Friday, 31 January 2014

The New Girl Guide Promise

The New Girl Guide Promise: from static duty to dynamic faith.

This evening, I was a guest at our local Girl Guides. And I heard the new Girl Guide promise being made for the first time. Not only was it the first time I'd heard it, it was the first time Guides in this unit had become members with the new promise.

Oh, yes? I thought. This is the promise that got rid of God, and replaced it with some vague stuff about 'being true to ourselves'? The one that General Synod are debating the week after next? How ironic, that my visit as vicar coincided with it being used for the first time...

But then, I heard the new Guides rehearsing it. And I was struck by what it had actually changed, and why. Because I hadn't actually realised, in all the rhetoric and fuss about 'duty to God' being replaced by 'being true to myself', that the sentence doesn't end there.

What the promise to do my best to do my 'duty to God' has actually been replaced by is 'to be true to myself and to develop my beliefs'. Well now - that is rather different.

Hearing these young girls promise that, I was struck by a profound sense that this new promise was actually very fitting indeed, and a huge improvement. Not just because it avoids the charge of hypocrisy (and here I hold up my hands - I was an atheist Girl Guide who perjured myself with the old promise!)  - after all, one at least of the girls making the new promise tonight is a regular member of our church.

No, the improvement that struck me is that it replaces a static sense of duty with a commitment to development. It is now much more akin to the promises made at baptism or confirmation.  

'To do my duty to God' is a promise that embodies a very static, hierarchical view of God and our relationship with him/her. The implication is that this 'duty' is a given, and our only valid option is to obey and do what we are told. Whereas the new promise embraces an understanding of faith and life as something that is, ideally, always growing. I'm still not entirely sold on 'being true to myself', but the more I think about it, the more I love the promise to 'develop my beliefs'.

In fact, this is a far more significant and far more religiously profound promise to make. It commits the new Guide to taking faith seriously, whatever their current beliefs. It commits her to working for her faith development, to accepting, and desiring, that her beliefs will change and grow.

In the church, we spend huge amounts of time and energy trying to achieve culture change from maintenance to mission, from a consumer view of church to a participant view, from a static receptive idea of being a member to a dynamic proactive one. Even among the clergy, we strive - often with little success - to create a culture of continuing professional development, life long learning. The change we want to see is one from seeing faith and discipleship as static reception, to dynamic growth. This change of promise has achieved that at a stroke. It would be not only churlish but perverse for the Church to reject it.

Saturday, 18 January 2014

Rethinking Advent to Candlemas

Here's an idea:

This year I was struck again, as I am every year, by how odd it seems to preach on the Baptism of Christ the week after Epiphany. Especially since Candlemas - when Jesus is 40 days old - comes weeks later.

So I started wondering if we could move the feast of the Baptism of Christ to the Sunday before Lent. Then, the calendar would follow the dramatic narrative. Jesus is baptised, hears God's confirmation of his identity and call, and immediately goes out to the desert for 40 days and nights.

And then a colleague on twitter (@trinheadmaster) mused that we could do with some Ordinary Time between Epiphany and Candlemas, and I agreed. But then I thought - if we were to move the Baptism, why not move Candlemas to the Sunday after Epiphany? It is currently 40 days after Christmas because that fits when Jewish babies were presented in the Temple. But how many people find that a meaningful resonance nowadays? And if we moved it, then we would have a solid 'Season of Jesus' Childhood', made up of 2 weeks of Christmas, Epiphany, Candlemas.

We often bemoan the fact that nobody takes Christmas season seriously in our society, and that Advent has effectively become Christmas. I wonder if giving the period of 4 weeks after Christmas a solid focus on Jesus' childhood  might revitalise this post-Christmas period. We could even make the following week focus on that childhood visit to the Temple for good measure.

And what, then, of Advent? The idea of four weeks of fasting has long gone, however much some may miss it. And there are few churches that manage to avoid singing carols in Advent - and those that do are generally seen as stodgy and even (ironically) as not getting into the Spirit of Christmas. And having missed Advent Sunday this year - I was away - I really did miss it, but was immediately plunged into a whirl of carol services and the like.

On Twitter last year, there was a very spirited debate about the pink candle in the Advent wreath. Apart from those raised in the Anglo-Catholic tradition, nobody had the faintest idea that it was meant to symbolise a lightening of the Advent fast for 'Gaudete Sunday'. Nobody fasts for Advent anyway, so lightening the fast is pointless. And mine was not the only church that vaguely assumed it must be meant for Mary, being pink!

So I wonder...what if we reinvented Gaudete Sunday, and used it to split Advent into two? The first two weeks could be very properly kept as Advent, focusing in particular on the Second Coming of Christ, and the Four Last Things. It would not be ridiculously hard to keep most Christmas events until after the 2nd Sunday in Advent, whereas refusing to hold any until after Christmas day itself seems absurd and impractical. But then after the 2nd Sunday,  the last two weeks could be very properly refocused on excitement and anticipation about the coming of Christmas.

So, I seem to be proposing a modest rewrite of the liturgical calendar between Advent and Candlemas!

1. Advent is divided into two fortnights.
Advent 1 & Advent 2: Traditional Advent themes of Judgement, 2nd Coming, etc.
Advent 3, Gaudete Sunday is reinstated as the beginning of Christmas season - looking forward to Christmas. The weeks of Advent 3 & 4 are thus properly filled with Carol services etc.

2.Candlemas is moved from 2nd Feb to the Sunday after Epiphany, and possibly the week after that is focused on Jesus' later childhood. The 3 or 4 Sundays after Christmas thus become a 'Season of Jesus as a Child', encouraging a longer period of focus on the reality and implications of the incarnation. After this there is a period of Ordinary Time.

3. The Baptism of Christ is moved from the Sunday after Epiphany to the Sunday before Lent.

What do you think?

(post edited slightly to correct an error and explain why Candlemas is currently 2 Feb).

Sermon: 'Whoever welcomes this child...'

Sermon for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity

First reading: 1 Corinthians 1:1-17
Gospel reading: Mark 9:33-41

Imagine – at the end of a particularly fractious church council meeting, Jesus walks into the room.
'What', he says, 'have you been arguing about?'

Silence. No body wants to say, 'whether to replace the photocopier with a cheaper model' or 'what hymn book we should buy' or even 'that we'd all like to get more people to come to church, but everyone's too busy to volunteer'.

And Jesus looks round the circle of chairs, and smiles, gently and sadly. He knows exactly what we've been arguing about, and we feel our faces go hot with embarrasment.

Or we might even imagine arriving in heaven with a big crowd of other Christians, and Jesus standing in front of the crowd and saying: 'what on earth were you arguing about on the way?'
'And', he might add, 'did it get in the way of telling people about me? Did it put people off following me? Did they get confused as to why there were two, or three churches, let alone several faiths, each swearing they had the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth? Or did you argue goodnaturedly, while working side by side to get the job done?'

Both our readings this morning show a group of people, followers of Jesus, arguing about who is the greatest. Who is the best disciple - who was going to sit at Jesus's right hand in this promised Kingdom he kept going on about? And Paul is horrified to discover that the Corinthians are arguing about whether he, or Cephas, or Apollos, or even Christ himself, are the best person to follow.

We can only imagine how the Corinthians felt when they first heard Paul's letter to them read out. I wonder, did they all go silent with embarrasment, and vow to get on? Or did some, at least of them, go away from that meeting muttering to themselves, in little twos and threes: 'well that's all very well, but Cephas is here with us working hard and who does Paul think he is, telling us off like that?' 'Its all very well telling us to agree, but Stephanus and Julian are just plain wrong and its our Christian duty to tell them so'. Or even, 'humph. I'm a bit offended to tell the truth that Paul doesn't remember baptising ME. Don't think I'll bother going there again'. And so on.

We don't know the Corinthian's reactions, but we do get to hear how the disciples react when Jesus asks them what they are arguing about. They are deeply embarrassed. They might still be thinking, inside 'Well I am better than Judas, anyone could see he's not to be trusted', but they have the grace, at least, not to try to justify their arguments to Jesus.

And Jesus, knowing of course exactly what they have been arguing about, sits them down and brings a child into the centre of their inner circle. He hugs the child – the child is getting the best place at that table, is closest to Jesus – and says: 'whoever wants to be first must be last of all, and servant of all. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me; and not just me, Jesus the person, whoever welcomes one such child welcomes God the creator of everything, Yahweh, God.'

We tend to see this as a fairly sweet little scene. Jesus and the children – you might remember watercolour paintings of Jesus surrounded by small children from all around the world, from your Sunday School days? And which of us would want to argue. We know, don't we, that children are important, that they are not just the church of tomorrow but part of the church of today, and so on. We love seeing babies and small children brought to church. Although we sometimes hear horror stories of parents with small children being told off for the kids making a noise in other churches, I'm sure we'd all be fairly sure that wouldn't and shouldn't happen in our own churches. Yes, we welcome children.

The gospel reading doesn't say what age the child was. I wonder what age you imagine? In my head, the child is perhaps 3 or 4: a little blond haired pre school cherub, just like in those watercolour paintings. Who could possibly not want to welcome such a sweet, innocent little thing?

And the gospel reading also doesn't say where Jesus got this child from. So I wonder...

What if, instead of a washed and brushed little infant, proudly handed over from her mother's arms, he was a 12 or 13 year old street urchin? Perhaps the reason he was in that house in Capernaum was that he'd been creeping round the circle of disciples trying a little light pickpocketing, or hoping to pinch the loaf of bread waiting on the table for their tea?

If we imagine Jesus dragging forward a frightened and belligerent little street urchin, who is perhaps flashing a knife ready to try to slip away from these threatening grown ups now he's been caught, the challenge to us is much greater.

Over the last week I've discussed these readings with a couple of members of the Belmont congregation. Talking about this reading, one of them told me a story of when she and her husband were acting as wardens for a Quaker meeting house in Bolton. One day, two or three young tearaways skidded into the entrance hall on their bikes. The 'welcomer' on duty duly approached them, and asked what they were doing there. 'It said Society of Friends on the door', said one.
'Well', she snorted, 'We're not friends for the likes of you.'

Would that happen here?
Well...another true story.
A few weeks before Christmas, one of the members of the Belmont congregation arrived to open up for morning prayer and found a gang of teenagers, about 15 or 16 year olds, smoking and spitting on the front steps. 'Good morning lads,' she said. 'But please don't make a mess on the steps. This is a special place for you and everyone to come to, not somewhere to make a mess of'. They stayed where they were.

So she invited them into the church. They stubbed out their fags and shambled in, and she cleaned the steps and then made them drinks and gave them chocolate biscuits. Eventually, one of them growled at her - ' do you know Mandela has died?'. It was the morning after his death. And it turned out that that was why they had come, incoherently and not quite knowing what to do when they got there, to the church. It had felt like the right place to be. She invited them to come and light a candle in Nelson Mandela's memory, and they did so. Then they left, and their parting shot was 'We're gonna pray for peace.'

I only heard this amazing story a few weeks later, just before Christmas, when I received a Christmas card addressed to the vicar, with a £10 note inside and an apology for making a mess, and their thanks to the lady who had cleaned up, let them into church, and given them food and candles to light.

When I asked the lady concerned why she hadn't told me, I learnt that she had mentioned it to one or two people, but had been roundly told off for letting that sort of person into church, regardless of her personal safety or the safety of the church. And when I told others that this was what being a welcoming church meant, someone eventually said, 'But we don't want the wrong kind of people coming.'

'What on earth do you mean, the wrong kind of people?' I said, trying hard to keep my temper. 'Well,' they said, 'You know. People who are just coming to nick the collection, or be disrespectful'.

Iwas horrified at first, but then grateful for their honesty. I'm sure we all, in our heart of hearts, have people we are really very glad we don't have wandering into our churches. Of course, we tell ourselves we would be welcoming if they came. But I wonder, if you're really honest with yourself, who would you really, prefer NOT to welcome into your church?

A bloke who turns up topless and covered in tattoes? Baptism families who don't seem to know what's going on and talk all through the service? Someone who smells of drink and stale urine? Maybe even someone from your family, or your work, or your street who you just can't stand?

Who are you secretly glad doesn't come to your church – you love them, you know God loves them, but you'd rather you went to the church down the road thank you very much!

And imagine again: Imagine – at the end of that particularly fractious church council meeting, or even an ecumenical discussion group, Jesus walks into the room.
'What', he says, 'have you been arguing about?'

And he looks round the circle of chairs, and smiles, gently and sadly. He knows exactly what we've been arguing about, and we feel our faces go hot with embarrasment.

And then he nips out of the church door, into the street – but before you can breathe a sigh of relief, he's back, and that person – the one person you'd rather not see in your church – is firmly led in by the arm. Perhaps they're even kicking and squirming, fighting to get away. And Jesus plonks them down in the middle of the church meeting. He looks around the circle, looking each of us in the eye for a long moment.
'whoever welcomes such a person in my name', he says, 'welcomes me. And whoever welcomes me, welcomes the God who sent me.'


Monday, 6 January 2014

Accessible Baptism?

As vicar of one of the designated experimental parishes, I have been sent the draft new options for the Church of England baptism service, which have recently caused some controversy. I've been asked to use them in baptisms here until the end of April, and submit feedback. I haven't yet used them: our next baptisms, as it happens, aren't until next month. But here are my thoughts so far.

First, lets be clear that this is NOT 'a new baptism service'. It is simply a handful of alternative texts for use at particular points in the existing service. This mix and match approach to our liturgy is a fairly fundamental feature of Common Worship. Good examples are the alternative authorised eucharistic prayers, and the seasonal provisions of the Times and Seasons volume. Even if these new baptism texts do end up being authorised, nobody will have to use them if they don't like them or don't think they fit their context.

Second, I am pleased that we have them. I was on General Synod when the diocesan motion requesting such alternative provision was debated. I voted for it. Not because I dislike the current baptism service - I don't - but because I agreed that it is not written in particularly accessible English. For some people, it is great. It works well for regular churchgoers, who find moving and resonant the layers of Biblical and liturgical references. It worked fine for the not-particularly-churchy families for whom I conducted baptisms in Durham University: academic families, or graduates of the College, who were well versed in appreciating complex texts and enjoyed grand, rolling phrases even if (or perhaps sometimes because) they didn't quite understand them. It works fine for some of the families whose baptisms I have conducted here.

But not for all of them. If the average reading age of the congregation is not high, it makes sense to use simple language. And simple syntax too. For some reason, presumably in an attempt to achieve a suitably 'religious' register, some of Common Worship uses very archaic grammatical constructions, even where the vocabulary is straightforward. I do not see any value in archaisms for archaisms sake, in religion or elsewhere.

Quite often, I have found myself having to spend as much of the service explaining the service as taking it. The best one was the service when I realised all the baptism service books were in the other church, and had to improvise much of the service, safe in the knowledge that at least the child was validly baptised as I know the right words for that bit! That service went really well, and I started looking again at the words of the service, and the alternatives....

The Durham Diocesan Liturgical Committee, of which I am a member, last year approved a baptism and confirmation service for use on ecumenical occasions, when some or all of those being baptised and/or confirmed are members of joint Anglican/Methodist churches. We used it in the Cathedral service at which two boys from my parish were baptised and confirmed at Pentecost last year, and I really liked the Methodist form of the Decision which it uses.

'In baptism, God calls us out of darkness into his marvellous light.
To follow Christ means dying to sin and rising to new life with him.
Therefore I ask:

Do you turn away from all that denies the love and goodness of God?
By the grace of God, I do.

Do you turn to God, trusting in Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour and in the Holy Spirit as Helper and Guide?
By the grace of God, I do.'

 This keeps the turning from/turning to pattern of the liturgy, and in the minister's introduction keeps some traditional phraseology, but makes the questions simple and direct. I use this whenever I can, for preference.

And I must say that I am not at all keen on the alternative decision that has been proposed. However, the remainder of the texts I think are a good job. The prayer over the water is short and simple, but incorporates the 'big story' of salvation. The bullet point approach to the commission is fresh and sensible.

Many of the criticisms of the new liturgical material, it seems to me, are criticisms of the very idea of having accessible liturgy. As if baptism was meant to be a test of a family's ability to understand complex phrasing about salvation, rather than a moment at which the church welcomes and blesses their heartfelt, but perhaps only half-understood and almost entirely inarticulate desire to turn to God.

When I first came to this parish, the one stipulation I made at interview was that I could change the baptism policy. A policy had been inherited which said anyone seeking baptism for their child had to have a thanksgiving service first. This is of course actually contrary to canon law, and in practice meant many families were left baffled and indignant that their request for baptism was refused. It also takes little account of the sociological function of baptism in many families, as an occasion for celebration of the birth of a child - people were left confused as to whether they were meant to have two parties! More seriously, a great tradition of lay baptism preparation had lapsed, as the thanksgiving service had become assumed to function as preparation for baptism.

Most importantly for me, though, such a policy seems fundamentally opposed to what baptism is about theologically - welcoming adults and children alike into the body of Christ. If we baptise infants at all, it is at least partly as a sign that God's grace is freely given to all who ask for it, and does not depend on the quality of our understanding of the faith or the level of our discipleship. If it did, not only would we not baptise infants, the logical extension would be not to baptise any others unable to communicate their level of right understanding of the faith. There have been movements over the course of history to restrict baptism to 'believers' only - the most obvious contemporary example is the Baptist church. But - in no particular order - the Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Lutheran, Calvinist and Anglican traditions have always resisted such a move, precisely because infant baptism symbolises that faith is God's gift to us, not something we achieve.

Baptism is meant to be accessible. We don't have to fully understand what is happening in the sacrament - how many of us would pass that test? But at its heart, baptism is about pouring water on someone's head and saying 'I baptise you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit'. That is all that is needed for a valid baptism. So to argue that the words surrounding that are inadequate if they don't contain every element of Christian vocabulary, or don't tick every theological box, seems mean-spirited.

This is a first draft, for experimental use. It will doubtless get better as people write in with stories of what worked and what didn't. But the aim, to have elements of the service that even those of low literacy can understand, is entirely laudable.

Remember, the early church was mocked by the literate intelligentsia of its day for having such bad literature as its Gospels....