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.

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.