Thursday, July 30, 2009

Learning from Wilberforce

Today the Church invites us to remember and celebrate the life of William Wilberforce, whose work as a prophet so challenged the accepted ethics of his day that they were changed forever, and so at the Eucharist this morning I found myself reading

"There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus..."

Wonderful, inspiring, beloved words....but painful this week, when divisions seem to loom in all directions...

There have been some thoughtful and helpful posts (try Rick's Green Grass - and the commments too - or With a Song... for expressions of bafflement and disappointment, or more philosophically A Church for Starving Artists to name but 3) as well as a huge upsurge of anger and grief in response to Archbishop Rowan's comments on General Convention...
I'm struggling to discover where the Rowan Williams I've long loved and admired has gone to...and what can possibly be the right way forward for those committed to an inclusive church but still working within the ever harsher reality of the Church of England.
I have not an heroic bone in my body, but I can't see where people like me belong (straight, married, "safe" in every way except for my convictions...)
Will there be an inclusive C of E, with alternative ArchiEpiscopal oversight? ...
How have we found ourselves so far off course that it is possible to even begin to imagine a world in which ++Rowan might find himself aligned with the churches of the Global South?
I am not sure whether I'm more sad than scared or vice versa - while recognising that for the majority in my congregations this whole thing is a complete non issue, so remote from their own concerns that they'd not begin to understand that it might be a make or break matter for their priest....

And as if that wasn't enough, this week we've heard (here for example) that Blackburn Cathedral has decided to offer two versions of the Sacrament at Sunday Mass. If you prefer your Communion with no risk of female taint, then it is possible to join a queue for elements from the Reserved Sacrament, guaranteed to have been consecrated by a man even when the President at the Sunday Mass is a woman.

What price Galatians 3 now?

eta Thanks to Sarah for alerting me to a very helpful reflection by Scott Gunn here
I'm not sure how much better it made me feel, but at least it offered a respite from some of the vitriole I've encountered on the net this week.

Sunday, July 26, 2009


to take your congregation back to their roots aren't always apparent in parish life, even when you suspect it might be a Very Good Thing for all concerned.
And, if I'm honest, I'm so wary of appearing to adopt a Father (Mother?) knows best approach that I don't engage in half the teaching I should, preferring to adopt the role of an ever-optimistic bouncy dog (yes, I do have a model in mind) bounding through the undergrowth, sometimes a little ahead of my congregation, sometimes off at a tangent, but always trying to share the excitement of discovery along the way.

Most of the time this works perfectly happily, but every now and then it can lead to a feeling that you've rather missed an opportunity.
For example, today I had to tell the congregation that, in obedience to the Archbishops' recommendations, we have for the moment suspended our use of the common cup at the Eucharist.
My colleague, who has a medical background, filled them in on the science behind this and I gave them a VERY brief theological reassurance that the fulness of the Sacrament was present in either bread or wine...
That, I thought, should do it.

Except that at the door afterwards it became very clear that while half the congregation hadn't registered the announcement at all (and were still wondering how we'd managed to forget to bring round the chalice) the other half had been completely baffled by pretty much everything I'd said. this the time to unroll my theology of Eucharist, while trying not to scare those whose views are radically different?

Of my two parishes, one is a classically middle-of-the-road village church, where any attempt to voice ANY sort of explicit theology would be seen as the height of bad manners...The other was presented to me as "on the kind of liberal catholic spectrum" - and certainly the Sacrament is reserved (could I have gone there otherwise? almost certainly not), vestments are worn and as for the most part those aspects of catholic faith and practice I've suggested have been well received.
But now I'm wondering if anyone has any idea WHY?
And if, as I suspect, the answer to that is "No" - then what might happen as I try to suggest some possibilities...?

Oh dear, I do wish I were rather less of a wimp.
Pleasing all the people is never going to be possible but I'm always appalled at the way the sacrament of unity can cause so much division...and I hate the thought of being the one who highlights those divisions in this place.
But there's never going to be a better time, is there?
If we try and explore our theology of Eucharist now, then we can work on our practice in the weeks before the Herring of Christ's priesting next year.
That sounds OK...but makes me feel very nervous.
Really, I'm quite hopeless.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Dreams for the church

At the moment, you don't have to look too far to find evidence of all sorts of unhappiness within that part of the Body of Christ that is the Anglican Communion (though as always, even as I prepare to wring my hands and consider despair, there's fresh evidence of God at work and I wonder how I dared to question...) so yesterday's Friday Five, which was all about the five marks of a perfect church, would have been distinctly apposite. However, I can't dream church dreams without hearing the words of others...the first a posting from WATCH a couple of years ago and the second from the ever wonderful Kate Compston. I certainly can't improve on these - and they are very much my dreams too.

I'm dreaming
about a church of sensitivity and openness,

a church of healing and welcome.

I'm dreaming about a community of friends
that celebrates differences and diversity and variety,
a community that is forgiving, cherishing, wide open.

I dream
of women and men
who minister
life and laughter and love;
of men and women who minister
healing and harmony and hope;
of women and men who minister to each other
and minister to the crying needs of a world that hurts.

I dream
against the rough climb still to come,
against expectation, against pessimism and despair;

I dream, I dream of the clear panorama
of the vision of light right at the top of the mountain.

I dream of a church that joins in with God's laughing
as she rocks in her rapture, enjoying her art:

she's glad of her world, in its risking and growing;

‘tis the child she has borne and holds close to her heart.

I dream of at church that joins in with God's weeping
as she crouches, weighed down by the sorrow she sees;
she cries for the hostile, the cold and no-hoping,
for she bears in herself our despair and dis-ease.

I dream of a church that joins in with God's dancing
as she moves like the wind and wave and the fire;
a church that can pick up its skirts, piroutting,
with the steps that can signal God's deepest desire.

I dream of a church that join in with God's loving
as she bends to embrace the unlovely and lost;
a church that can free, by its sharing and daring,
the imprisoned and poor and then shoulder the cost.

God make us a church that joins in with your living
as you cherish and challenge, rein in and release;
a church that is winsome, impassioned, inspiring;
lioness of your justice and lamb of your peace.

But of course dreams are of very limited value if they remain simply that.I'm in optimistic vein tonight, after some experiences of church that fit rather wonderfully with the dream - so I'm off to do some praying now, recognising that work may well be part of the package too...

Rivers and re-creation

In obedience to lots of good advice (and even a sermon preached to myself) I've just spent a very restorative couple of days...

On Thursday I had a yummy pub supper with a friend, whose parishes run down the eastern bank of the Severn - and she took me to see my first Severn Bore.
It was a lovely calm evening, with the river flowing gently towards the sea (as rivers are, after all, wont to do) when the flow was broken by the wave of the bore coming upstream...Even from some distance we could hear it (though it was more a loud purr than the sort of roaring that Thomas Hardy described) and to watch it was quite extraordinary. Something in the contrast between the calm of the evening and the inexorable progress of the wave up the river was irresistable. Some surfers caught the wave and rode upstream for a while, and though I was assured that this was just a two-star bore, so not that remarkable, I was really delighted by it. No drama, no hype - it just was!

The following day the holiday continued, as I caught a train to London to catch up with friends. The very act of getting on a train takes me back to childhood expeditions, so the whole thing felt like an adventure from the start. Add to that the joy of being in a special place with lovely people, absolutely no responsibility for anything beyond being there and open to happy things and the result was just blissful.

A long long time ago, when I was busy working my way round the Greater London Choral Circuit I would take Sunday afternoons off to sit in the congregation at St Paul's. I wasn't quite sure what I was doing there, but knew I felt more human afterwards. Even on the busiest summer afternoons, there seemed to be a quality of space and stillness from which I derived strength without really knowing why.
Later I attended ordinations there, struggling (this was the late 1980s, and I was a long way away from those who were praying and working, campaigning and praying some more so that doors might be opened to enable women to respond as God called them to priesthood) with a sense that somehow this connected to me. This morning I attended a beautiful early Mass and all was very good.

Best of all, the sense of calm and deep happiness has accompanied me all the way home. Typically after a retreat, it runs out by the time I've unloaded the first lot of laundry and realised that nobody has got round to doing the dishes from yesterday breakfast. This evening, I'm still purring gently.

Thank you, God.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Words I never expected to say

"I must get organised"

Regular readers will know that I make it a point of honour to be almost a caricature of my MyersBriggs ENFP profile, avoiding planning (dreaming is different), leaving everything til the last minute if not later and generally running scared of anything that looks remotely like a schedule.
That worked quite well in curacy days...The main things were laid out, daily and weekly, and though I could bounce chaotically from one to another, there was no danger of essentials being overlooked or spoiled through lack of preparation, because the ultimate responsibility was not mine.

Now, of course, it's a very different matter.
I'm the one responsible for ensuring that those fixed things that held me on course actually happen.
I'm the one responsible for ensuring that I achieve such necessary things as Time Off (interesting - WonderfulVicar struggled with this one too; though he was very good at safeguarding my day off, his own was a different matter)
I have total freedom to organise my days, and my diary, - or to let the diary organise me instead.

I guess I took my diary's supremacy for granted til last week.
I would write in appointments, thinking "That clear slot on Tuesday afternoon will be just perfect for rewriting the Baptism intro leaflet" - but then someone would ask to see me and I'd offer them Tuesday afternoon, because it seemed rude to postpone them when I could fit them in and only inconvenience myself.
In fact, any time a real person hove in sight, I'd squeeze them in to the diary no matter what...which meant that always, the long-term desirables were postponed and the short-term essentials were often completed only by excessive burning of the midnight oil.

It just didn't occurr to me that the diary was MINE to control...til in conversation with a friend, another cleric, I discovered that he has perfected the art of apportioning time in ways that make sense.
For example, by Tuesday I owe the parish mag editor all kinds of copy.
I've known this for a while, but trusted that a slot would appear in which I could work on it...With no such slot forthcoming, I'll be working late tomorrow night
D., however, would have identified some time weeks ago in which he would work on the magazine and no matter what came up, he would stick to it.

One crucial difference is that he's part of a team, and doesn't hold overall responsibility for the life of his church, but (pathetic though it seems) this was truly the first time I had dreamed that such an approach was possible.
With the Herring of Christ to encourage, I can't afford to be heading into weekends with things still evolving around me. It's simply not fair when he's learning the job to force him to engage with a constantly shifting landscape as whatever else, worship prep needs attention. It would be good to know by Thursday night who is doing what, and how, on Sunday morning...

The problem is, the one slot I can see in this week's diary is late on Sunday afternoon.......

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Sermon for Trinity 6, 19th July 2009 Mark 6:30-34& 53-56

With grateful thanks to Annabel, whose sermon on PRCL gave me both the kick start I needed, and some helpful sentences too.

It has been an anything but quiet week at the vicarage.

On Monday we had the joy of travelling to Cardiff for Lucinda’s graduation. Tuesday saw a service of Holy Communion in one of the sheltered housing complexes in Cashes Green, some pastoral visiting, a clergy consultation group and a training evening designed to help us to think about the welcome we offer in our churches. Wednesday saw a school Assembly, two more services of Holy Communion, a study group, more visiting and a retirement celebration, Thursday yet more Communions, a chapter meeting, another meeting in Cheltenham and a Baptism preparation evening, while Friday featured the Leavers’ service for St Matthew’s school, a spot of essential admin, another Home Communion and the interment of some cremated remains here at All Saints.

I wish I could say that last week’s timetable was atypical, but I’m ashamed to say that I can’t. I did find time for some much needed dog walking, but even with two out of three children home, time for family meals and space to enjoy each other’s company just hasn’t been feasible.

I’m telling you this not in a bid for sympathy, or because I want to win some award for overworking cleric of the year, but simply to illustrate an all too prevalent pattern in contemporary life.
Most of us, whether consciously or not, are spending our days as if we were called to be not so much human beings as human doings.
As you’ll probably know, full time clergy are not paid a salary, a reward for hours worked, but rather a stipend – an allowance that is designed to free us to take time to follow God’s agenda for the communities we serve, without anxiety about where the next meal might be coming from.
But even clergy are leading increasingly driven lives.
Training is often focussed on management issues as priests who were called as pastors find themselves charged with maintaining the church life of growing numbers of communities.
That’s not a bad thing – until it forces us to break the fourth commandment, the one that requires us to keep sabbath.
I’m not about to indulge in a frantic rearguard action to reclaim Sunday as a day of universal rest (and, if I recall correctly, not a little tedium at times) BUT I do think there’s something very wrong when we try to operate at full capacity 24/7, 52 weeks of the year.
We need space.
Space for families
Space for re-creation.
Space for God.

If you’re in any doubt, in our frantic society, that this is the way forward, look again at our gospel reading.
As I began to think about my sermon earlier in the week, I couldn’t help giggling. I’d come home from meetings thinking
“Now some time to breathe” only to encounter a red-hot phone and a whole raft of emails….and I began to understand more and more clearly how it felt for Jesus and the twelve as they sought solitude, only to find the crowds pursuing them relentlessly.
But I don’t want us to focus on the demands that Jesus faced in his own ministry, but rather on the solution
“Come away to a deserted place, all by yourselves and rest a while”

Jesus himself was in dire need of some time out.
Mark’s favourite word is “immediately” – and his gospel conveys the non stop hustle of those days in Galilee.
Jesus moves from teaching to healing, from miracle to wonder, with barely time to think…
Barely time – but he makes that time a priority.
“Come away to a deserted place, all by yourselves and rest a while”

And his time out differs in quality from so much of mine, and perhaps of yours too.
It’s not a question of slumping on the sofa, watching mindless television…or of copying those stressed city executives who can only find relaxation with the aid of drink or drugs.
The rest that Jesus invites us to is the same that is recognised by the psalmist as he worships the God who
“leads me beside the still waters and restores my soul”

This is quite a confessional sermon, isn’t it – so let me share one more difficult thing.
When I’m very tired or hard pressed, time with God is one of the first things to get squeezed out.
But Jesus shows us that it is just when we are tired that it’s most important to turn to God to be refreshed and resourced.

It’s interesting how many Christians struggle with this.
Perhaps we were only given one model of prayer as we were growing up – something to do with public worship or with “Saying prayers” at the beginning and end of each day.
Perhaps that has never really worked for you, but you have carried on dutifully, because you know it OUGHT to be helpful.
If that is the case, take heart.
There are as many different ways of spending time with God as there are people to spend them.

In fact, there are whole libraries of books out there explaining
different ways of praying, from the “lectio divina” of the Benedictines, reading and meditating on a Bible passage, allowing God to speak to you through it, via the “sanctified imagination” of the Ignatians, where you imagine yourself into the scene, right up to just sitting and being in God’s presence. Not just letting your mind wander, but staying focussed, being aware of your body and your breathing, and of God’s presence, and using a Christian mantra – perhaps something like “Maranatha – come Lord Jesus” as a focus for prayer.

If you are someone who likes to keep busy, you might find a rosary or Anglican prayer beads a good way to pray, since this approach occupies both hands and mind. You can develop your own way of using these for prayer, perhaps praying a Bible verse on the larger beads, and then something like “Lord Jesus Christ, Lamb of God, Saviour” on the smaller ones. You might like to mark the start of your prayer time by lighting a candle, and focus on its flame…that can be wonderfully calming in a busy day.
And, however predictably, I must remind you of the role of music…everything from hymns, and choral music, to plainsong or Taize chant. It can still your thoughts and refresh your soul

The point is, prayer is a bit like exercise – one size doesn’t fit all.
The practices that inspire me may leave you cold, and vice versa. You know that the best exercise for you is the one you like and will
actually do, and the same applies to spiritual exercises. It’s well
worth spending some time exploring different ways of prayer that different groups of Christians have found helpful, so that you can really be refreshed by your time with God..

It doesn’t actually matter how you pray! Whether you use your own words, or other people’s, or none at all; whether you paint your prayers, or engage with icons, whether you listen to music or sing to yourself; whether you use a rosary or prayer beads or whether those do simply nothing for you. What matters is that each of us spends time with our Lord, that we go by ourselves with him to a quiet place and rest awhile. You don’t have to be an ordained minister, or some sort of super-holy freak to gain huge benefit from time out with God. You may be surprised to learn that, in what is billed as an age of creeping secularism, retreats are a growth industry –perhaps because the busier we are the more we need to rest with God.
As we grow and change –for I hope we’re all growing and changing, and allowing God to mould us into the people He created us to be – a way of prayer that was perfect for us some years ago may no longer suit quite as well, while something that seemed not even to be prayer back then might turn out to be the exact thing your spirit has been craving! So it’s really worth making time to explore new directions, or simply to sit and let God set the agenda.

“Come away to a deserted place, all by yourselves and rest a while”

If you’re struggling with all this, feeling way out of your depths and wondering if I’m actually speaking English- well, though your clergy might not have the answers, we’re only to happy to spend time with you exploring the questions.

But please remember, there are no experts in prayer...Though our souls need it, in order to breathe and live, there really is no default option that we can all revert to. All that is certain is that each of us needs to make space to allow God to restore our souls.
How that happens will change day by day, and year by year
What matters is that we pray, not how!
And may God the Holy Spirit help us and guide our prayers.

Following on...

From my pursuit of a coherent expression of my baptismal theology, here's the sermon I offered at this afternoon's baptism in Church on the Hill. Here the congregation was, as expected, young professionals, well versed in acceptable behaviour in churches. They listened politely, as the parents had during our preparation time, and superficially at least it seemed that they had got the message. As to its long-term impact, - that's not, thank God, for me to define.
I'm posting the sermon simply because of the ongoing struggles outlined below...Comments sincerely welcomed. The readings (unusually both chosen by the parents) were from Mark - Mark 1 9-11 (I often use this account of the Baptism of Christ) & Mark 10:13-16 (Jesus welcomes children)

Famously we’re told that a picture is worth 1000 words, - and our two Bible readings today give us very vivid pictures.
First we have a snapshot of Jesus’s own baptism.
It’s quite an interesting group….Jesus’s cousin, the drop out, John, with his camel’s hair coat and leather belt…standing waist deep in the river, while crowds line the banks, and head one by one into the water….Then the close up of the young carpenter, Jesus of Nazareth going down into the waters, and emerging to his own personal affirmation from his heavenly father.
“You are my Son, the beloved. With you I am well pleased”
Here, God is expressing the truth that has always existed…That from the very beginning, before ever Jesus taught, healed, died and rose, God looked on him and loved him.
That truth applies to C too – and to each one of us here.
What we are doing for C today will change nothing on God’s side.
God won’t love her any more because she has been baptised – there’s nothing that she, or any one of us, can do to make God love us more…because God already loves us completely and unconditionally.
Just as we are.

A while back, I had the joy of baptising D. A lively toddler, he wasn’t content with the rather half hearted little drips of water that I poured on him, and, as I held him he began splashing in the font, till he, and many of the rest of us were a lot more than just damp. His mum was hugely embarrassed and kept apologising but actually it seemed to me that D was the only one of us who had the right idea. If the waters of baptism are one way in which we represent God’s love and grace available for each of us…well, that’s not something poor, mean and limited.
It is boundless, overwhelming. Something that can flood our whole lives and change every part of us, if we only let it. For that reason, maybe those who baptise by total immersion have the right idea – for you can’t ever have too much of God’s love – but God never forces it upon us.
Our response is a choice…

What happens today can be a one off,- a celebration of love, a welcome – but it carries the potential to be so much more…

Baptism is only a sign, true enough, but it’s one that speaks of our readiness to accept God’s love and forgiveness that is so freely given, and to take its impact seriously. To accept forgiveness means too, that we recognise that there are things within us that are imperfect or destructive– things we need to change. That may not seem very real in a little one like C, - but the same genes that ensure our survival can lead to unbridled selfishness, to damaged lives and damaged relationships.We can't curb those tendencies on our own.
The cross which we’ll trace on Chloe’s forehead in a moment is an invisible badge, that announces exactly who she belongs to…and what shape of life she is called to. The cross, after all, is the way of costly self-sacrifice, perfected by Christ but reproduced in our own stumbling efforts to follow his way.
So as we sign C with that mark we commission her to a new kind of life. It is, if you like, our version of the moment of adoption that is represented in our other reading, one of the best known in Scripture, the account of Jesus welcoming children.
Perhaps as you heard that story you imagined Jesus cuddling clean and photogenic children, children a bit like C herself – but from what we know of 1st century Jewish society, it seems more likely that the children brought to him were street kids, fatherless, homeless, outside society. In placing his hands on their heads, Jesus used the ritual by which men would acknowledge paternity. He was publicly adopting each one of those urchins as God’s children, and declaring them citizens of God’s kingdom on earth. Today, that Kingdom is represented (however imperfectly) by the Church – so at baptism we celebrate Chloe’s adoption into that family, her church birthday.
We’ll look for signs of a family likeness, as N & M teach C what being a Christian really means, and help her to live a life that is modelled on the life of Christ. That’s what the other name for baptism, “Christening” represents…It’s the way in which we begin to become Christians, little Christs, called to carry his light, his love and his joy into the world every single day…
and our prayer must be that this will be true for C, that the promises made for her today will bear fruit so that she can grow more like Jesus all her life long, as God looks down on her in love and confirms
“this is my beloved child…I’m well pleased with her ”

Baptism boom hits Gloucestershire

Recently, my phone has been red-hot as all over parish in the valley, parents have decided that now is the acceptable time to baptise their offspring.
Time and again, the opening gambit
"Vicar, I wanted to find out about getting my daughter done..."

We've so many on the books that I'm baptising on Saturdays as well as Sundays, have long since abandoned suggesting of baptism at the Eucharist except for church families (we'd never have an ordinary Sunday at all - & it seems to me to demand too much of the huge crowds of supporters who've never set foot in church before) and even briefly entertained the idea of baptising two candidates at the one service (something I've never considered before, as it seems to me horribly easy for that to turn into a conveyor-belt experience - bad for everyone).

If even one in ten of this summer's candidates became a regular part of the church family, there would be a noticeable impact on our congregations - but my suspicion is that this won't happen,that though the parents are genuinely seeking "To do the best thing" for their child, they don't expect baptism to really change anything.

Of course I believe that in baptism, as in all the sacraments, the initiative is God's - that regardless of what happens once the bridesmaid's dress or tiny waistcoat have been put away, baptism celebrates something of profound and eternal significance - our adoption into Christ's family.So my views are light years away from those of a colleague in the diocese who once described the sort of baptism I engage with regularly as "a waste of time".If the initiative lies with God, it's not up to me, as a minister of God's church, to attempt to erect barriers, though I work hard to combine inclusive welcome with a culture of awareness that what we are engaged in really matters. So I spend alot of time in preparation sessions encouraging parents to reflect on the baptismal promises, and always say that I cannot think of anything worse than making that sort of declaration in public with one's fingers crossed. I make sure that we watch the First Steps DVD together and talk through the points it raises (faith is a journey, baptism the first step - you can't expect your child to continue on the journey alone so if you're not heading that way yourself, maybe thanksgiving would be the best option). I explain the ways in which we, as a church, are striving to make it easy for parents to keep those promises and I comfort myself (and possibly the parents too) with the recognition that is built into the service that we can only hope to stay faithful to our baptism
"with the help of God", that "Today we are trusting God for their growth in faith".

I don't, then, feel that I have a problem with my baptismal practice in terms of who I baptise- but I am increasingly challenged as to how to make the service feel meaningful, but welcoming - accessible but significant. Even pared down as best I can, the CW text is quite daunting for many of the families who come along.In the valley, it's pretty much unknown for baptism congregations to join in responses, & they are clearly often at sea despite all I can do to make them feel at home, though the typical response at the door is "You made us feel really welcome.." which has to be a step in the right direction. Another colleague uses only the barest of essentials, modelling her service in church on the rite for emergency baptism - but that's not strictly "by the book" - and, despite my longing to outgrow it, I'm congenitally compliant.

So the content of the talk seems to matter hugely.
My main points can be summed up as
1. Baptism is an ongoing process not a one off event (I AM baptised, not I WAS...)
2. Faith as a journey with/towards God
3. Nothing changes on God's side...Unconditional love there from the beginning, - we can't do anything to change that
4. Baptism recognises this & is our first response - but should change everything
5. To accept God's forgiveness, we need to recognise that there are things that need forgiving
6. Cross shaped lives are challenging - we're programmed for self interest, but called to something different. Christening = becoming little Christs...we can't do that alone.
7. Community of faith to share the journey & offer support...Birthday into new family, the church

You'll not be surprised by any of that, I know...but I do struggle mightily to present it in a way that is meaningful for a congregation restless for the celebration. I know I can't say it all, so I tend to major on unconditional love - but then fret that I've not paid sufficient attention to the demands of the Christian life. I don't want by any word or action to encourage abuse of God's hospitality, but I do want everyone to hear that they are, as the New Zealand prayer book reminds us, "Deeply loved and need never be afraid" .
I'm not in the business of changing lives, but I AM in the business of facilitating encournter with the God who can and does.
How do I convey THAT in a 2 minute homily?

Sunday, July 12, 2009

I am vicar, hear me roar :-)

Today has been Sunday all day, with the usual blend of highs and lows that this entails in any vicarly life...
Among the highs was a very good first ordained sermon from the Herring of Christ (TM) (and the happy realisation that I'm going to be working with said Herring for a minimum of 3 years - something which makes me feel very smiley both for myself and for the parishes) and a tiny moment, that will have been invisible to anyone but me.As we processed out from the 9.30 Eucharist at Church in the Valley I realised that I was concluding the procession because I had presided, while immediately in front of me were two male colleagues, one our curate, one my associate, who had Deaconed for me...and it hit me for a moment how far we have come as women ordained in the Church of England. We've a goodly way yet to travel, but for a moment or two this morning I looked back at the way we've come, and celebrated.
Lows were to do with my lifelong desire to please all the people all the time, which often leads to my finding myself in places I would never have chosen to stand. So this afternoon church in the valley was filled with all sorts of military types, resplendent in uniform and medals, for a service to lay up the standard of the local Royal British Legion branch. Only my own disorganisation has prevented my becoming a paid up member of the Anglican Pacifist Fellowship - but on the other hand, the gentlemen of the Legion whom I've encountered locally (in particular at funerals) have been unfailingly charming and delightful - so despite my reservations, in many ways it was a privilege to host the service.
I did, though, baulk somewhat at the insistence that, along with all forces clergy of whatever persuasion, I should be branded "Padre" for the afternoon.
Despite my catholic leanings, I've mostly resisted being called "Mother" thus to find myself an honorary father seemed, in all honesty, a bridge too far.
All part of the rich tapestry of parish life, I guess...

Friday, July 10, 2009


Once upon a time, when I was a curate, The Dufflepud and his friends spent one evening at Youth Club planning a dream trip to Madagascar. They were all Explorer Scouts at the time, and as they talked the dream began to seem possible as part of a challenge known as the Explorer Belt.
Lots of conversations later, the whole thing foundered because that little core group were so keen to include the Dufflepud, but thanks to his August birthday, he would not have been 16 in time for the expedition to take place.
A year later, though, the scheme surfaced again...This time it was to include Explorers and other Scouty types from across the south west of England, and in no time the Dufflepud was signed up, together with that little group of friends. They started planning, fund-raising, working at horrible hamburger joints with large yellow logos, and the months ticked away.
Then suddenly Madagascar, which had been conspicuous by its absence from international news for decades, hit the headlines with all sorts of political unrest following an election. Suddenly it was on the FCO's list of countries unsafe for inessential journeys. The Scout association announced that they could not countenance a trip and insurers refused to cover it. Disaster.
We felt terrible. After all, if the Dufflepud had been only 2 weeks older, the whole expedition might have taken place last summer, before the trouble began.
The expedition leaders spent the best part of a week phoning, emailing, making arrangements in all directions and lo, the expedition has a new destination..Uganda (renamed in true colonial style) MADUganda.
The essential elements of the "Explorer Belt" - a 10 day trek in the bush in small groups (3 UK and 2 Ugandan Explorers) remain intact. The original plan to spend time working in an orphanage has had to be jettisoned, but instead there will be white water rafting down the Nile, an opportunity to straddle the Equator, and (this is where I get seriously jealous) 5 days on safari in the Masai Mara in Kenya.
I would post his sister's reaction to this, but we have just agreed that this is a clean blog, with no carbon I can't.
What I can say is that, even after despatching 2 other children on gap years abroad, to destinations that they had arranged themselves and about which I knew pretty much nothing, it's somehow even more alarming to have signed all the detailed consent forms that are part of a highly organised Scouting expedition. I have agreed to all sorts of sensible responses in all sorts of continencies that I devoutly hope are most unlikely contingencies. Now I'm watching him reconsider his packing, which is demonstrating the Scouting motto "be prepared" to a ridiculous extent, and trying not to imagine situations in which he might actually need all those first aid essentials...
He's only away for 28 days, he'll be with good (and pretty sensible) friends (indeed, in many ways he's pretty sensible himself) and he's part of a highly organised and well-led expedition....and I Still Don't Like It.
Normal service will be resumed once I've stopped jittering.

Monday, July 06, 2009

Children - for a change!

This past weekend was busy, exciting, challenging - and other things too....and as I reflected wearily last night I realised that almost every aspect had something to do with children.

It started with Saturday's Children for a Change festival at Gloucester Cathedral. Once upon a time, these festivals were an almost annual event, an eagerly anticipated date on the calendar, which was worth organising holidays around. I have very vivid memories of my own children engaging in a huge variety of wonderful activities to which they could never have had access in our small Cotswold village, of the excitement for all of us as we realised that we were involved in such a huge and creative diocesan family, of the sheer delight of watching the Cathedral turned upside down by invasions of under 11s...For a long time after one such festival, family visits to the Cathedral included a trip to one particular corner of the north aisle that, we swore, still sparkled quietly, thanks to a liberal application of glitter glue after I was let loose with a craft station of my own.

That was in the early to mid 90s, rather a long time ago now.I don't know why there was such a hiatus in the festivals (though I'd be willing to guess it might have something to do with funding) but Children for a Change was well worth waiting for. As we gathered by the statue of Robert Raikes in Gloucester Park, it didn't feel as if the turnout was particularly splendid, but once we began marching through the streets of Gloucester we realised just how many churches were represented..a long line that spanned a couple of blocks. Once we reached the Cathedral, it took ages to get us all through the doors...and I began to realise just how many were actually there. To see the nave cleared of chairs but packed with people was quite stunning. Such a fabulous well used.
The Psalm drummers launched us into a really great day (do you think there's a market for "praise aerobics"?I'm sure I must have burned at least enough calories to balance the fabulous ice cream I enjoyed later)...A small but enthusiastic contingent from the valley church school explored everything from martial arts to climbing-walls, from handling snakes to poker work, with story telling, circus skills, wood turning (to produce fantastic spinning tops) and macrame along the way....We explored corners we would never normally have noticed...bumped into old friends around every corner and generally had a fantastic time. I was sad that it hadn't been possible to encourage more families to come along - those who feel that the church is remote and inaccessible might have been wonderfully surprised...but I'd tried, really I had, and those who did come clearly enjoyed themselves.

In time honoured fashion, Sunday followed Saturday, and this being the 1st Sunday in the month we offered All Age worship at Church in the Valley. As we were also welcoming the new curate I thought it would be good to talk a little about the distinctive calling of the diaconate, and we looked at different bits of the ordinal and tired to work out what that might mean for M, and for all of us in our own ministries too. At the end of the talk, he and I washed the feet of a gaggle of willing children, an exercise which I found incredibly moving and powerful.Those tiny pink toes...I wondered where those feet might travel, prayed that as a church we might do all in our power to welcome and to serve these little ones, and prayed with all my heart that they might always feel as happy and loved within the church as they do now. It was earlier in the talk, though, that things very nearly went off the rails. I'd been trying to get the children to explore what being a herald might mean and one in particular was heading cheerfully in the right direction, when a lady of a certain age, whose enthusiastic participation makes her a great ally on All Age Sundays, announced with great firmness
"No...a herring isn't a messenger. It's a kind of fish!"

So now you know. The curate will, from henceforth (until an alternative suggests itself) rejoice in the bloggy pseudonym
"The Herring of Christ".
What else are deacons for...?

The Herring of Christ (TM)is thoroughly good news for all sorts of reasons, - including the family he brings with him. Youngest herring (small fry?) is a very charming baby who all but undid me yesterday at Communion. I'd given the Sacrament to his mum, who was holding him to face me for a blessing. Youngest herring gave me his habitual beaming smile and reached out both hands to take a host from the patten.
Yes I know he didn't know what he was doing...(just as he didn't know what was being done on his behalf at baptism a month ago)...but still, he was reaching out towards Christ and I, a minister of Christ's Church, was constrained to gently push him away. It won't have hurt him, I'm sure - but it didn't do much for me.
My committment to inclusive church is total - and my sacramental theology has no problem with offering our Lord to the children who long for Him (not that I could stand it their way if I tried, really...)So why do I insist on toeing lines that pretty much nobody else present would even have noticed were there?
"Children for a Change", the theme of the diocesan festival, carries with it a dual message...that our focus should be on children for once, and that children can of themselves bring about change. Small Fry has certainly made me reflect once again on our attitude to the Sacrament...and pray and dream and long for change there.
"For everyone born a place at the table..."

Saturday, July 04, 2009

Power made perfect in weakness - a homily for the Eucharist, Trinity 4B

As you’ll know, later this morning we’re going to gather at St Matthew’s to welcome M, as he begins his new ministry among us.
This time last week, I’d imagine he and his fellow ordinands were both excited and apprehensive as they prepared to leave for the Cathedral, for one of the most significant days of their life.
It was an amazing service, with 16 new deacons presented to a packed Cathedral whose ancient stones have seen such celebrations countless times before…As the choir sang Palestrina, friends and family gathered from the four corners of the Kingdom and beyond and we worshipped God together and together celebrated the news ministries that began that day.
So much joy, so much love…on my own ordination days, I know it felt like a foretaste of heaven.
But, of course, Monday always follows Sunday – and for M last Monday saw a return to his office, to what my grandmother used to describe as “old clothes and porridge”.

Paul had a similar experience, it seems - though his was far beyond our imaginings.
Even an ordination in Gloucester can’t really compare with the glories of heaven but the pattern is the same...An experience of intense and awe-inspiring holiness, and then.......woomph.........down to earth with a bump.
The glory departs, and we are left to deal with our own workaday selves…
And, for Paul, that workaday self was afflicted in some way…though we don’t know exactly how.
He’s as enigmatic about his “Thorn in the flesh” as he is about his description of his experience of heaven.
We’re left wondering whether it is a physical defect of some kind, or perhaps an individual who makes his life miserable..
We can’t be certain – but we do know that his appeals to God for relief were denied.
That must have been so hard…
Paul praying in all the fervour of his new found faith…and the NO

God told him, in as many words, that this was a gift...a way of ensuring that he, Paul, would not become a celebrity himself but would remember constantly his dependence on God.
"My power is made perfect in weakness"
I’m reminded of times when as I’ve shared in the last weeks of a long and painful illness, and seen a new quality, a shining joy, an unshakeable calm transform the final days. Freed from the need to prove themselves, freed from the need to be anything but vessels for God, those approaching death often demonstrate the truth of Paul’s words.
Once we have the courage to let go of our selves, of our ideas about who we should be, and how we might control our lives…why then we will see God acting in ways that amaze and delight.

That's the same agenda that we find in the gospel, as the twelve are sent out, empty-handed, to begin their ministry.
Last Sunday, the new deacons each left the Cathedral with a Bible…and their friends and families will surely have laden them with any number of stoles, prayer books and all sorts of holy accoutrements.
We seem to need a lot of equipment in order to share the gospel today…
We have vestments and Communion sets, PCCs and Deanery synods, Grade 1 listed churches and Father Willis organs.
We have so much…we ought to be the most effective missionaries of all time.
But somehow, it doesn’t quite work that way.
Instead of the tools enabling the work of ministry, they threaten to become almost a substitute for it.
Concern for ensuring that all the equipment is running smoothly almost obscures the reason for its existence.
Something for us to be wary of perhaps, as we enjoy our beautiful and beloved building…

What if we could set out like the 12, empty handed
“no staff, no bread, no belt, no money”
I can’t imagine that any PCC Treasurer would rejoice at that approach – but what if we had the courage to try it…
What if we dared to set out, wholly dependent on God.
Could you just go – trusting that God would supply your needs?
Could you?

On balance, I’m glad that M and his fellow Deacons have been showered with gifts, because of course those gifts speak of love and support…of friendships sustained and prayers remembered over many months and years…
But I know too that really, all he needs, all any of us need as we reach out in love and service as the Church of Christ, are those gifts that God has already given us.
Where we feel inadequate, we need not fear…for the words that Paul heard so reluctantly still hold good today,
It is as we become weak that God’s power can most truly be seen at work in us – so let us pray for the faith and the courage to let go, to stop pretending to a control that is at best illusory…
Let us pray that we will allow ourselves to be weak, so that, in us, God may be strong.

Evensong Sermon - Trinity 4B 1 Sam 15:1-31

‘Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.

Don’t judge a book by its cover…
A well worn saying if ever there was one , though not one I always attend to….and I’d guess perhaps you don’t either
Just think about it. When scouring the library shelves for a good read, unless you’re looking for a specific title or author, the cover is probably a major factor in determining your choice. Publishers have established a particular style of cover for particular genres of fiction and are pretty successful in persuading us to choose titles from their stable, by presenting them to match others.
And quite often it works well…We find that we do enjoy books that look a bit like others we’ve enjoyed already…so we continue to judge a book by its cover because we find it can be a guide to what lies within.

We tend to try this with people too.
After all, we’re visual beings
We are drawn to people who match our idea of what is attractive…We’re programmed for this – because like every other species
we are interested in the survival of our genes, and so we seek partners who conform to our ideals.
Initially, visual impact is an important determinant.
I had an great aunt, the product of another age, who swore that you could tell a great deal about somebody by looking at their shoes.
I wanted to laugh it off, to protest that it was nonsense – but at the same time I had to admit that I tended to feel more at home with the vaguely hippy girls who wore open toed sandals and fair trade cotton….
Perhaps there was something in it after all.

And of course, sometimes external appearance CAN give us a clue as to what is going on inside.
Those girls in their fair trade cotton shared at least some of my own priorities…while Great Aunt Marion was right that people whose unfashionably serviceable shoes shone with loving care probably had her own attitude, forged during two world wars, to making things last, doing the best with limited resources.
So outward appearances can be useful…but they are never the whole story.

Think of our Old Testament reading. God sends the prophet Samuel to anoint one of Jesse’s boys to be the future king of Israel. But God withholds one vital piece of information in advance.
Which one?
There’s quite a range to choose from, so Samuel decides that all he can do is to assemble the boys, in the hope that God will make his will plain.
The first and eldest obviously impressed the prophet with his stature and good looks. It does help if a head of state is easy on the eye... But God announced that his was, and is, a different agenda.
“Do not look upon his appearance or on the height of his stature,
because I have rejected him; for the Lord sees not as human beings see; they look on
the outward appearance, but the Lord looks upon the heart.” [I Samuel 6: 7]
And it’s the same right down the line.
A succession of strong and attractive boys, - any of them fit to be anointed and crowned, - but God’s view is different views.
Not one of the seven is the one he has chosen, so Samuel is forced to ask if Jesse has held any in reserve.
Like Samuel, Jesse had assumed that a new king should display kingly characteristics…Maybe a sportsman? or a proven fighter?…It’s easy to imagine him surveying his fine family with pride. So many splendid lads. No wonder God had sent the prophet here…
The youngest son, though, was surely a no-hoper – not even an also ran.
He was so far down the birth order he wasn’t likely to inherit a thing, a boy whose status in the family was reflected in his job, - a hazardous one, protecting the family flock. If it came to the crunch, the boy David was expendable…of less value than the sheep he guarded. This lad hadn’t even been called in from the fields to stand with his brothers because Jesse assumed David couldn’t be considered.
But God had said to Samuel, “Do not just look on his appearance or on the height of his stature....for
the Lord does not see as mortals see;”
and so the boy was sent for.
You may have noticed that as David came into the room he was described in glowing terms:
“Now David was ruddy and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome. And the Lord said, ‘Arise, Samuel, anoint him; for this is he.”
Now, what’s that all about?
Hadn’t God just told Samuel that appearance wasn’t important?
“Do not look upon his appearance or on the height of his stature.....for the Lord sees not as human beings see;
yet now David is being described in pin-up terms.
Actually, I think this has more to do with his subsequent career as King of Israel than with his actual appearance that day in Bethlehem.
David was to become the stuff of legends. He was the one who killed Goliath, the
Philistine warrior giant. the one who united the 12 tribes of Israel into one nation of Israel.
He was the one who expanded Israel’s boundaries and amassed great wealth for the kingdom.
So as his story was handed on through the generations, he was given heroic characteristics at every turn – including his appearance.
Of course, we know that he wasn’t a flawless hero…remember Uriah and Bathsheba…but to those who finally came to write the histories, he was certainly no ordinary man.

But all that lay ahead…Our reading presents us with a very ordinary boy, called to an extraordinary role.
Someone whose potential for good is clear only to God.
God’s vision, of course, is perfect. He sees the truth of who we are, the things we’d prefer to hide even from ourselves, - and the things that make other people remarkable and precious beyond our wildest imaginings.
Someone once said to Helen Keller, "What a pity you have no sight!" Helen Keller
replied, "Yes, but what a pity so many have sight but cannot see!"

Sometimes, it’s good to ask God to lend us his eyes…though borrowing them may have a lasting impact on every aspect of our relationships.
Let me tell you a story. – one which I may have shared with some of you before, but which has stayed with me as a lasting reminder of what can happen if we try, even for a moment, to see with God’s eyes.
It happened at a diocesan conference a few years ago. At the time, I was working as a charity administrator 4 days a week, running a bed and breakfast business, indulging in a spot of piano teaching, serving as a Reader in our benefice of 3 churches,- oh, and I was in the second year of ordination training. Getting to Swanwick was the nearest thing to a holiday I could see happening for a very long time…I was circling on my treadmill in true hamster fashion, and was generating much more heat than light in the process.
Conferences are strange. You find yourself taken out of your normal routine, into a world apart where new friendships can be forged based on shared experiences and the all important consumption of single malt after hours… Friendships can be forged but in an enclosed community, relationships can also quickly become oppressive.
So it was for me. Wherever I went, I seemed to bump into one particular person, who was friendly to the point of smothering me, By bedtime on day 2 it was driving me MAD. I found myself ducking into the ladies if she loomed in sight, and was pleased when I went into the main hall for the keynote speaker next day, to see that she was already settled, with no gaps anywhere near.
The speakers that morning were John and Olive Drane….and their talk touched places that nobody else had yet acknowledged during the conference. Olive has a ministry as a clown and after sharing her own story via a moving series of dialogues with God, she invited anyone who wanted prayer to come and have a cross painted in grease-paint wherever felt right…
"Hands, forehead, eyes..." she suggested.
Can you imagine? A room full of Anglican clergy, invited to relate to a clown…in front of each other!
There was a moment when it seemed that nobody would dare to move, but gradually people got to their feet. Some headed for the doors, but a long line began to form, and I found myself on the end of it. By the time I reached Olive, I knew what I wanted to pray about…
“I’m training for ministry…I have 3 children and too many jobs and I’m so busy I just can’t see the wood for the trees. Please paint the cross on my eyelids and ask God to help me focus on Him, the real purpose behind all this busy-ness”
Olive prayed, marked my eyelids, and I returned to my seat. The session ended, and we trouped out for coffee. I did feel better…as if there was at least some possibility that I might survive the next few weeks at least. Perhaps I was getting some perspective? I decided to take my coffee outside. But, oh dear, there was my nemesis only a few yards away from me, and I’d definitely been seen. I went over, and as I approached, X dissolved into a pool of tears.
Only afterwards did I realise that I’d spent almost an hour with her there, listening, praying, being the sort of friend she had believed me to be. And the amazing thing? It felt entirely natural, right, unforced…I was able to love…to see the real person with all the pain and vulnerability exposed, and not the bundle of irritations that had preoccupied me before. God had heard my prayer for clearer vision, but had not answered it as I’d expected. Instead, God had lent me HIS eyes…for a while, I was able to see as He does…

Imagine how our church and our community might be if we all saw with God’s eyes of love….
If we learned to recognise that beneath each fa├žade – whether of poised elegance or of rude aggression – was someone with hopes, fears, joys and sorrows…Someone not unlike us.
I know we realise that intellectually – but if we felt it, too - think what a difference it might make.

God looks upon our hearts. Shouldn’t we try to do the same thing?
And let the people say, “Amen.”

Stupidly busy

My apologies for blog silence. A recent decision to create a "to do" list instead of simply agonising about those things left undone has been helpful in terms of attention to details, but less so in terms of allowing space when there is nothing actually pressing. So though there haven't been that many extraordinary events (OK so our new curate was ordained deacon last Sunday...but still... :-) ) time to reflect and time to blog have been conspicuous by their absence.

As I've noted before, the trouble is that for me thinking aloud, to at least a notional audience, is an almost essential part of reflecting at all - and as we all know (together, now, girls & boys) "The unreflected life is not worth living" - so I'm not specially pleased with this state of affairs. However, it seems I am by no means alone. While one blogging pastor on sabbatical is having to justify that needful taking of a sabbath to a congregation that should know better, and another is contemplating the gentle art of plate spinning, this week's Bible Society "news watch" included the following...

Britain’s workaholic Church ‘tired but hungry’

‘It is no longer just prayer that brings the church to its knees, but also tiredness.’ This is the finding of a London Institute for Contemporary Christianity (LICC) and Spring Harvest survey conducted recently. The biggest struggles identified by 55 per cent of three thousand respondents were fatigue and time pressures. Home/work balance was an issue for almost half of those surveyed (47 per cent), long hours at work for 45 per cent and parenting a challenge for 33 per cent. The survey also found that the workplace was the biggest challenge for people to live out their Christian faith (43 per cent), followed by the neighbourhood (34 per cent) and home (24 per cent). Despite these pressures, some 57 per cent said they ‘actively’ see themselves as apprentices of Christ and 54 per cent pray intentionally about how God will use them.

Source: Eg (June 09)

It seems to me that there might be quite a thin line between use and abuse (not, of course, by God - but just conceivably by the church....) and that we all need to stop. and. think. before we're too wiped out to serve anyone at all.

And yes, I confess I did fail to take my day off yesterday...A funeral visit that my diary could not accommodate elsewhere, plus a visiting African bishop (who was, as it happens, well worth breaking the sabbath for)...
But I'm carving out some time on Monday, no matter what my "to do" list tells me.
Because having noted that I'm stupidly busy, to carry on being that busy would be just plain stupid!