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

Friday, 29 March 2013

Love so Amazing: Thoughts on Good Friday Evening

At the end of the Good Friday service at the Cathedral, we sang Isaac Watts’ great hymn ‘When I survey the wondrous cross’. When we got to the last verse, ‘Love so amazing, so divine / demands my life, my soul, my all’, there was an unexpected sunburst over the great cross that had been processed in and set up at the front of the nave. Until then, it had been one of those bleak, grey days we have endured for most of March. So this unexpected light felt like a transfiguration, an epiphany. Nature imitated liturgy in the words of another passion hymn we had sung: ‘Tree of glory, tree of light’.

You can have Jesus’ last words from the cross bleak and agonised as in St Matthew and Mark.  You can have them peaceful and serene as in St Luke. You can have them victorious and triumphant, as in St John’s ‘It is accomplished’. All these are valid ways of reading the cross. Golgotha means many different things. But on Good Friday, the liturgy chooses the passion according to St John. His gospel tells of a man destined for a victorious throne where he is ‘lifted up’. It is nothing less than the cross where he finishes in triumph the work he has come to do: the work of love.

Love. For me there was another, more important, epiphany earlier in the service. The preacher was speaking about the cross as the eternal sign of God’s love. In the course of a powerful sermon he said that the problem with ‘punishment’ theories of the atonement is that they are experienced not so much as focused on divine love as on my own sin, my guilt, my shame. In this we are self-concerned, driven by the need to placate angry gods who deal only with forensic transactions without which there can’t be forgiveness or reconciliation. This sinful idée fixe subverts the very idea of love freely given.  

Let me go on in my own words. This is not to deny the central place that forgiveness and reconciliation have in the gospel. Far from it. ‘I have come that they may have life, and have it abundantly’ says Jesus in St John. It’s a question of how we understand love. If we see it in punitive terms, God exacting a penalty in his own Son for the sins of the world, we miss the fundamental point about the nature of love. Its categories are not legal or ceremonial but personal.  It is self-forgetting, self-giving, self-emptying. There is no higher category with which to define it. Love is simply what it is. He loves us because he loves us. It costs everything and gives everything. William Vanstone puts it like this in words we also sang, drawn from his profound book Love’s Endeavour, Love’s Expense:

Love that gives, gives ever more,
Gives with zeal, with eager hands,
Spares not, keeps not, all outpours,
Ventures all, its all expends.

I have lived too long with punitive theories of the atonement. I don’t deny that they have a long pedigree in the church (though I do dispute the view of an online conversation partner today that substitutionary atonement is ‘orthodox’: there's never been an orthodox definition of atonement as the preacher pointed out). Nor do I deny that the New Testament draws on legal and ritual categories, nor that it affirms the idea of a victim freeing another person by standing in his/her place. I have defended the place of this imagery in some of my writings. But the point is precisely that these are ways of speaking: imagery, analogy, metaphor. They are not the heart of the person-person relationship which is where in human life we learn everything we know about the character of love.

At the Archbishop’s enthronement at Canterbury last week, we were invited to sing a song that contains the line ‘the wrath of God was satisfied’. I am not alone in questioning whether it can be right to speak about a Son who placates an angry Father. It drives a wedge right through the Trinity. It collapses God’s love into an impersonal transaction. Anyone who has ever loved knows that this is not how love is. It is more costly, more risky and more generous than that. 

The cross shows us what it means to love to the end. As Vanstone’s hymn has it:

Therefore he who shows us God
Helpless hangs upon the tree;
And the nails and crown of thorns
Tell of what God’s love must be.

On Good Friday, the darkness is transfigured and the sun breaks through the clouds. We recognise love enthroned on the cross and say 'yes' to it with all our hearts in the hope, the conviction, that one day it will be enthroned in all the globe. For amor vincit omnia.  Love overcomes in the end. 'Love so amazing, so divine.'

Friday, 22 March 2013

'Just In': Inauguration Thoughts

So now he is ‘just in’ as Archbishop of Canterbury. Yesterday didn’t make him archbishop: he has legally held the office since early last month. But the grand ceremony at Canterbury Cathedral was his presentation, so to speak, to the world, his ecce homo at which a new leader of worldwide Anglicanism was launched on his public ministry.

When I trained ordinands more than 30 years ago, I used to say to them: the real rite of passage you need to think about is not ‘getting ordained’ one summer Sunday in a great cathedral.  It’s the next day, the first Monday of the rest of your life when you have to decide what you are actually going to be and do as a new deacon. For the first time, you will wear your clerical collar in the street, catch your reflection in shop windows, sign yourself ‘the Reverend’, realise that many people will treat you differently from now on, whether with respect, adoration, indifference or downright contempt. They will expect you to know about Levitical ordinances, vestment colours and why good people suffer.  That’s the day when it truly dawns on you that you’ve become what you weren’t before – clergy. And maybe you ask, however did I get here?

So I wonder what Justin’s first working day in ‘ordinary’ has been like. I’m not going to speculate.  I’m genuinely interested in how someone I’ve known since he was a curate and recently worked closely with, makes this huge transition. In St Paul’s language, he has shot from being unknown to being well-known, at least as far as his name and his face are concerned. And if we describe it as an ascent, how does he prevent an attack of the bends with such a rapid rise to fame?  That question answers itself, for it will be his modesty, charm, self-deprecatory style, lack of self-importance and above all spiritual integrity that will keep him safe. But he will be the first to say that we need to pray for him, just as Pope Francis did, not just now but far into the future. As I said in a previous blog, the Chair of St Augustine has in our time become a ‘siege perilous’. Who is sufficient for these things?   

I was glad to be at yesterday’s service at Canterbury. It was the last in a series of Justin-ceremonies that I had been present at over the years: his ordination as deacon and priest at Coventry, his consecration as bishop, his installation at Durham Cathedral, the great farewell service there, all too soon, the confirmation of his election at St Paul’s, and now his inauguration. At Canterbury I recognised many of the themes we had become familiar with in Durham. His fanfare arrival at the west door was followed by a dialogue in which he said with touching simplicity that he was Justin who had come to serve among us as a fellow-human being and disciple. There was an act of penitence that reminded us at the outset that we live in a broken world and serve in a broken and divided church. We sang upbeat hymns such as ‘In Christ alone’ and ‘And can it be’, both of which were sung at Durham. The preacher’s voice was unambiguously that of a man whose Christian hope and conviction are unshakeable. Only Christ, he said, can reach out and save us from being destroyed by the storms that threaten to overwhelm us.

So much, so familiar. But I sense a subtle change in some of Justin’s public utterances. To take the most contentious matter our church is facing, homosexual relations and gay marriage, he clearly seems to want to open up a space for dialogue with campaigners like Peter Tatchell.  He has said he wants to understand the issues better for himself.  He speaks of gay couples in civil unions who have a ‘stunning’ quality of relationship. Yes, he does affirm the ‘traditional’ Church position on heterosexual marriage.  But not in a way that closes doors to those who, for principled theological and pastoral reasons, believe that there is more to be said that simply to rehearse the tradition. 

High office can have the effect of shutting down a leader’s capacity for original thought and courageous risk-taking. Or it can affirm his or her individuality, the right - indeed the duty - to ask questions of his or her institution, retain and grow the capacity for reflection and honest criticism. This is all part of theological, emotional and spiritual intelligence.  I have a hunch that Justin will surprise us.  Maybe today, Day One of his public archiepiscopate, will have been the start of the next phase of that journey.

A little personal postscript. What touched me more than anything else in the service happened right at the start. After the great west doors had been flung open and Justin welcomed there, the procession made its way slowly up the nave aisle. The Durham contingent was standing, robed, just by the nave altar.  When Justin drew level with us, he stopped, turned and bowed gravely to us before continuing eastwards.  It was an echo of the times we had bowed him into his stall in Durham Cathedral. None of us were expecting this courtesy, this gentle act of recognition. It was heartwarming not to be forgotten.

Sunday, 17 March 2013

Ten Years Ago: Durham, Iraq and a New Dean

This Wednesday, 20 March, is St Cuthbert's Day. The day before, Pope Francis will have inaugurated his public ministry. The day after it will be Archbishop Justin Welby's turn. In between comes Cuthbert, also a bishop though a reluctant one. We know that Justin Welby was deeply influenced by Cuthbert's example while Bishop of Durham. I don't know about the Pope, though I sometimes call St Francis of Assisi ‘Italy's St Cuthbert’, so similar are the two saints, not least in their simplicity and humility.

St Cuthbert's Day marks an important anniversary for me too. Ten years ago, I was installed on his day as dean of Durham. I could not have asked for a more auspicious day.  It was an unforgettable experience to kneel in his shrine while a Northumbrian piper played in the nave. I felt the saint’s companionship and the promise of his protection, as if he were an old friend I had met for the first time.  Our North East ‘welcome back’ could not have been more heartfelt.  All our hopes were high.

But for one thing. 20 March 2003 was the day that the Iraq war broke out.  (Some say it was the day before, and that may be correct technically, but it was St Cuthbert’s Day when the first missiles were launched against Saddam.)  All day long I was listening to updates on the news and rewriting my evening sermon in the light of events as they happened. Half an hour before the service, I decided that enough was enough and switched off.  Here is how I began my sermon.

We shall all remember St Cuthbert’s Day 2003 as the day the war began. It is a sombre moment in our history.  We have prayed that this cup might pass from us.  Now we are compelled to drink it, and its taste is very bitter.  We gather here with sadness that it has come to this, and with fear for a future we cannot know. Many have pleaded not to go to war without United Nations backing, but we are where we are. We must pray that the conflict will be brief with as little loss of life as possible. We must pray for relations between the faith communities both in the middle east and here, for this war will ratchet up tensions that are already strained. We must pray for our leaders and the armed forces. We must pray for the Iraqi people. We must love our enemies, for this conflict will make many more of them. And because war erodes truth and brutalises people, we must pray in the words of tonight’s gospel that the darkness may not overtake us.
That was said with some trepidation. It is not the stuff of most installations where deans have to preach themselves in by setting out their stall. But re-reading it ten years on, I believe I was right to trust my instincts. The legacy of the Iraq war has been a terrible alchemy of death, injury, bereavement on all sides but especially among Iraqis; fraught internal relationships between different Iraqi factions resulting in at best a fragile political stasis; a deeper mistrust on the part of global Islam towards the Christian west; the irretrievable loss of heritage belonging to some of the most ancient sites in the world; and the dramatically worsened plight of indigenous Christian communities in their historic homeland whose members are fleeing the country in large numbers to escape persecution. It was a bitter cup then, and it still is.

Some will say that despite the huge cost, it was worth embarking on this adventure in the pursuit of a kinder and more just world. Others will argue that it’s simply too soon to tell what the lasting effects of the war will be. And yet others will assert that it was a disastrous mistake and the last state has turned out to be much worse than the first. I am not qualified to make such judgments.  But my misgivings of ten years ago have not gone away.

For me, St Cuthbert’s Day will be an opportunity for personal thanksgiving for the privilege of living and working in such a beautiful, privileged and holy place for the past decade (more about that in a future blog, maybe).  But for many others, it will be a more ambiguous commemoration.  I am thinking especially of those who lost loved ones in the conflict or who have been permanently scarred by it.  So along with my thanksgivings for the past decade will come renewed prayers for Iraq and its afflicted people; prayers for those who died, not least among our own armed forces; prayers for all leaders and politicians as they face the intractable complexities of living together on our planet, and prayers for good men and women of all the world faiths who look for ways of deepening understanding and working for reconciliation in a broken world, like Archbishop Justin Welby and Pope Francis.

And I am sure that St Cuthbert will want us to pray on his day that our world may know the peace and simplicity of which his own life was such a luminous example.

Sunday, 10 March 2013

About Isaac

Our first grandson was born a week ago, in the hospital in Leeds where they film the TV docu-series One Born Every Minute. (My daughter wisely declined to take part, wondering why any woman would want to be immortalised in labour.)

Jo and Will have called him Isaac.  I love that name. Its root meaning is ‘to laugh’.  In Genesis, God promises that Sarah will have a child by Abraham.  She laughs because she can’t imagine conceiving at her great age.  But when the promised son is born, Sarah makes a beautiful little speech: ‘God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me…. Who would ever have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age’.  To begin with her laughter was scornful. How different it is now; for even if it’s a joke on God’s part, it’s a happy generous joke that against all odds a life has been promised and now it’s arrived. 

Every birth represents hope, and every birth brings laughter into a family – at least, we want to believe so.  And like Isaac of old, our Isaac has brought happiness and laughter to our family.  He has already been loved and cherished for many months, laughingly called Pancake in the womb because he was due on Shrove Tuesday.  Now he has been welcomed into our family.  St Benedict says in his Rule that we should welcome every guest as if he or she were Christ himself.  As I held Isaac barely 24 hours old, I thought how hard it is not to see the infant Jesus in the face of a tiny child.

There is a lot more that Genesis says about Isaac.  As a boy perhaps no older than a chorister, he and his father take a long walk to a far-off mountain in the biggest ordeal either of them will ever have to face.  I wrote about Abraham and Isaac in my book Lost Sons, though I doubt that I did it justice: the Aqeda or ‘Binding’, as Judaism calls it, is a profoundly mysterious story.  And if I tried to write about it now, I would not be able to keep my grandson Isaac out of my mental image of the narrative. 

But standing back from that particular text, I am safe in saying that for little Isaac, life will mean journeys he or we cannot possibly foresee.  Most of these, we pray, will be filled with happiness and hope and Isaac-like laughter, for who does not wish for every new-born child these God-given blessings?   But inevitably, some paths will take him into hard and difficult places where there is more shadow than light; and at those times, we pray all the more that he will know that he is cherished by God as a beloved child, and be kept safe from harm. 

And who knows whether even in infancy, he does not already intuit this for himself? Who can say whether his little heart isn’t already responding to the everlasting heart of Love which framed and fashioned him in his mother’s womb and brought him into this world?  Cor ad cor loquitur: heart speaks to heart in ways that don’t need words. Childbirth is one of the joyful mysteries of life, a sacrament where laughter and human love evoke the Love that, as Dante put it, moves the sun and the other stars. I like to think that this is something all children know deep within themselves. Sadly, for many, growing up is an act of forgetting.

So we are now officially old.  But we are going to enjoy being grandparents.