Monday, 24 June 2013

Depression: a guest post by Patrick Holroyd

Patrick Holroyd is the Reader at St Mary Magdalene, Belmont.

This is the sermon he preached on Sunday, on the healing if the demon-possessed man from Luke 8. It is so unusual to hear depression and mental illness openly discussed in Church, that several people asked us to make it more widely available.

"I am sure that you will agree with me if I say that of all the components of our bodies, our brains must be THE most wonderful. Within these God created bodies, our brain is the part which is most marvellous. Just think about it. Within our skulls lies a concentrated mass of complex biological circuitry that puts into the shade the greatest programs ever designed by Microsoft and the rest -- all put together.

Our brain is the means by which we exist. Right from conception it controls the way we have developed. It has enables us to grow both physically and spiritually. All our life’s memories are stored there, and there is the capacity to process those memories and the information we are constantly receiving throughout our lives -- to create the people we are. It is there where we connect with the world and where most joyously we come close to God and learn His Will for us.

Yes, our brain is the centre of our existence. Without its continual information processing we would die. Thankfully for the vast majority of us this work carries on unconsciously. But sadly, for some, this does not happen. For various reasons, in some people the circuitry goes awry and they fall ill. I am sure that many of us here today can think of people for whom this has happened, and for whom we are praying for God to be with them. I am particularly thinking of my niece Zoe and her family at the moment. Zoe is subject to fits and doctors are right now undertaking scans, looking at her brain to try to locate the area which is not working properly. We in the family are hoping that this can be found soon and the problem resolved, for life is very hard for her with a young family. But it is one of the miracles of today’s expanding medical knowledge that in most cases we CAN now correct such so called mental illnesses and the patient restored to a normal life. So we live in hope!

But Zoe is only one of thousands of people who have mental problems which affect their lives. Stephen Fry, for instance. This well known entertainer suffers from a severe form of depression so debilitating that he only recently was led to thinking about his future. And then there is Katharine Welby, daughter of our beloved Archbishop. She recently opened up her life to the public and has spoken of the depression which has affected her life.

  Depression IS a severe strain on people’s lives and one which leads to much drastic thinking – even about life itself. But it is NOT an illness which is untreatable. I, myself have felt its effects and can assure you that with the right treatment and support from those around, it can be controlled.

And what does our Gospel reading today, the story of a man whom Jesus cured from such an illness, tell us? Here we have someone whom `Doctor’ Luke tells us was “demon possessed”, a Biblical phrase often used to talk about afflictions of the mind. He had been thrown out of his society – who did not understand his problem – and had resorted to living in caves. So severe was his illness that he had no thought for his looks or his health. He merely existed. But though the man’s society did not understand what was going on, Jesus WAS concerned, not only to comfort him, but also to cure him. Jesus understood, as He understands and sympathizes with all those who are suffering mental problems today. He knew that the darkness of illness COULD BE REMOVED. And so in the story we see Jesus demonstrating the power He has over ALL illnesses by curing the man and symbolically causing a herd of pigs to inherit the illness and throw themselves off a cliff.

Depressive illnesses are one of today’s great medical problems. But the message I want to get over to you today is that while such illnesses are difficult, both for the sufferer and their families, they are something of which Jesus is much aware - and can share in. He has been there and has felt its effects. Think about His time in the Garden of Gethsemane on the night before He was crucified. On that night Jesus Himself felt the full darkness of depression fall on Him when, alone with His Father –-- the disciples did not understand and were asleep –-- He felt life was too much to bear and prayed for release from what He knew He had to do. But God did not do that. Instead He gave Him the support which enabled Him to get through the next day.

And it is surely one of the greatest comforts to those who are in dire distress, to know that, just as Jesus was able to ride out the despair of crucifixion as the preparation to the joy of resurrection, so we have the support of Jesus in our times of dark.

And what is more to us here at Belmont, we have in our own Mary Magdalene a potent example of the hope and joy that can come from release from the darkness brought on by illnesses of the mind. Our Patron Saint was herself cured of “seven demons” and received the supreme joy of being able to follow Jesus with lightness of heart and love of spirit. I believe that these “seven demons” of hers were some form of depressive illness, just like the man in our Gospel. And, as with the man in our story, Jesus released her from her troubles and enabled her, as Jesus told the man, to “go into the world to tell what God had done for her”.

And so how can we here in church today help in this work of healing that Jesus has so forcefully shown us this morning? We all know people who are going through hard times as far as their health is concerned. Many try to cope with the dark and lonely times. But all could do with the help of friends – friends who, like Jesus, do not criticize – who do not say “pull yourself together” - for that common reaction of society is the last thing such people want to hear. Such depressed people CANNOT pull themselves together – that is the nature of the illness. No, ill people want to have supporters who will seek them with a smile and with warm words.

Katharine Welby said in a recent interview, “God created everyone. We are all designed in His own image. That is true of a person with Autism, with Cerebral Palsy, or with Bipolar Disorder, just as much as it is with those who are free from any illness. Everyone in the world gives to the world a glimpse of God, the God who created us and gave us such different characters”. May that God give to each of us today the ability to come close to those with mental problems, the opportunity to see God working in those important lives, and to treat everyone as though we were meeting Jesus Himself?                    


Patrick Holroyd, 23.6.13

Sunday, 23 June 2013

Can trust work?

Can trust alone work for the women bishops legislation, as the House of Bishops' 'Option 1' hopes?

I am aware that many are wary of this, because they feel let down in the past, or fear the future. But trust is probably all that is left as a viable way forward, as the Bishop of Willesden argues.

I am an academic by training, and so I naturally prefer to look at evidence not simply emotions when we are making decisions.

And the evidence from this diocese, at least, is that yes, trust can indeed work.

Here is a concrete, current example.

In Durham diocese, one area is currently trying to work out what sort of 'pastoral reorganisation' might best serve the needs of a large group of parishes. The parishes and area dean are exploring options on the departure of one vicar of three parishes, and are considering appointing someone to work also across a wider part of the deanery with a pioneering or experimental brief.

Until recently, three of the churches had resolutions A, B and C. On the departure of their vicar, two of them voted to rescind all three, and the other voted to keep them. One option would of course be for the 'mainstream' parishes to go ahead with an appointment, and for the ABC parish to be served by a series of cover priests (it is unlikely to be viable for even a house for duty post on its own). However, that would risk both isolating them and resulting in a 'doughnut' solution - a group of parishes with a hole in the geographic centre. This is not what any of the parishes concerned want.

So, a couple of weeks ago, the area dean and some of the parish reps met with the Bishop of Beverley (the local ABC bishop) to discuss ways forward. Nothing is on paper yet, but reports of the meeting are that all agreed that it would be best to work together. The suggestion is that a job description be drawn up to cover all the area. In the true spirit of the aspiration to be blind to someone's gender or theological convictions about gender, this would specify that the person appointed might be male or female, resolution or not. A resolution male priest would need to be prepared to work with female priests in neighbouring parishes, and to allow women to celebrate in the non-resolution churches. A non-resolution priest would need to respect the resolution parish, and be prepared to organise suitable priests for their services and cooperate with the Bishop of Beverly.

All parties involved in that discussion are happy with this agreement.  The job ad would spell this out, and the person with the best skill-set for the job would be appointed, regardless of their gender or convictions.

I imagine some women priests, and some ABC priests, might find the conditions of collaboration hard to meet. And a readiness to collaborate will indeed be required. However, since both the Bishop of Beverley and local church leaders think this is workable, this seems a reasonable compromise.

All sides will need to compromise, and there will need to be a large degree of trust on all sides for it to work. That seems to be forthcoming.

I am sure this cannot be the only example of good practice on the ground. Most people in this debate hasten to say that they work well with those of other convictions, and my observations locally suggest this is not often mere empty rhetoric.

So lets avoid panicked glances across the Atlantic, and endless 'what if?' scenarios. The observable evidence, here, is that most people in the church are people of goodwill, and want to make this work.

So lets trust - not each other - but ourselves. We can do this: we are already doing this.

Thursday, 20 June 2013

Women Priests: The Next Generation

Yesterday, I came across an article I had nearly forgotten, written nearly 10 years ago by myself and two contemporaries from theological college. We were all contacted by the web editor of Anvil and asked for permission to put this online, so you can read it here:

 'Women Priests: The Next Generation'

As I read it, I was once again back in the JCR at St Johns College Durham, where we had this conversation. I could hear the laughter, feel again the shock of realising at theological college, where we had gone following our vocations, that we weren't universally accepted, remember the steely sense of determination. Now, I mainly feel just tired: just as we knew those who had handed the baton over to us were feeling then.

Our naivety strikes me most strongly. It is rather damning, I think, that the most striking difference between now and then is that it is inconceivable now that three young women could go to theological college and not all be aware of the strength of feeling against women's ordination in some quarters.

I remember being pilloried in New Directions (the magazine of Forward in Faith) once for saying in an interview that I hadn't realised some people still didn't accept women's ordination until I got to theological college. But its true, and it was a widespread experience. Those of us who had our vocations nurtured in our early twenties back then, by definition were in places where women's vocations were accepted and valued. Our wider experience of the rough and tumble of church misogyny and the full range of theological viewpoints (and no, I am not necessarily equating the two: think Venn diagram) came later.

And back then, there was little overlap or encounter between those of different persuasions. It is no secret - it has been openly discussed in New Directions - that the aim of Forward in Faith and the PEVs at that point was an almost entirely separate parallel church organisation.  It is perhaps a good sign that conflict is more open now: it means we are at least speaking to one another honestly.

We were realistic, I think, about the likely timescale of change. I said then that I hoped to see a few women bishops in 20 or 30 years time: that would be 10 or 20 years from now. That is still achievable, and in fact now seems rather a modest aspiration.

But it is worrying how little has changed. Much of this article could have been written last year, not nine years ago.

The issue that because women can't be bishops, they are often passed over for jobs that they are perfect for but which are seen as 'promotion track' (not by us, but by the bishops filling them), has been intractable for much of the past decade. However, there is some good news here. This has suddenly begun to shift in the last year, as the prospect of women bishops seemed imminent.

The fact that so many women (compared to the recent past, not as an overall percentage of posts) have suddenly begun to be appointed as Archdeacons, for example, suggests this analysis was spot on. As the prospect of women bishops comes closer, all women clergy are freed to be considered for the whole range of posts on their own merits. It is no longer seen as a wasting a career development opportunity to give a senior or specialist post to a woman, though other barriers of course remain. This means that women are freer to follow their vocations, which will of course - as for men - only rarely be to the episcopate.

The other thing that it was good to remember on reading this article again, was the sense of communion that we three had despite our very different church backgrounds. This was partly one of the delights of Cranmer Hall as a theological college that didn't require you to self-select by churchmanship on entry: by its very nature, as the only college in the North East, it had a broad entry and cherished this as a gift, as it still does.

But it was quite startling to read myself as saying quite clearly 'I am a Liberal'. In a way, that seems perhaps the most anachronistic line if this were written today. Churchmanship positions have become so entrenched, cultures so oppositional, that it is hard to remember feeling proud and happy to self define as a Liberal.

When did we start to be so afraid of what other church parties would think of us that we started to fudge our identity? When did liberalism become the churchmanship that dare not speak its name?After the Reading debacle perhaps?

Yet in its absence, the balance of theology has been destabilised, and a certain rigour in seeking intellectual clarity has been lost. We could see this clearly in some of the disgracefully theologically incoherent speeches made in November.

In November, I joined Modern Church. It is in some ways a very dated organisation, but liberal theology needs a voice. I will be writing on what modern liberalism is for their journal, Modern Believing (of which I am now on the editorial board), at the beginning of next year. Seeing this piece of history has reminded me of why that is important.

St Mary Magdalene

In connection with the Lindisfarne Gospels exhibition in Durham this summer, our church is organising a Gospels art project with local schools. As we are St. Mary Magdalene, Belmont, we have set the challenge of making illuminated manuscript versions of the stories in the Gospels that mention Mary Magdalene.

The children at all the local primary schools are getting involved, and I am going in to talk to them about Mary Magdalene, and also about the history of illuminated manuscripts from the Lindisfarne Gospels onwards.

This powerpoint is the one I used in assembly today, to introduce the story of Mary Magdalene. We looked at all the Gospel readings that mention her, and concluded that she is a great example of discipleship. As members of a church named after her, we seek to be people healed by God; faithful followers and supporters of Jesus; witnesses to Jesus' death and resurrection; and people who spread the good news.

Monday, 17 June 2013

Godly Play: Creation

The first time I ever saw Godly Play - the story of the Good Shepherd, at an IME 4-7 (curate training) event in Newcastle diocese - I was hooked.

Godly Play is a Montessori-inspired way of telling Bible stories, the idea being that they are translated not into another language, but into 3D. Little wooden figures, sand boxes for the desert, green felt to represent the world or a meadow.

The Godly Play creation story is done using 7 cards showing the 7 days of creation in stylised form, with felt collage, on a background of black or navy felt. I made this set several years ago, when I was a curate, and used it in Sunday School and at a school Bible story lunchtime club that a friend and I ran.

Tomorrow I am doing an assembly on Creation at the local infants school, and wanted to use this set. But it is relatively small, so hard for 100 little ones to see (ideal audience size is probably 6-12). So I decided to use an accompanying Powerpoint presentation on the interactive whiteboard. However, I couldn't find any images of the cards on a Google Image search, so I have taken my own. Do feel free to use them under Creative Commons if they would be helpful for you.

This is the original Godly Play book that I use; there is also a whole range now available. I know the Durham and Newcastle diocesan resources center have a good set, and I imagine they are widely available.

For copyright reasons I shan't give the full text here, but in summary:

1. You start with a box: mine is covered in rainbow paper!

2. Opening the box, the first thing you take out is a long piece of dark felt: you unroll this (and - my favourite bit - trace the outline of God's smile on it!).

3. The cards are presented and placed in turn:

4. Finally, you ask the 'I wonder' questions: I wonder which is your favourite day? Could we do without any of the days? etc.

If you want to use them in your own presentation etc, here are the images:

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Vision and Generosity: a dedication festival sermon

Sermon for St Giles Durham Dedication Festival, 9th June 2013

The first reading today (1 Chronicles 29.6-19) celebrates the vision and generosity of the Israelites who first built the Temple. It seems particularly appropriate today, as we celebrate the generosity and vision of those long ago ancestors of ours who established and dedicated this church, to the glory of God and as a place of mission to and hospitality for pilgrims approaching Durham.
That passage from Chronicles emphasises the long term: 901 years doesn't seem out of  place! And the writer grounds the intergenerational vision and generosity that is described in a clear sense of perspective.

First, there is a very realistic sense of perspective about time, God's time, and our mortality. We are just 'aliens and transients before you', David says. It reminds me of that lovely passage from Bede about our life on this earth being like a bird flying through the length of the king's banqueting hall. And there are echoes of the passage that we often read at funerals:

Our days are like the grass;
We flourish like a flower of the field:
When the wind goes over it , it is gone,
And its place will know it no more.
But the merciful goodness of the Lord endures
For ever and ever.

Those who are giving so generously to build God's temple can do so first because they see clearly that they are transient, but they are building something much bigger than themselves. It wont last for ever - the Temple isn't God - but it will long outlast them.

Secondly, this sense of perspective is rounded out, made three dimensional. A true sense of perspective about us and God isn't just about time, stretching off into the distance with us at one point on the line. It is also about the whole of life now.

You might imagine a graph, with the bottom x axis stretching off across the page from those first Israelites, through 0 AD and the events of Jesus' life, past the foundation of this church, past us and long into the future. But there is also the upwards y axis: all of life going on at each of those times. And David's speech grounds their generosity in a clear sense of realism and perspective about this axis too. Its not just that God will be around for a lot longer than us: its that a proper sense of perspective recognises that everything there is, is already God's. As David says here, and as we often repeat at the offertory in our own services, 'all things come from you, and of your own have we given you'.

The ability to be generous in doing what seems right comes from a clarity of perspective. An understanding and way of seeing the world in its right proportions, that knows we don't have our money, or our gifts, or our time except, ultimately, because of God's generosity to us. Our earning potential, our intellectual gifts or physical strength or craftsmans skill, our health that means we can use those gifts, even the common sense that enables us to live within our means: these are not within our control, except in the most trivial ways. We can choose how and whether we use those gifts, but we cant give them to ourselves. Truly, all that we have comes from God. As David says, giving generously to God is a way of acknowledging both our gratitude, and our understanding that that is how things really are.

Thirdly, there is a lovely sense of perspective about future generations in this reading. The Israelites are giving not for something they will see, but something that they are trusting will be for their children and grandchildren. David isn't even planning to build the temple himself: that is a task he will be entrusting to his son Solomon.

Questions of the responsibility we have for future generations, and intergenerational justice, are very current at the moment. From pensions to house prices, benefits to the environment, many of the most difficult issues facing us and our politicians are about how much current generations are responsible for the future. Or how much those who have done well out of periods of economic growth in the  past, with generous pensions and houses that have rocketed in value, should subsidise those who are not so fortunate.

We thank God today for vision and generosity of those long ago who dedicated this church for the benefit of unimaginable future generations, and for those who have rebuilt, extended, reordered and maintained it over the centuries.

But as we celebrate today the generosity and vision of our ancestors in founding and maintaining this church - both as a building and as a worshipping and learning and growing community - the question for us is what we are going to build for future generations. How much responsibility do we have to ensure that there is still a Christian presence in Durham in 10, 20, 50, 100 years time?

This is a very practical question for churches in Durham now, as it is a year after Bishop Justin established the new parish share system. You'll remember that now, instead of the diocese telling us how much it needs from each church to keep the work of each parish going, each church tells the diocese what it is going to give. And this month, we need to decide what our offers are for next year. Are we going to grudgingly give as little as  we think we can get away with? Or as much as we think the diocese needs? Or as much as we can spare? Or can we bring ourselves to be as generous and visionary as David and the Israelites, giving all of our abundance - everything we have that is excess, luxury - to God?

The measure of generosity that Chronicles puts before us is eyeopening. The question there is not 'how much do we need to give?', but 'has anyone got anything unnecessary left?' Do any of you have any jewellery left? Any gold rings or sapphire earrings? Who has enough money in the bank to be going on holiday abroad this year, or be planning a cruise in the next year or two? Do you really value the church being here? How much?

We are here this morning saying we are quite grateful for it - but how much do we really value it? Are we just quite pleased to have it, maybe prepared as necessary to keep this one going for ourselves and our community? Or do we believe with all our hearts that this is something wonderful and lifechanging, that should be available both for future generations, and for those less fortunate than ourselves across the diocese in this generation?

When the people of Israel were fundraising to build a new temple, it would, no doubt, have been seriously embarrassing for someone to go out in public wearing diamond earrings after that. Why had they kept them back for themselves? That, of course, is part of the difficulty for us now: our peer pressure doesn't just come from members if the church, but from friends and colleagues and neighbours operating on what should be a very different scale of values. How different would things be if we were embarrassed to wear valuable jewellery? Ashamed to be seen driving a car newer than four or five years old. Furtive and embarrassed about booking a cruise, because we knew, and so did everyone else, that that money could b working for God?

Durham diocese would not be keeping six clergy posts vacant to save money this year. We wouldn't be debating whether or not we can afford to rise to the challenge of adopting more church schools and sponsoring church academies. We wouldn't have people in our parish who never got a clergy visit, or schools that only got a Christian assembly once a month, once a term, or never. There wouldn't be villages in the rural areas who have closed their churches, and are sharing one vicar between five, six or more parishes. Justin wouldn't have said that if things go on as they are, the diocese of Durham will be bankrupt in ten years time.

In our two New Testament readings this morning, the physical temple is redefined as the body of Christ.

The whole of our church - buildings and people and institution - is built on the foundation of Jesus's resurrection. His body, destroyed on the cross, was rebuilt in three days at the resurrection. And as in our church year  we have passed through Easter season, and the remembrance of Christ's ascension and the coming of the Holy Spirit, we are now in the months when we reflect on what it means for us to now be the constituent parts of that rebuilt temple, the body of Christ.

So I invite you to ask yourself very seriously: what exactly are we celebrating this morning? What exactly were our ancestors doing when they established and dedicated this church 901 years ago? And what is our response, as individuals, and as a church, as we decide how much we value the church? let us pray for the grace to be as faithful and as generous and as clear sighted in our perspective, as those we remember today.

Saturday, 1 June 2013

Authority: a sermon*

I wonder how the word authority makes you feel? I guess it makes some of us squirm, some feel secure, some feel trapped, some feel important. 

It is one of those words where context is all, isnt it? Authority. It can mean everything from bureaucracy to justice, security to tyranny, expertise to abuse.

We all rely on authority every day, one way or another. At perhaps the more trivial level, we use it in conversation and gossip: I have it on good authority.... as a conversational gambit.
Do you remember when sat navs were still relatively new, and there was a spate of lorry drivers getting stuck in tiny Devon villages, or grounding out in fords? We rely on the authority of maps, and get very annoyed when they are inaccurate; or laugh when someone else follows them too blindly without using any common sense; or have our hearts in our mouths when someone nearly dies because of a map reading error or mistaken instructions.

We rely on the authority of experts or supposed experts for much of our day to day lives. Im sure I cant be the only person who buys at least one guide book to the area whenever I am about to go on holiday, and then relies on the authority of the guide book authors to tell me what to do, where to eat, what I mustnt miss. And how annoyed I get if the guide book messes up! If Im outside a museum and the book said it was closed on a Monday but its now Tuesday and the doors are firmly locked, I take it as a personal affront how dare the guide book waste my time and risk ruining my holiday by getting it wrong!
We rely on the authoritative ingredients list on the back of the food packet to tell us whether the food contains something we are allergic to or not and many people would be prepared to sue if the packaging company got that wrong.

In fact, so many of our current scandals are at root about authorities not being trustworthy, that it is not surprising if we are ambivalent about authority. The Leveson enquiry showed us that not only could we not rely on the authority of our newspapers, we couldnt even rely on the honesty of their authorities information we assumed they had come by legitimately could have been tapped from a dead girls phone, or bought from a crooked cop. The MPs expenses scandal showed that we couldnt rely on the people who are meant to be guaranteeing the rule of law, on which all of our safety and security rests, to not be using our money to enrich themselves. The various banking scandals weve endured showed us that we couldnt rely on the banks to be solvent, to be safe places for our money, to keep our pensions safe, or even to know where their money was. We can no longer rely on authoritative pronouncements about the economy and prevailing interest rates, as we now know that these can be fixed between the banks for their own profit. We cant even trust beef to be beef.
The Bible is as ambivalent about authority certainly about human authority as we are. Its rather less ambivalent about Gods authority, but even there the writers explore how different human beings might react to Gods authority, or know about it, or learn to trust it given how flawed so many of our experiences of human authority are. All three of this mornings readings highlight and reflect on different aspects of what Gods authority means for us.

Lets look at the gospel reading first. At least three different kinds of authority are explored here.

First, the centurion chooses with care the people that he sent to Jesus asking for a cure for his ill slave. He chose Jewish elders, people with authority in the Jewish community that he is asking for help from. And when those elders get to Jesus, they spend some time giving the centurion a character reference, telling Jesus that he is someone they vouch for. He is worth helping, they say: and their authority for saying this is based on solid evidence: he is good to the Jews, and has demonstrated that by paying for the building of a new synagogue. Here, authority is based on reputation and esteem the speaker is authoritative, he is an authority and on evidence.

 Secondly, and at the heart of this passage, notice what that centurion says to amaze Jesus. For I also am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me. The key word here, the one that amazes Jesus and makes him exclaim at the centurions unique faith, is under. It is of course true, when you think about it, that authority over others is normally hierarchical, part of a system of authority with people above you and beneath you. If you are a manager, or a teacher, or a sports captain, or an army sergeant major, you have authority to direct the actions of others because a higher power has given you that authority. If people ignore your orders, they are answerable not just to you but higher up the chain of command.
Authority over others usually comes from being under authority ourselves. So the centurions statement is not simply about Jesuss power to command: it is a recognition that Jesuss power comes from God. In his simple, direct army analogy, the centurion makes a clear and unambiguous statement of faith in Jesus.

Thirdly, though, the reading doesnt end there. It ends with those who had been sent returning to the house and finding the slave in good health. So thirdly, authority is found in proof, or rather in corroborative evidence. The story wouldnt mean much if the slave hadnt, in fact, been healed. This is authority as the proof of the pudding or, as the Bible puts it more eloquently, taste and see. This, incidentally, is one way in which the long-running debate about whether science and religion are incompatible misses the point. The Bible positively encourages us to experiment and to assess the results.

This try it out and see for yourself approach to authority is also the emphasis of the first reading from 1 Kings. So too is the fact that in practice, our actions and beliefs are based fist of all on supposedly authoratative hearsay. Solomon prays to God that when a foreigner, hearing of Gods great reputation when the foreigner, on the authority of rumours and travellers' tales - comes to see for himself whether this God of Israel matches up to his billing, that God will answer his prayers, giving the final evidence that yes, this God is the real thing all right. Gods action will be the definitive authority, and will convince all who experience it.

Paul, in todays reading from Galatians, is in something of a dilemma over this. On the one hand, he is convinced that God spoke to him directly, in that amazing Road to Damascus conversion, and gave him the definitive gospel message which he is dutifully and busily passing on. On the other hand, he is so furious that others are corrupting that message that he insists here that nobody else, not even him, not even God,  can do something similar again. Even if I even if an angel from heaven told you something different, let them be accursed! Even by the standards of rabbinic exaggeration for effect, cursing an angel, a messenger of God, if they were to dare to bring a new message is a bit extreme.

Pauls outburst could be read as saying something about the authority of scripture. But of course, we need to bear in mind that scripture as we know it didnt exist at that point. When Paul says the gospel he means what I told you about Jesus. Remember?’ And when he says I did not receive it from a human source, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ we are back where we started. Pauls authority is grounded in the fact that he is utterly convinced that what he is saying was told to him by God.

The letter to the Galatians is urgent and impassioned it really matters, Paul is sure, that they get this right and he is distraught that the church he started, that was running well, is now going off the rails. He is in full flow telling people off, and he doesnt stop to consider that he was equally certain that he was doing the right thing, the thing God commanded, when he was busily engaged in persecuting the early church.

However, Paul has calmed down somewhat by the end of the letter, and once again the theme of evidence, the proof of the pudding, comes to the fore. The whole letter builds to a crescendo as Paul offers the concept of the fruits of the Spirit as a guiding ethical principle. the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self control. There is no law against such things. 

The proof of the pudding is whether whatever you are doing, whatever you are believing, produces such fruit. Paul of course is no liberal he cant conceive that any teaching other than that he has given them could possibly produce such fruit. He tells them very firmly what to believe, and what to do, in the circumstances he has heard about. But his own experience has taught him that we cant rely on the religious formulations and traditions of yesterday. And Paul knows that the church he is writing to will face in the future all sorts of trials and questions he cant imagine. By the time his letter has arrived, they may well have lurched on to the next crisis. He will have to trust that this guiding principle, this litmus test, will pull them through.

Our faith, our lives, are built on a messy combination of different kinds of half-trusted authorities. Even when we dont trust the authorities the banks, the supermarkets, the MPs, the papers we have to rely on them for our day to day functioning. And the more we trust the people that tell us about something, the more we trust the information they tell us enough to base our actions on it. Whether that is wearing short sleeves because the weather forecast said it would be sunny, or trying a restaurant because a friend said they had a good meal there, to risking faith because we trust the accumulated wisdom of the centuries. But ultimately, we make our decisions based on our experiences of those actions. One too many weather forecast failures and we carry a mac everywhere we go. If we like the food, we go there again and are more likely to rate that friends recommendations in future. If we meet God, in prayer, worship, sacrament and friendship, we carry on doing what we were doing, and trust the Bible or our traditions more because they have been tested and found reliable.

In my first job at Proctor & Gamble I was responsible for doing quite a few marketing mailshots. We often included a money off coupon or a free sample to encourage people to try our products, from nappies to washing powder. The wisdom was that if the product was noticeably better than the alternatives, it was worth sending a free sample, even though that was by far the most expensive option. Because people would try it, see it was the best, and be far more likely to buy it after that experience. If you couldnt really tell the difference, then a free sample was pointless.

God is confident enough in his love and in the deep joy that knowing about God brings, to encourage us to give it a go. The ultimate authority of anything rests in our experience of it: today's readings are clear-eyed about that. The Bible writers know that the practical test of  whether authority measures up to experience applies to faith as much as to anything else in life, and they are confident that God will live up to that test. 

Authority is ultimately only worth anything if it is recognised as such by others. The centurion recognised it in Jesus. Paul recognised it in that voice on the road. Solomon recognised it in answered prayer. Let us pray that we will recognise it when we see it.

* For 2nd June 2013: Lectionary Readings 1 Kings 8:22-3, 41-3; Galatians 1:1-12; Luke 7:1-10.