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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Sunday, 26 February 2012

Locked out again!

Yesterday I visited five churches in connection with a book I am editing.  (The book is called Landscapes of Faith and is on the Christian heritage of north-east England.)  I am doing some of the photography and wanted to take the opportunity of a bright clear Saturday to get some images of churches off the beaten tourist track. 

I was sad, but not surprised, to find that four of the five were locked.  To be honest, I had not expected anything else. Whether in remote country, villages or towns, there is at best a 50-50 chance of finding a parish church open. And if it's locked, there is less than a 10% chance of a notice somewhere telling us when it will be open.  Since most churches in rural areas now belong to shared benefices, it is likely that there will not even be a Sunday service in that church each week.  So it will remain locked and bolted and unused and univisited and unprayed-in for weeks at a time.  It's hard to avoid the conclusion that in the end it will be uncared for and unloved as a result. 

Of course, I still got some great images of these five churches' exteriors and settings.  But I achieved only one interior. I'll name this church by way of thanking its community.  It was Trimdon not far from Durham. The little church is islanded in the middle of a vast village green.  It is a charming village church: not one you would go hundreds of miles to see, perhaps, but worth seeing if you are in the north-east, quintessentially English and by the looks of things a jewel to its village community. It has a beautifully lopsided Norman chancel-arch that oughtn't to stay upright, though it must have done for 800+ years.  But the most delightful thing about this visit was what I found going on inside the church.  Sitting in a circle behind this Norman arch was a group of parishioners.  I tried not to eavesdrop, but in a small building I could hear snatches of conversation.  It seemed that they were discussing what they loved most about their church, and its significance for village and Christian life.  So here was a church not only open but in use.  I hope they did not find my presence intrusive. 

As for the locked churches, I'll be reticent.  But three of them have visitor potential in terms of their history, setting and architecture.  The fourth, in an urban setting, is unusual, probably that place's most significant piece of heritage.  But what is dispiriting is that there did not seem to be any recognition that people might want to come and pray in these places, drop in to light a candle or ponder, bring their personal blessings and pains into a sacred space and offer them to God.  Did their PCCs have a policy on when their churches were open, and why this mattered?  I've no idea.  But it did seem to me like a failure in mission. 

At the start of the Occupy episode at St Paul's Cathedral, there was much outraged comment about the Cathedral's locked doors.  Yet there are thousands of locked church doors across our nation.  This cannot be right when churches are public buildings, and when they are among the primary tools for mission, evangelism, hospitality and social care a parish has.  It's easy to blame insurers for insisting on closed churches when the risks of leaving them open are obvious.  (Insurers may like to comment on whether they are being accurately represented here....)  However, there are plenty of churches that achieve it by setting and announcing regular times when volunteers will be on a rota not only to police their church buildings but also (and far more important) to welcome visitors to them.  In that way, a parish gives a human and Christian face to its building, and demonstrates that it understands the high importance Christianity places on hospitality.  And it will help the local visitor/tourism economy. 

Here in the north-east we are working hard with skilled help to develop the use of our church buildings as part of our mission.  Some are famous, historic and beautiful, some have native charm, some are curious, some are plain and functonal, a few are (let's admit it) ugly.  But all of them have the potential to serve the gospel and their communities: that is why they are there.  Given the huge maintenance costs all church buildings attract, not to mention the time and effort (and worry) they require, it doesn't make sense that we don't put all this investment to work and earn some moral and spiritual return by making them accessible to the people they belong to.  That means all of us.  So please, please: open up!

This website is illuminating on the statistics of open and locked churches across England:

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

After the Pancakes

Shrove Tuesday.  I wanted to be ready for Lent this year, arrive at today with some clear thoughts about how to use this annual gift of the 40 days that lead us on a journey towards Easter.  Prayer, fasting and almsgiving are traditional Lenten disciplines taken directly out of the Sermon on the Mount.  There, we are also given good advice about how to practise them: not openly, where everyone can admire us, but in a more hidden way, where only God can see.  'Go into your room, and shut the door' says Jesus. 

So no revelations about my Lenten rule here, for then it would hardly be a secret.  But what about the the meaning of Lent and how we observe it? 

It's striking how different the Christian Lent has come to be from Islamic Ramadan.  Muslims who are serious about their faith would not question the value the severe demands of Ramadan place upon them as an obligation.  They probably think (but are too polite to say) that we have gone soft on Lent these days.  They are right.  Jesus doesn't say 'if' you fast but 'when'. 

To change the normal habits of eating and drinking, and therefore alter familiar daily routines for a while, has the effect of clearing space for prayer, reflection, relationships and generosity.  By suspending attention to ordinary human needs, other dimensions of living come into new focus.  Our human and spiritrual landscape begins to look a little different.  We are closer in touch with what really matters if we are to flourish as human beings.  This is the value of fasting, 'giving things up': even the good, wholesome things that enrich life and fulfil us as men and women.  The point is to learn what is truly essential to life, what we can't live without: in a word, God and his truth and love. We cannot live by bread alone, even if try hard much of the time. 

But there's an important difference between Ramadan and Lent.  Ramadan is meant to develop the practice of askesis for its own sake: with Islam's emphasis on rigour and discipline, the annual fast is an indicator of taking religion seriously.  But Lent did not originate in this way.  It was always related to Easter, a time to prepare in a serious way to mark the greatest celebration of the year, the Christian passover of the death and resurrection of Jesus.  So already on Ash Wednesday, Easter is in view.  'Dust you are: to dust you shall return' says the liturgy as the ashes are imposed on our foreheads.  And our foreheads are precisely the place where we were signed with the cross in baptism; so ashing is a reminder of how we are incorporated into the Easter movement of death and resurrection that we look forward to celebrating.

This means ashing can be joyous.  It's a sign of our penitence, our sorrow for the tale of wrongs and failures that continue to describe so much of our lives.  Hence Shrove Tuesday: 'shriving' is confession, and by extension, absolution.  Good for the soul, but joyful too because forgiveness sets us free in new and unexpected ways.  And what drives penitence for Christians?  Why do we confess our sins and reflect on them with special attention during Lent?  For love's sake.  Or as I should have written, for Love's sake.  Shriving matters to us because God loves us and we love God.  It's our love for God and our desire for him that drives us to do anything, everything, that will draw us closer into the orbit of his divine love.  How do we know God's love?  Through the death and resurrection of Christ.  So we are back to what Lent really means. Lent is ultimately a project of love in response to God's everlasting love for us and all creation. 

To keep Easter in view every day from Ash Wednesday onwards is the secret of observing this season as a time of purposeful, joyous renewal. Lent is an old English word for spirngtime.  Winter is almost past.  Welcome dear feast of Lent!

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Maundy Monarchy: Jubilee Reflections

Last week we marked the 60th anniversary of the Accession.  We honour the dedication the Queen has shown this nation throughout that time.  But the occasion also gives us pause for thought.  The last time the nation celebrated a diamond jubilee was in 1897.  There could not be a greater contrast between Queen Victoria’s jubilee and what will no doubt be our more understated commemorations this summer.  Then, the empire celebrated a glorious past and a future on which the sun would never set.  Who could foresee the cataclysms just over the horizon of the 20th century, and their corroding effect on all our historic institutions including the monarchy?  Today, while most people support the monarchy, the mood is no longer as deferential as it was.  We see ourselves as citizens, not subjects.  A democratic state is governed by consent, and that involves participation.  Citizenship is a noble vocation. 

So what does monarchy mean today?  The Scottish theologian Ian Bradley argues in his book God Save the Queen that it provides a storehouse of symbols and rituals to feed the nation’s imagination and maintain its sense of the transcendent.  He believes that our rich ceremonial tradition with its feel for the numinous gathers up and ritualises the ‘soul’ of our national identity.  Christian constitutional monarchy makes visible, he says, God’s rule and claim upon us, even in a modern democratic state.  As the Supreme Governor (not 'head') of the established church, a ‘Defender of the Faith’, or even ‘Defender of Faiths’ requires us to take seriously the imaginative and religious dimension of public life as well as of personal life.

But monarchy is accountable beyond itself and the people it serves. At her coronation, the Queen was presented with the Orb of State and told: ‘Receive this Orb set under the Cross, and remember that the whole world is subject to the power and empire of Christ our Redeemer.’  All institutions, however well they serve us, are provisional and made up of mortal beings.  They are subject to the rule of Christ the King; they are set under the cross of a king whose throne is Golgotha.  One day they will be no more, for the kingdoms of the world will become the kingdom of God and of his Christ; and he shall reign forever and ever. So the monarchy is not only a symbol of a temporal society but points beyond itself to the city whose builder and maker is God.  

In the gospels, Jesus’ kingship is not about palaces and panoply, but love and self-abasement.  His purple robe is died with blood and his throne is the cross. He calls us his subjects, and invites our allegiance and our love.  It doesn’t look much of a kingdom, this clutch of nobodies - the peasants, fishermen, prostitutes and tax-gatherers Jesus gathers round him.  He does not promise that if we go with him, the way will be glorious, or lead to wealth or success.  On the contrary, he foretells afflictions, ridicule and trial.  Yet he invites us to be faithful unto death and to seek rewards beyond this life.  He is concerned not with outward appearances but the heart, and looks there for loyalty, truth and love.  He calls all who lead to disdain privilege and the pursuit of honour.  He summons the powerful of this world to lay aside the seductions of glory and wealth and wash the feet of the poor.

We are celebrating a diamond jubilee.  In the Hebrew Bible, ‘jubilee’ is the celebration of cancelled debt and freedom for slaves. It promises a world that is more just, more equal and more free.  Institutions have awesome power to destroy, but at their best they can help shape the future for good, something never more needed than in today’s precarious world.  No doubt the monarchy will have changed much before the next time we celebrate a diamond jubilee.  It will need to travel more lightly, stand back from our obsession with celebrity and image, shed the culture of deference.  But as we give thanks for the service of our Queen over 60 years, we can loyally pray that the monarchy and indeed all entrusted with public office will embody more deeply the royal way of wisdom, humility and self-emptying.  Jesus comes among us not to be served but to serve.  He lays down his life for us, not only teaching the greater love but living it.  And whether we are simple or wise, strong or weak, rich or poor, leader or led, he speaks to us these words and summons us to make them real in our time: ‘Whoever would be great among you must be your servant, for I am among you as one who serves’.  This is what maundy means. 

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Women Bishops: let's do it!

I used to be on the Church of England's General Synod.  So I sat through long debates about whether women should be ordained as bishops.  I was never called to speak (I had a speech ready that I had worked hard on, but so did everyone else). I stood down at the last election, having served my time.  I'm sorry I never had the chance to go public on this subject.  So here is what I might have said.

An image in the ground

In the floor at the west end of Durham Cathedral just in front of the font there is a line of black Frosterly marble running right across the nave.  This was the line that women were not permitted to cross in the middle ages.  They were confined to the west of it. 

This line inevitably attracted its own mythology.  It was popularly assumed that it was due to St Cuthbert’s dislike of women, and that the misogynist saint did not want women anywhere near his shrine behind the high altar.  This is nonsense, as anyone who has read Bede’s lives of Cuthbert knows. The fact of the matter is quite straightforward.  In a male Benedictine monastery, which Durham was, women were forbidden to worship in the principal spaces of the monastic church which was the preserve of the monks.  Instead, women could worship in the Galilee Chapel at the west end, the Lady Chapel.

When I lead pilgrimages in the cathedral, I often stop at the line and invite people to think about the walls of partition that still exist in our world: divisions due to religious difference, ethnicity, privilege, gender, sexual orientation.  And I invite them to think too about the differences that still exist in our church.

Recently, a woman priest was in a group.  She straddled the line with both feet and said: ‘this is where we are as Church of England in relation to women in the priesthood.  We are only part way across.  We still have one foot on each side.  We are nowhere near the end of this journey.’  I couldn’t argue with her. It was a powerful moment.

A New Testament precedent

An analogy often quoted is Paul’s discussion in 1 Corinthians about meat offered to idols.  (I have to say that I am cautious about suggesting that meat of any kind is an analogy about women, let alone the unflattering image of meat offered to idols.)  Paul’s argument is that ‘the strong are right, but sometimes we must respect the consciences of the weak’.

No-one can argue with that exegesis.  But I’m not sure it’s the right analogy to begin with.  Surely there is a closer and better analogy, for there was indeed an issue like the one before us today that also divided the church from top to bottom, and that was also symbolised by the male anatomy.  This was of course the matter of whether gentiles were to be admitted to membership of the church. 

In the early church, circumcision was not a but the defining issue.  Breaking down this wall of partition was the most fundamental issue the church faced.  It posed the questions: what kind of church are we? Who is welcome here?  What kind of gospel do we proclaim? What kind of God do we worship?

For Paul, this was absolutely not a matter of conscience, not a question of whether you were strong or weak.  It was utterly basic to his gospel. He did not write qualifications or caveats into his argument at this point: there were no transferred arrangements for the Judaisers who took a different view. For Paul, what you believed about circumcision equated to what you really believed about the covenant, and what you really believed about God himself.

It was a hugely risky and courageous position for him to take.  Yet for all the passion about circumcision and the gentiles that his writings record, Paul recognised scruples when he met them.  He had Timothy circumcised out of sensitivity to the Jewish believers: not as a piece of primary legislation (it is unthinkable that Paul would compromise over this) but out of sensitivity and human compassion, and above all, to see the gospel promoted.  It was, if you like, a pastoral and generous code of practice.

The way forward for our church

What is the way forward for us in the Church of England?  I believe that we must do this not just for the sake of our mission to our society; nor just for the sake of our women priests, to whose ministry we all owe so much. We need to demonstrate to ourselves that we believe what we believe, and that our vision of the gospel is not less universal and generous than the New Testament’s, and that our theological vision and the courage of our convictions are equal to St Paul’s. 

The only way to achieve this is to go for a simple enabling measure.  Of course there needs to be a robust, generous, and enforceable code of practice: no-one is looking to un-church friends, colleagues, fellow worshippers with whom we differ on this.   But the matter is too fundamental to qualify the primary legislation with cautions and caveats, tea and sympathy.  We must avoid timidity because an anxious and frightened way of proceeding is not to act out of conviction.  We must avoid evasiveness because muddling and compromising our primary ecclesial relationships cannot be right, especially that between the diocesan bishop and the parishes.  And we must avoid being apologetic because I believe that not to take a clear, unambiguous stand for women in the episcopate is in the end unprincipled. 
So I urge that we go for a strong and simple option.  We must do it because we believe in it and because it has ecclesial and theological integrity, we must do it with real thankfulness for the ministry of women in our church already; and we must do it with joy and hope because of this new door of opportunity that God is opening for us.

One final comment.  On the night before I was ordained in 1975, my bishop said to me in our personal conversation: 'Michael, you do know, don't you, that the Synod has passed a resolution that there are no theological objections to the ordination of women.  This is the stated position of the church you are being ordained to serve publicly.  Now is the time to reconsider if you are not willing to accept that.'  I was grateful for his plain speaking.  Anyone ordained with me or after me knows that our church is committed to the journey of integrating women fully into all the orders of ministry.  No-one ordained after 1975 can say that the church has 'changed its mind'.  We are now nearing the end of the journey we began 36 years ago.  It's heartening to think that we are almost there. 

Thursday, 2 February 2012

A Bishop's Consecration

Today I was in York for the consecration of the new Bishop of Doncaster, Peter Burrows.  He was a student of mine at Salisbury in the early 1980s, and it is always good when past students reach senior positions. It seems like a long journey since the days when he wrote Old Testament essays for me to mark. Doncaster is in my former diocese of Sheffield, so it was good to see old friends from there as well.  

As it was Candlemas, the last of the 40 days of the Christmas season, we sang, charmingly, ‘Angels from the realms of glory’.  The carol happens to have been written by a 19th century Sheffield layman,  James Montogomery (there is a statue of him outside the east end of Sheffield Cathedral).  If it was chosen for this reason, it was a nice touch.  The preacher (Bishop James Bell of Peter’s former Diocese of Ripon and Leeds) spoke about expectancy and hope, and how Simeon and Anna, waiting for so long, saw God in the face of the Infant who was presented in the temple.  The references to Von Balthazar and the eschaton may have been beyond some people, but it was good preaching  (it is quite a challenge to speak effectively on such occasions and resist the temptation to play to the gallery).  As an aside, speaking of Simeon and Anna’s great age, he said that we should not be too quick to disparage elderly church congregations: maybe there was a quality of expectancy in such communities that could teach us all how to keep hope alive.

Ordinations are tricky events to get right, and episcopal consecrations most of all.  When you have a great space like York Minster, scores of bishops on parade in their red convocation robes, many more robed clergy and readers and a full nave, it is Ceremony with a capital ‘C’.  For once, rather than robe and process with other clergy, I decided to sit in the nave, near the back.  It’s from the back stalls that you really appreciate the strengths and weaknesses of the performance.  Some words I could hear clearly, some less so, some not at all (no problems with the PA system which is excellent, but it is only as good as the people who use it).  The sermon was given from a lectern near the altar, which from the back looked absurdly insignificant.  The pulpit would have given the preacher not only visibility but authority, for he speaks in the name of God.  The choir sang beautifully, but didn’t have enough to do: it would have been lovely to have a joyous Viennese Gloria instead of the responsorial version we sang (I know, I know – it’s about ‘joining in’, so put it down to the prejudices of a cathedral dean). 

However, the real test of ordination services is what message s the rite conveys about the nature of the church.  At consecrations, the message seems very clear.  The bishops are prominent, and when they come up to the platform to surround and lay hands on the candidate, it is hard to avoid the perception that the ordinand is being received into a powerful and tight-knit group.  In rite-of-passage terms, this is indeed what is going on: incorporation into the college of bishops who stand at the summit of a visible hierarchy. 

The trouble is, what does this say about the theological character of the church as koinonia, a fellowship of people, lay and ordained, who in Christ live a common life and break bread together?  The preacher spoke three times about the vocation of ‘bishops and all the people of God’, but somehow this is never articulated very clearly in the way consecration services are choreographed.  Napoleon (I think) said that an army consists of generals who are surrounded by officers and men.  I am sure no-one who was in the Minster today would say that the church consists of bishops who are surrounded by clergy and laity.  But the rite speaks its own message: perhaps this is what we believe after all.

So do ordinations require a new ceremony that will speak more eloquently of the church as the whole people of God and less of clerical hierarchy?  This is a question, not a statement: I’m aware that cathedral liturgy can often look and be experienced as clericalised, in  my own cathedral as much as anywhere else.  But the inclusion of lay people on cathedral chapters since 2000 is perhaps changing all that.  In Durham, the Chapter processes in and out of church in order of seniority, regardless of whether members are lay or ordained.  It may look a bit odd at first, but the message that we in this privileged place at all not because of our position in a hierarchy but through our baptism is, I think, what matters most of all. 

But perhaps all this is a trifle idealistic?  I was glad to be in the Minster today to see a former student and old friend given this awesome responsibility in the church.  Peter, we are praying for you.