Friday, 26 July 2013

The Lord's Prayer: Sermon for July 28th

These are my sermon notes for Sunday. If you come along to St. Mary Magdalene, Belmont you will hear a different version of this depending on whether you are at the 8am BCP communion, the 10.30 All Age with Baptism, or the 12.30 Baptism service...but these are the notes for all of them.

If you are also following the Teenage prayer experiment blog then you may recognise some of the material!

Gospel Reading: Luke 11:1-13

11Jesus was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” 2He said to them, “When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. 3Give us each day our daily bread. 4And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial.” 5And he said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; 6for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.’ 7And he answers from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’ 8I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs. 9“So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. 10For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. 11Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? 12Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? 13If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

Sermon Outline:
  • Being in bed and not wanting to get up to answer demands for a drink of water or a story or a lost teddy is something all parents – indeed, all grandparents and anyone who has ever stayed in a house with small children - know well!
  • When people asked Jesus to teach them to pray, he taught them the short form of prayer that we now call 'The Lord's Prayer'.

    There are slightly different versions of it in different accounts - the one in our reading today is the shortest - but they all are similar.
  • And they all begin in a way that was revolutionary at the time; by calling God, ‘Father’. This sounds quite formal to us, but the original word, ‘Abba’, is very informal, more like ‘daddy’. This was a huge contrast to how people were used to talking to and about God – as YHWH, THE LORD! Jesus was introducing people to the amazing idea that God is someone with whom we can have a personal, emotional, individual relationship.
  • Its a lovely touch to follow this, in this story, with the image of a dad not wanting to get out of bed! It brings it right down to earth, doesn’t it? We may not want to get up and help, when that little voices pipes up 'Da -ddy? Mu-mmy?' in the middle of the night. But if we are pestered enough we will drag ourselves out of bed and deal with the problem so we can all get back to sleep.
  • And Jesus uses this example to say to us: look, God really does hear and answer prayers. Even if you don’t think your worries or problems are important enough for God, even if you find it hard to believe that God loves you, just think about how you end up doing something for your kids when they pester you enough: even if it were true that God thought your complaint quite trivial, he would still answer it!
  • Its important to note that Jesus and the Church are not saying that God is exactly like a dad. We all probably have mixed feelings about our parents, and about our own parenting ability. But Jesus knows that and his image here has a wonderful realism about it. ‘If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask!’. God knows that our earthly images of parenting are often lazy, angry, unreliable or impatient as least as often as they are close, loving and reliable. Unless we’ve had a very bad experience of parenting – when you might think ‘actually you know what, my dad is exactly the kind of person who if you asked for a fish would think it was funny to give you a snake’ - most would agree that yes, for all their faults, our parents did broadly speaking know how to feed us reasonably healthily most of the time.
  • So, Jesus says, if even we, who know we aren’t perfect parents, get some things right, how much more can we rely on God to look after us. Even the best parenting is only a pale approximation to God’s infinite and total care for us.
  • So what else does Jesus reckon we should say when we pray? Well, the next phrase he gives us here is Hallowed be your name. Again, this may sound fairly formal, but it just means God, we pray that everyone may call you holy. So we are starting off by recognising that God is close and personal – our Father – but also totally holy.
  • Your kingdom come is the next thing we ask. Jesus's main message when he was talking to people was about God's kingdom coming. But he didn't seem to mean a normal kind of kingdom. He didn’t mean he was going to take over and rule the world like the kings and presidents of our countries. This seems to be a prayer for the world to be a better place, a place where everyone is valued equally. What do you think would make the world a better place, more like the world Jesus taught us to hope for? What would be different about life in God's kingdom?
  • Give us today our daily bread This line means we are asking God for what we need, and as in the story Jesus told about the dad in bed, we trust that God will hear us and give us what we need. But the word ‘daily’ is interesting. It means we are not expecting God to give us everything we would like. We are only asking for enough for today. So we are trusting God one day at a time, and trying not to worry too much about the future.
  • And forgive us our sins We might not feel we have 'sins', as it sounds quite heavy and serious: or we might think this just means eating too many icecreams! But Jesus included these words for everyone. Asking God to forgive us our sins, all that we do wrong, means admitting that we are not perfect. We can feel safe to admit that, because Jesus promises that nothing we can do or be can stop God loving us and hearing and answering our prayers.
  • As we forgive those who sin against us, or are indebted to us. This can be the most difficult bit! If we can trust God to love us whatever we do, can we bring ourselves to forgive people who have been horrible to us? If you are angry with someone, it can feel like letting them off if you choose to stop being angry. Forgiving doesn’t mean forgetting: it doesn’t stop us knowing what has happened in the past, and being sensible about our future actions. It doesn’t mean we have to trust someone who has let us down many times in the past. But Christians believe - and scientists agree - that choosing not to hold on to anger makes you a happier and healthier person. So here we ask God to help us not to hold onto resentment and bitterness for all the things that seem so unfair in life, but to let them go and free ourselves for the future.
  • And do not bring us to the time of trial; or in the better known version, Deliver us from evil. This line is a catch-all prayer asking for protection from bad or scary things. From illness, people dying, people wanting to hurt us, anything we are worried or anxious about. In this line we are praying that those things never happen to us. There’s a famous echo of this line too in Google’s slogan – ‘Don’t be evil’. I wonder if this line maybe also asking for God to help not to be evil to other people?

    What is not known is how Jesus meant these words to be used. Did he mean 'say exactly these words'? Or did he mean 'include these areas when you pray'. We don't know, but many Christians do both. Saying the Lord's prayer is a good way to start or end prayers, and if you go to church it will usually be said in every service.

    It is a good prayer to use if you can't think of anything to say, or you don't think you know how to pray, or don't know what to pray for. Just use these words, and you know you are doing what Jesus taught his first followers to do.

  • So let us pray, in the words that Jesus taught us:

Tuesday, 23 July 2013

An Equal Episcopate? Theological Explorations

This is the text of an article of mine that has been published in the most recent volume of Modern Believing, July 2013. It is about 3,000 words. Some of the arguments have been aired by me before, either here on this blog or in conferences, but not all have been previously published. It was, of course, written before the most recent developments in restarting the legislative process. The footnotes are not reproduced here.

In November 2012 the General Synod of the Church of England voted against legislation which would have both opened the episcopate to women, and established a package of provisions for those who did not accept that this was a legitimate development. This article analyses how that decision came to be made, and discusses subsequent developments. Some of the key arguments that have been made against the ordination of women to the episcopate are then considered. The concept of ‘sacramental assurance’ is critiqued, and the question of a theological anthropology of gender is explored.

In November 2012 the General Synod of the Church of England voted against legislation which would have both opened the episcopate to women, and put in place a legislative package of provisions for those who did not accept that this was a legitimate development. The votes of just 6 members of the House of Laity prevented the legislation from achieving the required 2/3 majority in each House of the Synod. Almost immediately the bishops, and notably the newly appointed Archbishop-in-waiting, Justin Welby, were insisting that new legislation would be brought forward as soon as possible, spurred on by howls of outrage from press, Parliament and the general public.

Bishops were quick to point out that it was not them who had voted down the legislation - the bishops had 'come good in the end', according to one prominent episcopal supporter of women clergy, voting overwhelmingly in favour. Yet a great deal of anger, hurt and disappointment was directed at them, reflecting the fact that it was widely considered to have been the ill advised intervention of the House of Bishops in May 2012 that was responsible for the failure of the legislation.

The changes that the House of Bishops made to the legislation at that point threw out of balance the delicate compromise that had been achieved over past years, and which had received an astonishing level of endorsement at diocesan level, with only 2 dioceses declining to endorse the legislation. As a result, many strong supporters of women's ordination indicated that they would be unable to support the legislation at final approval, since it now entrenched and gave tacit approval to misogynistic ideas about women and damaging theologies of gender and ecclesiology.

There was a storm of protest, from myself and many others, which initially greatly puzzled the bishops, many of whom appear not to have realised the full implications of the changes they had approved. The final approval debate, initially scheduled for July, was hastily reconsidered, and was replaced in July by a debate on whether the House of Bishops should be invited to think again - a motion that received an exact 2/3 majority (though it was not counted by houses).

The legislation was recommitted to the House of Bishops for further consideration, and one minor change was made – ‘the Appleby amendment’, after its writer, the Revd. Janet Appleby. This then comprised the legislation that was presented in November 2012. That legislation having been lost, a consultation process was quickly started to try to discern a way forward. Facilitated discussions were held with a handful of selected participants in February and April 2013, and following the first of these a consulation paper was issued inviting responses. At the time of writing, it is not yet known what fresh proposals the House of Bishops will bring to General Synod in July 2013, but the expectation is that no new legislation will be proposed immediately, but rather further rounds of consultation.

Squaring the Circle
The ongoing problem for this legislation is that from the beginning, it has tried to acheive two irreconcilable aims. Throughout the debates, the term ‘squaring the circle’ has been commonly used as a shorthand for this. The two aims were to have women as bishops on equal terms with men, and to make some sort of provision for those who do not believe that this is a valid development in the ordering of the church. A glance through any of the documents emanating from Forward in Faith, the Anglo-Catholic pressure group formed to oppose the ordination of women, reveals a consistent concern with ‘proper provision’.   The rhetoric of those opposing the legislation was that the provision on offer was simply not protection enough from the contamination of Catholic order that women bishops would entail. The difficulty, of course, was in finding ‘provisions’ which did not, by their very nature and existence, imply that women would only be second-class bishops.

For some of those who supported the legislation, simply having women as bishops was the primary aim. Whatever compromises of principle might be necessary to acheive that were therefore considered worthwhile. This is what lay behind the House of Bishops’ ill fated decision in May 2012 to alter the legislation. It also underlies much of the rhetoric of ill-placed ambition that is targeted at those who campaign for women bishops. Some men seemed unable to believe that we women clergy don’t simply want an equal episcopate in order to become bishops ourselves; they were therefore incredulous in July 2012, when they realised that we would vote against discriminatory legislation.

So let me state plainly: having women as bishops is not an end in itself. It is, rather, a necessary but not sufficient means to the end of demonstrating, by our ordering of our church, that the Church of England believes men and women to be equally and jointly made in the image of God, and to be theologically in the same category.There is therefore simply no point in allowing women to be bishops on different terms to men, or in redefining what a bishop is in order to let women in. That would be only allowing women to dress up like bishops whilst retaining a separate class of 'real' bishops.

That is why I support the simplest possible legislation, simply stating that both women and men can be bishops, without putting any supplementary provisions in place. In fact, I would go further: I would prefer us not to enact any legislation at all, than enshrine discrimination in the episcopate in law. Were we to do that, the Church of England would be officially saying that gender discrimination is acceptable theologically.

It is of course worth noting that every province of the Anglican communion that already has legislation in place to allow both men and women to become bishops, has such simple legislation. No other province has any ‘safeguards’ or ‘provisions’ for those who disagree with this development. In every case where there are women bishops, it is simply left to them to make appropriate provision for those of their priests who have difficulty in accepting their orders or sacraments. In all cases such priests do need to accept the legal authority of the female bishop, and have been prepared to do so. They have been helped in doing so by the existence of considerable precedents for women holding ecclesiastical jurisdiction, as in the case of abbesses and of course the Queen. Notwithstanding some high profile clashes in the Episcopal Church of the USA, in most cases there, and in all other provinces, such informal arrangements have worked well for all concerned. There does not seem to be any reason why the Church of England should need or desire more complex arrangements.

It is also worth noting that in 2006-7, simple legislation (popularly known as a ‘single clause measure’) was the preferred option of Forward in Faith as well as groups such as WATCH. I remember being asked then by New Directions to write an article explaining why I supported a Single Clause Measure, just as they did, but for different reasons. At the time I recall suggesting that perhaps they wanted a Single Clause Measure because they thought it would be more easily defeated, but I was assured that it was because it was the only theologically coherent way forward. The ease with which such groups have shifted the grounds of their arguments has been quite astonishing to watch, and rather destroys any claims to ‘integrity’. In recent months, as already noted, the argument has been presented as having always been about ‘proper provision’, and the simple legislation that this group once purported to consider the only coherent approach has been characterised as a radical and cruel suggestion. One recent contributor to New Directions was refreshingly honest about the shifting grounds of argument, noting breezily: ‘pressure’s off for the moment to think up fresh arguments against female episcopacy, and to suggest hiding places from it’.

The consultation document issued in February 2013 was largely uncontroversial, but ended with the proposition that the legislation should aim to achieve 'a greater sense of security....[of] an accepted and valued place in the Church of England' for those who do not accept the ordination of women. Whilst such a sense of security is arguably desirable (a question I will return to below), this is not, of course, a viable aim on which to base a piece of legislation. Legislative aims must be measurable, but a 'sense of security' can only ever be measured by whether those involved say it has been given.

More fundamentally, at least some people demonstrably oppose women's ordination on theological grounds that are at best mistaken, and at worst heretical. At least one speech in the Final Approval debate in November 2012, for example, argued that women should be subordinate to men based on a supposed inherent subordination within the Trinity: a view clearly beyond the bounds of orthodox Christian belief. So if we are to aim for a 'sense of security' of being 'accepted and valued' within the Church of England, then we need to be very clear indeed that it is the people who hold these views who are 'accepted and valued', not the views themselves. Or, if certain views contrary to the mainstream doctrine of the Church are to be declared 'accepted and valued', then we need to be very clear indeed which ones these are. Otherwise the effect of this aim, were it to be realized in legislation, would be to say that anyone’s idiosyncratic views - on creation, the Trinity, the Bible, or whatever else underlies their belief that women cannot be ordained – are all necessarily 'accepted and valued'.

This would be an astonishingly ‘liberal’ statement for the Church to make, were it not for the fact that this theological permissiveness extends only to those who oppose women’s ordination and consecration. In other words, the Church is in danger of saying that women are so fundamentally divisive that a desire to avoid the ministry of women is the one thing for which legislative permission to disregard the canons will be given. I would be horrified if we were to enact legislation that said this: and yet this very option is consistently presented as simply being ‘generous provision’ for a minority that fears it may become oppressed.

Sacramental Assurance and Risk

One of the recurring themes of the opposition to women's ordination is the element of doubt versus assurance. The arguments vary, but a common theme is that it is unclear whether women should (or can) really be ordained, and so it is unclear whether, when an ordained woman is functioning as a priest or bishop, anything is actually happening. So the elements at Holy Communion might not really become Christ's body and blood if the service is presided over by a woman. A priest might not be really ordained if the ordination is done by a woman. God has promised the church that he will work through the sacraments, and our confidence in our salvation is rooted in that promise, so it shouldn’t be disturbed.The point is not that women definitely can't be ordained, but that it is uncertain, and that introducing an unnecessary element of uncertainty into the sacraments is foolhardy.

Proponents of women's ordination, myself included, have usually responded to this sort of argument by simply ridiculing the idea that women can't be ordained. My own response is primarily to argue that a false theological distinction is being drawn between men and women (of which more below).
But I suggest, too, that the very concept of sacramental assurance is itself problematic.

The parish profile for my new job asked, among other things, for 'a prayerful risk taker'. A sampling of job advertisements over recent months suggests that such risk taking, 'ministerial entrepreneurship' in one inelegant phrase, is increasingly seen as valuable. The new Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, when he was Dean of Liverpool, established its strapline as ‘A safe place to take risks’. The parable of the talents comes to mind, suggesting that it is better to take risks for God than to worry about protecting what you have (though I would have loved Jesus to have included an example of someone who invested 7 talents but lost them all due to changed market conditions, or bad weather).

But if risk taking is good - if risk taking is Godly, as the parable would seem to imply - then is sacramental assurance something to be desired and supported? How Godly is a desire for certainty?

Synod papers discussing the women bishops legislation repeatedly use the phrase 'necessary but not sufficient'. We are told that for some, the maleness of their priest or bishop is  necessary but not sufficient - to really feel safe, they might need a man who has been ordained by a man, or even by a man who has never participated in or supported women's ordination. This is to give 'sacramental assurance' - the feeling of certainty that the sacraments they are getting are real sacraments. Women's ordination, because it introduces an element of uncertainty, is seen as something that it is valid to want to avoid, since certainty is a good thing.

But I wonder if in fact we should embrace women's ordination as valuable precisely because it challenges such a desire for certainty?  It is worth considering the history of infant baptism, which provides something of a historical parallel. In the Reformation period the practice of baptising babies was hotly contested by some radical reformers. This was because the biblical evidence for the practice is limited at best, and because it was felt that baptising babies risked endorsing the Roman Catholic economy of salvation, in which church ceremonies were necessary for salvation, not merely personal faith.

However, the mainstream reformers consistently resisted this argument. For Luther, Calvin and others, infant baptism was crucial. This was partly because it fitted into their city-state view of Christendom, that the membership of the church was the same as the membership of the community. But it was also - and this is particularly clear in Luther - because baptising babies symbolised very clearly that faith itself was a gift of God, entirely undeserved, not something we work to achieve.

The sacraments are not a magical incantation that need to be done by the right person in the right way to 'work'. Instead, they are God's free gift to humanity, and always depend on God's grace. It is indeed reassuring to think that God has promised to work through them; but that reassurance shouldn't tempt us into thinking that the church and church tradition has tamed and controlled Gods grace and power, and now has a monopoly on it. How sad, and how dangerously limiting, to think of God's saving grace as being constrained to only flow uncertain pre-approved channels. If ordaining women challenges such a heresy, then all the more reason to do it.

Male and female: a category error?

I use the term heresy advisedly, as I do believe that dangerously false theology, not merely misogyny, is at stake in this debate. Fundamentally, the arguments against women being ordained and consecrated rest on an understanding of women and men being theologically distinct categories.
There are clear parallels here with the debates about sexuality and same sex attraction. Indeed, it seems to me that very often the debate about the ordination of women is acting as a proxy for debates about sexuality. Certainly, the two are frequently linked in ‘slippery slope’ rhetoric.

The ordination of women and gay marriage are of course too very different debates, and I know many people who would be considered conservative on one and liberal on the other, and vice versa. The biblical and theological arguments for and against each rest on some clearly distinct grounds. However, there is I think one key respect in which they are indeed linked, and that is the fundamental premise that men and women are two completely different categories of human being. This is not simply a statement of the obvious - that men and women are physically and chromosomally distinct. This is rather the premise that men and women are not just variants of the same fundamental theological category 'humanity', but are two theologically distinct categories, such that what one might say theologically of one cannot necessarily be said of the other. How God relates to one is fundamentally different to how God relates to the other.

It is of course the case that men and women are, broadly speaking, biologically distinct, since human beings – in common with most, but not all, plants and animals – reproduce and evolve through sexual differentiation. However, much debate in this area engages only tangentially, if at all, with the biological reality of sexual differentiation in humans. First, it is often assumed that sexual reproduction implies male/female differentiation. Yet this is of course not the case. Most plants reproduce sexually yet few have distinct male and female variants; whilst snails are probably the best known example of an animal species in which all the individuals are hermaphrodite, and mating involves the mutual exchange of genetic material.

So the simple  biological fact of sexual reproduction does not imply the differention of gender roles. Furthermore, science is increasingly finding that sexual differentiation in humans is not as clear cut as has generally been thought. There has been a strong revision upwards in the estimates of the frequency of intersex conditions, where one individual has some or all of the sexual characteristics of both genders. These conditions were given substantial international publicity when the International Olympic Committee met to debate whether Castor Semenya could compete as a woman when a fellow competitor had complained that she too masculine to count as female.

Other questions still being raised and researched at a very early stage are issues surrounding transgender people - those who claim to feel 'trapped in the wrong body'. The NHS is convinced enough that this is a genuine medical disorder to pay for corrective surgery when psychological investigatons indicate that it will be helpful.

Questions of sexuality and sexual orientation are also interesting biologically. Considerable evidence has emerged in recent decades of widespread same sex activity, sometimes combined with heterosexual mating as in the promiscuous Bonobo monkeys, who appear to use sexual activity as a commonplace social bonding mechanism, and sometimes as a long term same sex pair bond, as in the recent case of the 'gay penguins', which gained considerable publicity. Again, biological research does not seem to support such a rigid distinction between the sexes as much theological argument presupposes.

So the insights of modern biology and anthropology do not encourage us to think of male and female as fundamentally distinct categories. But neither, I suggest, do the Bible, or the other resources of Christian tradition, require us to think that because humanity reproduces sexually, male and female are separate theological categories.

Some decades ago, Ruether wrote a very influential article asking 'Can a male saviour save women?'. Her point was that if Jesus' maleness was a key salvific characteristic - if it mattered theologically that Jesus did not just become human but became male - then women were not saved. It is a basic principle of incarnational theology, particularly strong in the Greek Orthodox tradition, that the incarnation itself is salvific. As Gregory of Nazianzen put it - 'the unassumed is the unhealed'. In other words, humanity - specifically human flesh, embodied humanity, not just our souls - is redeemed by the incarnation. It must therefore be the case - unless you wish to argue that only male bodies are redeemed - that what Jesus assumed was fundamentally humanity, not maleness. In other words, the doctrine of the incarnation cannot be reconciled with a view of men and women as fundamentally different theological categories except by denying that women are as saved as men are.

Jesus maleness must, therefore, be seen as an incidental particularity of his becoming human. Furthermore, a view that sees male and female as theologically and categorically distinct theologically is very often, if not inevitably, idolatrous. Historically, maleness has been given God-like status. God has been consistently imagined as being male, and by extension, men have been assumed to be more God-like than women. As Mary Daly put it very succinctly, 'If God is male, the male is God'. Viewing men as closer to God, more made in God’s image, than women is to make manhood an idol.

And the male ideal that has seen as being most God-like has generally been a particular kind of male - adult, not a child; strong and healthy, not weak or disabled or ill; heterosexual, not castrated, and at various points in history either celibate (showing strong mastery over his bodily urges), or married with children (demonstrating fertility and maturity). Not only have women traditionally been seen as further from God than such men, but men have typically been judged and graded in holiness against this particular ideal.

Regardless of all the many gifts that womens ordination brings, and hopefully will soon bring to the House of Bishops, one of the most important things will be to challenge, simply by their presence, this idolisation of a particular type of adult maleness as more God like than other gender identity.


Saturday, 13 July 2013

The Parable of the Showing-Off Lawyer

Sermon for Sunday 14th July, on Luke 10:25-37

Gospel reading:
Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”

But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

-         If I asked you to illustrate that story, I wonder what scene you would choose to draw? Which scene is the one that you see in your head when someone says the Good Samaritan?

-          The lawyer testing Jesus? The man being beaten up, stripped and robbed? The priest, or levite, passing by on the other side? The Samaritan, washing his wounds? Or taking him to the inn on his own donkey? Or paying the innkeeper to carry on looking after him?

-         A couple of weeks ago I set Noah and Toby making this story in Lego (you can see the results here). They each chose a different scene to build, and got quite into making the details. Noah modeled the traveler being ambushed and beaten up. Toby chose to model the scene in the inn, with the wounded traveler in bed, and the Samaritan paying the innkeeper to look after him.

-         Interestingly, they both omitted entirely in their discussion with me the passing by on the other side, which we often hear and read as the main point of this story. The nasty religious authorities, more concerned with their own safety and purity than with the plight of an injured, or possibly dead, man at the side of the road. And that view of superficially righteous people is a common theme in anti-religious sentiment, its one we recognize from the press, and possibly from our own experience. Some members of many religions do indeed seem more concerned with keeping their faith and their church free from any contamination, than engaging riskily and at a real personal and financial cost with the needs they encounter. That’s why hypocrisy is one of the charges most frequently leveled at the church.

-         But we all know this story so well. We know that as Christians we are meant to see everyone – Muslim or Christian, black or white, etc etc, - as our neighbour. And by and large Christians have indeed taken this story to heart. We don’t need to know someone to feel responsible for helping them. We give to the foodbank, and to Christian Aid. 

-         So I’d like to focus instead on the scene that makes Jesus tell this story. A lawyer is testing Jesus – he wants to see if he will give the right answers, according to the book, on a multiple choice exam in being a good Jewish rabbi. And it was a big book. There weren’t just the Hebrew scriptures to know inside out, but books and books of oral tradition and commentary, learned answers to complicated questions. Being a lawyer then was rather like being a lawyer now – you had to know not just the letter of the law itself, but all the case history and learned opinions.

-         But the big difference was that law was a very major part of religious practice. Law and faith weren’t two different but related things as we now see them – they were very much the same thing. Keeping the law was what it was to be a good Jew, just as it is what it is to be a good Muslim. Christianity is very radically different from this. Christianity is not  and never has been about keeping the law. That is why it was so shocking, and why the scribes, Pharisees and lawyers found Jesus and his followers so scandalous. Even now, it is a shockingly radical approach to religion which some Christians find hard to accept, and try to impose new forms of law – who you can marry, who you can associate with, how much you must give, what sort of language you may and may not use, for example.

-         And yet….when Jesus turns the lawyers question back on him, and asks what he reads in the law, his answer is beautiful. It is aspirational, rather than achievable. It is poetic, rather than legalisitic.
-         He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And Jesus said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”

-         And then what happens? The lawyer, wanting to justify himself, asks who qualifies as his neighbour. Wanting to justify himself. When I imagine myself in that lawyers shoes, I can imagine him squirming with embarrassment. He has stood up, in front of his peers, perhaps egged on by them – go on, you ask him! – perhaps trying to impress them. He has asked Jesus a killer question. I don’t need to imagine that – it happens all the time at academic conferences. A cocky Phd student stands up to ask the big shot big name speaker a sneaky, clever-clever question, not because he wants to know the answer, but because he wants everyone to applaud his cleverness and audacity. I’m sure you can all think of similar situations from your own working lives or circles of acquaintance – the person who shouts out clever comments during the pub quiz, perhaps; the relation who quizzes you on your latest holiday rather too loudly and always seems to have done something similar but more impressive just last year.

-         So we can imagine this lawyer looking round his friends and peers quite chuffed with himself – come on! Maybe with whatever the first century equivalent of one of those fist pumping or finger-lickin’ gestures.

-         And then Jesus turns the question on him. And he falls silent for a moment. What do you need to do to be saved? And he looks Jesus in the eye for what can only have been a second, but feels like a lifetime. 

-         And past his learning, past his desire to show off, past his professional mastery of the law, his answer, his deepest desire, surges up in his heart:  and before he knows what he is doing, it comes out of his mouth. 

-         “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself”

-         And Jesus holds his gaze a moment longer, and smiles, and nods.

-         And then – just when he is feeling a joy, a hunger, a thirst for holiness, a sense that somehow he has arrived at the place he has long been studying the maps for – 

-         Then. Behind him, someone sniggers. 

-         And he feels embarrassment pour over him, and his face and neck flush hot. What on earth has he just said?

-         And all too human, something I recognize only too well, in his embarrassment and fear that he has revealed something far too personal – he has been caught talking of religion as if he believed it, as if it meant something, he has just been heard by all his professional peers talking poetically of love, for crying out loud! – in his embarrassment, he asks another clever-clever question. ‘And who is my neighbour?’

-         It is his own statement, not Jesus’, that he is arguing with here! He was the one who said ‘love your neighbour as yourself’. And now he feels a fool, and he desperately tries to cover up his embarrassment by pretending his answer was a trap. Ah ha! You just agreed with me: right, can you get out of this one? It’s a classic lawyer technique. It might have worked with his peers. But we all know the story Jesus tells in response. And he tells it without interruptions: we can imagine the little group of lawyers caught up in the story, wondering what the punchline will be. And maybe some of them – they are lawyers after all – trying to second guess the punchline and work out what their next question will be.

-         And we can only imagine the response among the group of lawyers when Jesus tells them ‘Go, and do likewise’, and walks away.

-         Were they all embarrassed? Was there an awkward silence, and then a silent or subdued dispersal? Or did they cover their embarrassment, or their resentment, or the fact that they were moved despite themselves but don’t want to show it, with nervous laughter, or ribald jokes, or rude personal comments about Jesus’ personal hygiene?

-         We don’t know. The gospel moves swiftly on to the next incident, the next town, the next scandalous and outrageous encounter.

-         And we are left, like the lawyers, with a moment where we seemed to glimpse the truth, where our hearts leaped within us, where we longed to love God with all our hearts, soul, strength and mind, and our neighbour as ourselves…

-         …And with the moment after. When the standard set before us seems ridiculously unattainable. When the uncomfortable demands we would have to put on ourselves if we were to take it seriously make us nervously distance ourselves from the story. When we come away from that hot, dusty, rock strewn road, and ask awkward questions about how really, in this day and age, are we meant to help every passing stranger in trouble, and aren’t they likely to be junkies anyway so we might think we are helping but might actually be doing more harm than good, and what are our taxes for?

-         And many of those are good questions. But lets examine ourselves when we ask them, and ask silently, inwardly, honestly – are we asking them partly, at least, because like our lawyer friend we are embarrassed by our emotional response to Jesus, afraid of what our peers might think of us if we take God too seriously, wanting to distance ourselves from the terrifyingly awesome vision of holiness that we sometimes catch a glimpse of? 

-         I don’t think any of us, if we are honest, are actually planning to ‘go and do likewise’ this morning. And we are embarrassed about that. But lets try, try, to think of this not just as the story of the Good Samaritan, but as the story of the pushy and embarrassed lawyer. Because that is our story. And being aware of our own discomfort with the challenge Jesus presents helps keep us honest, and saves us from hypocrisy.

Tuesday, 9 July 2013

Starting again on women bishops

'So, are you pleased?'

'How are you feeling? happy?'

I lost count of how many times I was asked these questions at General Synod over the last couple of days. How was I feeling after the Church of England voted to restart the process to have women bishops, with a renewed sense of urgency?

'Not displeased' perhaps sums it up best. Certainly not delighted, or ecstatic, as some people seemed to think would be natural! This is only the beginning of another long process - at least two more years. And there is no guarantee it will be successful this time round, though initial indications are hopeful.

The most positive thing I take away from the debate was that nobody spoke against the principle of having women as bishops. That was a huge change from November, when what was meant to be a debate on specific legislation became open season on the ordination of women. Looking back, I think that was the most painful thing about listening to that debate.

But this time, although there were various amendments suggested to the motion to restart the process, all of them were related to the detail of the legislation. Nobody sought to amend, or even spoke against, the first clause, that women should be bishops, and urgently. And a surprisingly large number voted for it. Of course, people sometimes vote things through at an early stage that they intend to vote against at final approval unless they are able to 'improve them' later. But this time, there is surprisingly little room for 'improvements' at a later stage. The contents of the bishops' declaration is yet to be decided, and there is room for negotiation there. But most people voted for simple legislation, and to affirm that they wanted women bishops urgently - even if they would have preferred, and had earlier voted for, one of the amendments that would have altered that package.

It is of course a good thing that Synod has reaffirmed its desire to have women bishops, and as soon as is legislatively possible. And despite the sense of deja vu and weariness that many of us felt listening to the debate, it was more positive in tone than might have been expected. It was certainly more positive than November, but then it could hardly have been worse. There seemed to be a general sense that the facilitated conversations of Saturday had broadly been a good thing, and that the improved tone of debate reflected that.

Indeed, some people were so taken with the revolutionary idea of actually talking with each other that an amendment to ask for facilitated conversations to continue was easily carried. And the Bishop of Willesden made a popular suggestion that the next stage of the process should be conducted in a manner reminiscent of a student balloon debate. It remains to be seen whether the idea of putting a group of people in a room and asking them to come up with a solution works any better this time than last time...

If I understand him right, the idea is that this time, the solution should be unanimously agreed, and the participants should then each be prepared to 'sell' it to their friends and interest groups. I hope to be convinced, but I am rather wary of the continued fairy tale that a perfect solution exists out there and we will find it if we squeeze our eyes tight and wish harder. As Archbishop Justin said, sounding a note of caution in response to the slightly desperate acclamation his facilitation process received, there aren't 'magic processes' any more than there is a magic solution.

The full text of the motion that was passed can be found here, in the official press release.

A good summary of the debate, and a plea for the five principles and their implications to be widely discussed and owned, is on The Bishop of Sheffield's blog.

Friday, 5 July 2013

The Sending of the Seventy (in Lego)

My husband and I put this together for our Junior Church Celebration Service at St Mary Magdalene this Sunday! If anyone else would like to use it, please do feel free.

Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Atheist Church shows us what we are doing right

The Guardian recently published this article about 'atheist church'. The stated aim of the project is laudable: to help non-believers "live better, help often and wonder more".

 What will help achieve this? According to the Guardian, the founders 'admit they nicked the best components of church, like group singing, interesting talks and community building'.

This is huge! We have got so used in the church to being humble and/or embarrassed about what we offer, that we often forget just how great it can be, and what a unique experience it offers.

Group singing we know people like - any football crowd shows us that. And church is one of the few places other than sports events that people get to do it. This is a large part, I think, of why carol services are so popular.

But 'interesting talks'? We agonise about decreasing attention spans, and here are people saying they think an interesting talk - combined with group singing and a sense of community - is worth getting out of bed on a Sunday morning for, even without believing in God!

OK, it probably helps that this 'church' is run by comedians. Even I, a vicar, can sit still for much more stand up comedy than sermonising. But many of the skills involved are essentially the same, and indeed the best preacher I know also does a great stand up comedy routine!

I suggest everyone interested in church growth reads this article, and that we spend some time thinking about what people who come to church are coming for besides the faith element. And what those who don't come to church value about it when they do come.

We can't make it Christmas every day; but we should be able to manage 'interesting talks'.