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.

Je suis Charlie?

January 17th, 2015

We are in the middle of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, a valuable time but also a time that does not go far enough. In some ways it’s a scandal that we still need a Christian Unity week, in other ways it’s a scandal that this week Christians are not specifically embracing other faiths and all people of goodwill.

It’s been a disturbing time for people of faith. Yes we value free speech as a foundational principle of modern open democracy. We do, however, also understand the pain of those who feel that they have been gratuitously insulted for the sake of cheap laughs. How do we ensure that this tension is creative and not destructive?

The violent attacks on Charlie Hebdo and the Parisian Jewish supermarket, along with the foiled attacks in Belgium, show one sort of unity; a unity that is built upon the abuse power and the hatred of anyone who does not conform. This unity is a bastardised version of the Islamic faith that it claims to proclaim; a faith that proclaims God/Allah as the most merciful is inherently a faith of peace. The most profound expression of unity, based upon love, was the young Muslim man working in the Jewish supermarket who, at personal risk, saved Jewish customers by hiding them in the cold storage facilities.

The potentially violent lust for certainty and power can infiltrate social structures; especially when religion and national identity collide. Pope Francis, looking back on Christian history, proclaimed, “We have been sinners too.” However, there is a Biblical tradition that eschews this passion for one correct answer. Our Bible is open to contradiction and this is what makes it such a rich collection of books; texts which no editor has sought to unify into one simple account. Is mankind the final pinnacle of God’s creation (Genesis 1) or does God start with the creation of man (Genesis 2)? Is the correct response to occupation and deportation to shore up national identity and separation (Ezra and Nehemiah) or to integrate and discover how the nations can bless us (Ruth and Jeremiah)? We also have four gospel accounts of Jesus’ life often with irreconcilable differences. A true unity has to accept that we can be united without being the same. This unity is at the heart of the Christian faith and our common human experience built upon love.

Je suis Charlie? Yes. But also I empathise with those who feel pain and insult when what they hold dear is degraded.

Christmas Magazine Article

November 19th, 2014

Giving something one doesn’t have
to someone who doesn’t want it.
Jacques Lacan’s definition of love

This French psychoanalyst’s definition of love enriches our understanding of Christmas and God’s love for us. Love is often something unasked for, awkward to receive, and not owned by the lover. Just as God the Father did not own the Son and does not force us to receive him. We can enjoy Christmas with only a few more pounds on the credit card and the waist, or we can be struck by the wonder of God’s love. It’s our choice.

The Bible verse that encapsulates Christmas is John 1:14, “the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us”. This is the striking account of God (the Word) coming among us in human form; literally in the flesh. Many are happy to celebrate the season with carol services and family gatherings but what difference would it make to our lives if we really tried to live out this gift of love?

It is hard to live faith as a way of life. Our contemporary society is happy to embrace faith as a private concern which does not impact upon others. The philosopher, Slavoj Žižek, puts it like this, “Religion is only permitted as a particular ‘culture’, or lifestyle phenomenon, not as a substantial way of life”. He goes on to say that religion which is not a substantial way of life is like drinking coffee without caffeine, or beer without alcohol. The whole point of Christian faith is it substantially changes our life.

In Christ’s time, it was scandalous that God would come to us “in the flesh”. Flesh was far too weak and messy to be the vehicle that carried the one so different from us; the one who is the creative desire of the universe and the source of being. In contemporary times we so often deny this radical otherness of God; reducing him/her/it to a personal feeling or minor belief.

This Christmas let’s have caffeine in our coffee, alcohol in our beer and worship God who is both so completely other from us yet present in the messy flesh of a dirty manger.

With love & joy this Christmas Paul

Consecration of David Williams – October Magazine Article

September 21st, 2014

Bishops are ordained to be shepherds of Christ’s flock
from the Consecration of a bishop

On the 19th September the new Bishop of Basingstoke was consecrated in Winchester Cathedral. You may ask who? why Basingstoke? and what’s a bishop?
Who? It’s David Williams. He has been the vicar at Christ Church in Winchester for 13 years where he presided over one of the largest Church of England congregations in the country. As such he knows Winchester very well and is ideally placed to continue to serve this city, and encourage growth in other churches. We have an interesting and exciting time in store.
Why Basingstoke? Our main, diocesan, bishop is the Bishop of Winchester. With both national responsibilities and a large diocese, however, he has more than enough on his plate and so two assistants are appointed at opposite ends of the diocese – Southampton and Basingstoke. Being in the north of the diocese, our assistant bishop is Basingstoke, David’s appointment, and he supports Tim who is appointed to Winchester.
But what is a bishop? It would be easy to think of a bishop as a line manager of vicars and other ministers but that does not do the ancient post justice. Being the church, we have symbols to help us understand the role of a bishop. So a bishop has:

  • A tall pointed hat called a mitre. The hat is a symbol of flame and recalls an account in the Bible when the Holy Spirit came upon the first Christians and it was like flame on their heads. They were not burnt but they could talk to all people and tell them about God. So the first task of a bishop is to talk about God or to teach.
  • A ring. Like a wedding ring this symbolises a relationship, in a bishop’s case with the diocese. It’s made of amethyst, a stone whose name can be translated “not drunk”, reminding the bishop not to be drunk with alcohol but to be filled with the Holy Spirit.
  • A shepherd’s crook or crosier. Reminding a bishop that he is to care for his diocese as shepherds care for their flock
    We wish David all the best in his new and challenging role and look forward to the near future when women will also be among our bishops.

With love and prayers    Paul