Forgiveness for the Hampshire Chronicle

August 30th, 2016

“The church is for losers… we connect to each other and to God through our shared brokenness” said the Lutheran Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber; and, as a recovering alcoholic and drug addict, she should know. Losers gathered together in their brokenness is both an obvious and denied approach to church life. Obvious because the church is made real by a shared meal. The meal which Jesus gave us in remembrance of him we celebrate with shared bread and wine. A meal, like other meals that Jesus celebrated, which would have been shared with smelly fishermen, corrupt and collaborating tax collectors and scandalous prostitutes; the broken losers of the day. A meal to which, like all our meals, Jesus tells us to invite “the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind.”

However, this founding truth of church life is also denied. So often in church we pretend that everything is good. Our faith is strong, our families are successful and our job is fulfilling. A Christian culture of success, one that says we should get our relationships with God and neighbour sorted, too often denies our Christian theology. A theology which says that we are all fallen and we really know our need of God’s grace.

Jesus perceptively states “The truth will set you free”, and one of the most incredible privileges of Christian ministry is hearing people struggling to articulate the painful truths which scar their own lives; a ministry often called confession. This statement of truth about our own lives is the first stage in letting go of the pain and shame which is so ready to define who we are. It’s not that we’ve a vengeful God looking for an opportunity to punish us for our sins, it’s that we can so often deny, even to ourselves, the nature of our sins and failures. Denied shame is brooding in our subconscious, breaking out into our own self image and undermining our relationships. To quote Nadia again, “We aren’t punished for our sins as much as we’re punished by our sins.”

The Jewish/Christian foundational myth is of hidden shame. Adam and Eve are seduced by the serpent, taste of the forbidden fruit and then hide from God because they are ashamed. What if, instead of being ashamed, they had been truthful with God and articulated that truth, “Sorry we mucked up”? What if our foundational myth was not one of shame but of truth and forgiveness?

Kate Nash sang, “My finger tips are holding onto the cracks in our foundations”. It’s in our cracks that truth and relationships are recognised. The cracks in our ego let God in while the cracks in our façade allow others to see us as we are. Confession leads to absolution, or forgiveness, and the shedding of the power of shame. It’s a process, not a one off event, often accompanied by these words, “Do you believe that the word of forgiveness I’m about to proclaim to you comes from God?” We experience the reality of God’s good news when we acknowledge the reality of sin’s bad news.

Remembering Fr Jacques Hamel – Hampshire Chronicle Column

August 1st, 2016

In the Danse Macabre skeletons lead the living into the arms of death. These carving and paintings were popular during plague when death randomly took mortals by the hand for the dance. There’s an interpretation of this at Rouen dating from the Black Death which claimed ¾ of the population. There are carvings of skulls and mortality is further recalled by a mummified cat. Death’s random nature in macabre art. Sanctioned religious death is also recalled in Rouen; the place where Joan d’Arc was burnt at the stake for heresy. Last week Rouen horrifically experienced the Danse Macabre, complete with religious motivation. Fr Jacques Hamel was murdered while celebrating Mass on the city’s edge.

The murder of priests at the altar is nothing new. In Canterbury, Thomas à Becket was killed by three knights who heard Henry II say, “Who will rid me of this troublesome priest?” and took it upon themselves to do the ridding. More recently, the archbishop in El Salvador, Óscar Romero, was shot after standing up for the poor and marginalised. Pope Francis called Fr Jacques’ murder “absurd” and all acts of violence are ultimately absurd. His killing was a desperate act which makes no sense beyond itself.

That Fr. Jacques’ death occurred while celebrating Mass gives a context to his priesthood. The Mass – or Eucharist or Holy Communion – is a re-presentation of Jesus’ crucifixion. John Paul II said in the Mass Jesus “left us a means of sharing in it as if we had been present there.” Just as, for Jews, the celebration of the Passover transports those celebrating back to the first Passover, and Israel being led out of slavery in Egypt to the Promised Land. So the Mass, based on a Passover meal, transports those present to the Upper Room and the sacrifice of Calvary. When Fr. Jacques recalled the words of Jesus, “This is my body… This is my blood”, they are present in a sense that goes beyond memory.

Christians celebrate the Mass because it’s a re-presentation of the sacrifice of the one person who is both sinless and supremely good; the ultimate victim of injustice. This sacrifice fulfils all sacrifice and declares acts of violence absurd. Before Jesus, the Israelites offered animal sacrifice. An example being the scape goat where the sins of the people were prayed over a goat who was then driven into the wilderness symbolically carrying the sins of the people out of the community. However, animal blood is not perfect and had to be offered again and again. Jesus being truly good and truly innocent is offered only once and carries the sins of all so we no longer need to be weighed down by sin. The Mass isn’t a Danse Macabre but recalls a sacrifice freely given by the one who is truly good and truly innocent, shaming all acts of violence and prejudice.

Fr Jacques’ bishop said, “The church can take up no weapons other than those of prayer and brotherhood among people of goodwill.”

Brexit Article for Hampshire Chronicle

July 5th, 2016

“A person who thinks only about building walls… and not building bridges, is not Christian. This is not the gospel”, said Pope Francis about the recent Republican Party Primary in the United States. It could also be a warning in post-Brexit Britain as our long standing and widening social divisions have become more evident than ever: younger divided from older; the “left behind” divided from the professionals; rural divided from metropolitan; the United Kingdom is anything but united. We have two party leaders stepping down and one hanging on (at the time of writing) amid acrimony and recrimination. A European priest colleague, ministering in this country, feels like a bargaining chip amid the “brutalisation of political language”. With some justification commentators have referred to a culture war. This is a time for bridge building.

As we look forward it’s right to acknowledge both the bereavement and joy which the referendum has brought, along with the political and economic uncertainty which is our current reality. The majority of British people voted to leave the EU and the vast majority of these did so for good and honourable reasons. A tiny proportion will have voted out of prejudice but this is a good time to follow the advice of Elizabeth 1st, given during an earlier time of religious and political turmoil, “I will not open windows into men’s souls”. It’s wrong to make sweeping judgements about those who voted differently from us and phrases such as “little Englander” or “liberal elite” have no place in the reconciliation of our country.

People on both sides of the debate voted to build bridges rather than erect walls but they came to different conclusions on how this was best done. For some the EU had become a wall against the wider world and they voted to leave. For others, the EU was a necessary bridge to the wider world. What I’ve found concerning about the debate is the number of people who’ve said, “I don’t know anyone who voted to leave”. There’s a danger that we’re comfortable only among friends and colleagues who are similar to us, and we’ve lost the friendship and shared experiences of people whose world view and social circumstances are different from our own. The south London priest Giles Fraser put it like this, “We have become strangers to each other and it’s high time we got to know each other again.”

The central act of Christian worship is often called Communion emphasising the fellowship which is built up. We celebrate a collective meal of bread and wine cementing us into a relationship both with God and one another. We think of the altar as God’s table and we recall how Jesus welcomed the outsider to meals. With Jesus, the tax collector or prostitute could be alongside the religious Pharisee. Jesus’ best loved story, the Good Samaritan, embraces the humanity of the despised outsider. We need, more than ever, this spirit of social inclusion as we explore what it means to be a generous and progressive country outside the EU.

Magazine article following Orlando Killings and murder of Jo Cox

June 18th, 2016

Following the Orlando nightclub shooting, Archbishop Justin said the primacy of love rules over the proscriptions of holy texts. That’s a challenge to all of us who understand that, in some way, God is revealed in the Bible, or the Quran. The primacy of love was experienced by those first emergency workers who entered the Pulse Night Club and heard phone ringtones. The family and friends of victims were ringing their loved ones longing for them to answer when, tragically, 49 of them will never pick up their mobiles again. We rightly condemn physical or verbal violence against gay people, such as the Westboro Baptist Church placards proclaiming, “God hates fags”, and we seek to contextualise and thus reject those parts of the Bible which proscribe the death penalty for homosexual acts. While at the same time, many mainstream Christians remain opposed to equal marriage and disagree with the experience of the gay Orlando politician Patty Sheehan, “by fighting against my rights [for equal marriage], they helped create this climate of terrorism and hatred.”

We now know that Omar Mateen, the man who attacked the gay nightclub, claiming affiliation to ISIS, was himself a regular visitor to the club and attracted by the gay scene. Not only was he driven by a hatred of gay people but also a self-hatred as he internalised the prejudice which he proclaimed. He had an extremely narrow view of God and humankind, and resorted to violence when he and others fell outside of this restrictive view. Our poet laureate, Carol Ann Duffy has a very broad view of God. Because we are created in God’ image and some of us are gay, she concludes a poem with the line, “And God is gay”. It could also have been concluded with, “And God is straight/black/white/female/male…”

Another act of prejudicial violence was the killing of Jo Cox; targeted because she was a white woman MP with liberal views. Rather like the Orlando killings, her death comes amid a toxic climate of fear and prejudice, be it the anti-immigration poster launched by UKIP, hours before her death, or the scaremongering predictions of both sides in the referendum debate. Her killer is likely to be attracted by notoriety and violence, but the bitter divisions in our body politic form the background which may have given this “malignant narcissist” some warped self-justification.

St. Paul emphasised our fundamental unity and wrote, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female for all of you are one in Christ Jesus”. He could also have added there is no longer gay or straight, no longer European in or out, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus, and you are all responsible for rebuilding the body politic.

Reflections on a snakebite for the Hampshire Chronicle

September 6th, 2015

As a parish priest I visit people in hospital on a weekly basis but last month the tables were turned and, after an adder bite, I became the patient. What did l learn as I experienced things from another perspective?

Firstly, I felt huge admiration for all the NHS staff. It didn’t matter whether someone was cleaning up after me, serving lunch, attaching a drip or giving an expert diagnosis; the care and attention were first class. People that most of us (hopefully) rarely come across in a professional capacity ensured not only that I was well cared for but also that I felt well cared for.

Secondly, I experienced some of the empathy and patience that is part of our care service. In both A&E and later in the acute medical unit, patients who were confused and relatives who were distressed were given time and attention in an extremely pressured environment. This personal care was present both in the early hours of the morning and in the middle of the day from people who seemed to have a natural vocation to be alongside others in their time of need.

Many of the hospital staff were people of faith and found time to reflect with me on discovering that I was a vicar, but good will and caring is part of the natural human condition. While I personally felt a bit silly for getting bitten when walking in the New Forest in sandals, this was never pointed out to me. I, along with every other patient there, was a valued individual at a time of need.

My overriding experience? It’s the natural care instinct awakened in every human on encountering someone in need. The other side to that personal experience is how do we care for those that we are not physically alongside, the abstract statistic or distant news story? How do we care for the refugees in Calais, or do we just fear them becoming a swarm? How do we care for those crossing the Mediterranean in flimsy boats or are we happy to leave that problem to our poorer European neighbours in Greece and Italy? If we met these people face-to-face and saw the trauma in their eyes, then I’m sure we would begin to see things differently, share some of their pain and our natural urge to care would be awakened.

Christianity is a fleshly faith. We proclaim that God became flesh and experienced all the joy and pain of a human life in the wandering prophet Jesus. That experience included humiliation, torture and death. No human being, no matter how abhorrently a regime or band of fanatics treats them, is beyond the love and experience of God. No human being should be beyond our love and care. If a daft wandering sandal wearing parson is within the care of the NHS, how much more should the refugee be within the care of this country and their experience written on our hearts.

Hampshire Chronicle Post on my Wedding Anniversary

August 3rd, 2015

In The Marriage the priest poet RS Thomas describes, with a devastating beauty, the pathos of a 50 year marriage: love’s moment/in a world/in servitude to time. This column is submitted on my 25th wedding anniversary and it’s hard to believe our own servitude to time: where did those years go?

The early church writer, Tertullian, describes marriage as the “seminary of the human race”, so equating the married life to a college where priests are trained. It’s a wonderful image suggesting that a life lived with a partner is a life that gives space, generosity and encouragement to reflect upon the purpose of life and our relationship with God.

That is not to suggest that those who are married are always closer to God. Often it seems that the opposite would be true, the demanding immediacy of family life seems to squeeze out the eternal. Those who are single may more easily find time to pray or don’t have to squeeze in both rugby and church on a Sunday morning. The dedication of many single parents often seems closer to the God, who is love, than their married counterparts.

However, it is the married life which has deeply shaped my understanding of God, my life as a priest and my relationship with my children. I have been blest and continue to be blest by the close relationship and friendship that now goes back more than 25 years.

There is a contemporary debate within the church over the nature of marriage: does it have to be the union of a woman and a man or is the gender unimportant? Our traditional Book of Common Prayer says of marriage that, “First, It was ordained for the procreation of children”. However, in our contemporary service marriage is first described as the place where we “grow together in love and trust” and even places the birth of children in optional brackets. The drifting emphasis away from procreation and modern society’s affirming of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) recognition and rights, means that gender takes a secondary role in civil marriage and is being debated in church marriage. Personally, I support equal marriage and would want to enable more to experience the blessings of a married life, regardless of gender. Our traditional marriage service says we can be “like brute beasts that have no understanding”, let’s open the civilising effect of marriage to more people.

There is a cost to loving and so often that cost is grief. All marriages will one day end, either by separation or death, and we must never forget those who mourn the loss of their partner. RS Thomas’ poem concludes: And she/who in life/had done everything/with a bird’s grace,/opened her bill now/for the shedding/of one sigh no/heavier than a feather. It’s a shattering description of a deathbed scene and recalls the support and care we need to offer those who are grieving.

Ascension – article for the Hampshire Chronicle

May 12th, 2015

Into the singularity we fly

After a stretch of time in which we leave

Our lives behind

Writes the dying poet Clive James in Event Horizon. His imagery is particularly resonant today as the church is celebrating the Ascension of Jesus.

Traditionally, the Ascension happened 40 days after Easter when the resurrected Jesus was physically lifted into the heavens. It’s a triumphant feast with the understanding that Jesus reigns at the right hand of God the Father; from where he sends his Spirit to empower and inspire the Church. However, the poetry of Clive James, full of the pathos and the imagery of impending death, should encourage us to rethink such victorious images.

Firstly, it’s not appropriate to think of Jesus as ascending to a place “up there”. We know that heaven is not beyond the clouds and hell is not under our feet. We struggle with these simplistic images of place in the age of the Hubble telescope. Jesus did not ascend beyond the clouds any more than Clive James will be “drawn into the unplumbed well”, to use the poet’s imagery. The Bible is a collection of books which rely upon metaphor to explain what is beyond our own limited and immediate understanding.

Secondly, Christians who take the Ascension as a great triumphant event have missed the fragile and wounded nature of this feast. Luke’s Bible account of the Ascension was written from the perspective of the rubble of Jerusalem’s Temple. The Christ, the chosen of God, had come to the people of Israel and it  was expected that he would release their land and their nation from Roman occupation. Instead, Roman armies had destroyed their Temple and ransacked their city. Luke is writing from the perspective of national humiliation and writing about someone who still carried the marks of torture, shame and death on his body.

Too often a triumphalist interpretation Christianity offers a belief system on which we dash our disappointments and failures. This caricature is often summed up in Marx’s paraphrase, “Religion is the opium of the masses”. What Marx actually said was, “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.” The humiliated, doubting and suffering Christ gives breath to our oppressed sigh, a heart in the face of brutality and a soul amidst brutality. In short Christianity offers beauty in an indifferent world. This God does not triumph over suffering but is alongside us in our fear and incomprehension.

Happy Ascension.

Easter Parish Magazine

March 22nd, 2015

“Lord you know everything; you know that I love you.”

Peter replying to Jesus – John 21:17

The resurrection of Jesus disturbed his closest followers. Their joy was tempered by bewilderment and pain; the reality that death was a necessary precursor to resurrection. This new resurrection way of living entails confronting past mistakes and death to an old way of life. For Peter this was particularly challenging as, just before Jesus was crucified, he shamefully denied Jesus three times. Once Jesus has risen, Peter has to affirm Jesus three times but it’s not easy, “Peter felt hurt because [Jesus] said to him the third time, ‘Do you love me?’” Peter is taken back to the painful anguish of his denial in order to move from despair to hope, from darkness to light. It’s no wonder that the pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer refers to the danger of cheap grace. God’s grace, or forgiveness, is never cheap as it means we have to confront and turn away from our failings and the pain we cause. This is the true meaning of repentance, literally to change our mind or inner nature, to live in a new way.

We have Biblical pictures referring to this fundamental and very personal change. Jesus tells us that we should take the plank out of our own eye so that we can see the splinter in the eye of our sister or brother. That is, we need to stop projecting what is damaging within ourselves onto others and confront our own destructive behaviour. St. Paul draws on a Greek tradition and says, “In him we live and move and have our being”, to point to the need to be completely God orientated. He also tells the church in Rome that, “all of us who have been baptised into Christ Jesus were baptised into his death. Thus we are buried and raised with him. To this day, baptism is a simulated drowning allowing a new person to emerge.

The celebration of Easter morning is enriched if we have commemorated the anguish and confusion of the Last Supper on Maundy Thursday, and the pain and humiliation of the Crucifixion on Good Friday. To enter the depths with Christ is to be raised with him; to confront our own sinful nature is to experience forgiveness and the joy, like Peter, of our true potential being realised.

Wishing you a joyful and blessed Easter

Paul

Reflecting on Terry Pratchett

March 15th, 2015

“The presence of those seeking the truth is infinitely to be preferred to the presence of those who think they’ve found it”, wrote the late humanist author Terry Pratchett. This brilliantly acknowledges the human experience of searching and frustration with those who derail that search with strident truth claims. I, as a Christian priest, feel drawn towards the seeking mind of Terry Pratchett more than the overly confident claims of some of my co-religionists. Let me try and unpack this.

There is much in the Christian tradition which celebrates doubt and uncertainty including the cry of Jesus from the cross, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” The Catholic writer GK Chesterton, likened this anguished cry to God becoming an atheist. A faith which leaves God more hidden than revealed can be traced to our Jewish heritage where Moses only receives the 10 commandments by entering the thick darkness of the cloud on Mount Sinai and Elijah encounters God in the “sound of sheer silence”. Tellingly, our hymn writers could not countenance a God who is silent and replaced silence with the “still small voice of calm.”

The former bishop, Richard Holloway, wrote, “The opposite of faith is not doubt but certainty” and it may be that clear revelation and certainty evolve into doubt and struggle as faith matures. You may recall that Moses’ first Godly revelation was the bright and obvious burning bush, in contrast to his later faith journey groping in the darkness of the thick cloud. This journey into doubt is often referred to as apophatic, from the Greek “to deny”, which claims that we can only describe God by what he is not; all that God is is beyond our comprehension. So, for example, when we use the term Father of God it is only partially true because he is so beyond our experience of fatherhood.

Meister Eckart’s apophatic approach led him to say, “I pray to God to rid me of God” acknowledging that all his preconceptions of divinity were inadequate and potentially idolatrous. A more mainstream approach was taken by the theologian Augustine who said, “To reach God in any measure by the mind is a great blessedness; but to comprehend his is altogether impossible.” So yes we have partial understanding of God through the scriptures, the experience of loving and of worship. However, we can never fully comprehend the mystery at the root of our lives, the restless heart within us.

Ash Wednesday Reflections

February 14th, 2015

Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return

With these words the priest ashed my forehead and reminded me that I’m going to die. It’s part of our Ash Wednesday ritual, with which we start the season of Lent. In a death denying culture, the remembrance of mortality is strangely liberating.

In recent generations death is hidden away often removed from the home with final days and hours spent in a high tech hospital environment. At the same time we have a cult of youth and offers of the rich escaping death with cryogenic technology. However, Christianity embraces the reality of death, not with popular images of a soul slipping into the next room, but with St. Paul’s recognition that God alone is immortal. Death will come to us all.

The contemporary philosopher Mark Vernon argues that our awareness of death enriches our life, “It heightens love by bringing loss. It deepens beauty by fomenting decay. It focuses life by providing an end.” For me, the beauty of mortal life is demonstrated by the fragile allure of a wind swept and frozen crocus on a February lawn. An artificial flower would offer a longer, even open-ended, life but the crocus’ beauty is heightened by vulnerability and decay. In the same way many are drawn to the sea as a focus for contemplation and meditation leading the Christian mystic Simone Weil to reflect, “The sea is not less beautiful in our eyes because we know that sometimes ships are wrecked upon it.” The awe inspiring power of the sea brings both life and death; and each of these attracts us.

So what of our Christian tradition? We look forward to a hope of resurrection to eternal life but this is not an endless Groundhog Day where our existence in time carries on, and on, and on; with inevitable repeats. Eternity is beyond time, not part of our linear experience of the here and now.

In reality eternal life starts now. We are called beyond our everyday concerns to a life that fully engages our senses, imagination and longing. A life that transcends our self absorbed concerns. We are called to live our lives, sub specie aeternitatis – “from the perspective of the eternal”. William Blake put this beautifully in words I often repeat at a funeral.

To see the world in a grain of sand,

and heaven in a wild flower.

Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,

and eternity in an hour.