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

Sunday, 24 February 2013

Birth and Death In Lent

Jenny and I are like Simeon and Anna in the temple, getting old while we wait for a child to turn up. Not that we are quite ready to say Nunc Dimittis just yet. The child in question is our daughter’s first baby, and our first grandchild. I blogged when we first heard that a birth was on the way. He or she (the parents have opted not to be told which) was due on Shrove Tuesday, so was inevitably nicknamed Pancake. Now it is ten days into Lent, and still there is no nativity. We are learning a lot about waiting.

Meanwhile, a friend and his family have also been waiting in these early days of Lent.  For them, it was the last illness of his mother; the waiting was quite simply for her to slip away peacefully, as they hoped her death would be. We talked about these different kinds of waiting, one of us for a birth and the other for a death. Like T. S. Eliot in The Journey of the Magi, we had seen birth and death and thought they were different.
But perhaps they aren’t.  When we keep vigil by a loved human being going through one of life’s sacred passages, when we wait for a birth or a death to come, we realise how similar they are, to people of faith at any rate. We are born, we die, we are re-born in some new and unimagined way. Both usually involve waiting and pangs, and generous helpings of patience, endurance and hope. There is often not much else that we can do than be present to what is happening and to those who wait with us: we must allow things to take the time they take.  

This theme of how we spend time has a Lenten aspect to it. This Lent, a Durham idea about trying to live in a way that is less busy has captured the imagination of a surprising number of people. It was stimulated by Stephen Cherry’s recent book Beyond Busyness. There is a website with resources: www.notbusy.co.uk, and even a red wristband to wear as notbusy people. The Twitter hashtag #NOTBUSY is being well used. All this is to open up space in our lives so that we pay more attention to God and to one another; perhaps, in the words of a slogan we coined in my Coventry days, ‘do less well’ (read those words several times putting the accent on different words).

I’ve found in the first two weeks of Lent that waiting for our grandchild has instilled a keener sense of wanting to be less busy so that I can concentrate on this great event that is about to happen, be present to the experience of anticipated delight and joy.  Of course, everyday life doesn’t stop when someone is born or dies, though it can feel like it – ‘stop all the clocks’ said Auden in a brilliantly observed line of poetry.  For time does change in the way we experience it, which is why we find it astonishing that the world goes on as if nothing has happened to us. 

This different and more sacramental quality is what I am trying to notice.  I want to try and embrace what we might call ‘God’s time’ with its gift of a deeper experience of being alive. And I want to allow this glimpse to make some difference to my ordinary days.  Lent with its intertwining of mortality, springtime, renewal and resurrection hope is an exquisitely rich season. So, waiting and preparing for Easter, and waiting and preparing for a birth or a death, belong together. Lent gathers up so much of life, its shadows and its light and everything in between.

And if ‘death is swallowed up in victory’, then birth too is an act of defiance against all that is deathly and deadly in our world. A birth brings not just delight but hope for the human race: life begins again. The old English word ‘Lent’ means spring. Soon the green blade rises.  

For my recent sermon on not being busy in Lent, see my blog of sermons and addresses at 

Friday, 8 February 2013

Equal Marriage: Gamaliel's View

After the vote in parliament on equal marriage, how should the churches respond?
Some of the rhetoric of church leaders has been little short of hysterical. To call gay marriage a ‘catastrophe’ or hammering the final nail in the coffin of marriage is not the measured language of responsible debate. In a recent tweet, I urged that Christian leaders should turn the volume down.
I have been a bit baffled by some of the arguments on both sides.  For instance, it worries me that in the draft legislation for same-sex marriage, there does not seem to be any clear understanding of marriage as a covenanted relationship that requires loyalty and fidelity.  I am told that this is because the lawyers can’t agree about what constitutes same-sex consummation or unfaithfulness.  So straight away this makes equal marriage unequal because it is not defined in precisely the same covenanted way as heterosexual marriage. It is not surprising that some Christians are concerned about weakening the classical understanding of marriage by not placing the vow of faithfulness right at its heart.
On the other hand, I am worried by assumptions on the ‘conservative’ side that to allow couples of the same sex to marry somehow undermines the institution of marriage. If this were true of gay marriage, it would be even more true of unions including a divorced party. Indeed, if the vow of fidelity is of the essence of marriage, then divorce and remarriage are in theory a far bigger threat to it than enlarging covenanted unions to include same-sex couples. In fact, this has not turned out to be the case. So I can understand the claim that to advocate gay marriage is in fact to honour marriage as a wholesome institution, good for individuals and good for society because it fosters stability.  This is the very opposite of subverting it.  So I recognise that it's seen as a matter of justice (I don't say human rights) that same-sex couples should be able to enter it too.  
There’s a story in the Acts of the Apostles that may help.  A Jewish leader called Gamaliel had to intervene in a furious row about whether or not the infant Christian movement should be tolerated. When things threatened to turn violent he said this: ‘Fellow Israelites, consider carefully what you intend to do…because if this plan or undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God you will not be able to overthrow them; in that case you might even be found fighting against God!’ (Acts 5.33-39)  In today’s febrile atmosphere of heated debate, what would Gamiliel say to us now?  Here are some thoughts.
We should remember our history. In his speech in Acts, he warns the traditionalists not to be too hasty to condemn.  The Church of England has been in this position several times in the past century.  The furious debates about artificial contraception in the early 20th century are barely remembered now, but at the time contraception was rejected by bishops and church leaders as a terrible threat to the nature of marriage as meant for procreation.  The legalisation of homosexual acts between consenting adults was another example, the remarriage of divorced people in church yet another.  The Church of England has found ways of accommodating itself to all these developments.  We have seen this as recently as the past decade.  Bishops’ initial hostility towards civil partnerships has become at least a working recognition of their importance to the extent that they are now invoked as desirable as arguments the new-fangled gay marriage. The church will, I’m pretty sure, do this once again and come to recognise equal marriage; if it can’t welcome it, it will at least become pragmatic about it in time. 
Wait and see how the argument develops in the months ahead. Don’t rush into condemnation. It doesn’t do any good, it will probably make you look foolish, and in the future you may find you wish you could take back things you had said in anger or haste.  Gamaliel does not invoke the principle of Christian charity, but I think he would have urged us to debate with restraint, moderation and courtesy.  The megaphone never clarifies arguments; only thoughtful reflection can do that. There is no point in shouting at Parliament for supporting equal marriage, or at those in the church who are at least prepared to consider that there might an important principle here.
3  There is no likelihood of turning back the tide of events.  So the church must learn to live in the light of them. We are beginning to do this in the welcome we give to gay people in the church (though there is still a long way to go: if the bishops really believe that civil partnerships are good or not-bad, the church should be able to bless them as it has come to bless the marriages of the divorced).  What we especially need to do now is to make sure that the legislation is informed by the wisest and best insights that Christianity has brought down the centuries to its understanding of marriage, such as the dimension of fidelity and covenanted love that I mentioned earlier.
And if charity directs the way we respond to equal marriage as everything else, I believe we shall continue to hold the goodwill and respect which, despite everything, many people still have for the established church.