precious shell the body can be. We are living with the consequences of that fragility, day after day after weary day.

So actually a clever analogy with gardening frankly doesn't help! We know the science but translating it to another context is a different matter. It can be so hard to visualise any sort of bodily resurrection. Even if we’re sure that we’ll see our loved ones again, it’s very difficult for us, this side of the divide, to imagine quite how that will turn out. I'm not expecting to find myself wearing a white robe and a crown, or playing the harp – because I think that sort of picture language is just that. A picture – someone's best guess, but a long way short of reality. And that's fine...I get what they’re aiming for – and on a good day I’m quite content to imagine that those whom I miss are living a glorious resurrection life that involves endless joy, praise and the nearer presence of God.
Alleluia!
But there are bad days too, days when any number of images of saints in glory are no compensation for the absence of one particular flawed but beloved human being.
Days when the fact that I can’t explain how things actually work seems to make it almost impossible to believe in any of it.
I’m afraid I don’t have any sure-fire answers for days like that, because, of course faith is never the same as knowledge, and we can’t use the same objective reasoning to confirm our hopes for eternity.
It just doesn’t work that way.
It’s one of those times when we can only lean on our faith- if we have it - or the instinct that confirms for us that something, someone we have loved so much cannot simply vanish as if they had never been.

I believe that…
I believe it from my own experience of the death of my parents and some much loved others…I believe it from my current experience of adjusting to the loss of Bishop Michael.
I believe it because I have Jesus’s own promise that it is so…but I cannot, in all honesty, tell you exactly how it will come to pass in God’s economy, in which nothing and no-one is ever wasted.

So, though I do want to think about seeds I’m not actually going to explore Paul’s words any more for now.
Who can really understand the Resurrection?
In God's good time we will all experience it – but for now...let's think about other seeds, seeds that are here in plenty today.

Those are the seeds of faith and hope that lie in each one of you, the seeds that have enabled you to carry on even when grief is sharpest, on the days when your feelings of loss are almost too much to endure.
Sometimes, I know, those seeds seem so fragile you doubt that they will actually grow at all…but each day you manage to get up and engage with life and remember to have breakfast you are saying
It IS worth it…Death, darkness, disappointment shall have no dominion over me”
Writing in a famous passage in his letter to the Corinthians, St Paul reminds us that we carry within us seeds that can bloom and flower in our relationships, the seeds that make us fully human....and that these seeds are, in fact, all that we really need to cling to when the chips are down.
These three remain - faith, hope and love”

When we are grieving the loss of someone dear to us, it’s tempting to say  "I’ll give up on love – because that way lies only hurt and desolation…”
That's sad – but sometimes understandable. We feel vulnerable and unwilling to risk further wounds. But even if we no longer feel ourselves able to give or receive love, we are still surrounded by it – and it comes in many different forms. The love of our families and friends is a huge comfort – but it’s not something that we are all blessed to enjoy – and that can make life feel specially bleak. The love of a community, a church, a social group, feels rather different – sometimes a little impersonal…but it’s still worth having, still love. And even if we feel cut off from all those everyday experiences of human love – even then, we are still shaped and held by love…endless love, love stronger than anything in the whole of creation.

We may not be able to say that we understand what happens next, but we can continue to nurture the seeds of faith, and trust that all shall be well, that the God whose who nature is love did not create anything to be destroyed or wasted. Whether we mourn a beloved parent or partner – or a myriad other losses, disappointments, wounds we have been dealt through life...we can try to believe in the coming of spring.

We can hold onto those split-second reminders of God's greater reality, the moments when an unexpected kindness, a child’s smile, the sound of birdsong, the sight of a tree in full blossom, turns the world bright again for us, just for a moment…
We can cherish those seeds of hope and keep them warm and close to our hearts, the place where they most need to grow.
Their growth may take a long time, for after all we’re not planting for the short term, something to spring up and die back in a season, but looking for something to sustain us each day.

So, no quick fixes, but I promise that as we journey on in faith, the glimpses of hope, the hints of love will slowly grow and come to fruition until we can each own for ourselves the promise
'Love is not changed by death and nothing is lost, and all in the end is harvest'

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Still learning from FabBishop

As might be expected, I have spent much of the past week remembering. 
Remembering Bishop Michael teaching the art of leading intercessions (and the most wonderful spoof intercessions he produced as a "how not to" caricature of the worst we might hear...I still remember "And we pray for Emily, our tired vicar, whom we do so appreciate with all her little ways" ). 
Remembering him striding out on pilgrimage across Minchinhampton Common, as he walked his way around the whole diocese, less energetic clergy like me trailing in his wake for a few short miles. 
Remembering him in that most beautiful chapel at Bishopscourt, helping us, his first cohort of deacons, to approach our priesting with a proper understanding of what the liturgy sets out to accomplish and suggesting how we might deliver it (I've just re-read the notes and find I have settled into pretty much exactly what he showed us that day, though his teaching came with the advice "Experiment, explore, then settle with what feels comfortable for you - as long as you know WHY you are doing whatever it might be" )
Remembering the look of comical amazement when he encountered me en route to my car at the end of a diocesan conference, laden with all the paraphanalia of alt worship, including several broken flowerpots and a roll of barbed wire.He knew such things happened - he just hadn't associated me with them, I think!

But I also remember a time when I was deeply disappointed with his refusal to go out on a limb, his loyalty to the episcopal role as a focus of unity when I wanted him to man the barricades and speak out for a truly inclusive Church. I hated feeling at odds with him (I didn't actually see him at the time, so he was totally oblivious)...but when the opportunity came to tackle him at a training day I made sure I was sitting close enough to get a chance to speak. Then something else happened.
This is what I wrote at the time

We were thinking about the urgent need to translate the gospel into a language that makes sense to the huge numbers for whom traditional church will never connect.
As part of this, we were asked to think about the cost of mission...of how it might feel to respond positively to that question
"Will you go where you don't know and never be the same".
We thought about being vulnerable in strange situations, with people whose language, lives and priorities were unlike our own.
But we didn't just think in abstract. We were led to experience it for a few minutes...and I learned alot.

To begin with, we were invited to lay aside an object that we valued, to place it on the table in front of us.
Most of the time I wear a heavy silver bangle I was given in Bangalore...
I think it's beautiful in itself, and for me it carries the added beauty of memories of my wonderful weeks in India, all the learning and growing, the friendships made and prayers offered...It's one of my most precious possessions - so off it came, leaving my right wrist feeling a bit naked.

After just a few seconds to adjust to this, we were next invited to pick up something that our neighbour had placed there.
Then we were told to put it on.
And there on the the table was my bishop's episcopal ring. Around me, sensible friends were picking up phones, photographs, - gently personal items with no added significance for anyone beyond their owners. But this was his RING. The item he wore all the time, as a sign of his episcopacy.
Everyone held back from picking it up - til he pushed it gently towards me.

So it was that for a good twenty minutes I found myself wearing FabBishop's episcopal ring.
It was heavy....both literally and figuratively, as I imagined how it might be to wear it all the time, a constant reminder of the responsibilities he bears for us as the Anglican church in this diocese, and as a leader on a wider stage.
It didn't fit me very well - I was uncomfortable with it in every respect.
No surprise there. Being a priest is quite enough of a leadership role for me, thank you kindly!
But it taught me something too.
You see, +Michael showed me how, around the stone is engraved in tiny letters 
"ut unum sint" "that they may all be one".

Whenever I preside at the Eucharist I'm reminded of the day when I knelt before +Michael while he anointed my hands, and made them forever a focus of the priestly ministry of consecration, reconciliation and blessing entrusted to me at my ordination.
I'd imagine that when FabBishop looks at his hands he remembers not only that shared experience of priesthood but the particular focus of episcopacy.
"That they may all be one"

Since news of his death broke on Tuesday, I've been heartened by the tide of loving tributes that have flooded my part of the internet - and specially some words from Colin Coward, who spoke of Bishop Michael's own longing for a fully inclusive church. I've remembered the reassurance that he gave me when I wondered if it would be right to be ordained into a church whose teachings on "human sexuality" were so different from my own understanding of God's love and justice.
And I've realised once again that being where Christ places us won't always make us feel warm, fuzzy and flourishing...Sometimes we'll find ourselves in places we never chose, wondering how on earth to be our best selves for God in this context...and sometimes all we can do is be faithful.

I guess that Bishop Michael will be teaching me things for a very long time to come, and I pray that I will always notice, and be thankful.