Wednesday, 28 December 2011

A Poem for Holy Innocents

A Little Boy Lost

Nought loves another as itself,
Nor venerates another so,
Nor is it possible to thought
A greater than itself to know.

'And, father, how can I love you
Or any of my brothers more?
I love you like the little bird
That picks up crumbs around the door.'

The Priest sat by and heard the child;
In trembling zeal he seized his hair,
He led him by his little coat,
And all admired the priestly care.

And standing on the altar high,
'Lo, what a fiend is here! said he:
'One who sets reason up for judge
Of our most holy mystery.'

The weeping child could not be heard,
The weeping parents wept in vain:
They stripped him to his little shirt,
And bound him in an iron chain,

And burned him in a holy place
Where many had been burned before;
The weeping parents wept in vain.
Are such thing done on Albion's shore?

William Blake.  A Little Boy Lost

I have chosen this poem by William Blake for Holy Innocents day because Christmas is a time when we should be challenged. Far from being a sentimental festival, Christmas is followed by the feast of the first martyr and a commemoration of the slaughter - although it is probably not historical fact - of the male children under the age of two. We keep pretty quiet about Holy Innocents nowadays, it's not the sort of thing that can be described as "for the children", although it has to be said that it was a very popular element in the medieval mystery plays, apparently the butchers would often act out this scene and you have to admit that a villain like Herod gave great dramatic potential and the chance to boo and hiss to your heart's content.

And that is the perhaps the problem, it is only too easy to see evil and atrocity in others but we can be blind to our own cruelties and abuse of others. Holy Innocents should not be about booing or hissing Herod, but about recognising the potential for cruelty and evil closer to home, in all our systems of power and control. The Church itself has not been immune from hurting and damaging those entrusted to its care, as has been evident in some of the depressing abuse scandals which have emerged in recent years. In Little Boy Lost, a child questions the commandments to love God and others as himself and asks how can this be possible? The priest's reaction of burning anger and "trembling zeal" at this heresy is vividly conveyed and he does no more than seize the child and burn him to death on the altar while his parents weep and the onlookers approve!

What a shocking and radical poem! The little boy in his vulnerablity and innocence represents anyone small or powerless who dares to question the system, and Blake himself as a dissenter would have known about the prejudice and violence that could be condoned and colluded with in the name of religion - or indeed in the name of any insititution or ideology. Blake ends his poem with a question to make us think - "Are such things done on Albion's shore?" We might ask ourselves today whether injustice, abuse and cruelty are still perpetrated in the name of  power, greed or ideology, whether abroad or closer to home. On Holy Innocents, and at any other time of the year, we only need to look at the headlines to know the answer.

Tuesday, 27 December 2011

Vader did you know?

I'm not really a Star Wars fan, but I can imagine that this might be quite funny if you are! May the farce be with you this Christmas and always:)

Saturday, 24 December 2011

Reckless Love

A wonderful Christmas video. A reminder that Christians believe that God intervened with a plan that was not sweet or sentimental but rather implausible, unthinkable, bizarre, reckless, extravagant and amazing.

Wishing all readers a very Happy Christmas!

Thursday, 22 December 2011

Carolling cats and dogs

Earlier this week we went out to a local (ish) dog friendly pub and - shock, horror- did not take Bessie. The reason for this was that the occasion was a friend's birthday and things might have been a little overwhelming for a small white Westie! Anyhow, while there we were visited by some carol singers, accompanied by a dog (who also Morris dances.) We are going to make things up to Bessie by taking her out for pint of doggie beer in January. I wonder if she would like to take up singing - or morris dancing?

And for those of you who enjoy hearing animals carol singing, we had Deck the Halls last year, but this year's offering is a wonderful rendition of Jingle Bells [ a reasonably high tolerance of cute animals and awwww factor required - I can't be serious all the time - and  it is nearly Christmas! :)]

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Incarnation as Liberation

O Key of David and Scepter of the House of Israel; you open and no man closes; you close and no man opens. Come, and deliver from the chains of prison those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death. (Antiphon for today: Clavis David)
The beautiful picture above, which depicts the Incarnation, was taken from a card which I gave to someone this year. Today's antiphon holds forth the prospect of Christ as the Key of David and draws on those promises of hope and liberation from Isaiah 22. In the picture, mankind is shown lying in darkness, curled helplessly, bound hand and foot, like a prisoner or hostage unable to break free. The blue colour of the flesh of mankind is corpse-like, mankind is subject to the powers of death. The coldness and stillness of the figure contrasts with the light and heat of the child descending. It offers a moving visual rendering of some of the ideas in today's  wonderful, meaningful antiphon.
 Today's reflection  from the I-Bendectine blog links the antiphon to the reading from Luke and to the way Mary was open to God. The picture above emphasises the relevance of the Incarnation to all; that  God enters not just Mary but the whole of fallen mankind to free, restore and redeem. Advent requires all to make room for God within us, or in the words of a well known hymn: 
O holy Child of Bethlehem
Descend to us, we pray
Cast out our sin and enter in
Be born in us today
We hear the Christmas angels
The great glad tidings tell
O come to us, abide with us
Our Lord Emmanuel.

Saturday, 17 December 2011

Snow and Salvation


By what are you saved? And how?
Saved like a bit of string,
tucked away in a drawer?
Saved like a child rushed from
a burning building, already
singed and coughing smoke?
Or are you salvaged
like a car part -- the one good door
when the rest is wrecked?

Do you believe me when I say
you are neither salvaged nor saved,
but salved, anointed by gentle hands
where you are most tender?
Haven't you seen
the way snow curls down
like a fresh sheet, how it
covers everything,
makes everything
beautiful, without exception.

By Lynne Ungar

H/T to Blue Eyed Ennis for this lovely poem. The Advent before last I was particularly taken with a beautiful post from the Colophon blog (now the i-Benedictine blog) written by the nuns of East Hendred  in which they liken the snow to Advent, something that descends softly and gently into our hearts and souls, silencing and transforming the world with its impossible purity.

Thursday, 15 December 2011

Iconoclastic Christmas

The controversial street artist, Banksy, today unveiled what is described as a piece of "anti-Christian artwork" - Cardinal Sin is a replica of an 18th century bust with the face replaced by a series of tiles which are apparently meant to represent the pixellation effect used to conceal the identities of victims of child abuse. The statue is considered to be a statement on the child abuse scandals in the Roman Catholic church. Banksy says it is a sort of Christmas present ...

I have to say that I find modern art interesting although I am dubious about some of it. I rather like Banksy's statue with its representation of new media superimposed upon old stonework. Perhaps he is intending to juxtapose old attitudes to the Church hierarchy, shown through the reverential bust, alongside our modern contempt and anger at corruption in the Church, shown by the obscured and vandalised face. I don't have any problems with artists condemning corruption in the Church or exposing its flaws. What I am more concerned about is the comment from the artist, 'At this time of year it’s easy to forget the true meaning of Christianity - the lies, the corruption, the abuse.'

So, corruption, lies and abuse constitute the true meaning of Christianity ? I don't think so! Christ was a an iconoclast, someone who had a vivid turn of phrase, describing religious authorities as "whited sepulchres"and not hesitating to overturn the tables when he saw lies, corruption and abuse. The Christian Church throughout the ages may have often traded on lies and abuse, but Jesus himself spoke up against power and corruption. The Incarnation should also strike us as iconoclastic because it smashes to pieces some of our ideas about the nature of God.  It also challenges our human ideas about power and hierarchy; Mary tells us that it is the work of a God who "hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts and the rich he hath sent empty away."

So, what is the true meaning of Christianity - and isn't it time to reclaim it?

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Nativity scenes

I was quite amused by this post on Bosco Peter's Liturgy blog with some bizarre depictions of the Nativity. It is weird enough depicting Mary, Joseph and Jesus as cats or ducks, but who came up with the idea for the Nativity below, and were they taking a leaf out of Lady Gaga's book?

I know the word became flesh and dwelt among us - but I don't think that means the word became bacon and sausage...

Saturday, 10 December 2011

Repentance and hope

The call to repentance is an integral part of the penitential season of Advent because without the willingness to change and to be changed we cannot be said to have prepared ourselves for the coming of Christ. John the Baptist, with his outspoken message, can be seen an embodiment of the mad sage, a figure found throughout myth and literature, representing someone who lives on the margins of society yet who has a message for mainstream society, often confronting it with uncomfortable truths about prevailing attitudes and behaviour. People tend either to heed such voices or completely dismiss them, rarely is their reaction lukewarm.
When John says that he is a voice crying in the wilderness, make straight the way of the Lord, he is echoing the words of Isaiah which foretell the coming of the Messiah. In 1963, in his speech to members of the civil rights movement, Martin Luther King also drew on the words spoken by Isaiah and John to call people to a radical attitude of repentance. He said he had a dream that, " one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together"  and that his words would help to transform the “desert state of Mississippi” into an “oasis of freedom and hope”. King’s allusion to these two prophets was clear, he too was a voice crying out in a wilderness, and he too is drawing a comparison between inhospitable landscapes and the desert of our hearts. Our attitudes to God, ourselves and each other need to change in order to usher in the Kingdom of God and allow the glory of the Lord to be revealed.
     This Advent message of changing our attitudes to others truly needs to be heard. A study just recently suggested that our current economic downturn does not seem to have brought out a spirit of compassion or empathy. In marked contrast to previous recessions we seem more willing to blame others, in particular the poor. Rather than all being in it together, we seem much more interested in getting out of it unscathed, in the meantime feeling resentful about everyone and everything that “caused” the problems – except, of course, ourselves.
     The Advent message of changing our attitudes to ourselves also needs to be heard. Advent is often described as an “emptying “- as John says, “I must become less, he must become more.” We’ve lived for too long in a culture that tells we should take everything we can. We’ve been told to aspire to have and buy the best we can - because we’re worth it. No wonder we feel aggrieved, perhaps we might not be worth it after all? I suspect that at the root of a lot of our human anguish is the fear that we might be worthless. It sounds paradoxical, but emptying of the self allows us to find worth. I am really, really bad at the whole emptying lark by the way, but I know it is only when we make room within our hearts that we grow.
 Repentance opens up the potential for change and that paves the way to hope.

Friday, 9 December 2011

Joseph - a Nativity poem

They say there are signs.
Not with her.
I’m no professor
but neither am I stupid.
I asked her who she’d been seeing.
She sat there murmuring ‘Angel’.

She went north a few days
- change’ll do you good.
The solicitors said to forget it.
‘Without proof…’ they smiled.
If anything she started to brighten:
‘They’ll be cousins, same age!’
(I can’t be sure,
but I think I saw him, too.)

We left it too late, of course.
The traffic was solid,
some pop idol on the hire car radio
massacring ‘Hallelujah’.
We stopped at a Little Chef
on a B-road somewhere in the hills.

Crystal midnight it was,
good as daylight.
Then she grew wild-eyed.
Her bawling, a blunt saw,
cut through me.
It wasn’t like in the songs.

Anthony Wilson

I love this modern day version of the events leading up to the Nativity told from Joseph's perspective. H/t to Phil's Treehouse.

Monday, 5 December 2011

Wednesday, 30 November 2011

When we walk in darkness

“I’ve had plenty of opportunities to be depressed – I just haven’t taken them!”

The statement above was posted on a friend’s Face book page and it caused a lot of heated comment and condemnation, especially as it was reportedly said by a pastor. I have to admit that I agreed with the consensus, which was that such a comment was offensive and tasteless, not to mention possibly very damaging. It made me think both about how we can hurt people by making sweeping statements about very personal issues that we have little or no experience of, and it made me think about mental illness itself.
I also considered the statement in the light of Advent. The link between mental illness and Advent may seem remote, but Advent comes at the darkest period of the year and it involves a waiting, a belief that even if we walk in darkness, there may be light and there may be hope. Having suffered myself from mental illness, I know that it was not in any way an “opportunity” that I wanted to grasp. After the birth of my second son, a few days before Christmas, I developed severe post natal depression. Post natal depression has been described as crawling into a pit of blackness and being unable to find your way out; it’s not the sort of thing you sign up for!
Postnatal depression can progress rapidly from “the baby blues”, to acute depression, to borderline and then even full blown psychosis. I never reached the full blown stage, but I did reach a point where my thoughts began to seem like voices outside my control. When I became ill, and it is an illness, I realised something that I never had before. Before I had thought that the worst things to lose would be things like my job or my physical health. I had not considered the prospect of losing my sanity. I had worried about losing family or friends, but not of losing my identity or sense of who I was. It was as if I had walked out on myself. It was truly the most terrifying experience.
Advent is the promise of God with us. Christ came to the earth and experienced human life among the plain and impoverished, was born in unsavoury conditions, in exile, threatened by danger and persecution. To be human is to suffer; to be born is to die. It is not a pretty story any more than our lives are always pretty stories. So many human beings  walk in darkness.
Where was Christ during that black Advent and Christmas? Well, I think he was there in the love and support of my family and of my wonderful husband who did all the practical things and also managed to walk with me – and being alongside someone who is hopelessly and irrationally ill – suffering from an illness that you cannot see, is no easy task. Fortunately, perhaps because I received understanding , not  the sort of condemnation which would make my guilt worse, there was light at the end of my particular blackness.
Just as God came to suffer alongside us, to give us his light and to be with us, so we are called to be with others and to walk alongside them, to be Christ to them, especially when they are in dark places that we dread, or fear, or do not fully understand.

World Aids Day

Tomorrow is World Aids Day. In the video below, Rowan Williams reflects on the sexual violence and the role of sexual violence in the spread of AIDS in Africa.

Saturday, 26 November 2011

Grassroots God

I started thinking about Christmas in July this year, so a bit of a head start there! The above video (ht Blue Eyed Ennis) speaks to me about a grassroots God, one who chose to come not to the rich and powerful but to the poorest and most marginalised  and who starts in our hearts and works outwards to transform our lives.  John  1: 14 can apparently be translated as "The Word became flesh and pitched his tent among us." The wonderful, almost casual image of "pitching a tent" speaks to me  of a God who is resourceful, in our midst, on the move, dynamic and not static.The idea of God with us, and the way that God dwells with us and in us, is one of the key message of Advent and one that takes some time to ponder.

Friday, 25 November 2011

Rip! Rip! Rip!

This evening I read in the The Huffington Post  that each school in the UK is to receive a copy of the King James bible with a introduction written by Michael Gove. Let me make it clear that I have no problem with every school having a King James bible, students from all faith backgrounds and none should be encouraged to read the King James, a text which contains much beautiful language, thought and poetry. The bible is a key part of our cultural heritage and it is tragic that there is such ignorance of it and the ideas it contains. I always tell students that if they want to do well in Literature, they should read the bible. My main problem with the proposal lay not with the bible itself but with the nauseating prospect of such a beautiful, challenging and life altering text being sullied by  an introduction by Michael Gove.
Some critics have complained that Gove is promoting religious values at the expense of multi culturalism through this proposal. Others have asked whether he will also write an introduction to the origin of the species (please, don't encourage the man...) and put that on display in schools. But while the multiculturalists, Darwinists and Richard Dawkins bleat and complain, I'd like to jump on the band wagon and say that I really object to the likes of Mr Gove using this sacred text to convince blue rinse brigade Tories and outraged Daily Mail readers that he will tackle moral decline, instil right thinking in our youngsters and generally drag us back to the nineteen fifties. I hate to think what Mr Gove will pontificate about in his introduction to the bible, but I am pretty sure it will utterly destroy any sense of  awe, mystery or radical thought and reduce it to some sort of right wing formula.
In fact it brought to mind this sketch from Dead Poets society in which one J.Evans Pritchard advocates the use of a graph to measure poetry. If a copy of Mr Gove's bible falls into my hands,  my fingers might just be itching to rip out the introduction and leave the pure unadulterated text - because, to modify the quote at the end of this clip, "No matter what anyone tells you, the bible can change the world."

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Do dogs have souls? (part sixteen)

For those sceptics amongst you who have not come to the blindingly obvious conclusion that dogs do have souls, here is more evidence. A dog in China is staunchly keeping watch by his master's grave and it is reported that even attempts to starve him into abandoning the grave have not worked. Perhaps the most famous example of this kind of dogged devotion (I know...I'm sorry...) is the story of Greyfriar's Bobby, a Skye terrier who kept up a fourteen year vigil. There are some doubting Thomas stories circulating on the web claiming the whole Bobby thing was a bit of a hoax and that the dog spent a lot of his time in local restaurants ( well - a dog has to eat, doesn't he?)
 Hmmmm...I wonder if Bessie would show this sort of loyalty?

Sunday, 20 November 2011

From the Cloister to the World

 "I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed", wrote John Milton in  his essay Areopagitica in1634. I guess quite a few people know this quote, fewer may realise that Milton was expressing fairly controversial views about the use of the printing press- a technology that was his generation's equivalent to the Internet. It is hard for us to grasp now just how revolutionary the advent of printing was. A single Renaissance printing press could produce 3,600 pages per day compared to just a few produced laboriously by hand. Moreover, the printing press gave freedom of expression to those who might not previously have had a voice and it enabled people to access literature in their mother tongue, in particular that  radical and subversive book - the Bible. Milton saw the potential for printing as a means to allow freedom of thought and  disseminate "virtue" more widely. He acknowledged that wrong and dangerous ideas would be expressed, but he had a staunch belief that this was preferable to curtailing access to knowledge and communication.

  This is not going to be a post about press freedom, or The News of the World hacking scandals because that is more about responsibility and self regulation than censorship,  rather I want to think about the role of the Internet. This vehicle for communication does, it is true, contain many pitfalls and have negative aspects, but it can also be a force for good. Like many things in life, it is not the Internet itself, but how it is used in human hands that makes the difference. One of the blogs in which I love to read is the I-Benedictine blog run by the nuns of East Hendred. In the introduction to the blog, they write:
" We prefer to call ourselves cloistered rather than enclosed because the word “enclosed” may suggest a closed mind. We have a special interest in using contemporary technology to reach out to people who would never otherwise come to the monastery." And reach out they do. I commend to you two recent posts, the first is  Vacare Deo  which reflects on making space for God in our everyday lives and the second a short but  meaningful reflection on anxiety. This is online ministry in a very real sense. Perhaps it is because the nuns are apart from the world that they have so much to offer to the world and they truly use modern technology as a vehicle to bless others.
If Milton were writing today, I am sure he would praise their far from fugitive virtue.

Friday, 18 November 2011

Food as a moral issue

Food and food econony is definitely in the headlines at the moment; how we feed ourselves , the nation and the world is making the news much more frequently. Radio 4 promoted the toast sandwich this week, an apparently "healthy" snack consisting of a thin slice of toast between two pieces of bread. The fact that this repast was Mrs. Beeton's answer to Victorian austerity was a stark reminder that the kind of squeeze on food bills that the average Briton is facing bears no real comparison to the food poverty of the past, or to that faced in so many other parts of the world. During the Second World War, the food writer MFK Fisher recommended that people should breakfast on piles of toast or a large bowl of porridge, explaining that "You can be lavish because the meal is inexpensive."  It is the same principle as the toast sandwich.
Food shortages and the rising cost of food worldwide provides a grim backdrop to the growing need for practising thrift and avoiding wastefulness. Children still regularly die of starvation and in many parts of the world families struggle to feed their children. This is nothing new, the poor always have and always will be with us and most of us -  I include myself - are quite good at ignoring the fact.
 It is, therefore, positive that we are beginning to be more aware of how we manage food as a resource and that this is being highlighted as an important social, political and moral issue.  We still  need to seriously rethink some of our attitudes to food, for example there have been moves to try to reduce the scandalous waste in British households by axing over cautious "Best before" labels on food and encouraging supermarkets to be more ethical in the way they source and manage food.
An event that took place today in Trafalgar Square , the biblically named Feeding the 5000, aimed to highlight the  practice of supermarkets discarding "imperfect" vegetables by cooking and serving a free lunch made of wonky carrots and other weirdly shaped foodstuffs. The thought that a rather delicious free lunch would otherwise have ended up as landfill, something which happens every day and which damages the environment as well as wasting good food, really should make us stop and think! Just because we are able to afford to waste food - and  a lot of people in Britain still are in that position - does not make it alright to waste food. The reading  this week shows us that we will be judged on the extent to which we have tried to to meet both physical and spiritual needs of others. It is also clear that when we are told :"I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me", it is simply not going to be good enough to say that we were too busy enjoying our riches, building our careers, stuffing our faces, or generally looking after ourselves to notice...

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Canterbury and the Covenant

It has been a relatively long time since I composed a blog post about the Anglican Covenant. The reason for this, dear reader, is that I have grown  bored and weary. I don't mean that the intricacies of the Covenant  it self have  bored me - although to be honest it is not the most riveting document I have ever read. It is more that I have become increasingly  dull and dispirited watching the inevitable squabbling that it has  generated. Watching the reactions and voting in various dioceses and provinces around the world, it has become clear that the optimistically named "Covenant" it is not going to be wholeheartedly embraced by the majority of Anglicans. Hard line conservatives are just as likely to reject it for being "toothless" as liberals are for being "restricting". I have come to doubt the certainty of both sides; as I implied when I wrote this recipe for fudge there is no knowing what the thing will actually work out like until we have it - and that in itself seems to me a good reasons to say "No".
 The only reason that I am blogging about the whole sorry matter today (when I could be doing more exciting things like watching paint dry) is that my attention was caught by a few posts that I read about it. Lay Anglica  reports that there are attempts to rush the Covenant through Synod in 2012 and that pressure will be brought to bear to ensure its acceptance. I don't know if this is true, but it would not surprise me. One thing that is clear is that for the Church of England to reject the Covenant would be a disaster in terms of the position and reputation of the Archbishop of Canterbury. The Covenant is Rowan William's baby,  for it to be rejected on home territory would undoubtedly be a humiliating defeat. It might look worse than disloyalty and  I suspect it might appear a green light for mutiny in some quarters.

Speaking of the role of the Archbishop of Canterbury, this recent post from Tobias Haller is also worth a quick glance. In it the author questions the need for the four Instruments of Communion and says that we do not find our "identity" in them at all. He opines that to claim to find our identity in the Instruments is " slightly blasphemous" as our identity should be found in Christ alone (isn't that the title of a hymn..?) The instruments of Communion, Haller tells us, " are all relatively recent entities not only in Christianity but even among Anglicans." But...hang on a minute, isn't the Archbishop himself one of the Instruments of Communion? Yes, Haller concedes, admitting that the office is " one that has been around since the sixth century"  but emphasising that it "didn't really operate as a voice in the Communion until 1785-89, with the first Lambeth Conference being in 1867. "
  Haller says the role is not “foundational or essential or definitional to Anglicanism" and he regards the Covenant as wanting to make some substantial changes in the "deep structures"  of Anglicanism without there being much apparent awareness of the implications.  Haller is not the first to focus on the  role of the ABC, and Lambeth Palace will be aware that Canterbury has its critics and those with their vested interests waiting in the wings. A rejection of the Covenant in England would be a nasty own goal.
I think we might see concerted efforts to get the Covenant through Synod at all costs. It simply can't afford to fail here. I shall be watching events Synodical with some interest again, it might be depressing, I don't think it will be dull.
(Since writing this post it has been announced that Birmingham and Truro have  both resoundingly rejected the Anglican Covenant. )

Monday, 14 November 2011

Reading or revising the parables

I have been wondering recently how wide our scope is for interpreting and reinterpreting scripture.

This weekend I was visiting family and so attended a different church. The sermon was on the parable of the talents, one of those parables which can be rather troubling. The exegesis that I am familiar with concerning the talents is that it is a warning against not using one's gifts to the glory of God, not making the most of the  talents in every sense that we have been given. However, in Sunday's sermon, it was suggested to us that the master, far from representing God, was in fact an embodiment of the Pharisees, a heartless and oppressive taskmaster who unjustly set the third servant up to fail and cruelly condemned him for his understandable fear of failure.God, we were told, does not set people up to fail or condemn them for being afraid and Jesus intended to rebuke the Pharisees through this parable.
Now, I certainly agree that God does not set people up to fail or that he condemns us for fear and I do not like to see scripture preached in ways that are damaging or insensitive - but I was not sure that I felt comfortable with such a major reworking of the traditional understanding of this parable.  I do not agree that the third servant  was set up to fail simply because he was given  one talent because  I believe this was quite a high measurement , apparently one talent of silver was worth nine man years of skilled work and burying that in the ground does seem a collosal waste! Furthermore, the beginning of the reading tells us that it is a  about the Kingdom of Heaven, "Again it (the Kingdom of Heaven) will be like a man going on  a journey" and one of the constant themes is that finding the Kingdom of Heaven requires risk, like a man buying a field to find a pearl, and taking care over the small things which matter, like a woman working yeast throughout the "dough" of daily life, or someone planting a tiny seed which grows into a flourishing tree.  I think the message of the parable is not just that the lazy servant failed but that his attitude was such that he did not try and he did not risk and he did not search to find a purpose for his life or his talents and for that he was rebuked.
  To be honest the parable of the talents is not my favourite. I too find it challenging and difficult - but then there is nothing wrong with challenge or difficulty. As a literature teacher I am aware that alternative readings can have validity, it is good to bring different perspectives, I do certainly do not think scripture always means one thing and one thing only. At the same time, we have to consider the motives behind any reading and I don't want to see messages reduced to safe dimensions but losing their force and power. I wondered if the interpretation I heard  wasn't a running away from the challenge that this parable offers into safe territory - the sort of safe territory that the third servant sought when he buried his talents instead of risking them courageously?
What do people think?

Thursday, 10 November 2011

Remembrance and reconciliation

When you are standing at your hero’s grave,
Or near some homeless village where he died,
Remember, through your heart’s rekindling pride,
The German soldiers who were loyal and brave.

Men fought like brutes; and hideous things were done;
And you have nourished hatred, harsh and blind.
But in that Golgotha perhaps you’ll find
The mothers of the men who killed your son.

Siegfried Sassoon November 1918

This year’s Remembrance Day has attracted particular attention because of the symmetry of the date – 11.11.11. It marks the 93rd anniversary of the end of the First World War and dates back to the armistice at the end of that war marking the cessation of hostilities on the Western Front at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.
One of the things that moves me about Siegfried Sassoon’s poem “Reconciliation” is quite simply its date. Written in November 1918, presumably to mark the armistice, it recognises the difficulty of achieving genuine reconciliation when events are near and feelings still raw, yet it still asks the reader to forgive. The poem courageously articulates what may have been unpalatable truths – that the German soldiers too were “loyal and brave”, that just because someone is your hero does not make them the only hero,  that men on both sides, “fought like brutes” ( and that even heroes are forced into atrocity in war), and that our jingoistic hatred is “blind.” Sassoon does recognise that grief is a personal “Golgotha” but gently suggests that in our grief we might meet our enemies and recognise them as fellow victims and sufferers and so overcome our hatred. It is a courageous poem, one that recognises that  it is not until we have understood and forgiven that we have really laid down arms.

Sunday, 6 November 2011

What makes you happy?

Some interesting responses from the participants of Question Time when asked "What makes you happy?" I've blogged on this subject before and think it is a question well worth asking ourselves, as the bible says, "Where your treasure lies, there will your heart lie also."  Most of the participants gave fairly conventional answers such as their partner or children and interestingly nobody admitted that it was actually amassing obscene amounts of wealth or power or over indulging in alchohol, food or bodily pleasures - but then they wouldn't would they?
The two responses which stood out most were the first and the last. Benjamin Zephaniah (wonderful man) spoke of just breathing and not expecting too much from life and Peter Hitchens said his faith in God brought him happiness (I am not personally keen on Hitchens, but it was a thought provoking answer.)
Happiness is  subjective  in many ways and different to different people. I don't know what your answer is, it might even be a cigar named Hamlet...

Saturday, 5 November 2011

Diagnosing Martin Luther

 Monday, as a commenter on this blog pointed out, was not just Halloween but also Reformation Day- the anniversary of the day that Martin Luther nailed his  articles on the door of Wittenberg church, an act which would have far reaching consequences bringing a level of schism and division not seen before or since and in the light of which our current divisions and conflicts will (I hope) appear  more as a blip on the graph of religious history than a seismic shift. I first studied the Reformation properly during A level History and it was  fascinating to see not only the far reaching consequences that ideas can have but also  the journey that individuals go on before those ideas are realised. Luther, for example, was reportedly a very tortured soul who punished himself excessively over his shortcomings ; it was arguably the physical, mental and spiritual exhaustion this caused that brought him to a place where, reading scripture, he rediscovered and articulated more fully to others the idea of salvation through grace rather than works.
While reading through various blog posts this week, my attention was caught by this article called Beating myself up over religion from the BBC "Ouch! (disability) blog. In it the author, who is a Jew, but also describes his Roman Catholic mother experiencing the same reaction, writes,

"While the thread uniting every religion is the belief in revering the deity, improving yourself, and behaving in a proper manner, the dogma and doctrine can easily lead a person with an anxiety disorder to believe that anything less than perfection makes you an utter failure."

The author describes suffering from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and finding that religious belief simply imposed more rituals, as well as the fear that he had to do everything "exactly right" and that the effect of religious faith was intense "worry and anguish".  I immediately thought of Martin Luther and wondered if he too suffered from OCD or something similar?  How many saints and mystics could be described as completely sane and balanced? I once read that many periods  of mystical and extreme behaviour were then followed by periods of practical work and service. How far was this because those individuals, having wrestled their spiritual angels and demons, then found themselves free? I do not want to be too reverential about  mental illness. I have suffered from it myself and would not wish a mental health condition, or even the dark night of the soul, upon anyone. And yet sometimes to struggle spiritually leads us to insight. William Blake said that "The road of excess leads to the palace of Wisdom, and Luther's early spiritual obssessions were a form of excess that led to wisdom.
 I suspect that Luther might in this day and age be prescribed medication, counselling and cognitive behavioural therapy, no doubt enormously alleviating his problems, but perhaps preventing that journey that led him to rearticulate so powerfully something that  was always there in scripture - that we are not perfect, just forgiven.

Signs and blunders

Some more amusing signs and notices here from the wonderful Ship of Fools to cheer up your weekend:)

Monday, 31 October 2011

Lighting a candle on All Hallows Eve

The approach to Hallowe'en found below  is thought provoking and rather gentle - educational in all sorts of ways. Everyone knows about Halloween, but how many know that Halloween owes its existence to and has its roots in Christian traditions, being the Eve of the Feast of All Saints, followed by All Souls?
Every year, on Hallowe’en, I sit on the front porch of my house with a bowl of candy, a box of beeswax candles, and a large icon for the Feast of All Saints. Every child who comes to the house gets a piece of candy, and may also light a candle and place it before the icon. Very few kids (even the jaded teenagers) turn down the opportunity.For those who ask, I tell them that the meaning of the word “Hallowe’en” is “the eve of the Feast of All Saints”.
If they press me on the point, I tell them that they can think of the true meaning of Hallowe’en as being that, because of Christ, they can dress up like ghosts and goblins and whatnot, because we do not need to fear those things any longer. I wish I had a few photos of the kids in Satan masks, lighting a candle and placing it before the icon…

I found this post on Silouan - and, with the ghosts, ghouls and goblins ringing on my door as I type, I wish I could see the dressed up kids and teens  lighting candles too!

Saturday, 29 October 2011

Cleverbot the priest?

OK, so this  piece which I read on The Guardian comment is free amused me anyhow! I was quite taken with the answer to the question, "What happens at the end of the bible?" The answer: "Harry kills Voldemort. It all ends. " Given that this is a work in progress, I think we may have a solution to the problem of who should be the next Archbishop of Canterbury.

Friday, 28 October 2011

Thinking about idealism

I did not blog earlier in the week on the events at St Paul's; one of the reasons for this is that I think the issues at stake are rather complex and it irks me somewhat to hear people confidently proclaiming the rights and wrongs of a situation which can quite legitimately be viewed from a number of different perspectives. Firstly, I do sympathise somewhat with the protesters in their stand against the greed and irresponsibility of the financial markets, although I am also a little cynical given that we are all to some extent invested in global Capitalism - do none of the protesters have loans or personal finance, because most of them certainly have homes which, if reports are to be believed, 90% of them conveniently return to at night... I can also see that the custodians of the Cathedral are anxious that the site does not become a permanent fixture, although I wonder to what extent the loss of revenue, rather than the very expedient pleas of health and safety, lie at the root of their eagerness to see the protesters gone. Finally, I do understand Giles Fraser's sense of concern and outrage that the Church should use or condone force to remove peaceful demonstration, although at the same time I question whether his response is a little disproportionate and I know some feel he rapidly backed himself into a corner, or even that he is intent on being a martyr in the whole situation.

The events have made me think about idealism. I am not entirely an idealist, I think I have a healthy dose of pragmatism, not to mention an unhealthy dose of cynicism that tells me that our ideals often cannot be realised given the flawed nature of our own and others motives and understanding and the very imperfect world that we live in. However, I believe that when we are motivated by a desire to create a better world for others our humanity often shows through at its best. We would be poorer without idealists however annoying they may sometimes be! I have a great deal of respect for Giles Fraser, he is certainly committed to ideals of equality and justice. This does not mean I agree with everything that he says, at times I find his "inclusive" theology rather bland and I imagine he represents everything which some people find annoying about his particular brand of Christianity, but he has today shown himself to be someone who stands by his ideals, whether you think them misguided or not.
One of the problems with the Church is that it is an institution and institutions tend to be serve their own financial, political and practical interests , often over and above the values upon which they are meant to be based. I would argue this is true of no organisation more than the Church - you only have to look at the child abuse cover up scandals in the Roman Catholic Church to be aware of this - and the Church of England is also often guilty of putting expediency before its mission to act in Christ like ways. I think the way Giles Fraser has acted has a certain personal integrity, but it could not really be described as expedient or even particularly judicious.
I wonder what would happen if St Paul's really did think "What would Jesus do?" and tried to act on it? It would be naive and silly really, wouldn't it? They'd fall foul of health and safety laws for a start, lose all their money and maybe have to sell the building and give it all to the poor. And imagine if we all did things like that in our personal lives. The world would have us over a barrel and take us to the cleaners. Act like Jesus did! Don't be silly- they'd crucify us.

Fraser resigns

Thursday, 27 October 2011

Pure Poetry


Like a painting it is set before one,
But less brittle, ageless; these colours
Are renewed daily with variations
Of light and distance that no painter
Achieves or suggests. Then there is movement,
Change, as slowly the cloud bruises
Are healed by sunlight, or snow caps
A black mood; but gold at evening
To cheer the heart. All through history
The great brush has not rested,
Nor the paint dried; yet what eye,
Looking coolly, or, as we now,
Through the tears' lenses, ever saw
This work and it was not finished?

R. S. Thomas

I am rather partial to the poetry of R.S.Thomas. Walking Bess across some of the fields close to where we live these last few days made me think of the poem above. On Tuesday the light was so clear that the water was like a mirror reflecting the every detail of the Autumn trees and sky. Yesterday I made sure to take the camera, and although the light was not quite so good, I took these photos  which almost do justice to the scenery.

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Is religion bad for women?

 In the light of the discussion a few posts below, I was interested to listen to this item debating  the question Is religion bad for women?  during Women's Hour on Radio 4. Is religious ideology largely a male construct or have women always appropriated and indeed had a key role within religious traditions? Do religions control and subjugate women or is the whole picture more complex than this? A brief but thought provoking exchange of views here.
On the theme of the post below, I noticed that Philomena Ewing  had posted a link to BBC Radio 2 discussion of "What has religion ever done for women" on Blue Eyed Ennis. The article is an hour long but worth listening to for its range and variety of perspectives, even if it does play too many Dolly Partonesque type songs!

Monday, 24 October 2011

Freedom of speech and discrimination

The Daily Mail yesterday reported on the case of Adrian Smith, an employee who has been demoted allegedly simply because he posted on Face book comments which disapproved of the new proposals to allow civil partnerships to be registered in religious premises. This is the latest in a long line of cases which are being brought, and no doubt being supported by the Christian Institute, alleging that Christians are facing discrimination for their beliefs/ opinions in the workplace and that this amounts both to discrimination and suppression of free speech. Recent examples include a builder disciplined over a palm cross on his dashboard and the case of the cafe owner who was questioned by the police for allowing homophobic comments to be played on a video relaying scripture in his Christian cafe (I didn't manage to blog on that one!)

I have blogged on these matters fairly extensively over the past few months and years. I find it depressing that so many of these cases revolve around sexuality, which seems to be a tinder point for many disagreements, although the wearing of crosses and saying of prayers for patients has also featured.  I have argued before that each case needs to be looked at on its merits and also that the the law should allow a clause for reasonableness and context , and indeed this has recently been mooted  by the Equality Commission. It is a very different matter, for example, if a cafe is playing a looped video of the whole of the bible ( in which case people should put anything that jars in context and live with it in my humble opinion!) from if they are repeatedly playing specific verses with the marked intention of targeting a particular group and causing distress or offence.

As for the case of Adrian Smith, on the basis of what has been reported  it sounds as if he has been badly treated both by colleagues and his employers. I am aware, however, that there is often more to these stories than first meets the eye and The Daily Mail  sometimes has a reputation for being less than accurate and impartial in their reporting. I note that there is a sentence about a "second colleague" who has complained and, in the Telegraph, a mention of a previous faith based complaint. I am also unsure whether the case doesn't also  say just as much about the increasing power of employers over their employees, the pitfalls of social media and the Internet, and our increasing willingness to resort to "law" and not "jaw" to resolve our disputes and disagreements. I can't help thinking that when it comes to disputes the principle of resolving matters informally and amicably whenever humanly possible would benefit us greatly.

Friday, 21 October 2011

Laws and principles

 China has been doing some soul searching this week after horrific video footage showed a two year old girl, Yueyue, knocked over by a van and then ignored by at least eighteen of her fellow human beings. Finally a woman did go to her aid, a true Samaritan , as not only did she not walk by but she was apparently a scavenger, a garbage collector, one of the least privileged in society.
       This morning it was announced that Yueyue had died and that there was talk of bringing in a  new law which would make it illegal not to go to the aid of a stranger in need, there was also some discussion of why so many had quite clearly knowingly ignored or avoided a child in desperate need, including that some might have been motivated by fear of litigation or of being accused of causing the injuries in the first place. The discussion made me think about laws and our behaviour, particularly as the gospel reading this week includes Jesus telling the experts in the Law that the greatest commandments are to love God and your neighbour and that on these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets. It is a peculiarly apt and poignant reading in the light of these events, particularly as, in the gospel of Luke, Christ's injunction to love our neighbour as ourselves leads on to the story of the Good Samaritan in answer to the question, "Who is my neighbour?"
All societies have laws and need laws, but rules and regulations arise out of human frailty and can themselves be flawed. We have all heard of instances where the law has been correctly applied but the result has seemed unjust; the law has been a blunt tool in the hands of fallible humanity and might be said to have failed to achieve its intention or to be true to underlying principles. As Christians we are commanded to love God and to love each other; those are not the kind of rules and regulations that can be simply achieved, they are more something we have to devote ourselves to as a way of life, they are overarching principles upon which more specific and measurable rules and laws should be based. Laws are important, but the principles which underlie them give them meaning and make them more than just a set of dos and don'ts. This is why God aims to write his law on our hearts, because laws should not just be sentences written on paper, they should be a living attitude and ethos in the hearts and minds of all of us. He also aims to give us hearts of flesh, not stone, because hearts of flesh respond to the suffering and pain of others.
         I am not sure that bringing in a law that compels us to help others is the right approach (although removing a law that makes people afraid to help might be.) We should not go to the aid of a child because we are afraid of breaking the law; it is something we should do instinctively out of compassion and concern for another. A law like that should be written on every heart that is made of flesh and not of stone.

Monday, 17 October 2011

The venomous theology of taint

Down from the waist they are Centaurs,
Though women all above: But to the girdle do the gods inherit,
Beneath is all the fiends';
There's hell, there's darkness, there's the sulphurous pit,
Burning, scalding, stench, consumption; fie,
fie, fie! pah, pah!
Give me an ounce of civet,
good apothecary, to sweeten my imagination:
King Lear (IV, vi)

Very few pieces that I have read convey the blind irrationality and fear that lies at the root of  true misogyny  as this evocative passage from King Lear. We all know that this kind of fear that women might contaminate and infect existed throughout history and is still alive and kicking in some parts of the world. Perhaps we don't quite expect to find it in the Church of England?
Just recently I received the account below; it was written by a woman who attended the same meeting described in the recent post on the debate on women bishops and describes the views expressed as "bile" and as "venomous". I am not going to name the diocese, but it occurs to me that it must have been quite some meeting! It reads as follows: 
     "I recently attended my first Deanery Synod. My expectations were not high; I anticipated a slightly dull evening with a serious, if somewhat worthy, discussion of the agenda items. The main issue was the legislation for the ordination of women bishops.

     My expectations were totally confounded; it was far from a dull meeting. I witnessed a shocking display of misogyny that would have led to disciplinary action being taken in any of the areas that I have worked in. There was a palpable sense of outrage expressed by one of the speakers at the temerity of women in the Church. His forcibly expressed view that the ordination of women transmitted a contagion that was irreversible and rendered those involved with their ordination unfit for ministering to, or in conjunction with, those opposed to women priests was offensive. That these views were allowed to pass unchallenged compounded the offence, and it made matters worse that those attempting to counter this bile were effectively silenced.
            There was much talk of the pain and hurt felt by the opponents of women priests and their desire for an honoured place within the Church but the hurt and distress felt by women exposed to such venomous views was not mentioned."
             Since the meeting I have been assured by a retired clergyman that my concerns regarding the role of women in our diocese are unfounded as our bishop is very tolerant of women. I, and most other women I have spoken to, do not want to be tolerated; we want to be valued and encouraged in the same way that our male counterparts are.

I don't want to comment too much on the specifics of the above, it was not a meeting I attended and it was not my experience, but it does leave me disturbed that, in the midst of what has been an overwhelming groundswell of support for women bishops, views have been expressed in such a manner to have left some women feeling shocked, offended, unvalued, spoken about as unclean.  It reminded me of the concerns that menstruating women would transfer taint to the sacrament when women were first ordained. One of the most tragic aspects of all of this is that is so contrary to the gospels, in which Christ was touched by and touched  all manner of women with a wonderful disregard for the fact that such association would have probably been regarded as rendering  him constantly ritually unclean.
I do understand those who wish to find an "honoured place" for those opposed to the ministry of women, but honouring others cuts both ways. Some of the underlying theologies of those opposed are not sound, not rational, not humane and not bibilical. It is simply not acceptable to describe others in a way that shows contempt, disgust or revulsion for who they are, and such views should be challenged.

Sunday, 16 October 2011

Friends, fellowship and getting older

  I spent yesterday in Birmingham with a group  of Christian friends. At our last meeting in Birmingham we went for a time of prayer at St Martin's in the Bullring, this time we went to Birmingham City Cathedral. The signs outside and on the website says it is "celebrating Christ in the city" and the Cathedral - a beautiful building- certainly is surrounded by large modern office blocks and is right next to a busy road. There is a sense of past and present, of old traditions and modern life, and of  thriving, active bustling life alongside the small oasis of calm and beauty evoked by the Cathedral building and its peaceful grounds.
 After our time in the Cathedral and a meal, we walked around the canal area. It was a beautiful bright October day and the area really showed to advantage with the  colourful barges, the sunshine on the water, and and groups of people sitting out in front of restaurants and cafes. We ended up at a cafe and by the time we left the light was fading and the waterfront was lit up, a pretty sight with the lights reflected in the water.
The day out seemed just right for this weekend as next week I turn forty five, an age when you really can't deny that you are getting older and when you do reflect on where you are in life and what you value. It was a good day, a day of good conversations and fellowship, something like a gift to be kept and treasured in amongst all the bustle and activity of life.
Young girl in a balloon hat. There was quite a holiday feel down by the waterfront

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Father, Son and Fashionista

The gospel reading this week was the parable of the Wedding Banquet (Matthew 22), you know, that story which is rather touchy-feely until the bit where the King discovers the guest who isn't wearing wedding clothes and then has him bound and cast into the outer darkness, accompanied by wailing and gnashing of teeth. I've read a few anguished posts on this one this week, but I have to admit that I was thinking it sounds fair enough. After all, if you are going to turn up at someone's wedding and scoff their free food and quaff their wine, it seems to me the least you can do is to make a bit of an effort and make sure you look the part. Does anyone have a problem with that?
As I was listening to the reading and thinking about clothes and appearance, it occured to me that it was absolutely ages since I visited  Beauty Tips for Ministers in which the wonderfully named PeaceBang spreads the gospel that Christianity does not have to equal frump and offers advice to vicars on matters sartorial because, "God knows you're in the public eye and need to look good."
It was clearly a word from the Lord, so when I got home I logged straight on and I wasn't disappointed. Since my last visit, PeaceBang has continued to dispense sound advice, including articles on whether a vicar can get away with wearing shades, an article on some ground breaking research about how makeup makes you look more competent and trustworthy, a stern post  about leggings which warns us all that "you are not to fall prey to the Satanic temptation" to wear them (or presumably PeaceBang may cast you into the outer darkness ), advice for pregnant vicars on how to be "knocked up in style", and even a post on adopting and adapting nun's habits (think that's just for nuns, but I leave it to your discretion...)
Beauty Tips for Ministers is largely a blog for women and not necessarily just for vicars, but Peacebang does offer advice to men. Under the "Advice for my menfolk" link we find articles such as "don't wear a silly tie when making a serious appearance" and some advice on how to shed a dullsville clergy image, although pesonally when I saw the picture to the left I did think most vicars might find it hard to work that outfit and still be trusted to baptise babies...
Anyhow, I commend PeaceBang's blog to anyone who likes to be entertained, or fears the kind of fashion faux pas that leads to wailing and gnashing of teeth, or  would simply prefer to truly look as if they are made in God's image ,because as PeaceBang might say, God isn't frumpy, darlings, she's got style.

Monday, 10 October 2011

In the Lion's Den

I am full of admiration for the personal courage being shown by Rowan Williams in undertaking his current visit to Zimbabwe. Williams stirs mixed feelings in many Christians who hold their faith  from quite different perspectives. Many have expressed a sense of frustration, disillusion, sometimes betrayal, a sense that he does not go far enough or  conversely acts in ways that are so cautious or expedient as to verge on the pusillanimous.
Those accusation certainly cannot be levelled at him this week. He has ventured into an environment where some have expressed the strongest animosity towards him and shown themselves capable of carrying out violence. He has previously opposed  Mugabe and he spoke out strongly against "lawlessness" and  the condemnation of "mindless and Godless" violence seen in Zimbabwe. It is admirable that he is prepared to confront Mugabe face to face. Some might say it is naive of Williams to think that any such meeting will achieve anything or foolish that he is not  deterred by the very real possibility that Mugabe will turn it to his advantage. Undoubtedly, Mugabe will try to gain some sort of mileage out of the situation, but I am of the opinion that he will  find it hard to look anything other than what he is when faced with William's undoubted goodness.
Above all, the greatest aspect of this visit is the moral and spiritual effect it is likely to have upon faithful Anglicans in Zimbabwe, and we have already seen the extent to which the Archbishop's presence and pastoral concern has been a source of hope and encouragement. It should be very clearly stated that the issues at stake here are those of violence and political tyranny, the issue of sexuality has largely been used as leverage by Mugabe and Kunonga to demonise, terrorise and control. I hope and pray that this visit will achieve lasting good and instill a determination in all  of us to speak out  against cruelty and injustice wherever we find it.

Friday, 7 October 2011

Life in abundance

 I've been thinking recently about how secular songs often contain quite spiritual ideas and I know that Mad Priest has been doing the same in Why should the Devil have all the good songs? This post from Lost in the North is about the death of Steve Jobs and explores the importance of  death in our faith. Death makes us ask the big questions. What struck me about both of the videos below is that they are about death - and yet they are full of questions about life - the question of how we live life most fully and most meaningfully. They express a longing to have life and to have it in abundance.  Abundance is a wonderful word, the very sound of it suggests richness and fullness - but how do we live life abundantly? Perhaps not by winning the lottery, but by donating every dime we ever had? Perhaps not by worrying about tomorrow but by leaving our fears behind? Perhaps not by following convention, but rather by living life against the grain or taking the path less travelled by? Perhaps not by thinking of our own interests, but by forgiving our enemies?

Who would have thought you'd hear echoes of the gospels in the lyrics of Nickelback?

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Misogyny in the Church - the votes for women bishops

 It is extremely positive to hear that the deaneries and dioceses are voting so overwhelmingly in favour of the legislation for women bishops. Having said that, there are disturbing reports from some areas of the level of animosity being expressed at some meetings and some concerns at lack of due process, or lack of clarity about the process. The following is  guest post written by someone who comments from time to time on this blog.

Ever felt like a leper? You know, those poor individuals with a serious
infectious disease, who used to be compelled to walk through the streets
shouting ʻUnclean! Unclean!ʼ This way of treating lepers was supposed to
have died out several hundred years ago. But guess what? The Church of
England can still provide you with a taste of that experience. Sorry fellas, this
one is for women only.

The CofE is currently debating the female bishops legislation through local
and regional levels (parishes, deaneries, and dioceses). As a veteran of the
debates about ordaining women to the diaconate and priesthood, I thought I
was pretty inured to the rough and tumble of it. I was wrong.

In my area the subject was on the agenda for 2 successive Deanery Synod
meetings. At the first we had 2 speakers. The first spoke for the Measure (to
ordain women as bishops) and against the Following Motion (legalising
discrimination against female bishops). He was followed by a speaker, R,
who argued strongly for the Following Motion. R used the most extreme
arguments I had heard for many years. The gist was that women are unclean
('nasty, dirty little things, ugh!' is how one woman present summarised it), and
that any man who ordains one or is ordained by one will transmit the taint on
down the line in perpetuity. His talk contained a number of errors in fact.

A time for questions followed, and I made an attempt to correct some of these
errors. I was silenced by the Rural Dean, who said that only questions were
being allowed, and the debate would follow at the next meeting. Following the
meeting it was clear that a number of women were upset and angry at the
way it was conducted. I spoke to two who had had no idea that it was still
legal for such hatred of women to be expressed publicly without challenge,
and entertained as a valid opinion. Itʼs tragic that their only experience of it
should be within their own Church.

Some of us were looking forward to the opportunity to correct the balance
and counter the misinformation at the next meeting, and I had prepared fairly
carefully for the debate. However, in the event no debate or discussion was
allowed. I challenged the Rural Dean pretty strongly on this but he denied
ever having promised a debate. He said the first meeting had been to provide
PCC's with information for their own discussion and decision, and the second
meeting was simply for the Deanery to vote. We were then not given an
opportunity to vote on the Following Motion. We were told that no deaneries
were voting on it, but he Diocesan Synod could add its own Following Motion
if it wants to. The meeting duly voted to approve the ordination of women to
the episcopate.

After the meeting several people thanked me for speaking up, since their
recollection of the previous meeting and the process that had been promised
was similar to mine. They too were disturbed that at no time had a reply to
the extreme misogyny of the speakerʼs views been possible. PCCs had been
expected to vote on the basis of very limited information, and without ever
hearing the views of people in their own deanery.

I am not sure if the Rural Dean was right in saying that the procedure
followed in our deanery is the one being followed throughout the diocese, but
it raises some serious questions about the integrity of the process.

1) If deaneries were not to vote on the Following Motion, why was so much
time and attention given to it during the first Deanery Synod meeting?

2) Are the votes of parishes being recorded and passed up the line? If not,
weʼve wasted the time of our PCC, and the views of many ʻordinaryʼ
churchgoers are not being heard.

3) If the usual Following Motion, or a new one (as has just happened in
Manchester), is introduced at Diocesan Synod, how much weight does the
vote carry when there has been no opportunity to test opinion in the

4) Finally, I am left deeply disturbed that at an official meeting of the
Established Church feelings of such deep revulsion against women priests
should be allowed to be put without being challenged at all. These views
were so extreme that they shocked many of those present, and many of
those who heard of the meeting afterward. In a joint presentation someone
always has to speak last, but their views inevitably have more impact than
those who speak first. This is usually balanced by opening the subject up
for debate, or allowing each speaker a few moments' summary at the end.
In our Deanery Synod this did not happen.

Iʼve been left assuring women to stick with the CofE, there is still a place for
them in it. But how can I encourage lay people to get involved in the Church
of Englandʼs structures, if this is the effect it will have?

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Spiritual expression in secular songs

Secular lyrics often speak of a search for meaning and explore emotions such love, hope and fear. It is not surprising then that we sometimes hear religious or spiritual themes in the lyrics of popular songs. Crossroads by Don McLean seems to me to touch on the idea  faith is a journey and that ,although we may find ourselves walking unexpected paths, it is the journeying itself  and the closeness to God that the journey brings that matters.

Songs of Praise and the language of hymns

 I am not a particular fan of Songs of Praise, I do listen sometimes if  I hear a favourite hymn being sung. This Sunday marked the 50th anniversary of Songs of Praise and I heard an  interview on Radio 4 with a hymn loving atheist, it wasn't Dawkins although I believe he does also love rousing hymns. The short clip I heard made me think about the effect of hymns on my own life and it occurred to me that a lot of my earliest thoughts and ideas about religion were shaped by hymns - not the modern day versions, rather those wonderful old hymns which are not so often sung nowadays because they are full of biblical references , usually sourced from the Old Testament, and religious doctrine clothed in obscure language.
When I was five, my dad began his theological training at St Michael's in Wales. My mum worked full time to support him at this point and my dad was responsible for getting me to school in the morning. The college held mass before breakfast and my dad used to take me to the service every morning, after which I would have breakfast - usually boiled eggs with fingers - and would be the centre of attention before being dropped off at school before lectures and tutorials began.
I guess that this arrangement was purely for convenience given my parents' busy working lives, it is true to say though that it did have an effect upon my awareness of both religious faith and language. I loved the cadences of  liturgical language long before I fully grasped their import. I remember pondering some of the words and phrases and feeling their emotional weight and wondering what they meant. I can't remember if we sang hymns at the morning prayer service, I do remember hearing hymns in church. One of my favourites was Alleluia, Sing to Jesus, a song which fascinated me with its references to us not being "orphans" and the wonderful images of God with earth as his "footstool" and heaven as his "throne" - language which brought a vivid picture to mind - as well as the songs which "swept across the crystal sea." Other concepts in this hymn completed baffled me, I had no idea what Zion was or why or how Jesus could be "both priest and victim", or what an "intercessor" was. Hymns like that do sow seeds though and I wonder if generations of churchgoers have grasped their theology from hymns as much as from sermons?
Modern hymns are sometimes criticised as being watery versions with less theology and more of a focus on emotion - the "Jesus is my boyfriend" line of thought. I am not sure this is fair, many traditional hymns are also love songs - take  "How Sweet the Name of Jesus sounds" which is a declaration of passion,
           "Jesus, my brother, Shepherd, Friend, My Prophet, Priest, and King;
           My Lord, my Life, myWay, my End."
Each generation has to find new ways and new language with which to worship, and I love all sorts of hymns, some of them modern and others ancient, as well as sometimes hearing reflections on faith in the lyrics of secular songs (see above.)
Someone who comments on this blog told me recently about his love for the hymn "Let all Mortal Flesh keep silence" - another hymn that I love both for the wonderful music and rich language. They really don't make them like that anymore.