Thursday, 11 December 2014

Christmas Day Gloria

Gloria for Christmas Day (tune: Ding Dong Merrily on High)

Glory! Merrily on high
In heaven the bells are ringing;
Glory! Verily the sky
Is riven with angels singing.
Gloria, Hosanna in Excelsis….

Peace to all throughout the earth
From heaven in the highest
Worship, thankfulness and praise
We sing to God our Father.
Gloria, Hosanna in Excelsis….

Jesus, Only Son of God
Our Lord and Lamb, Messiah,
Mercy, take away our sin,
And hear the prayer we offer.
Gloria, Hosanna in Excelsis….

Saturday, 29 November 2014

Advent Eve: Review of the Year

I saw a tweet this evening that suggested that, at the end of a liturgical year, we should take stock spiritually of the year that is coming to an end. This has been quite a year, so here goes:


This time last year, I was crying down the phone to a friend, feeling useless as a mother, a priest and a person. I was working too hard, and had very nearly burnt out.

The last straw was being told off by my son's secondary school for not making sure he did his homework. 'In what time is this meant to happen?' I thought. 'In the hour and a half between picking up the younger ones from after school club and going to an evening appointment? That hour and a half when I also have to get tea, do the washing, and normally shout at the kids because I'm also frantically trying to print out the papers for PCC, or prepare the materials for a baptism prep session?'

I couldn't see how I was meant to do my job and be a parent, especially if doing the homework of three kids - or standing over them to make sure they did the homework - was also part of my job description. Was I going to have to resign to be a decent mother?

I struggled through Christmas, and then completely hit the wall in February. After a few sessions with a counsellor, I have made some sort of peace with my inner child, and got rather better at pacing myself. I've realised that a large part of the problem was adjusting from the pace of university life (10 weeks of exhausting sprinting, followed by four or five weeks of recuperation) to parish life (you don't get the recuperation breaks, so you have to go at a steadier pace). I was working at the sprint level - anything else seemed lazy - and was simply exhausted.

Now, at the cusp of a new liturgical year, I hope I am better at pacing myself for the long haul. I think so. I'm also better at dealing with criticism - kindly receiving it, and then laying it at Jesus' feet rather than taking it into myself and letting it eat away at me.

Spiritually, the experience has made me much more conscious of my total reliance on God. Psalm 23 - 'thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me' - has a new, deeper resonance for me now: I imagine myself walking across the hills relying on God's walking poles! 'With the help of God, I will'.

In the wider church:

The other thing that has shaped the year for me has been the final stages of the Women Bishops saga. This time last year, we were beginning to be hopeful that this new version of the legislation might actually get through Synod in a reasonable timescale. Just a year later, I can hardly believe that long, exhausting journey is finally over. (Well, nearly - we haven't actually had a woman appointed yet...).

July was great - tears of joy, and of relief, in equal measure. It felt like a weight being lifted from my shoulders when that vote went through - at last, no need to fight for this any more! The promulgation in November was much lower-key, a legal formality, but still a good moment.

But all this has brought a new and unexpected source of stress - I had no idea how draining all the speculation about who might be the first women bishops would be! I also had no idea that any of that would involve me personally. It seems ridiculous that people are naming me as a potential candidate - I know I am not on any official lists - but what was initially rather amusing is now becoming a serious embarrassment.

When the legislation first went through in July, a male colleague tweeted that he was pleased women priests would now have all the hassle men have with well-meaning parishioners asking if they were about to become a bishop, and I thought he was joking! But every woman priest I know has been saying the same thing in recent weeks, and it is all getting rather wearing.

Still, that is a small price to pay for the feeling of having played some small part in the major achievement of the Church of England opening all three orders of ministry to women on equal terms to men - hallelujah!

Spiritually, this is making me reflect on the nature of vocation afresh, and reminding me of my initial sense of calling to be a priest. Looking back on that initial experience from the perspective of twenty years later, is proving really interesting.

In the parish:

In the parish, I will remember this as the year of thinking and working on the concept of Shared Ministry. The best meetings of the year have been the evenings I've spent with the small task force convened to plan how best to go about implementing a Shared Ministry plan.

We prayed together, planned together, dreamed dreams together, and went about things slowly and steadily (NOT my natural modus operandi!), and we are finally being commissioned by Bishop Paul as a Shared Ministry Parish next week.

Spiritually, this has been a wonderfully affirming experience: I think we all felt the Spirit moving and guiding us in our meetings together, and I feel excited about what is to come as I begin to work with the new Shared Ministry Development Team that has been called.

What a year! I will remember it with exhaustion, with head-shaking wonder, and with - I hope - quiet satisfaction that it was a year that laid really solid foundations in God for the growth that came in later years.

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

The Diversity Debate: Evolutionary Theology?

Last week I took part in one of the Oxford Faith Debates: 'What kind of unity is appropriate, nationally and internationally? How can diversity become a strength?'

You can listen to a podcast of the debate here:

Oxford Faith Debate on Diversity

My main points were:

1. 'Diversity' is a value-laden term. We use the word diversity to refer to differences that are morally neutral or good, differences we are prepared to tolerate or want to celebrate (and it often has a mildly patronising undertone). We don't use the term 'diversity' for differences that we consider unacceptable. We can conjugate this:

I am different, I stand out from the crowd. 
You are diverse; you bring interesting colour and variation to the scene. 
He is deviant. 

2. The Biblical images of diversity-in-unity - a vineyard, a body, a building - are all about unity of PURPOSE, or FUNCTION, rather than any more abstract idea of unity. The best example of this in the churches in recent times is perhaps the Jubilee 200) campaign. We may best find unity in action rather than belief?

3. The second part of the question provides us with the direction for answering the first. Diversity becomes a strength when it produces resilience, adaptation, flexibility. So the kind of unity that is appropriate is one that facilitates resilience etc. 

4. In agricultural terms (following on from all those biblical vineyard and field metaphors), diversity is opposed to monoculture. Using the insights of evolutionary biology (if God has chosen to create the world using the medium of evolution, God is presumably in favour of it as a method), Bio-diversity is generally seen as a strength because it is more resilient to changing conditions. I wonder if we can understand theology (and indeed culture), as well as biology, as evolving? If so, this would involve random mutations and a certain amount of adaptation to niches. The current clashes between theologies that have adapted to different niches around the world and within cultures might be analagous to the threat to biodiversity that human expansion is causing. 

I only had 5 minutes so I didn't say this: The future is uncertain - do we artificially preserve strands of theology that would otherwise die out in a 'survival of the fittest' battle, rather like the captive breeding of pandas or the preservation of steam trains? On the other hand, are we happy to simply allow theology red in tooth and claw to fight it out and let the collateral damage take care of itself? 

Can we learn from biological models? And can we step back enough from our own interests and beliefs to think about what might make for a resilient church?

The concept of 'mutual flourishing' draws on this bio-diversity model. It is in danger of being hijacked and turned into 'my right to demand what I say I need for my own flourishing': but it is still, I think, a concept that has some promise here. Ideally, it would result in something like 'three sisters' agriculture, in which all three crops flourish better and crop better as a result of being grown together. This doesn't work, of course, if the other crops are poisonous, or if their growth stunts our own: not any three crops can be grown together!

One person, in conversation after the debate, pointed out that what we all skated around was fear: fear of being threatened, fear of being the one to be stunted, fear of competition, and fear, I think, of the soteriological implications of all this.

Because the big question if we use an evolutionary model for theological diversity is: does it matter if we are right? Evolution inevitably produces dead ends as well as adaptation, since it is driven by random mutation. If we take the idea that God works through evolution seriously, what does that mean for salvation? Either we need to go for a Calvinist double-predestination, or we need to accept that being on the right end of evolution (biological or theological) isn't necessary for salvation. Food for thought?

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

5 Things I miss about being Laity

Don't get me wrong, being a priest is wonderful. It's a privilege, its an awesome vocation, and it is quite a responsibility to live up to. (I've always been very grateful that the vows at the ordination service are couched not as 'Yup, I will totally nail that' but as 'With the help of God, I will'.)

But there are always some things you miss about your old life when you change it, aren't there?
Here, in no particular order, are five things I miss about being a member of the laity:

1. Kneeling to receive communion.
              I guess this may vary from church to church, but wherever I've been I have usually been the only priest 'up front', and it is therefore me who is presiding. Sometimes I receive communion from a server, and sometimes I may even get to kneel, but I miss the experience of going up the altar rails and kneeling down and receiving communion as a guest rather than the host. In my last job I used to nip across to the cathedral for a lunchtime eucharist once or twice a week, but even just being a couple of miles further out that stops being a practical option. Very occasionally I have been able to do this in my own church, and it is wonderful. But even with only two churches, it is surprisingly rare.

2. Distributing the chalice.
            Staying with communion for now. As a lay person, I loved being on the chalice rota. There is something about it - the silver of the cup, the lights reflected in the deep red of the wine, the careful attentiveness to the communicants that is needed to see how each one intends to handle taking the cup and whether you are pouring too much down their throat or not letting them get to the wine if you are tipping it yourself - that speaks deep within me. But in big church services, the convention is that the priest distributes the bread, while the lay chalice assistants do the wine. I secretly love the tiny little services that mean I get to do the wine too!

3. Being able to miss things.
            OK, this and the next one on the list are more about being the vicar than being a priest per se. But as a lay person, even when I was very involved in the church - on PCC, on deanery synod, or when my husband was a churchwarden, for example - if we were on holiday, or ill, we simply didn't attend the meetings that happened that week, and other people did the stuff that was needed. Or if we really didn't fancy a particular church social event, or were knackered after work that day, we didn't go. As a priest-on-the-staff, though, that just doesn't seem to be acceptable. If I am on holiday, the meeting gets rearranged for a week when I am free. If I have a headache, I go to the pie 'n' pea supper anyway. This is exhausting.

4. Having a staycation.
          Living in a vicarage is many things, some good, some bad. One of the really, really bad ones is not being able to have a holiday in your own home. Maybe some people manage it, but I find it really hard to switch off, even if I shut the study door (which isn't really practical if I want to do anything else that uses the computer, like write my novel, or google the opening times of an attraction). The whole house is a symbol of my work. A holiday in it is not really a holiday. This is tough on the rest of the family, who would love to just lounge around at home - it is also tough on the budget, as holiday cottages are expensive if you use them for 5 or 6 weeks of the year!

5. Using my gifts and talents in the church.
          But aren't I doing? Well, sort of, yes. But being a lay person meant I could really be me in the church - I wasn't responsible for a whole raft of stuff getting done, with any personal flourishes being an add-on at best. As a lay person, I did what I did well - ran a massive community passion play for the millenium, or a parish panto, for example. As a priest, anything I do that I am doing because I am me seems to instantly draw accusations of being distracted from my 'real job'. Even if I do it in my day off, or in my (theoretically) one-free-session-in-three-per-day, it is seen as time that I clearly could have spent visiting more people, or doing more church stuff, since I was 'free'. I particularly resent the (often well-meant) line 'Oh, we know you can't do more, you've got a family': the implication being that if I didn't, I should be working 24/6 for the parish. I try to tell myself that the point of being ordained was to set me, in all my particularity, aside for God. But I miss the freedom to be myself for God that I probably never fully appreciated when I was a layperson.

What about you?

Saturday, 8 November 2014

Magic, Sparkle & Penguins: Some thoughts on Christmas Ads

I've just watched the M&S Christmas ad on twitter - #followthefairies. And yesterday I watched the John Lewis 'Monty the penguin'ad. I'm a vicar, so perhaps I should be railing about the fact that they don't once mention Jesus, the nativity, or even peace on earth and goodwill to all?

In fact, both brought a tear to my eyes. Yes, I am that soppy. And that is of course exactly what was meant to happen to someone who is solidly part of the ABC1 middle-aged comfortably well-off target market of both retailers.

Its an interesting phenomenon, this ad-designed-explicitly-to-go-viral-on-social-media genre. As someone who used to work in brand management and commissioned a few TV adverts in my time, I can make a guess at the huge resources that have been put behind these mini-epics.  And I admire them as pieces of creative work, and - yes - very good marketing campaigns designed to make us spend more. I'm not going to knock them for that - its their job.

But what of the 'real meaning of Christmas'? What of Jesus' birth?

Perhaps most important for us who try, in the church, to communicate to these same people the message of Christmas - WHY did those ads make me cry? What bit of me were they touching?

(I am deliberately stepping back from the next question hovering on the tip of my tongue, and perhaps on yours - how can we exploit that ourselves? Because if we move from 'yuck, how can people simply use Christmas as a commercial opportunity to exploit?' to 'how we can use those ideas to exploit it ourselves?' we are on a very slippery slope indeed. Let's not go there today.)

But my main reaction to those ads was NOT outrage, or annoyance, or dissatisfaction. It was a tearful sentimentality, a sense of joy and upliftedness. And yet I'm a Christian - I'm a vicar, whose job is to get people to think of Christ at Christmas. Should I be embarrassed to have been so manipulated? Should I be condemning these ads?

Actually, I don't think so. Lovely as it would be if such major advertising budgets happened to publicise my own agenda at the same time as their own, telling people the Christmas story is our job as Christians, not the job of the M&S or John Lewis advertising agencies.

In fact, I think I'd be more concerned if one of those ads used the nativity for its own purposes. Wouldn't you? That would cause more of a problem for us, I think - and I give them credit for probably having thought that one through, and decided it would be unethical to use the sacred story of a religion for their own ends.

So why was I moved? In the John Lewis ad - #MontyThePenguin - the bit that got me was the end, when the little boy is revealed to be so pleased to have received another penguin soft toy, almost exactly the same as the one he already has. OK, OK, it is about buying more stuff for the kids that they don't 'need'. But I have a little boy like that, whose best present ever would be another teddy bear, identical to the one he has, because he loves it so much. Its not really about endless stuff its about knowing your child, and giving them the one thing that will really delight them. Its the thought that counts.

The M&S ad is a lot more cold-bloodedly commercial, and rather less moving for that. But the moment at the end when the fairies switch off the TV and avert the incipient tantrum by making it snow is every middle-class parent's dream - and the little bit of romcom at the end was the perfect finishing touch.

So yeah, I'm completely soppy, easily manipulated, and LOVE Christmas - magic, sparkle, penguins, the lot. And do you know what? I think all that cultural excitement around our Christian celebration helps, rather than hinders, our proclamation.

They aren't doing our job for us - but they are doing a very good job of building the excitement, the anticipation, of Advent for us.

People want magic, sparkle, sentiment; they want their children to be happy; they want joy, anticipation, a sense that the humdrum everyday is not all that life is about.

If we can't build on that to make our message heard, we need to look closely at what we are doing as churches, rather than moan about the warm-up act.

Last year someone came to my church for Christmas, and admitted slightly embarrassed to just be there for that one day that she came because you do Christmas properly. I think that was one of the highest compliments Ive ever received.

So I hope we dont hear a lot of Christian grumbling about the commercialisation of Christmas this year. (If you want to grumble, do something practical instead match your spend on Christmas with your giving to a charity like Christian Aid).

Instead, lets concentrate on doing Christmas properly. Celebrate, tell the story, show how that magic/sparkle/joy (Ok, perhaps we cant offer penguins) isnt just a commercial confection for one day only, but is available to us all because of what happened that first Christmas.

Thursday, 23 October 2014

Women in the Episcopate Bill gains Royal Assent

It has just been announced in the House of Lords that the Queen has given Royal Assent to the bill that will open the episcopate to women.

Suddenly, things seem to be moving quickly. The only formal step remaining is for the General Synod of the Church of England to promulge the legislation (on November 17th), and from that date women will be eligible for appointment as bishops.

This is great news, and will enable the Church of England to choose from a much wider pool of talented and experienced candidates, which should make it much easier both to find bishops who are the right fit for each post, and to ensure that the College and House of Bishops as a whole includes a wider range of the skills, experiences and specialisms that we need as a Church.

Will there be tokenistic appointments? This is a fear that is regularly expressed - both by men and women. I think it is extremely unlikely. And this is even though the bottleneck of highly qualified and experienced women is so large that it would be possible for the next 10 or 20 appointments of bishops to all be women without it being a question of anything other than finding the right person for the job.

In practice, though, the way the appointments process works for bishops tends to produce compromise candidates. Certain groups within the process can effectively exercise a veto over anyone they find uncongenial, or fear others may find uncongenial. Some members of the Central Crown Nominations Commission are opposed to the ordination of women. And there is a fear around in at least some dioceses that 'if we appoint a woman, she will spend all her time having to be the token woman bishop at national events and won't have enough time to devote to us, her diocese'.

I hope and pray - and I know I am not alone in this - that at least two or three women will be appointed in fairly swift succession, if only to relieve the pressure on 'the first'. But each appointment will need to be made on its own merits, and so this may not happen.

I also hope and pray that when the first, second, third, fourth or fifth woman is made a bishop, people will be able to restrain themselves from diminishing her by asking sniping questions about whether she was a token appointment. Remember, there is that bottleneck of talent.

Finally, I hope and pray that male clergy and their friends will be willing to restrain themselves from bitterly asking whether their own 'promotion prospects' have been harmed by 'political correctness'. It is a truth rarely acknowledged in all this process that yes, of course, the chances of a man becoming a bishop will be diluted when the pool is widened. But I hope we can all see that as a cause for rejoicing in the widened pool, rather than complaining about the changed perspective that makes us seem slightly smaller fish.

Saturday, 18 October 2014

Church of England Branding Guidelines: No more '3 Men in A Row' Pictures Please!

I've been embroiled in a bit of an argument on Twitter today. The new diocese of WYAD has just consecrated its two new bishops, which is brilliant news. But the picture that was posted in 'celebration' of this was rather dull, and I said so (its been changed on their website now: see the current selection of pics here (much better!).

The ensuing debate got rather heated. In being exasperated with yet another Three-Men-In-A-Row picture, I was accused of wanting 'tokenism' (dragging a woman in kicking and screaming - as if there obviously wouldn't be a woman who merited inclusion on her own terms); or even of being derogatory to the ministry of these new bishops. 'Isn't their ministry worth celebrating?' someone asked. Of course. And better pictures would make it look so much more celebratory.

Back in September, I made the same point when Chelmsford Cathedral tweeted this picture of the new bishops of Barking and Colchester about to be installed:

I tweeted back in some exasperation at such a dull image - asking where were the women? Now this was of course partly influenced by our history as a church over the past couple of years: the fact that all the new bishops at the moment are indeed men is a bit of a sore point, and pictures like this had been rubbing salt into that wound for some time.

To do them credit, the volunteer who runs the @CCathedral twitter feed responded immediately with some lovely other photos of the event. My favourite - which showed the new bishops meeting some of the congregation, and included black and white, children and adults - is no longer on their website, but this one was the other that he or she tweeted then:

It is still a formal shot of a formal event, but it is much more engaging, don't you agree? 

My point is this. That second picture is no less 'real' than the first. It wasn't taken as a token gesture, and it includes the people it does because they were the people who were there. But the photographer didn't think to include this picture at first, because the other is the conventional image chosen in these circumstances. Only when asked to think about the idea of some branding guidelines - trying to include some diversity in the pictures chosen for press releases - did s/he pick this picture. 

So I think we should, as a church, hold ourselves to some self-imposed branding guidelines in the pictures we choose to publicise ourselves to the world with. Examples might be: all pictures should, where possible, include at least one of both men and women, or young and old, or different colours.

The idea is certainly not be to create an artificial image of the church, but to make us look afresh at the very real church we have, and choose pictures that show her as her bright, vibrant, welcoming, real self. 

Even though our bishops are all men at the moment, they are part of a wonderfully diverse church: let's show that, to properly celebrate and affirm their, and our, ministry.

Thursday, 4 September 2014

On Fire without Burning Out

What do the disciples at Pentecost have in common with Moses?  They both encountered flames that set something on fire, but without burning it up. 

Last Sunday I kicked off a sermon series on the book of Acts, and on the concept of Shared Ministry, by looking at Acts chapter 2.  I was struck by the image of the flames, dancing on the disciples head, and the similarity with the image of the burning bush. 

What drew Moses' attention to the burning bush wasn't just that it was on fire, but that it wasn't consumed.

Fire usually consumes the thing that it is burning. It draws energy from the fuel. And it is so easy to feel, working in the church, that our energy is fuel. That I'm here to be used up, to be burnt up to provide metaphorical light or heat for others.

But if we are to be fuel (and I'm pushing the analogy too far here, I know), we need to at least think of ourselves as a renewable resource, not  a fossil fuel. Ministry mustn't be something that consumes us, uses us up. It should be flames of fire dancing on our heads, lighting up that bush, without burning us up and out.

So how do we stay on fire without burning out?

I suppose the first thing to say is, I wish I knew! But having narrowly survived burnout earlier this year, with lots of help from friends, colleagues and wise counsellors, and thinking about these images of undestructive flames, here are some thoughts:

1. Burn out isn't the plan. If the flaming bush doesn't do it for you, try imagine a Christmas pudding set alight. the pudding isn't actually burning, its the alcohol in the brandy you've just poured over it that is aflame. If you're the pudding (bear with me here), you're not meant to burn up. I've spent years feeling guilty that I'm not yet used up - shouldn't I be working harder, giving more? No. Let those flames dance around you: you're not the fuel.

2. Each person can only do a small part of the job. That includes you (me, us). The disciples didn't all speak in all those languages - and when they did all speak, it was chaos and half the crowd thought they were drunk. Peter had to explain: but even Peter couldn't do it all on his own - nobody would have listened to him if the others hadn't done their bit of causing chaos first. After years of listening too well to the voices telling me 'you need to make a success of this' (whether real, external voices, or internalised messages), I'm learning to hold up my hand and say 'No. All I can do is my bit: say what I'm inspired to say, and trust that everyone else will do their bit too and that the result will work itself out. I'm only responsible for doing what I can, not for success or otherwise of the result.'

3. Accept that doing the right thing doesn't mean everyone will agree, listen, or like you. That's not to say everyone will disagree, ignore you or hate you either: the idea that your rightness is proved by 'the world's' rejection is as nuts as the idea that it is proved by universal acclaim. But even when the disciples were speaking in amazing foreign languages, inspired by the Holy Spirit (or speaking whatever, and people miraculously understood them - it doesn't matter which), there were people saying 'good grief, they're pissed as newts'. I've spent years hoping people will like me, and judging myself harshly if I get even the faintest criticism . I'm learning (slowly) to accept that just as I can't control and am not responsible for results, so I also can't control and am not responsible for everyone's response.

And I'll just say number 1 again: Burn out isn't the plan. God doesn't want us to be fuel for his fire: we're the lampstands, if you like, not the oil. I don't know about you, but its going to take me a while to stop feeling guilty about not burning out. But I'm trying.


The rest of this post is probably mainly for members of the church who want the sermon notes! This is the shape of what I said on Sunday about Acts 2 and Shared Ministry:

 When we first began discussing Shared Ministry, about a year ago, one concern was that it would be 'just another job for already busy people'. But (as expanded on above) the flames of Pentecost are like the burning bush of Moses - they set us on fire without burning us out. Our energy isn't there to provide fuel for the fire: God's energy dances around us. Ministry - mine,yours, shared - isn't about doing more things, its about being lit up by the Spirit and letting that shine.

So Shared Ministry isn't about doing more stuff. It's about being explicit about who we are and what we are here for.

And looking at Acts 2, what we are here for seems to be to: 
- speak; 
- dream; 
- worship.

I went on on Sunday to talk about how these play out in our vision of Shared Ministry.
On that first day of Pentecost, the first thing that happened when the Spirit came was that everyone spoke as they were inspired.It was only after that, in the chaos that caused, that there was any audience for or point in Peter standing up and preaching. Similarly today, there are different tasks in the church - a few of us are bolshy and loud enough to stand up and shout 'Right, listen here everyone!' - but everyone is called to speak about God in the language they are given, in ways that some of the people around us can hear. There's no point me as vicar, or our reader, or any of us doing our jobs, if the people of God aren't all speaking about God: why should anyone listen to me, if they haven't first had their interest piqued by someone they know, saying something in a language they understand? (Even if they think it is nuts!).

Secondly, we need to dream - to imagine what might happen, what life might be like, what could be different, what should be kept from our past and what needs to change for the future. To hear and receive one anothers dreams, unthreatened by the fact that they won't all be the same. To accept and value the dreams and visions of old and young, men and women, girls and boys; to believe that God's Holy Spirit inspires our envisioning, and to be foolish and trusting enough to think God's kingdom might be brought closer through our dreaming. 

Shared Ministry is about development. It is not about simply keeping the show on the road, maintaining the church building, keeping everything as we like it. It is about working together to always develop our ministry, always develop our church, so that it and we grow. That can seem threatening, I know. But we follow a God who does not rest in one place – who won't stay in that tomb – who is always dancing ahead of us, calling us forward in a pillar of fire or cloud, or with glimpses of a star. So our second task is to be prepared to dream, not settle for the status quo.

Thirdly, to worship. To repent, to be baptised, to bring others to baptism, to devote ourselves to teaching and fellowship and the breaking of bread and to prayer. To giving ourselves to this life of faith – giving our time to it, rather than coming only if something else doesn't come up that Sunday. Giving generously of our money, with the aim that nobody is in need while we have something spare. Praising God, eating together, worshipping together - and doing so joyfully.

Now, fair enough, in Acts chapter 2 people are still in the first throes of excitement about their conversion. its probably not fair or realistic to expect that first ecstasy to continue for ever. It's probably a bit like marriage: even the best marriage, with the two people still deeply in love with each other, doesn't maintain the intensity and excitement of those first heady days and weeks of falling in love. But what it develops is even better - a deep content, joy and trust in each other. If we aren't still in the first falling in love stages of being a Christian, are we in the happy old age of a fifty or sixty year marriage? 

Shared Ministry is about believing that God has given all of us gifts and talents with which to serve. We believe that in our baptism (and/or confirmation) we are assured of the presence of God's Holy Spirit in us. So it becomes almost blasphemous to say 'Oh, but I don't really have anything to offer. That's all very well for those gifted people, those young and energetic people, those who aren't working as hard as I am. But its not for me: if you want that, go ahead, but I'll sit back as usual, I don't have any particular gifts and talents'. To say that would be to deny God's power in baptism and in communion.

Saturday, 26 July 2014

Kingdom parables: sermon and images

This is my sermon for Sunday 27th July, on the parables of the kingdom in Matthew 13:31-52.
(Edited to more closely reflect how it was actually preached on 27th July).
There is an accompanying powerpoint presentation of images to be played alongside it at the end.

From the lectionary reading from Matthew 13:

Jesus put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.” ....
"The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.

Here we are given four brief images, in quick succession, of what the kingdom of heaven is like.
A mustard seed that grows into a tree; yeast mixed into flour; treasure hidden in a field; a pearl merchant.

I wonder if Jesus was here now, would he tell a parable that began, 'the kingdom of heaven is like this church...'? The kingdom that Jesus announced was both something that was to come, but also something he announced had already begun, in him and in his followers. So I wonder, is our church anything like these images of the kingdom?

Lets consider them one by one.

Is our church anything like a mustard seed? A seed that is small, but grows to be the greatest of garden plants, so that birds from all around can come and build nests in its branches?

What would a church be like that was like that?

Firstly, it would be in its nature to grow. That is what seeds do. It might either be growing, or it might be fully grown. If it is still growing, it will be getting bigger by the day - maybe imperceptibly day by day, but from week to week and month to month the growth would be unmissable. And as well as growing above ground, it would be putting down deeper and deeper roots.

Or if it isn't still growing, it might be in its second phase, and be fully grown. If it is fully grown, then it would be providing a safe and attractive place for birds to come and nest. It would be somewhere to which people were flocking from miles around because they felt safe there. And if it was fully grown, if it was anything like that mustard plant, it would be setting seed: if it wasn't growing itself any more, it would be growing new seeds, which would themselves be going to grow into new plants to provide shelter for more birds.
And of course, being mustard, some of those seeds probably wont get planted, but will get ground up and used to make other things tastier.

How could our church be more like the kingdom that is like a mustard seed?

Or Is our church anything like yeast, that a woman mixed with flour?

If so, we will only be any use when we are totally intermingled with the world outside these four walls. Without changing the essential nature of the world around us - yeast doesn't turn flour into more yeast - we will transform it. By being mixed through, kneaded into the flour around us, we will lighten it, raise it, transform it into something tasty and wholesome and digestible.

Yeast works by digesting sugar, the empty calories mixed with the flour, and using that energy to raise up the whole to a new, transformed state. If the church is like yeast, we should be able to see how we are eating up, absorbing, digesting whatever sugar might stand for in our society - emptiness, those fleeting pleasures that lead to decay or bloating obesity - and transforming that energy into action that raises up the whole community, the whole world.

How could our church be more like the kingdom that is like yeast?

Or is our church anything like treasure buried in a field, or a merchant in search of fine pearls?

Is what is hidden here, what you would have to dig deep behind these walls to find, so obviously precious and valuable, that anyone who stumbles across it will give up anything they have to possess it? Is that how we see what we have here? How much of our time and our possessions do we think it is worth to us?

And is what is on display in our shop window, what anyone walking past can see, so beautiful, such a perfect example of its kind, that anyone who is looking for fine pearls will instantly recognise it as the best they could ever hope to find? That they would again, give up everything they have to possess this great treasure?

How could our church be more like the kingdom that is like treasure?

I want to end with one further reflection. We often focus, with the parable of the mustard seed, on the issue of size. The small seed grows into the big tree. The kingdom of heaven is like something that grows very big. So it is interesting, I think, to note that in all of these images for the kingdom no actual measurements are given. In each case the image is of something that is just big enough to do its job.

That mustard seed, we are told, grows big enough to shelter, to provide a safe and welcoming space for birds to build their nests, to nurture new life, a place the fledlings can practice flying from.

In the parable of the yeast, we are told how much flour there is, 3 measures, but not how much yeast is needed. Its like ine of those annoying recipes that assumes that you know what you are doing: it simply says 'take enough yeast to leaven three measures of flour'.

So there is something here about the kingdom of heaven being just enough. It isn't measured in feet and inches or pounds or kilograms, it is big enough to do its job - of sheltering, providing safe space in which to grow and from which to explore: of leavening, raising, lightening, feeding.

And the treasure parables are also about something being just enough. The treasure hidden in the field, or the pearl in the shop window, isn't given a specific value  in terms of pounds and pence: but in each case, the person who finds it and wants it is just able to buy it, because what they have, when sold, is just enough.

We often focus in these stories on the preciousness of the treasure, the pricelessness of that pearl. But how tragic these stories would be if in each case, when the person found the treasure, and sold all that they had, they were still hundreds, or thousands, or millions of pounds short. The real miracle in these parables is that when they sold everything, it was enough.

The kingdom of heaven is not any particular specified size. It is big enough. Big enough for us, big enough to do its job. And what are and have, the resources we have available to us, individually and together, if we use all of them, are just enough for it.

So let us pray.
Thank you God, for  welcoming us into your kingdom, and promising that it will always be just big enough for us and for the needs of all the world. Thank you that what we have will always be enough to enter and possess and serve the needs of your kingdom. Give us grace, we pray, to trust you enough to risk everything we have to enter it. And help us, as we seek as your church in this place to order our common life in the likeness of hour kingdom.

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Work (Admin) and Spirituality

Searching through my old computer files this morning, I came across this: the text of a Lent talk that I gave at St.Gabriel's, Heaton in 2004! It develops ideas that I began thinking about after completing my PhD on late medieval monastic administration.

(warning: this is long!)

Your Work and Your Spirituality

Your work and your spirituality. That could cover a whole range of things, so I’ll start by saying what I’m not going to be talking about. I’m not going to be talking about the kind of work that we can easily understand as vocational – about being a teacher or doctor or nurse or priest. Not about specifically paid work. And not about how to pray for or at work, even. I’m talking here about dull, routine, boring, humdrum work, and how we see it. What has it got to do with God? Because if we don’t really think our work has anything to do with God, it can’t fit into our spirituality at all, we can’t pray for it with integrity and we end up feeling that we have two selves, a religious self that goes to church, prays for friends and maybe sits on the PCC, and a secular self that goes to work. This is true even if we aren’t actually working, are unemployed or retired. If collecting a pension, checking the heating bill and dusting behind the cupboards is nothing to do with God, we are only half people of God – or maybe rather less than half. So I want to talk tonight about what work has to do with God. And the test case for a theology of work (to give it its grand title), is what we think about routine administration – paperwork. Even those teachers and nurses whose jobs we think are easily part of God’s plan have a problem here - Hospitals and schools are always complaining about the rise in paperwork. And we all have to do it even if we’re retired with only ourselves to look after – we still have to pay bills, deal with council tax demands and electoral roll forms, etc. So our question tonight is really, where is God in paperwork? Or what has paperwork got to do with God?

There is a tendency in the press and in theological circles too to decry bureaucracy and paperwork as a function of modern life, and to hark back to a fictitious ‘golden age’ in which people undertook ‘real work’. This sort of idea really took hold with the Victorian Gothic revival, and the Arts and Crafts movement, with people like William Morris, was part of an attempt to get back to this pre-industrial golden age of real craftsmanship and proper work.

But this kind of view of the past is unsustainable when the realities of medieval life are examined. It is clear from a close reading of history that a large administrative burden is by no means a new phenomenon. (my phd, etc. parish registers; monastic accounts; household accounts etc. Development of writing in Ancient world, pre-Biblical, seems to have happened as a function of the need to keep accounts!) Since administrative work is so ubiquitious, it is worth devoting some consideration to how it should best be approached and understood theologically, as something all Christians have to do.

In this talk I’m going to firstly look at administration in the bible, and then look briefly at the history of the church and the impact that has had on our understanding of work as part of the Christian life. I’m then going to suggest that there are four main ways of understanding paperwork theologically, and briefly outline each one, looking at the strengths and weaknesses of each.

Administration in the Bible
On the whole, the Old Testament has more to say about the practical details of administration than the New. In keeping with its emphasis on the story of a people, issues of good government such as taxation, record keeping, and food storage and distribution are scattered throughout the Old Testament. The most famous example is probably the story of Joseph in Genesis, which has as its turning point Joseph’s advice to Pharoah to ‘appoint commissioners over the land to take a fifth of the harvestof Egypt during the seven years of abundance…to be held in reserve for the country, to be used during the seven years of famine’ (Genesis 41: 34-36). Secretarial and accountancy work are implicitly assumed in many episodes, such as in the long and detailed lists of the materials used in the construction of the tent of meeting and its furnishings in Exodus 35-9 and in the census described in Numbers 26. Administrators and their tasks are also mentioned explicitly on occasion, such as in 1 Kings 4:1-28, which lists all King Solomon’s officials, including secretaries and a recorder, and also records the daily provisions required by the royal household and who was responsible for providing these things.
Because the Old Testament presents the story of a people as the record of God’s activity in the world, it is generally holistic in its approach to life. This is of course an overly sweeping statement, and the different books of the Old Testament clearly present many different approaches. Nevertheless, a spirituality can be discerned throughout the Old Testament writings which treats the whole of life as the religious sphere. Questions of what to eat, what to wear, who to marry and generally of how to live one’s day to day life are not set aside from the religious aspect of life but are seen as comprising it. The purity laws of Leviticus, and the sayings of Proverbs, for example, make no distinction between their moral, ritual and common sense instructions. Administration at all levels and in all guises, from good government of the nation, to faithfully copying the book of the law, to accurately accounting for every shekel donated to the construction of the tabernacle, was thus simply one more aspect of every day life which was done under God.
Turning to the New Testament, this sense of administration being a natural part of human life can be seen in the gospels, though less so in the other books. Jesus is frequently recorded in the gospels to have used imagery and examples drawn from the worlds of business, accountancy and administration. Many of the great parables use this sort of imagery, to powerful effect. For example, the parable of the talents (Matt 25:14-30) tells the story of a master delegating administrative powers to his servants and then settling accounts with them. Whilst the point made in this story has become a commonplace in our society, this was by no means the case at the time the story was first told. Well-known rabbinic maxims and parables clearly taught that burial was the best means of safeguarding money which had been given to you on trust; the idea of speculating with it would probably, therefore, have been regarded as wildly irresponsible. Jesus was not therefore simply using the language of commerce and administration to give background colour to his story, but rather was drawing a substantial example from the business world of his day.
Other parables do seem to use business imagery in a more illustrative, rather than a substantive, way. In the parable of the unmerciful servant (Matt 18:23-35), Jesus uses the example of a king settling accounts with his servants to emphasise his teaching on forgiveness, whilst the parable of the tenants (Luke 20:9-16) uses the idea of an absentee landlord being defrauded by his tenants to make several indirect points, such as about Jesus’s identity as God’s son. Sometimes the expected paradigms of the business world are deliberately subverted for ironic effect, as in the humorous parable of the shrewd manager or the dishonest servant (Luke 16:1-12), in which a sacked manager is praised for safeguarding his own future by some well-directed corruption. Jesus’s frequent and neutral use of such imagery gives the impression that these administrative activities were considered a natural part of human life. The only point at which such activities are critiqued are when they take place in the Temple. This is in stark contrast with the modern tendency to talk down such activites as inherently sinful.
Similarly, the need for effective administration appears to have been well recognised in the early church. The communitarian ideal outlined in Acts 2:42-47 and 4:32-35 clearly required some degree of organisation, and although this is not at first spelt out the need to reform it is made explicit in the appointment of the seven in Acts 6:1-6. This episode provides a rare glimpse of the mechanics of early church organisation, and whether this represents an historical reality or an ideal that Luke wishes to present, it is notable that the prayerful and efficient administration of such practical matters as the administration of alms is considered worthy of mention as an important part of the establishment of the early church. Barrett argues that what Luke intends to communicate to his reader in Acts 6:1-6 is precisely that ‘a minor deficiency in administration is immediately set right…and the consequence is a great increase in the number of believers.’
The only other mention of administration in the New Testament comes in one of Paul’s lists of spiritual gifts, in 1 Cor.12:28: ‘in the church God has appointed first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then workers of miracles, also those having gifts of healing, those able to help others, those with gifts of administration, and those speaking in different kinds of tongues.’ The greek word translated here as ‘those with gifts of administration’ is which literally refers to steersmen, pilots or captains. This term, and that immediately preceding it, have puzzled generations of commentators since they do not appear in other lists of spiritual gifts and seem to be of a different order to the other gifts that they appear alongside. The Vulgate and early modern translations into the vernacular such as the King James Version, rendered as ‘governments’.
Contemporary commentators tend to give more weight to the naval basis of . as referring to ‘the ability to hold the helm of the church’, perhaps leadership or vision, but the most detailed studies have agreed that practical leadership skills are the point here, with Paul deliberately setting the practical skills of leadership alongside the more ‘spiritual’ gifts of leadership such as teaching, and speaking in tongues, which the Corinthians were mistakenly exalting.
Administration in the early church
Although very little evidence survives about the running of the early church it is clear that it was highly organised and that individuals were appointed to specific roles with particular administrative responsibilities. For early Christianity, however, there was a clear tension between the practical and the spiritual. Part of the church’s coming to terms with the continued failure of the expected end times to arrive was a need to understand how Christianity could be lived out in society.
On a practical note, too, administration becomes necessary with the acquisition of property, even if it is only used to give that property away again as speedily and fairly as possible (as in Acts). Whilst the church had certainly had property prior to Constantine’s conversion, the amount involved increased dramatically in the years and centuries following. Property belonging to the church which had been confiscated under the various persectutions was restored, and Constantine himself – along, no doubt, with many others – made donations to the church. Over the following centuries the church became wealthy, and in particular the various monastic movements, begun in poverty, attracted donations of land, money and ornamentation from members of the church who admired their aims and hoped to benefit from their prayers. Alongside this change in the circumstances of the church went the development not only of administrative and legal structures, but also of theological rationales for the church owning property at all.
The sudden shift that the church experienced on Constantine’s conversion, from being a small beleagured minority to suddenly becoming an approved religion and soon becoming a sine qua non for advancement, had a profound impact on the self understanding of the church and on its spirituality. A self understanding based on purity and martyrdom was swiftly replaced with one which sought to recreate that original purity by the test of asceticism; martyrdom reinterpreted for a church that was no longer the target of persecution. Yet the fact that the church had become wealthy, and the fact that many wealthy people became members of the church as it became the official state religion of the Roman Empire, also needed to be addressed.
The phenomenon of desert monasticism and the debate which raged over whether virginity and marriage were equally allowable both produced a large amount of literature arguing that an ideal Christian spirituality required freedom or withdrawal from the day to day concerns of married life (with marriage essentially defined as the socio-economic state of householder, rather than in terms of sexual relationships per se). Even those who argued that marriage could be an authentically Christian way of life were at pains to point out the many disadvantages of the distractions of marriage for one’s spirituality. This council of perfection had to be reconciled with the reality of a state church of which most people were to become members, and over the period from the late second to the fourth century A.D. a concept of two types of Christian follower was worked out, the first excluding marriage and property, the second allowing a full range of interaction with society including even involvement with the government or army.

As the monasteries and churches acquired land and buildings so the need grew for both effective administrative structures and a spirituality which made sense of time devoted to such duties to be developed. The Benedictine Rule, which grew out of this context, managed to synthesis the material and practical with the spiritual and religious dimensions of life. Its success in doing so can be inferred from the fact that it has endured the test of time for around 1500 years, and is today the guiding rule of more than 1400 Benedictine and Cistercian communities. Benedictine spirituality offers a framework within which the need for paperwork and administrative duties to be undertaken by the churches’ ministers can be understood theologically and even treasured as a spiritual discipline. Life is to be well-ordered, even comfortable, and the discipline needed for accounting for tools and managing land is seen as part of the discipline needed for living in community, which in turn is understood as the best way to become as God intended us to be. Benedict’s rule spends as much time on the practical ordering of the monastery as on its prayer life, refusing to draw a distinction between the two.

This sense of the holiness of daily life is of course not exclusively Benedictine. It does, however, seem strangely inappropriate that a sense of the holiness and the idea of a spirituality of daily life should have been largely the preserve of monastic communities rather than the laity! I guess the women looking after twelve children and a farmyard whilst getting on with being Christians were just too busy to go about writing down how they did it.

Overall, I want to suggest that there are broadly four ways of understanding administration theologically, one negative and three approaches which are positive to varying degrees. The first of these is a ‘rejectionist’ approach. This is typically characterised by a suspicion of society and of all the trappings of participation in society, and in particular by a radical rejection of wealth and property. Those taking this view would tend to criticise all time spent on administrative tasks or worldly work as a distraction from higher things, and to reject attempts at better church administration as being a sign of the church compromising with the standards of the world. This approach can be seen throughout Christian history, and in many ways has right on its side. It certainly provides a powerful corrective to the human tendency to be seduced by wealth and power and be distracted by the pursuit of these from our calling to live our lives in God’s service. However, as an entire philosophy it is severely lacking, as the early church discovered very soon; we are called to live our lives in this world, for now at least. This approach is useful as a corrective, but must be kept in check if it is not to become life-denying.
The first of the positive approaches to work we might call the ‘enabling’ approach. This sees administration as something that it is worth doing well because this will enable other tasks to be done better or free up more time for those other tasks. This is typical of most theological writing in the late twentieth century on the subject of work. Typically, this advocates that the clergy adopt time management techniques and embrace technological advances such as word processing and accountancy software packages, in order to enable their “real” work (their pastoral and perhaps their liturgical duties) to be done more effectively. Although advocates of this approach do not follow the rejectionist line of thinking to its conclusion, nevertheless they are aware of and in sympathy with many of its precepts, and wish to guard against the possibility of their positive approach to worldly wisdom going too far. They stress that ‘ always secondary to the main purpose’, that it is a means to an end.
The third approach to administration is the ‘spiritual’ understanding. Under this heading I include the ideas that it is important to do one’s work well, whatever it may be, in order to honour God; that God can be encountered in any work that is done wholeheartedly, well, and with the aim of honouring God in mind; and finally the ascetic idea that doing unpleasant or uncongenial tasks can be a valuable spiritual discipline, training the Christian to deny the self. All of these ideas see spiritual value in many kinds of work, and as such are a useful element in the Christian tradition, which has generally had little to say about day to day life in the workplace. Again, however, the value placed on work is essentially secondary, as with the ‘enabling’ approach. Although this third approach dignifies administration as a spiritual discipline and a place where worship can happen, the positive value given to administrative tasks is still seen as deriving from what they lead to, rather than from any inherent value in the work itself.
So this brings me on to the fourth approach, which I call the ‘anthropological’ understanding of work. This approach sees inherent value in administrative work, which on this understanding forms an essential part of what it is to be human. Human beings are understood as inherently social creatures, and the construction of systems and societies and their ensuing administration can then be seen as an essential expression of our created nature, even as one aspect of our being created in the image of God.

I wonder if we can develop this idea – can we see God as an administrator? For example, it might be possible to read Genesis 1 not just as about God creating, but about God as the One who also orders, sorts, and systematises?

Each of these four approaches to administration clearly has its merits, and a full understanding and location of our work within our Christian lives will draw on the insights of all four. The rejectionist approach warns of the dangers of embracing the world and our culture without critiquing them in the light of what has been revealed of the Kingdom. The enabling approach provides a practical rationale for improved administration and the motivation for continual striving for improved efficiency. The spiritual approach provides for even the dullest tasks to be redeemed by a conscious decision to do them well, and dignifies the common round by seeing it as a location both for epiphanies and prayer. The anthropological approach liberates us from thinking of our day to day administrative tasks as inherently contradictory to our human nature and divine calling. It means we can see our paperwork as an expression of our human creation as social and structuring beings, and as a means of human flourishing.