Friday, 30 November 2012

Advent stillness

Advent is sometimes described as a time of preparation but the word preparation can often suggest a state where we are very active and in control and in many ways Advent should be the opposite of this, it should be a time of waiting for something that is beyond our control. The preparation of Advent involves repentance and an openess to joy and hope, but part of this is a recognition that we are waiting for an event whose nature and timing lies entirely in God's hands. Perhaps this is why Christmas hymns such as Silent Night or Little Town of Bethlehem start off with images of silence and stillness, the world holds its breath as we wait  for a deliverance and salvation that we are powerless to achieve ourselves.
     The first verse of Christina Rossetti's In the Bleak Mid Winter offers a beautiful winter's scene that is undoubtedly very English - but I wonder if the earth as hard as iron and the water like a stone is also a metaphor for the world paralysed and held in the grip of sin, a concept similar to that used by C.S. Lewis when he describes Narnia where it is always Winter and never Christmas. Isaiah writes, "Oh that you would tear down the heavens and descend". Advent is about a state of longing and looking, about being receptive. It is more about  a preparedness that involves stillness or even passivity than a preparation involving hustle and bustle.
     I am going to be very busy this Advent because there is a lot of preparation for Christmas left to do! I think will also have an Advent that will be very reflective. We are told to "Be still and know that I am God" and the preparation of Advent is to contemplate with a sense of awe a God who is infinitely huge, powerful, wise and in control before we see him tiny, naked and vulnerable in a manger.

Friday, 23 November 2012

Same sex marriage by Christmas?

 There are reports in the media that the Government may push through the laws on same sex marriage before Christmas.  I must say that I really do doubt that things could be resolved, or indeed should be resolved with that sort of break neck speed- but then maybe I've just got too used to the pace of  Synod...

 One thing is clear though and that is that the Church has hardly left itself in a strong position to speak up with any shred of credibility on matters involving discrimination or equality...As Tony Baldry said in Parliament,
 "I suspect that every right hon. and hon. Member has recently had representations from Church members on same-sex marriage. If the Church of England thinks that Parliament will listen to it with considerable attention on moral issues such as same-sex marriage and so on when the Church of England seems to be so out of step on other issues of concern to Parliament, it is simply deluding itself."

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Women bishops legislation and the presence of God

I didn't hear this news until on my way home at gone six thirty, which is a daft time to be coming home when you've been up since six, but that's another story. I wasn't conscious of anything other than a profound relief that for quite some time now I have considered myself very much a child of God but not really a member of the Church of England. I attend church services in the same way that I attend Quaker meetings; I am not a Quaker, but I am happy to worship alongside. My main dilemma is whether I should continue to be an attender in the Church of England when I feel so uneasy with the discriminatory attitudes that are institutionalised in the church as a whole. I honestly don't know. I go because the church I attend is a place where I feel the presence of God, I like the people, I enjoy the hymns, I benefit from the preaching. The last time I left the church, I did find it was more of a struggle to maintain my faith and my walk with God.

But I have my Quaker worship now, and although I would miss so much about the Church of England,  I have found in the silence of Quaker meetings a strong and sure sense of God. Having to be silent for a whole hour in the presence of others has taught me to move beyond prayer as a recitation or a list (I am a bit of a list person...) and to be still and know God. Quakers do not have creeds or a fixed set  of beliefs. I do not think the believer is less accountable as a result, I think they are more accountable because the accountability is to God and their  conscience, not to what someone tells them to think and do. At the same time, Quaker worship does throw people back on their inner resources and I suspect it works best for those who  already have a strong spirituality. It occurs to me that maybe I am being patronising here - maybe we all have this capacity if we only take time to find it?

 One of the things that I've understood more fully this year is that any religious group is just a group of human beings whether it is Catholic, Anglican, Muslim, Quaker. There is no "church of God" because God resides not in structures but in human beings themselves, and certainly doesn't limit himself to human beings of any creed, race or religion. God is not defined by us and yet God  chooses to make his- or her-  dwelling within the human heart. This is the main lesson that my sense of disillusion with the Church has taught me. I think it was a lesson worth learning.

Saturday, 17 November 2012

Into Africa

 There is some interesting comment in this article  on the challenges posed by the African Church and the advantages Justin Welby  may have in dealing with them. It notes that the incoming archbishop has worked as a crisis negotiator in Africa, working with separatists in the Niger Delta and negotiating with Islamists in northern Nigeria, all experience which will be helpful. The article also claims that under Rowan Williams there has been very little real dialogue with Africa on this issue. It is hardly surprising that Williams might shrink from this - compare the hard line statements from Okoh with William's gentle tolerance - but I think this is a nettle that has to be grasped if Anglicanism is to reach a place where it is less dysfunctional.

Anybody who thinks this is not an immense challenge with the potential to cause greater rifts would be foolish though.This piece covers the anti-gay rights bill due to be introduced in Nigeria apparently before Christmas.

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Giving -and counting the cost?

 I heard in the news today that giving to charity  is down  by 20%, a statistic that is not perhaps surprising given the current economic climate. I do wonder though if it is just those who are suffering financially who are more reluctant to give. Every year we run an appeal in college where tutor groups are invited to put  together a shoebox to be sent to a poor family or orphanage in Romania. This project used to be undertaken with great enthusiasm by the students, but over the past few years I've noticed an increasing reluctance to contribute and I don't know if this is due to hardship or just to a general "why should we give to others"  or even "what a load of scroungers" attitude that is becoming more common nowadays?
Giving does, of course, bring its own problems. We may be aware that few of our acts are purely altruistic, we give because it make us feel good. I've been thinking about this recently and I am not sure this is so much of a moral problem, perhaps we are designed in such a way as to make us get pleasure from giving - not just financially but to our friends, our work, our loved ones. Is it so wrong to give because it completes us as human beings? There is the more complex problem of whether our giving really benefits others. If we give to food banks, does it encourage dependency?Iif we give to a shoebox appeal, should we check that that charity does not simply have its own ulterior motives? There has been criticism and unease about the fact that some charities include christian tracts and leaflets in their shoeboxes and accusations that this is simply a form of evangelising wrapped up with emotional blackmail rather than purely with love.
The reading last Sunday was about the widow's mite, a story which is open to a variety of interpretations and often used as a way of inducing guilt in those who are reluctant to give! I'm not sure it should be used that way, but at the same time I don't think it is acceptable to opt out of giving - when we are able to give- simply because of these issues and complexities. We certainly should be aware of the complexities of giving, we should also be aware that our criticisms of the act of giving can also be part of an excuse not to give at all. I have started to show the above youtube clip to students before I get them to put together a shoebox. I find it dramatically increases the amount they give. Perhaps sometimes we fail to give out of a lack of imagination. Perhaps it is a failure to really see other people? I read a quote by Jeanette Winterton recently that really struck me, it was an article  about poverty  in which she wrote that the poorer we are materially, the more we need inner resources. I think it might be equally true that the richer we are materially, the more we need inner resources - and it is our  inner resources and imagination as much as our money or our means that allows us to give freely and cheerfully.

Saturday, 10 November 2012

Watching and listening

When in doubt, listen carefully to what people say and  then watch carefully what they do. So far, so reasonably good. Interesting that he mentioned Nigeria. I sometimes wonder whether Africa is more the elephant in the room than sexuality is.

Thursday, 8 November 2012

Oh well, it's Welby

I would say that the Church of England has finally got off the fence and decided on a new Archbishop, but that doesn't really describe what happened, does it? It's more like the fence collapsed a while ago- even the bookies cancelled all bets on the next Archbishop out of sheer ennui- and the bunch of sorry losers remained sitting on a collapsed fence for a while and then, realising they looked stupid and the fence was beginning to rot and disintegrate, they chose the one they thought might be the least unpalatable to everyone concerned.
It's not inspiring, or admirable, or decisive, or courageous and there doesn't seem to be a jot or whisper of the joy, power, grace or daring of the Holy Spirit around the Church of England, but heigh-ho! I wasn't keen on any of the proposed candidates anyhow, but Welby is probably just as good as the next man and better than some. I think he's been chosen as the most likely to be able to pacify both liberals and conservatives. Giles Fraser has good words to say about him and the evangelical conservative right seem happy with his stance on issues such as gay bishops, but he certainly isn't a foam-at-the-mouth-bigot. It could be worse, I suppose. To quote Morrisey again, I'm not happy and I'm not sad.
I am sorry to sound so unethusiastic; I've been feeling that way for a while. I can't even summon up much interest or enthusiasm over the likely prospect of the voting to allow women bishops (that hasn't happened and I've missed it, has it?) Might I have slept through it all like Rip Van Winkle? To be honest, I feel that I could go to sleep and wake up in a thousand years and find the church wouldn't have moved on that much.

So this appointment, at the moment, seems neither good news nor bad, and it doesn't matter which it is anyway! The only thing that really matters is that we know the real good news. The real good news lives within us and is in no way dependent on bishops or archbishops of any ilk or gender.

Thursday, 1 November 2012

Post partum depression and psychosis

 I found the account on the news of Felicia Boot who was convicted of the manslaughter of her nine week old son and fourteen month old daughter absolutely harrowing. The judge said the killing of the children  was the result of psychological forces that were "beyond her control" and that it was "an indescribably sad case.

Post natal depression is an extremely common illness but one which is often not well recognised or well treated, yet the way this illness is dealt with can mean the difference between a living or dead baby,  mother or both.  Post partum psychosis, which is an extreme and delusional form of post natal depression is one of the most severe psychiatric illnesses known and can develop very rapidly, often over the space of days rather than weeks. This account from the mental health blog, Time to Change, offers a powerful story but one with a happier ending that the tragedy described in the news yesterday.