Unity not Uniformity

The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity ended on Wednesday. During the week, in many places, there were services where Christians from different denominations joined together to celebrate what they have in common, laying aside those things that divide them. Now, I’d be fairly certain that if any of us were to spell out the difference between our denomination and one of the others we’d make a reasonable job of describing the essential character of our own, but a less good job of the other. Such has been the case throughout Christian history. But these considerations don’t just apply to Christians or to religions, they apply whatever ‘groups’ or ‘tribes’ we belong to and the difference they have to other similar ‘groups’ or ‘tribes’.

Anna and I lived for 25 years in the West of Scotland, in Ayrshire, where sectarianism is still alive and well and where even today the chances of getting some jobs may depend on your denomination, which might be revealed simply by the name of the school you attended. But I’m not sure that sectarianism’s actually got anything to do with religion, with denomination or with belief. It’s more about prejudice and prejudice often arising from ignorance of the ‘others’.

What we seem to be missing in our increasingly polarised culture is a shared humanity. That person who you or I are yelling at (literally or metaphorically), who has a different political, social or religious opinion than us, they’re actually human too, and you or I are no better or worse than them.

When we can learn to admit that we’re not perfect, that we make mistakes all the time and that we constantly change and evolve our opinions and beliefs … then we can begin to have more compassion for ourselves and begin to see ourselves as someone that’s lovable and worthy of grace and compassion, even though we’re not perfect and not living up to our own ideals. At that point we begin to see others, with differing views or opinions, with that same grace and compassion, no matter how different they are or how many mistakes they’ve made. Why? Because we realise that they’re a person, just like us, with hopes and fears, struggling to do the best they can with the resources that they have, the situation that they find themselves in and what they believe to be true.

Irene Butter, who as a child survived not one, but two holocaust concentration camps, perfectly summarizes these ideas in a single sentence: “Enemies are people who’s story you haven’t heard, or who’s face you haven’t seen.” We need to remind ourselves of this whenever we come across another person who doesn’t see the world in exactly the same way that we do.

St Paul reminds us that human standards of judgment count for nothing in God’s eyes. The human standards that say for instance: that my way of being a Christian is better than your way, that my way of worship is better than yours. The scandal of the cross is that God chooses vulnerability, weakness, suffering, and death in order to bring new life. God places the greatest value on our service to others, even when service may mean suffering and rejection. In Christ we’re a new creation, even in (or perhaps because of) our weakness and vulnerability.

It great to hear people talking about unity, so long as they don’t mean simply that “we can all be united if you come over to my way of thinking”. That’s akin to my suggesting that the solution to Christian disunity is for them all to become Episcopalians – and you know what, I don’t think that would solve anything. We like most denominations can’t even agree amongst ourselves!

The key to the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity is the word ‘Prayer’. Unity is something that we should fervently pray for, we might never achieve it, but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try, remembering that Unity isn’t Uniformity!!

Blessings
James

The light that darkness could not overcome

The 21st December was the shortest day and the longest night. Nature seems to have gone to sleep. The leaves have fallen off all but the most resolute of oak trees and the garden lacks life.

As early as the 2nd century, the Romans believed that the ‘Unconquered Sun’ would rise again and warm the earth and bring things back to life. Darkness and Light. Death and New Life. And they prayed to their god ‘Sol Invictus’ or ‘Helios’ if you prefer, that light would come again. It’s no accident that the Christian Church celebrates the birth of the ‘true light’ at the darkest time of the year. He is the light that darkness could not overcome.

There’ll always be a struggle between darkness and light.

We feel that at both a personal level and in the public world around us as well. Nowhere is this more graphically seen than in the destruction and war being waged in Ukraine, in parts of the Middle East and in parts of Africa. Bombs and bullets, terror and violence seem to be the only language being used in these parts of the world, including the lands of the Bible and the places that we hear about in the story of the Incarnation.

And, of course it’s the innocents who suffer and it always has been. 

Who could fail but be shocked by the sheer terror on the faces of children and families as homes and schools, hospitals and clinics and essential parts of the infrastructure of towns and cities are destroyed in ways calculated to instil fear, misery and suffering into the largest number of innocents? Whether these images come from from Aleppo or Mosul, from Gaza or Nablus, from Kiev or Kherson and so many other places whose names we either don’t know or can’t remember, as we watch on our TV screens or read our newspapers, we are appalled.

The story of the birth of Jesus resonates with the story of humanity at it’s darkest hour.

These verses of Malcolm Guite’s poem ‘Refugee’ puts it so well:

We think of him as safe beneath the steeple,
Or cosy in a crib beside the font,
But he is with a million displaced people
On the long road of weariness and want.

For even as we sing our final carol
His family is up and on that road,
Fleeing the wrath of someone else’s quarrel,
Glancing behind and shouldering their load.

Malcolm Guite “Refugee”

At this time of year, as Christians we hear and proclaim the universal message of the need for peace on earth. Peace isn’t just the absence of conflict and war. Each of us has some responsibility to create at least some of that peace in our own life and community, not least by working for a more just society and world.

These are the ‘hopes and fears’ we focus on at Christmas and as we remember the Holy Innocents.

Blessings
James

The Season of Not-Knowing?

Are you someone who when you’re reading a book, tends to skip to the end to see what happens rather than sticking with the hero through thick and thin. When Andrew and Daniel were young, on long journeys they’d start asking if we were nearly there yet, before we were a couple of miles from home.

Part of the problem is a failure to be content with now. How much of your time do you spend thinking about the past? How much time do you spend worrying about or anticipating the future? How much time does that leave for living in the present?

The spiritual writer Anthony de Mello suggested in his writings that most of us spend far too much time anywhere but in the present. In Advent it’s so easy to think about Christmases past or to have already arrived at Christmas to come. C. S. Lewis wrote a story called “Xmas and Christmas: A Lost Chapter from Herodotus” about a land in which there are two festivals that overlap by just one day.

The first festival is called Exmas and for fifty days the people prepare for it, buying and sending cards and gifts, decorating trees and preparing food

But when the day of the festival comes, most of the citizens being exhausted with the preparation, lie in bed till noon. But in the evening they eat five times as much supper as on other days and, crowning themselves with crowns of paper become intoxicated.”

The other festival, called Crissmas, starts on the day that Exmas finishes. But those who keep Crissmas, do the opposite, they

rise early on that day with shining faces and go before sunrise to certain temples where they partake of a sacred feast.

and then celebrate for several weeks afterwards.

For me Advent is about waiting for the unexpected. It’s a shame to miss all that by skipping ahead to what we think we know happens at the end of the season, on 25th December. To fail to engage with the now part of the story day by day and week by week. To fail to really listen to and reflect on the now part of the story. To have already moved on to the next part, because we know what happens next and it’s more exciting, more interesting, or perhaps more comforting.

This Advent how about really living in the present? Resisting that strong temptation to skip ahead, Enjoy the anticipation. Enjoy the state of not-knowing, because, if you enter into it, almost anything could happen. Enjoy the possibility that something truly amazing might come to pass. That God might just do something in your life that you didn’t expect, and that His coming into the world – your world – might mean that things are never the same again.

Blessings

James

The Season of Remembrance

We are now entering what some call the ‘Season of Remembrance’. It starts with All Saintson 1st November (though this year we will celebrate All Saints on Sunday 30th), followed by All Souls on 2nd and continues with Armistice Day on 11th until Remembrance Sunday (this year on 13th). It’s a time when we remember the Saints of the Church, those men and women who are recognised as having an exceptional degree of holiness and who are felt to have a particular likeness or closeness to God. We remember also friends and family members, who we have loved but see no more. And of course we remember those who’ve given their lives in the armed conflicts of more than 100 years. In churches and communities across the United Kingdom, all of these events are marked with public acts of worship and of remembrance.

On April 5, 1943, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor and teacher, was arrested by the Gestapo and thrown into prison; on April 9, 1945, he was executed. Whilst incarcerated, he wrote a collection of the letters, essays and poems. They were addressed to his parents and to a friend, and form an extraordinary picture of a sensitive man whose faith and dedication to service never wavered, whose spiritual depth enabled him to overcome the most trying of circumstances.  Tain CoS Film Club will be showing a film about him on Friday 11thNovember at 7:30pm (see Diary).

He was a man of great faith, intelligence and compassion, who understood so well the problems of the modern world. Resisting ease and compromise, he was constantly ministering to his fellow prisoners right up to the time of his death. He was a saint, a friend to many and a casualty of war and therefore part of each element of our Season of Remembrance.

One of the short pieces that he wrote to his friend Eberhard Bethge is called “Stations on the Road to Freedom”. In it there’s a short verse on each of four ‘stations’ on that road: Discipline, Action, Suffering and Death. This last he described as “the supreme festival on the road to freedom”. The verse on Death reads as follows:

Come now, Queen of the feasts on the road to eternal freedom! 
O death, cast off the grievous chains and lay low the 
thick walls of our mortal body and our blinded soul, 
that at last we may behold what here we have failed to see. 
O freedom, long have we sought thee in discipline and in action and in suffering. 
Dying, we behold thee now, and see thee in the face of God.

“Stations on the Road to Freedom” Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Blessings

James

The Coming Winter

Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.

Proverbs 31:8-9

Bishop Mark is among leaders from faith communities, charities, front-line support organisations and trade unions who signed an open letter to Prime Minister Liz Truss, urging her to “ensure that people on the lowest incomes have enough to live in the months ahead”.

The letter read:

As faith groups, charities, trade unions and front-line organisations we have seen the cost of living emergency escalating not only in the statistics but in the lives of people we meet day to day, in foodbanks, debt centres and in our places of worship. The least well off in our communities are facing the sharpest end of this crisis, and without substantial support will be dragged into destitution.

It is the urgent, moral responsibility of the Prime Minister to ensure that people on the lowest incomes have enough to live in the months ahead. Spiralling costs are affecting everyone, but for those who were already fighting to keep their heads above water this winter’s challenges will be a matter of life and death.

The release of the letter coincided with new analysis from Prof Donald Hirsch, which calculates that despite the Energy Price Guarantee announcement made by the government on 8th September, a family of four receiving Universal Credit will still require an additional £1,391 over the next six months to stay warm and fed. It also came ahead of the government’s fiscal statement issues on 23rd September, when they announced further measures targeted at combatting the rising cost of living, focussed mainly on tax cuts which offer little help for those most in need.

The letter was signed by 52 charity, faith and community leaders, including representatives from The Methodist Church, The Muslim Council of Britain, The Hindu Council UK and Jewish leaders from the across the UK, as well as charities and organisations such as The Food Foundation, the Child Poverty Action Group, Action for Children, The Big Issue and The Trussell Trust.

The letter called for targeted financial support which takes into account family size and need, can be distributed quickly and in amounts large enough to enable families to live decently this winter and beyond.

The signatories argue that

increases in poverty and destitution because of this crisis are not inevitable, if government, business and civil society recognise that this is an emergency and act now”,

and called on the government to use the tools at their disposal to urgently deliver support.

In the meantime, the Food Banks and the St Finnbarr’s Charities Shop need our support as never before, as they do what they can to help plug some of the gap.

When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the foreigner. I am the LORD your God.

Leviticus 19:9-10

Blessings
James and Simon

Behold I will make all things new

In Autumn 2019, no-one predicted how things would be a year later – covid, lockdowns, working from home, few people flying, etc. In the optimism surrounding COP26 in Autumn 2021, whilst few expected that the political rhetoric about targets for reduction in fossil fuel use would be matched by decisive and legally binding action, a complete abandonment of them wasn’t expected either. Back then, the idea that Russia would invade Ukraine within six months was not something that any of us expected, nor the consequences of that for fuel prices and the worldwide supply of staple foods.

Since 2019, six months is a very long time in terms of making plans for the future. On Friday we learned that the energy price cap for domestic gas and electricity is to rise by 80% in October and that will put keeping warm this winter out of reach of a large number of people in the fifth biggest economy in the world. Is that something that you would have believed just a couple of years ago, pre-brexit, pre-covid, pre-invasion?

So here we are at the Season of Creation again, with news items about burning more rather than less fossil fuels, a large number of the bathing beaches in the UK polluted with raw sewage, hosepipe bans in a number of areas but also flash-flooding and in much of Europe soaring summer temperatures. It’s the stuff of the Book of Revelation:

And there came flashes of lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder, and a violent earthquake, such as had not occurred since people were upon the earth, so violent was that earthquake. … And every island fled away, and no mountains were to be found; and huge hailstones, each weighing about a hundred pounds, dropped from heaven on people, until they cursed God for the plague of the hail, so fearful was that plague.

Revelation 16:18-21

If things can change so drastically over a short period of time, can we not hope for, pray for and work for positive change in our society, our country and our world. A society based on God’s values, where everyone no matter what their circumstances is of value and their identity is based on being beloved children of God, rather than a society based on world values, where what you have, what you do and what people say about you determine your identity. 

During 2020 many people discovered that there was more to life than work as they worked from home. They learned to love family and friends more when they were unable to visit them. They helped their neighbours, who they hadn’t really got to know before and appreciated a cheery ‘hello’ from a stranger. We could base our positive new world on a more positive image from Revelation:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth … And the one who was seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am making all things new.’ Also he said, ‘Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.’ Then he said to me, ‘It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life. Those who conquer will inherit these things, and I will be their God and they will be my children.

Revelation 21:1a,5-7

They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the centre of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.’

Revelation 7:16-17

Blessings
James

Screeching U-turn or Repentance?

When politicians change their mind about something, their opponents (and sometimes their supporters also) lambast them for doing so. Rishi Sunak was accused this week of a ‘screeching u-turn’ for suggesting that he might help people with their energy bills by temporarily removing VAT, when last year he refused to do such a thing. Liz Truss meanwhile has been criticised for changing from a ‘remainer’ to a ‘brexiteer’ and from a Liberal-Democrat to a Tory. Boris Johnson once said that Keir Starmer has ‘more flip flops than Bournemouth Beach’. The presumption is that changing your mind is a thoroughlybad thing to do, even when circumstances change.  This is all very adversarial and as the current Tory leadership race implies: “Whoever is not with me is against me”.

In the New Testament Greek the word that is generally translated into English as ‘Repent’ is ‘Metanoia’, which literally means “to change the mind”. Repentance is therefore concerned with fundamentally changing your mind about something.  Whilst the word Metanoia was actually a military term that described a soldier marching in one direction and then doing an about-face or to turn around, in the context of faith it means a whole lot more.

Contrary to the way that changing your mind seems to be viewed in political circles, repentance has a much more positive sense. A change in the way you think that leads to achange in the way that you live. When you really change your mind about something, it leads to change in the way you think about it, talk about it, feel about it, and the way that you act. Repentance is a decisive change in direction; it’s a change of mind that leads to a change of thinking that leads to a change of attitude that leads to a change of feeling that leads to a change of values that leads to a change in the way you live.

When John the Baptist appeared on the scene at the start of the Gospels, it was as one who was preparing the way for Jesus the Christ and he called everyone to repentance. In the Gospels of both Mark and Matthew, Jesus begins his public ministry with a call to “Repent”, for people to turn their lives around. In addition, the Apostle Paul when preaching to both Jews and Gentiles/Greeks urged them to “turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus”. That is what we are all called to do and to keep doing as part of being Christian.

As I write, Anglican Bishops from across the globe (including the seven from the Scottish Episcopal Church) are meeting at the Lambeth Conference. After a slightly shaky start, the organisers had the courage to have a change of heart in relation to the call on Human Dignity to be discussed next week and rather than deriding them for their ‘repentance’ we should applaud the fact that in the revised call they have opened up the possibility for genuine dialog between bishops who disagree to allow them to hear each other and disagree well. As Mark writes in his Gospel: “Whoever is not against us is for us”.

Let us hope and pray that as people in our communities and across the country face very difficult times ahead, that politicians can learn to have the humility to both change their minds, as situations and people’s circumstances change, and at the same time applaud others who do so. Now wouldn’t that transport us to a better world?

Blessings
James

On Ritual

In our tradition, we are very used to ritual. Our services of course contain many familiar ritual elements, but there’s considerably more to ritual than just elaborate religious ceremonies. In our lives rituals play a number of roles: rituals in the face of loss can help us with grief and dealing with the loss, rituals in our families can make us feel closer, and rituals with a partner or friend can reinforce the relationship. In short rituals can help us to express things that can’t easily be expressed in other ways and that is why we find them so useful in relation to God.

Recently it’s been brought home to just how important rituals are. For the most part the Sunday morning rituals that are a feature of our worship are very familiar, because they’re how things have been done for a long time. However that isn’t true for all rituals. For instance, the past couple of years have made a lot of what we took for granted and that was once familiar newly unfamiliar. We’ve made changes to the way that we meet in Church, how we greet each other and how we share the Eucharist. The purpose is still much the same, but the manner has changed in both small and in larger ways, the rituals subtly different. In the same way we’ve adapted the rituals to reflect changes in our congregations and the circumstances of our gatherings.

Many of us have found some of these changes unsettling and struggled a bit in the face of it.  However what’s really started me thinking more broadly about ritual, is not those ‘internal’ rituals of our weekly gatherings for prayer, praise and the breaking of bread, but the outward-facing rituals in which we help the wider community to find ways of engaging with events in the wider world. These are really important in our world right now, when we are all facing both actual and anticipated grief, joy, sadness, fear – virtually any emotion. In this rituals can help to restore our sense of control over our lives, however illusory this may be.

When we hear about war, the climate crisis, covid and almost any other change, we canexperience loss – we didn’t want it to happen, but there was nothing that we could do aboutit. That’s not a very unpleasant feeling, that sense that you’re not in charge of your life or most of what’s happening in the world around you. As Christians, it’s at times like this, when we can’t do anything ourselves that we turn to God, but what about those for whom ‘God’ has little obvious meaning?

Over the last few months, we’ve tried to offer a number of rituals to our wider communities, to help with expressing ‘difficult to express’ emotions (both negative and positive ones) in relation to climate, the war in Ukraine, world peace, the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee and the marking of the Centenary of war memorials in our communities. We’ve marked these in planting trees, reading out names, placing small wooden crosses in flowerbeds, in singing and prayer, in music, in silence, with shells, with candles, with stones and in simply being there.

In all these circumstances people need some sort of ceremony and ritual to bring them together, so that they can share the emotions that they, and others around them, are feeling with each other. The numbers taking part in these events are frequently much higher than they are in our church services, but where’s the surprise in that?  That’s mission in action, just what Jesus urged us to do!

Ritual’s part of the rich heritage of our Church and something that we understand the importance of. People in the wider community recognise the truth of this and that’s why they ask us if we can help them to produce an appropriate response to whatever the situation is. It’s why people still come to us for funerals, weddings and the other occasional offices.  For my money it’s one of the most important parts of what we as the Church are here for – making God possible beyond our walls and in the lives of those in our communities.

Blessings
James

Gather up the fragments that nothing remains

Whilst we were away down south, I took a very full car load of ‘stuff’ to the local ‘recycling centre’. It was very busy and there were categories for every manner of thing and no-one was allowed anywhere near the ‘general waste’ skip until all other options were exhausted.

Whilst we were away I was also reflecting on the Eucharist and what it means in a broader sense than just what happens at the altar whenever we celebrate as Jesus commanded.

“Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’”

1 Corinthians 11:23-25

I was thinking about the way that we handle the communion elements and in particular what we do with the remaining elements if they are not to be reserved for those who aresick or otherwise unable to be in church. In the Communion service of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, the minister is directed to “reverently eat and drink” what remains of the consecrated elements after the distribution of Communion.

This direction resonates with the passage from John’s Gospel where Jesus gave direction to the Disciples as to what to do with what remained after the Feeding of the Five Thousand: “Gather up the fragments that nothing remains” (John 6:12). 

You know, I think that this has more than a tangential bearing on the meaning of the Eucharist, and one that’s important in relation to how we ought to respond to one of the biggest environmental issues in the affluent West today – waste.  For instance it’s a singular abuse of stewardship to throw away nearly a third of all the food that’s produced.  This is often by the relatively affluent West and is at the expense of the global poor, and producing and distributing more than is required can only lead to depletion of resources and needlessdegradation of soils.

The war in Ukraine is having a huge impact on global food supply as Ukraine produces a significant amount of the wheat and sunflower seed (from which sunflower oil is extracted) that act as components of the staple diet of many around the world. For us in the West that means increased prices, but for many in poorer countries in for example Africa, it means starvation. Even in the West it is showing up the huge gap between rich and poor, with many in our country now struggling to put food on the table.

And so, it is in the light of these considerations that we should be able to see that how we, the worshipping community, handle and care for our spiritual food and drink, particularly in what remains and is left over from the Eucharistic Feast, is indicative of our attitude to the wider social and natural environment and supporting those in need both at home and abroad.

Blessings
James

Walking alongside each other

I was comparing some of the hymn books used in our churches and I started to notice a pattern. The later books no longer had as many of the hymns that contain war, battle, fight or armour imagery. So no “When a knight won his spurs” or “Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory” and you should see what liberties have been taken changing “Onward Christian soldiers” into “Onward Christian pilgrims”.

Well that all started me thinking about the wars in various parts of the world: Ukraine, Yemen, Sudan, Myanmar, Syria and Afghanistan, to name but a few.

When he was Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams said that the whole weight human failure couldn’t extinguish the creative love of God. In an Easter sermon he said that conflict and failure are part of the human condition, but that Jesus’ death and Resurrection turns that on its head: 

We share one human story in which we are all caught up in one sad tangle of selfishness and fear and so on. But God has entered that human story; he has lived a life of divine and unconditional life in a human life of flesh and blood.”

Rowan Williams

The lesson to be learnt from pain and conflict is that when people walk alongside each other and learn to really listen to other people’s stories and what drives them:

to learn an openness to discovering things about themselves they didn’t know, seeing themselves through the eyes of someone else. What they see may be fair or unfair, but it’s a reality that has been driving someone’s reactions and decisions. It may well be based on misconceptions, on prejudice on ignorance of the situation that someone, or perhaps a whole community is facing. We all need to listen better to each other’s stories, however painful or humiliating that experience may be”

Rowan Williams

The Resurrection doesn’t take away the reality of threat or risk or suffering; it’s just there and that’s one of the hardest things to accept. How can you or I feel ‘happy’ in a world so full of atrocity, aggression and injustice? How can you or I know ‘joy’ when we’re aware of our own failings, our own shabbiness, our own depression, in short the whole mess that our lives can sometimes seem to be?

There are no easy answers to these questions, but in reflecting on war and conflict I quickly came to the realisation that the conflict in places like Ukraine aren’t something entirely detached from what you and I do and feel in our own lives. It’s not just about a few places where bad people do terrible things to other (good) people.

I suspect that few of us aren’t involved, to some extent, in conflict in our homes and families, our work places, our neighbourhoods and communities and dare I say it, our churches. Yes churches are very good at conflict and schism.

So perhaps this Easter season as we pray for the people of Ukraine and other war-torn places, we might also do well to reflect on where we’re complicit in conflict in our lives and the lives of those around us. We might all be the better for it and our world can’t help but be a better place as a result.

Blessings
James