Here we go (again)…

Well. The observant among you will notice that it is now over three years since I last posted on this blog – and that was after period of very sporadic writing. In the end, I began to feel that blogging was interfering not only with the day job but with all sorts of other things as well, and concluded that it was not only taking up too much “brainspace” but actually affecting my view of the world. I was spending too much of my life thinking, “How am I going to write about this?”

Well, a lot has happened in the last three years – in the world, in the Church and in my own personal life. We now have women appointed to the role of Bishop in the Church of England, though the debates about sexuality and equal marriage rumble on (and on); on the more positive side we are seeing more creativity and energy put into our mission. In the wider world we are living in “interesting times” politically on both sides of the Atlantic (and of course, I have my own views on that). And personally – well I’m not going into a lot of personal stuff now, though I’m sure some of it will emerge in due course. Suffice it to say that, there is much more of a collegial “feel” to this Tree’s ministry now compared to three years ago, thanks to a convergence of a couple of new factors.

Firstly, we appointed a new associate priest to the benefice last year and were delighted to welcome my new colleague, Pauline, at her licensing last November. It has been good to share some of the load and the first few months have been a good experience I think for both of us.

Secondly, with the renewal of our local Churches Together covenant a couple of years ago, we are undertaking more projects ecumenically than before. There is a real sense of teamwork developing with my Congregational and Methodist colleagues here and some of it is already bearing fruit in unexpected ways.

So, it seems as though the time is write to pick up the keyboard here once more to share some thoughts and reflections with anyone who cares to drop by here and chat.

If you’ve made it this far, Welcome back to the Forest!


Blogging Lent: what happened?

“What on earth happened to blogging Lent?” I imagine I hear someone ask. After all, I did announced an intention to blog daily during the v season. Well, life happened, and I am not at my most creative at 11 p.m. which seems to be the time most regularly available for the purpose.

That was not the only reason, though, why the blogging failed. During Lent two things happened that set (Christian) social media alight, both to do with sexuality issues. As usual, among the more reasoned contributions to the subsequent discussion there were the usual and inevitable knee-jerk reactions (from both extremes). And , as usual, I found myself increasingly disappointed, frustrated and disillusioned with the spouting past each other. I addressed a couple of particularly unhelpful comments on various forums I follow and considered writing a few related blog posts of my own.

The more I thought about it, though, the more I began to realise that what was called for was a properly structured piece of writing that, though it might make such a blog series, would address a whole range of related issues. It is now over 15 years since I last attempted this in an ethics essay during my ordination training, and it would help me too to clarify where I have reached in this ongoing debate.

Such a piece will not be written in a day or a week – especially not when done as a task alongside parish ministry. So I crave your indulgence while I get this under way. In the meantime I intend to post occasionally on random topics as the opportunity and mood takes me.

Winning the war or winning the people?

I never cease to be amazed at the kind of language that floats around the “Christian” comments on blogs and twitter debates on certain topics. This week has been a particularly bad one, though that may just be because I’ve paid more attention to conversations surrounding two particular items of news. The first item was the news that World Vision USA had revised their policy about employing gay Christians which was followed within 48 hours by a retraction of the new policy in response to the storm of protest from some individuals and churches. The second item was the news that the first (civil) same-sex marriages had taken place under new UK legislation.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, both items generated a lot of traffic on social media from people on both sides of the debate. What I find disturbing (though I am no longer surprised) is the tone of many of the “contributions”. which were sometimes violent, but frequently amounted to personal attacks. One particularly disturbing image was tweeted by several people to a female theologian and commentator who had made a modest plea for people to live with differences of opinion. Others who protested this were treated to their own personal attack from the perpetrators and their supporters.

Some time before I began ordination training, I attended my local deanery synod with my then vicar. That evening the synod was debating issues of sexuality. Contributions were made on both sides of the debate, but the more vehement ones came from those advocating a more traditional response. Although at the time I agreed with that viewpoint I remember remarking to my vicar on the drive home that their contributions had seemed more concerned with winning arguments than winning people. Sadly, he agreed with me.

I get that this issue in particular rouses strong emotions, that people get upset and angry, that people feel threatened and afraid. Nevertheless, if we are to make any progress at all (in whichever direction) we need to ask ourselves what we are trying to achieve. Do we want to justify our position to ourselves, or do we want to engage with others. The latter, of course, can be dangerous. We might find ourselves changing our position, if only slightly, if we truly listen to what others think and tease out the reasons why they think that way. We may find ourselves being presented with new information that we hadn’t considered before. We may even find ourselves understanding and sympathising more. But unless we do listen first, we stand little chance of influencing others in a positive way. For all their occasional robustness (and I think it is far less than some would have us believe) both Jesus and Paul had as their primary concern the winning of people. And that should be our concern too – not so that we can tally heads or feel good about ourselves, but so that we win others to Christ rather than simply to our own point of view. And yes, these are different things!

Ultimately, disciples of Christ are not called to win knock-down arguments but to fish for people, which requires far more subtlety. I sincerely doubt that anyone has ever been truly saved because someone called them a heretic or sent them an abusive image. Rather, we are commanded (yes, commanded) to treat others the way we would want them to treat us. And that wins people.

When have you changed your opinion on something? What most influenced you to do so?

Reflections on the use of Cranmer’s liturgy

Today in the Church of England’s calendar we commemorate that great Archbishop and religious architect of the English Reformation, Thomas Cranmer. A brief biography may be found here. Not only did Cranmer reform the Church of England under Henry VIII and then Edward VI, but his legacy lives on in the Book of Common Prayer (BCP) and in the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion which are the foundation documents of the post-Reformation CofE.


Cranmer made a couple of attempts to produce a prayer book in English, once in 1549 and again in 1552. The latter was the one that was adopted (with very minor amendments) at the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1662. This remained the only legal source of liturgy for the Church of England until the early twentieth century when the Bishops produced a revised version in 1928. Parliament, however, refused to ratify it and so it remained as a semi-official alternative. The sixties and seventies saw two set of authorised  experimental services – Series II and Series 3 – before the the publication of the Alternative Service Book 1980. This was authorised until 2000 when our present Common Worship was introduced.

Let me say that I am an admirer of Cranmer. His impact on subsequent generations of the Church of England has been profound. His liturgies often take the best of pre-Reformation practice and weave it into something that was simple, approachable and written to speak to a wide range of people within the Church’s congregations. It was also intended that clergy and others would be able to use the BCP offices for their own private devotions, and Cranmer’s phraseology has stuck in the collective memory of te nation for centuries.

Within the benefice here we still use BCP services regularly. In a “normal” month I preside at three BCP Holy Communion services and at least one service of Evening Prayer and there are a considerable number in our congregations who prefer the BCP services to their modern equivalents.

And yet I do wonder what Cranmer himself would have made of the extensive use of his original work today. Would he have been gratified or bemused? There are a number of things I believe are problematic with using the BCP extensively in the twenty-first century.

1. BCP is clearly the product of sixteenth century culture, philosophy and thought-forms (to say nothing of politics!). Although it makes extensive use of the Bible, it is the Bible seen through sixteenth century eyes. So while the BCP may be a wonderful cultural artefact, it does not represent the way in which most twenty-first century people (even Anglican Christians) think or speak. This is not to say that God cannot use an interest in cultural artefacts to draw people to faith in Christ; simply to say that this is not everyone’s experience.

2. As a consequence of this that use of the BCP in our day is most likely to attract those who view their faith through the lens of history and culture. And these are most likely to be drawn from the “educated classes”. For others the use of archaic Emglish (“not understanded of the people”?) is likely to be rather off-putting rather than draw them in.

3. It also follows that the primary view of God presented is that of transcendence, since the language has an unconscious effect of distancing our talk of God from our everyday life and language. Now transcendence is not a bad thing. God IS other to us, and we need reminding of that. But there is also an immanent aspect of God which can be lost. The incarnation (as well Pentecost) signify to us that God is with us in the everyday aspects of our life, that He is closer to us than our breath. These things must be held together, in tension, with neither aspect being lost.

4. The sixteenth (and seventeenth) century understanding of how the political system relates to our understanding of God and his kingdom is alien to a very large number of twenty-first century people. Indeed, the way in which our political system works has undergone many significant changes in the intervening centuries.

5.  I have often wondered exactly what the cumulative psychological and sociological effects of Cranmer’s language of confession of sin has been on Anglican people. Do we actually take the words seriously or have they become so familiar we no longer really reflect on them? Should we be using these words week after week? This is not to downplay the seriousness of sin. What I am getting at is that, although the forgiveness of sin in Christ is declared each time we make our confession, there is little recognition of the ongoing indwelling of the Holy Spirit and how that affects us. We speak as though we begin each service in an unregenerate state.

So while I am happy to continue using Cranmer’s book on a limited basis, I am truly thankful that I live in an age when I am allowed alternatives in contemporary language (though it is still a formal language) and which allow doctrine to be expressed in a rather different way. Nevertheless, I join with Anglicans around the world in expressing gratitude for the life and work of RThomas Cranmer. May he rest in peace.

Wigan Pier 1930-2014

I’ve recently been rereading George Orwell’s classic from the 1930s, The Road To Wigan Pier. It’s over 20 years since I last read it and it is interesting to see how it compares with my memories. It is definitely a book of two halves: the first is a description and reflection upon Orwell’s first-hand experience of living in deprived circumstances in the North of England during the depressed years of the 30s; the second (and to my mind, less engaging) part is a justification for his personal brand of socialism (though he does not shy away from a critique of other socialists). This latter part comes across as rather preachy, whereas the first gives insight into social conditions of the period.

Orwell, of course, is writing for an “educated,” perhaps largely middle-class audience, one that he feels does not have personal experience of the conditions he describes. Part of his mission is to challenge many of the myths and preconceptions that the middle-classes of his day had about what it was like to be dependent on the dole, and the reasons for being in that position in the first place.

One might be tempted, in 2014, to believe that the age and conditions Orwell describes are long gone. And it is true that the industrial landscape of the UK, including the North of England, has undergone radical change in the intervening 80 odd years. Clearly, there has also been great and significant social change. Barely a decade later the welfare state came into being, with the state pension, the National Health Service and many other benefits. Yet as I read, there was much that seemed familiar – drearily so, in fact.

In spite of all the positive changes, many of the attitudes towards the poor are still prevalent today. Many of the same tired myths, the classification into “deserving” and “undeserving” poor, the sheer ignorance of the psychological effects of unemployment and the way the poverty trap actually works are not only alive and kicking but fuelled by their constant repetition in the media. Reading Orwell alongside the report produced last year by the Baptist, Methodist, URC and Church of Scotland, The Lies We Tell Ourselves: ending the comfortable myths about poverty, one is struck by similar are the arguments used by those who are comfortably off to deny or limit help to those who are not, and how much we need another Orwell today to awaken the social conscience of our nation and world.

More follows, as the press agencies say.

Chef and Spice (and all things nice)

Lent is hard work! At least that seems to be the way things are turning out. If last Tuesday was busy, today was rather manic, with a funeral, a PCC meeting and a visit to arrange another funeral. All this on top of waking up at 5 a.m. wondering when I would get to write my address for the funeral. Turns out the answer was 5.30 a.m.

The crowning point of the day was attending a fundraiser for the Brownies run by the PCC secretary. This consisted of an Indian buffet at a restaurant in West Leicester. The food was excellent. Why do these things get arranged in Lent?

So it looks as though I need to keep an eye on Tuesdays. Bad for busyness, bad for food, bad for blogging, bad for discipline all round. That’s the diagnosis but is there a cure? Sometimes life’s just like that. The trick will be to make the most of the quieter moments later in the week.

What are you finding tough about Lent this year?

Faith working through love

At Morning Prayer a couple of days ago I was struck by words from the Letter to the Galatians that formed part of the New Testament reading for the day.

“…in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love.” Galatians 5:6

Protestants have a great thing about faith (as do other Christians, of course). Luther regarded it as the whole key to salvation, sola fide, and was very sceptical about anuthing that might serve to qualify it. So, famously, he regarded the letter of James, with its insistence that faith must be accompanied by works (James 2:17ff.), as an epistle of straw.

Yet in Galatians, which to me stands alongside Romans as the epistle in which faith seems so obviously placed against “works”, Paul insists that what counts is “faith working through love.” Love is very clearly more than simply warm feelings; it is something very active, shown in concrete action towards another person. In the famous passage in 1 Corinthians 13 we many aspects of love – both what it is and what it isn’t. Paul warns that we can lots of things which are worthy in themselves, but it is only through active love that they acquire ture and lasting worth.

Which brings me to an old theme. Love can only be shown in relationship. I see and hear a lot of “speaking the truth in love” both in parish life but also in discussion on the internet and elsewhere from people who insist on their Christian faith. But the readiness to prounce judgement on others who differ seems to rise to the surface very quickly. How loving is it to speak judgementally to someone whose circumstance you barely know? How loving is it to focus on (what you consider to be) someone else’s shortcomings to the exclusion of everything else? We are quick to condemn, yet it is not ours to do so.

A few verses later on, in the same chapter of Galatians, Paul issues a warning to those who do not take this to heart:

“If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.” (5.17)

I pray that this Lent, I may take this warning seriously, that I will be able to look past another’s faults and get to see as much of the full picture as I can, that I will take care to cultivate relationships with others, regardless of whether we agree.

How is your faith working through love today?

A matter of integrity

News broadcasts in the UK today have included the news of the death of Tony Benn, the former Labour politician, and plenty of people have been paying tribute to him and to his long and illustrious parliamentary career as well as his subsequent career as an activist, writer and public speaker. Appreciations of him have come from former colleagues, friends and even those who, in political terms at least, were his enemies.

Being a member of my parents’ generation, Tony Benn was already an established part of the British political scene long before I began to take an interest in it. In my younger days, his brand of socialism had little appeal for me. Although not a natural conservative, I was also sceptical about many Labour policies and approaches to life. And of all the mainstream Labour politicians, especially those who made it to ministerial rank, he symbolised (to me at least) the hard-core left of the party.

Nevertheless, it clearly came across that even his political opponents had a tremendous respect for the man. He gained a reputation for clear thinking and clear speech. But what came across most clearly was that he believed every word he spoke. Indeed, he is on record as saying that he would never say anything he didn’t believe. In a context renowned for individuals telling others what they want to hear, Tony Benn stood out for never trimming his sails to the wind. He spoke without fear or favour. And his words were backed up by his actions as he laid aside many of the trappings of his privileged upbringing and background  in order to serve the cause of others.

Tony Benn himself acknowledged that his thinking and activity owed much to his mother and the radical Christianity she taught him from an early age. For her, it was the prophets of the Bible rather than the kings and the powerful who were important. Kings always pursued power whereas prophets acted righteously. And these were the values that drove not only Benn’s career but his life.

In time, I came to respect Tony Benn as well. I didn’t always agree with his politics but his character was admirable. And as I get older, I find myself perhaps rather more in tune with his vision than I once was – the search for a fairer society where people care for each other and where abilities and resources are used for the common good rather than the benefit of the few.

In this season of Lent I am reflecting not just on my own spiritual discipline, but on what God requires of us in the way of righteousness, that is our social relationships with others in all sorts of aspects. How do we care for the weak and vulnerable? What practical steps can we take? How can we ensure a greater degree of justice and fairness in society? How does this impact on our economic relationships?

And I pray that I, like Tony Benn, might be known as a person of integrity whose thinking, speaking and doing are consistent with one another.

So today I thank God for Tony Benn and pray that he might rest in peace.


The cares of the world and the lure of wealth

Last night I led the first session of our benefice’s Lent course. It is the first Lent course we have run since a previous Methodist minister in the village left about three or four years ago. This year we are using the Churches Together in Britain and Ireland‘s course, Parables and Possessions. I enjoyed the discussion we had around the parable of the sower and Jesus’ subsequent explanation to the disciples of why he taught in parables and then explaining the (or perhaps that should be “a”) meaning of the parable (Matthew 13:1-23).

413In the explanation of the parable of the sower, Jesus talks about how “the cares of the world and the lure of wealth” can choke the impact of the “word of the kingdom” in the life of a person (and by extension, the life of the community of which a person is a part). The “lure of wealth” creates anxieties and fears which are inimical to the love to which God calls and invites us. The possession of wealth creates worlds of possibilities, but also brings us choices we have to make about how that wealth is to be used. This is true not only of “the rich” (usually “those who have more wealth than me”) but of anyone who has disposable income above and beyond that required to provide the necessities of life. In those circumstances, to say, “we can’t afford this” is not always a statement about how much money is available but may sometimes be a statement that, where resources are limited, we choose to spend this on x rather than on y.

That choice, to spend on one thing rather than another, becomes very revealing about our attitudes. The choice is a moral one, but one that can muffle of choke the call of the word of the kingdom. Choosing to heed the voices that reinforce our fears desensitizes our capacity to respond to others in love, openness and generosity.

May Lent be a time when we examine the choices we make, reject the fearful ones and act in love and in faith in the One who provides for us and for others.

When faced with choices about material riches and possessions do you respond out of fear or love?

Happy Anniversary

Twenty years ago today 32 women were ordained as priests in the Church of England for the first time ever. This momentous event was the cause of great rejoicing to many. Since then, of course, many more women have joined the ranks of the priesthood and I hope and pray that it will not be much longer before some of them also join them ranks of the episcopate as well.
Curiously our chapter meeting this lunchtime was an all-male affair. Much as I love my brother clergy, it felt as though there was something missing, and rather like being in a grown-up version of the boy’s grammar school where I received my secondary education. Twenty years on, I find it hard to recall a time when the voice and experience of 50% of humanity was unrepresented in the ordained ministry and leadership of our church.
I know that there remains much to be done, not only in the final push to get the legislation for women in the episcopate through General Synod but also in continuing to address some very unpleasant attitudes and unacceptable behaviour that remain in a small minority in the church. But we can only pray that this will be overcome sooner rather than later.
So, happy anniversary! And here’s to the next twenty years when perhaps we will be talking simply about priests and bishops with no gender qualifiers.