Without love?

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St Isaac sand

I have lost count of the number of times here when, writing about love, I have been reminded of the wrath of God, and that we must not compromise the truth of the faith by an overemphasis on love. Let me try to explain why this seems to me not only wrong, but wrong-headed.

My first point is to ask where, in Scripture, we are told that God’s love is to be counterbalanced by anything? Jesus tells us that love of God and our neighbour encompasses the whole of the law and the prophets, and in case we didn’t quite get such a radical saying, Paul drives it home in 1 Corinthians 13. If we pause for a moment, we can take on board how radical this is. Paul is not saying love needs to be balanced by wrath or judgment – or indeed anything. He is saying that it does not matter how good our preaching is, how insightful our faith, or how great our faith, or even how much we feed the poor and help the homeless; without love, these things are worthless in God’s eyes. We can even go to the extreme sacrifice of becoming a martyr for the faith, but if we do not have love, it is worthless. That is what I would call radical love. Paul asks only one thing – if we do these things, are we doing them in the love of God, that love which sees  infinite worth in each of his children, that love which led Jesus to Calvary. We can build the greatest cathedrals, hold the doctrines of the faith with absolute purity, but these things are as nothing if they are not done in the spirit of God’s love.

It was the overflowing love of the Trinity which led to all creation, and we are the product of that. If we do not respond to love with love, then we risk becoming like the Pharisees. They had plenty of religious rules, and they knew them and they kept them, but Jesus saw that this had in it nothing of the love of God (John 5:42), and said of them:

you tithe mint and rue and all manner of herbs, and pass by justice and the love of God. These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone.

Jesus did not think that their strict obedience to the Law balanced their lack of love. If love is the supreme commandment, then how can it even need to be balanced? We have to begin knowing we are loved by God, and that in turn we are to love his creation. We can believe in every word of the Creed and we can observe all that our church commands, but if we do not do these things in love, and if we do not love one another, then it is unimportant – we might as well be a pagan.

God’s wrath is directed against sin, and if we sin, then one of its effects is we fail to perceive it is love. If we want to dwell in the dark, we fear the light and we shun it – but it is the light and the dark is the dark. So, if we have the love of God in us, we can see how what the world perceives as folly, the crucifixion, is the supreme example of God’s self-sacrificing love for us, his creation.

We have done untold harm by placing other considerations alongside this overarching commandment. To burn others and call it an act of love is an act of sacrilege against the image of God in each of us. In the name of holiness we have shown a lack of charity to other sinners, and in the name of doctrinal correctness, we have put that ahead of the command to love one another. We have erred and strayed from the way of love like lost sheep. How often have we loved those who hate us? How often have we spoken of those fellow Christians who do not agree with us with a lack of love? What, then, is the point of being doctrinally correct if we have not love?

Falling short of the love of God?

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Latterly, whenever I have written about ‘love’ here it has caused controversy. God showed the extent of his love for us by gaining for us the rewards of salvation by his sacrifice at Calvary. Jesus prayed that the Church would reflect that love. Yet it is clear, except to those with their fingers in their ears and eyes fixed on their own navels, that the world does not see the Church as a society which manifests a radical, self-sacrificing love, either to its own members, or to those without it. We can, of course, choose to tell the world it does not understand these things, but we might do better to reflect on how and why it has this impression, and to wonder how far we are responsible for this sorry state of affairs.

Looking from the outside, or even the inside, or even at this blog, the world might get the impression that Christians are preoccupied with somewhat arcane theological disputes, inter-denominational quarrels, and doctrinal disputes in which we evince nothing that looks in the slightest bit like Christ’s love on Calvary. We are known in the world not for our love and our radical embrace of the outsider and the outcast, but rather for our propensity to judge. If, as Our Lord prayed, the world would know Him through our witness of love, perhaps the real reason for the growth of atheism and agnosticism is that our witness has been so poor?

Paul told the Galatians that all that matters when we are in Christ is faith working through love. We are called not to be ‘religious’ or ‘pious’ – these things are a by-product, or rather the result of the new life we have in Christ – we are called to witness to that new life and to the love of Christ which has transformed us. Christ loved us when we were far off, and though we are sinners, and he laid his life down for us because His love saw we were worth saving; do we do that? Are the Churches noted in the world for doing this? We are told to love God and our neighbour as ourself – and we’re not allowed the option of loving only those neighbours who are like us – everything else, the whole of the Law and the Old Testament witness hangs on obeying this commandment. John tells us we are liars if we say we love God but hate our brothers and sisters, and in the light of what Jesus says, it is wrong to read this last as somehow John saying we should love only our fellow Christians – those who argue thus seem frightened of the implications of the radical love of Christ which transforms us. If we do not love, we do not know God.

We can, and we often do, choose to assess ourselves and others by how far they conquer a particular sin, how often they go to church, and how ‘religious’ they seem, and this is fair enough, but how often do we judge them – and ourselves – by the extent to which we manifest that love of God for others – all others, even the outcasts, the strangers within our gate, and those who seem most unloveable? All we do is in Christ, and if we love, as we know we are loved by God, then we pass on that knowledge to others. We are told that if we abide in love, we abide in God, and that is not theoretical, it isn’t about defining the various types of love which we see in Scripture, it is about expressing that love of God which led the Word to sacrifice Himself for us because He saw in us the image of God. Do we do that? Or do we parse words and shimmy away from the radical conclusion that it is our failure to witness to this love of God which is at the root of the growth of secularism?

The Wedding at Cana

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The second of the mysteries of light when praying the Rosary is the wedding of Cana. I want to share some thoughts which have come to me over the years as I meditate on what St John tells us.

St John is as much poet as evangelist – or perhaps I should say that for me, the best way of understanding Scripture is often through poetry. Sometimes we read texts as though they were simply words on paper, not always taking in the notion that even what seem to be mere ‘facts’ are also ripe with interpretative material; like all the Evangelists, St John is a theologian – he asks the question, what is it that the facts signify? Jesus had taught in parables, and when the Spirit came on the Apostles, they understood that the sort of symbolism Jesus had used was a good way of getting the message to their listeners – and of course, most of those who received the Gospel did so by that means.

So, we could read the story of the wedding at Cana as simply a magic trick – Jesus changed water into win – hey presto! But note, St John calls it a ‘sign’ – and a sign points to something else, not itself. Not all the ‘signs’ Jesus gave are recorded in the Gospels, but the ones that are are all pointing us towards the truth of who He is and the invitation He extends to each of us to discover that reality in our own lives and to follow Him. (John 20: 30-31).

It is not accidental that St John begins this episode with the words ‘on the third day’ – those familiar with the resurrection as told by Paul (1 Cor 15:3-4) or by Luke (Acts 10:40) would get the resonance with the resurrection – this particular sign is indeed an occasion of ‘light’ – it is the beginning of a new age. The final Passover meal begins with a reference to the ‘hour’ and ends with the prayer ‘Father, the hour has come: glorify your Son.’ (17:1). The words ‘glory’ and ‘glorify’ appear, from chapter 12 on, alongside the word ‘hour’. Jesus prays to be saved from this ‘hour’ in the Garden, but in the Passion we see that it is during it that his ‘glory’ is to be seen. We see here the link between Cana – the first of the signs which would reveal his glory – and the revelation of Calvary. Cana is an epiphany – the first occasion in his adult life when the world gets a glimpse of His glory.

In Jesus, the finest wine has arrived, and it has come in abundance – all at the wedding can drink this new wine. We might note that the six water pots which are standing by (six, one short of seven, which was the usual measure of perfection) are there for the ritual of cleansing – for the guests to make themselves ritually clean. But we see here that it is not the water, not the ritual, but Jesus who saves us. He transforms the water of the old covenant into the wine of the new one. In this new dispensation, love is more important than ritual. As happens so often with religion, ritual had become more important than it should, and Law was more important than Love, with Love being transmogrified into something acceptable to the Law; but the Law is transformed by Love into the best wine of all.

There is so much else here that could be said, but for this, the first of five Sunday reflections on St John’s Gospel, I shall stop there. Let me know what you think.

Gospel for Corpus Christi Year C

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Luke 9:11-17

Just as God fed the children of Israel in the wilderness, so here Jesus feeds the people. The five loaves should be understood as the five books of Moses, St Augustine suggests, whilst St Ambrose thinks they represent the five senses of the body. This bread is sanctified bread, prefiguring the Eucharist. It is like the Mystical Word of God, and can be multiplied as many times as is necessary to feed the people of God. Christ’s gifts may seem as small as a few loaves, but they are in reality very great and there is enough, and more than enough, for all who need them.

St Ambrose also comments on the order of the mystery. First comes the healing of wounds through the remission of sins. Then the nourishment of the heavenly table abounds, although this multitude is not yet refreshed with stronger food – that will come in the Eucharist after the Resurrection. Those who hunger for Christ will be satisfied, but there is always more love from Christ to feed all those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.

St Cyril of Alexandria points us towards the result of the miracle – all those who hungered were fed, even though they were a multitude and the food seemed scarce. What are we to infer from the twelve baskets left over? That the love of Christ overflows, and we should offer hospitality to all who seek him, and our reward, like their reward, will be life in abundance and eternally. We are to receive the stranger as we are receiving him. What we give will be multiplied many times. for he who sews a blessing receives one too. Christ is the bread of life and offers himself to all who will repent and follow him. It is he who came down to earth from heaven that all might be redeemed through his love and his willing sacrificed offered once and for all on Calvary.

Disappearing Christianity?

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Friday’s Guardian headlined with the figures showing that Christianity in the UK is in what looks like terminal decline. My own church is losing ten people for every one convert, and those for the RCC would be even worse were it not for the effects of immigration

It is only the smallest and most self-consciously sectarian forms of Christianity that manage to retain believers, in part no doubt because they feel cut off from the society around them.

Archbishop William Temple once said that the Church was the only organisation which existed to benefit those who were not its members; we seem to have forgotten that. If we retreat to the margins and our own comfort zones and take refuge in the thought we are members of a purer ‘remnant’ safe in our ancient traditions, we betray the longest tradition of all – the Great Commission. Jesus did not say the his disciples, ‘hang round in upper rooms in Jerusalem and they will come to you’.

The Guardian makes an interesting point here:

The people in the pews have always been heretics with only the vaguest notion of what official doctrines are, and still less of an allegiance to them. The difference is now that they are outside the pews, even if they still hold the same vague convictions about a life spirit or a benevolent purpose to the universe

That is, in part, what prompted my short series this week on evangelism and the hot button issues and the question of how we minister to those people who still ‘believe’ but do not see the churches as part of their lives or as a way to become connected with that ‘benevolent purpose’. It is, I suppose, ironic, that a set of our commentators here, who have gone from church to church, and in some cases belief system to belief system, should have decided that someone who has remained in the same church all her life, is the one person out of line; but I take comfort from the fact that those here involved in active evangelism ‘get it’ and know that in asking questions about what we do about this situation, I am prescribing no one remedy.

If there is a call for the Latin Mass, fine, let those who want it have it, but let others have what they find works for them. The Church cannot be Henry Ford – ‘any colour as long as it is black’. Sometimes we ask how it is that there can be so many churches, with the implication that there should be only one. But what if there is only one – the One Gospel – but put across in many forms because that is how we have traditionally reached people? I have no idea whether this idea is true, but it is a reality all the same.

I was interested to read in the Catholic Herald that the American RCC is doing well, especially in the south in bringing in the unchurched. The tremendous Fr Alexander Lucie-Smith (why isn’t he a bishop?) outlines the characteristics he finds work in a church with a successful mission:

• It is Marian.
• It is Christocentric.
• It is Eucharistic.
• It is not clericalist: all the parishioners are called to be involved.
• It emphasises prayer, education, fellowship and works – in that order.

He refers, rightly, to ‘inculturation’, and this in the context of speaking to Spanish speakers in their language. But what about the culture we are in here? My series here this week was an appeal to a different from of inculturation.

This is what the Guardian had to say about the relationship between our faith and our culture:

Over the last 50 years “religion” has come to stand for the opposite of freedom and fairness. This is partly an outcome of the sexual revolution and of the long and ultimately futile resistance to it mounted by mainstream denominations. “The religious” now appear to young people as obscurantist bigots whose main purpose is to police sexuality, especially female sexuality, in the service of incomprehensible doctrines. Institutional resistance to the rights of women and of gay people was an exceptionally stupid strategy for institutions that depends on the labour of both

Is that hard? Is it untrue to those of us in the Church? In both cases the answer is ‘yes’, but if that is what people outside the churches think, then there is no use our playing the victim and saying how awfully unfair that is. Young (and not so young) people did not get that impression by accident – and if, as one departed commentator tried to, you say there never was any misogyny in the church, you simply lose any credibility. I’ve never understood why so many in a religion founded on the idea of repentance, find it so difficult to admit fault. Of course all the churches have been misogynist – they have also been women-friendly in some ways too – so let us first face up to why people think this about us – and then do something other than quote obscure texts no one has ever heard of to pretend the elephant in the room is not there.

One of our commentators told me yesterday:

Your Jesus is as about as historical as Bosco’s.
God doesn’t change. So what you worship is not God.

We change, society changes, and if this has no impact on how we perceive the Eternal Message of God, and we refuse to change, not the Gospel, but the way we work in a changing culture, then we become exactly what the Guardian is talking about.

If we are frightened of a culture, we cannot do inculturation. Too often our attitude to the culture in which we exist here is akin to that of an English speaker in Latino communities who insists in speaking in English because it is his language and the one he is comfortable with. No doubt some, especially if they perceive some benefit in knowing English, will come, but you cut yourself off from everyone else – you effectively say you are not interested.

We risk, as the Guardian points out, losing much if we slip away altogether from the public square:

A post-Christian Europe will of course have a morality but it won’t be Christian morality. It will likely be less universalist. The idea that people have some rights just because they are human, and entirely irrespective of merit, certainly isn’t derived from observation of the world. It arose out of Christianity, no matter how much Christians have in practice resisted it.

As Tim Stanley points out in the Telegraph we have seen peaks and troughs many time in the history of Christianity, and effective evangelism has usually come out of our wrestling with what the Spirit is trying to tell us to do.  Inculturation has worked in every age of the church. If we have become too conservative, too fearful, too attached to our own comfort zones to do what the Apostles did, well then, it will be left to other Christians made bold by the Spirit, to go where we will not. But as I have tried to suggest this week, the oldest method of all – inculturation – that is walking with people where they are and preaching to them in language they understand – can still work. The question is will we be bold as our forefathers were, or are we to retreat to our safe spaces? My answer is clear – if God is with us, all things are possible – even talking to people about what matters to them, rather than our own internal churchy concerns.

 

Gnostics?

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One of the earliest and most persistent dangers to the faith was given the general name ‘Gnosticism’ – from the Greek ‘gnosis’ which means ‘knowledge’. It came to signify the beliefs of those who said they were Christian but claimed to have some secret, inner knowledge which was not revealed to the ordinary believer. It is an obvious temptation in any faith. We all have, as Paul reminds us, different talents which we bring to the church, but if there are those who claim that certain terms can be understood only in certain ways by an elite who know these things, then, should that line be accepted, and should the faithful come to believe that salvation can be had only by acquiring this secret knowledge, or following those who have it, the consequences for those who have the knowledge are obvious. Just about every cult there ever has been proceeds on this basis. We see Paul warning against it in his first letter to Timothy.

It is common enough to see much of modern secular thought on matters of sexuality as having about it something of the Gnostic – although I wonder whether that does not confer on mere hedonism and selfishness a philosophical gloss it fails to deserve. But what are we to make of it when good Christians say that ‘love’ does not mean what we take it to mean, that there is a special religious meaning to it which only those who understand it can understand, and that our modern understanding of ‘love’ is quite at odds with what Jesus preached? That, too, though well-meant, seems to me a dangerous line to take.

Jesus was not a philosopher dealing in fine distinctions – he wanted our yes to be yes and our no to be no. The examples he offers us of love in his parables seem pretty clear, and they exactly resemble what most of us would call love. His own willingness to die for us sinners is the highest form of human love – to lay down your life to save another – when we see men and women do that, we marvel (and wonder if we should have the courage) but we are not separated from it by an impassable gulf. We can provide all the commentaries we like on 1 Corinthians 13, but now, as then, we can understand it because it speaks to what we know of love. There is not some separate category of love which means it looks a lot like hate to the uninitiated. Jesus is pretty clear about a lot of things we fail to do. We fail to love our enemies (for the most part – I think the only person I ever met who comes close to that is our own Chalcedon451), we fail to turn the other cheek or to walk the extra mile. We come up with fine-grained explanations for our failings here. We can even, and do, some up with a variety of ‘love’ which seems to those on the receiving end of it, like its opposite, and justify it by saying we are trying to save the soul of whoever it is we are offering tough love to. But we save no one, the Spirit does.

The difference between spiritual guidance and control can be a thin one sometimes – again it is a theme which resonates throughout the history not only of our faith, but most others. When I look at the figures for church attendance and for ‘belief’ I wonder sometimes how accurate, or even useful, they are. Are we to assume that when church-going was socially desirable, everyone who went was a devout and orthodox believer?

In this short series, I have been trying to survey the Christian waterfront with the question in mind of why it is that our faith has ebbed so much, and why in some areas, we still make converts – and by that I don’t mean Christians changing from one church to another, but bringing in the unchurched. It seems to me that if we speak in terms which imply you either need a PhD in theology, or some secret insight to understand us, you will attract those for whom the idea of being part of a special club is appealing – there’s always a market for elite clubs with initiation rituals and special ceremonies and a language which excludes those outside the club. But we also put off those who, knowing themselves broken and in need of healing, come looking for that love which the Lord said would be the mark of those who truly believed in Him. That love was not some special construct known only to an educated elite, it was something a little girl could know in the arms of her daddy. Unless we can believe like a little child, we shall in no wise inherit the kingdom of Heaven. As adults, we forget that, as so much else that is simple.

The challenge in our society is getting people to encounter Jesus at all. The other challenge then is trusting Him. If people can see from our witness that we do follow what Jesus says, some, at least, will come near. When that happens, they will have an encounter which will change them – we don’t need to tell them to change, or warn them of the fires of hell, or tell them there is some special meaning to words which once initiated they will understand – the Spirit will bring them, as He does all of us, into what it is needful to know for salvation. When the Spirit comes, so does the new man and new woman in Christ Jesus.

My thanks to those who have followed this short series.

Hot button issues (2) Homosexuality

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‘People looking into the Church can think it’s a really homophobic environment’ – the words are those of the Evangelical, Vicky Beeching, who ‘came out’ not long ago. Reading her comments. one can see that she has been shaken by the reaction from some of those on Twitter and on her blog and has decided that is not the place to engage with further thinking on the subject.

I wasn’t willing to have my LGBT readers, who bravely share their personal and vulnerable views in the comments section, ganged up on by aggressive, conservative readers – many from the American Bible Belt – in a way that feels insensitive and inappropriate.

I can understand that. A couple of years ago, when I posted on the subject of a wedding invitation I had received from one of my oldest female friends, who was marrying a woman, some of the comments made were pretty ghastly.The essential argument from tradition is based on certain Biblical passages and on a view of what is and is not ‘natural’. The essential argument against the traditional view is that the passages concerned have been misread and that misreading is largely culturally conditioned. In the case of my own dilemma, given that there is precisely one verse in Scripture criticising lesbianism and many more criticising people being judgmental, that was quite ironic.

This is something that, when speaking in Toronto in 2007, Rowan Williams pointed out:

Paul in the first chapter of Romans famously uses same-sex relationships as an illustration of human depravity — along with other ‘unnatural’ behaviours such as scandal, disobedience to parents and lack of pity. It is, for the majority of modern readers the most important single text in Scripture on the subject of homosexuality, and has understandably been the focus of an enormous amount of exegetical attention.

What is Paul’s argument? And, once again, what is the movement that the text seeks to facilitate? The answer is in the opening of chapter 2: we have been listing examples of the barefaced perversity of those who cannot see the requirements of the natural order in front of their noses; well, it is precisely the same perversity that affects those who have received the revelation of God and persist in self-seeking and self-deceit. The change envisaged is from confidence in having received divine revelation to an awareness of universal sinfulness and need. Once again, there is a paradox in reading Romans 1 as a foundation for identifying in others a level of sin that is not found in the chosen community.

Now this gives little comfort to either party in the current culture wars in the Church. It is not helpful for a ‘liberal’ or revisionist case, since the whole point of Paul’s rhetorical gambit is that everyone in his imagined readership agrees in thinking the same-sex relations of the culture around them to be as obviously immoral as idol-worship or disobedience to parents. It is not very helpful to the conservative either, though, because Paul insists on shifting the focus away from the objects of moral disapprobation in chapter 1 to the reading /hearing subject who has been up to this point happily identifying with Paul’s castigation of someone else. The complex and interesting argument of chapter 1 about certain forms of sin beginning by the ‘exchange’ of true for false perception and natural for unnatural desire stands, but now has to be applied not to the pagan world alone but to the ‘insiders’ of the chosen community. Paul is making a primary point not about homosexuality but about the delusions of the supposedly law-abiding.

This is worth quoting at length because it makes the important point that we have to read what Paul is saying, not read into Paul what we think he ought to have been saying – and that is something people on both sides of this issue do.

The Church of Scotland has what it calls a position of ‘constrained difference’ on this issue:

“It is a fundamental part of our faith in the Reformed Tradition that we permit each other in good conscience to interpret scripture differently but to keep any such interpretations in check by what we understand as the substance of the faith.”

Those for whom tradition is paramount will, naturally, come down where it has always come down, and they will continue to read the Bible passages in a way consonant with it. Those of us for who tradition is important, but not the decisive factor, will use our reason to read the Bible passages in a contextual way and will come down in another place, which does not necessarily mean abandoning tradition, but wondering how we deal, pastorally, with homosexuals or transexuals who are also Christians. Some of them will adopt the position that they are called to celibacy, but those who do not feel they have that grace, what of them, especially if they cannot see that the traditional reading of these Scripture passages is at all convincing? Perhaps the Church of Scotland’s position is not quite as unsatisfactory as it looks?

Of course, for those who believe that homosexuality is in the same league as murder and oppressing the poor (I do hope those last are not voting for neoliberal economic solutions to our economic problems), this line will seem intolerable. But then to those who don’t, their line seems intolerable too. We are all sinners, but we cannot all agree on what is sinful. So perhaps ‘constrained difference’ is the most sensible way for us to disagree – except for those who feel that arguing on this issue s getting us anywhere – something it is hard to see is the case.

 

Hot button issues (1); Abortion

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Fifty seven million babies have been killed in their mother’s wombs in the United States since Roe versus Wade. In the UK there have been more than 8 million abortions since 1967. In this country this is not even a political issue; in the US it is. Increasingly it seems as though those in favour of abortion are at least willing to admit it is a human life which is being extinguished although they argue over when life begins. I never found a card in the shops with the message ‘congratulations on your foetus’.   We are all aware of the hard cases – they were the reason the Abortion Act in the UK was passed in the first place – but if someone really believes that nearly 200,000 women’s lives were in danger last year, then I have a title-deed for Manhattan Island for sale at a very reasonable price, so do get in touch.

If we are honest – and some are – then we know that the majority of abortions are to do with a different sort of choice – the choice of the putative mother to take time off work and have her career/life disrupted by the demands of a baby; the choice of parents who both need to be working to afford high house prices, not to have a child because of the cost and the life-style consequences. When I was born my father got a family allowance, and there were tax-breaks for mothers and for families; married couples also got tax breaks. The State realised that taking on the responsibilities of a family was a commitment it needed t support – how else, in a purely utilitarian way – was it going to keep its tax base up and fill the jobs that needed to be filled? We know the answer now – immigration – so who needs babies?

Professor Tina Beattie has recently been arguing that in the early church early abortion was only a small sin. Like a lot of her arguments, it is disingenuous with a kernel of truth. The truth is that there was a debate in the early church, as now, about when life began, the disingenuous part is gliding past the fact it was always considered a sin. One of the marks of the early Christians was that in a society where abortion and the exposure of unwanted children on hillside was common, the Christians cherished every life as being from God. Even slave women were as valuable in the eyes of God as the Emperor – in fact, as Jesus taught, it was more likely that the latter would be amenable to the call of the Spirit than the latter, blinded as he would be by flatterers and wealth.

For Christians abortion has always been a ‘hot button’ issue. We live in a society which appears happy to offer up to Moloch its young. Those who argue about when life begins at least show some sign of realising that you shouldn’t kill young humans; but there are others who simply argue that a woman has that right. Apart from praying for them, and their dead children, I don’t know what can be done. But when I read that the sin that cries out to heaven the most is sodomy, I despair – this evil, this vile industry which preys on the lives of the most vulnerable, is the sin that cries to Heaven. If we, as Christians, will not unite to protest again slaughter on this industrial scale, then I don’t see the point in our protesting against lesser evils. The Pope recently said that it seemed as though the church was always talking about abortion. Unlike some here, I admire this Pope, and to be fair, he himself has spoken about the evils or abortion, but I disagree if he was implying we can say too much about this. We can’t. Let us pray to the Lord for the souls of the lost, and for the mothers and fathers concerned – but let us as Christian communities, ensure we make sure our legislators know what we think. In the UK, actually just enforcing the law as passed would make a difference.

 

Spirituality?

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Diversity isn’t about uniformity – we’re not trying to find one way that suits everyone – the only thing that is uniform is God – and we offer a variety of ways people can come to Him. Because I love older liturgical forms, and a certain amount of austere literary beauty, I like the 8 a.m. Communion service; as I like sung services, I’ve been known to grab a coffee and go back for the 9.30 Mattins. I didn’t think I’d become a regular at the 10.30 sung Eucharist, but I like the diversity of people I meet there – though I don’t find the service itself touches me as the 8 a.m. one does – but I am impressed by the way it reaches the large number of people who come to it. Each of these services offers something to those who consider themselves ‘spiritual’.

It is easy (which is why I have done it) to poke gentle (or sometimes not so gentle) fun at ‘spirituality’, which indeed seems to be a way for some people to signal that they have a mystical side, but don’t want anyone to confuse them with one of those ‘religious’ nutjobs. But if that brings them into a Christian Church, then it is important we can speak to that feeling that there is more in the world than science and materialism can explain. One of my priests says he has found that such people often make the best converts, as they come to see that Christianity isn’t about what happens on Sunday in a building, but is much bigger than that, and that it offers the most comprehensive view of what life is given to us for.

In this treatment of diversity there is, of course, nothing new, it is what St Paul wrote about in 1 Corinthians 12-14 – except for the fact of women reading – but there we are, we are a very large part of the church, and what was unseemly in Paul’s day is not so in our own. One of the greatest strengths of our faith has been its ability to adapt itself (without changing the essentials) to different times, places and cultures. Some, of course, object to any form of expression of the faith which is not approved by their own particular tradition, and this can be a great obstacle to the Great Commission.

Back in 2010 the Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, said that in the world today Christ was being put on trial again, and being judged because of the actions and words of the people who claim to be his followers. The world, he told a meeting in Edinburgh, is in desperate need of an example of reconciliation, of people who are willing and able to lay aside their differences, even considerable differences, for no obvious reason or personal gain, other than to show love to neighbour. The implied question was ‘is that us?’ If it isn’t, why is that? The Holy Spirit has not ceased working in this world of fallen sinners, and we have to work with Him. If we seem to have nothing to say to those who are not like us, or if what we say to those who are like us is unintelligible, it is not enough, not at all enough, to suppose that we should simply wait until they will come to us on our terms. Not only will they not come, but some of those who are here now will cease to come. The gospel is not our gospel that is to be translated from our language and experience to others for their benefit; rather, the gospel is that good news of Jesus Christ that all are privileged to hear, and the unity of what we hear overcomes the diversity of who we are. If it doesn’t, we might ask what it is we are doing wrong in our time, when in past times it did indeed overcome the differences between us?

Here, as in the off-line world, we have had our own difficulties, and even the idea of approving a different form of liturgy has led someone to talk in highly coloured terms about ‘debauching the liturgy’. No doubt when those Romans began demanding a text and a liturgy in their own language, there were those who wondered why they wanted to change what had been there from the beginning – the Greek and Syriac versions of the liturgy. But the faith survived and flourished – as it will because if we respond to the promptings of the Holy Spirit, we know it will be so. If however we respond to the pride and despair of our own egos, then it is best we go find a ‘safe space’ where we can stop thinking and bewail the evil of the times. But when were the times other than evil? We are an Easter people, and as John Paul II put it ‘alleluia is our song’.

Diversity?

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In some circles you only have to mention the word and eyes will roll, but what of it? Whether we like it or not, our society is marked by a greater degree of diversity than that of our parents of grandparents. When I was a little girl in Wales my father was the only ‘European’ in the village, although there were some English ‘incomers’ and even some North Walians. There were three channels we could get on the TV – and then only with some effort; the telephone was fixed and you could get it only on a waiting list from the nationalised telephone company; and you could have any meal you wanted at the one restaurant in the nearby town as long as it consisted of meat and two ve. No doubt there were some homosexuals, but if there were, although it had been legal since 1968, no one was ‘out’. It was not atypical of the area. Last time I was there, there were many different types of places selling a variety of foods, you could get your mobile phone from at least two shops in town, and on any tariff you cared; and there was a ‘gay bar’, as well as a lot of Poles and some people of colour from I don’t know where. Diversity. Talking with some older people who had known my daddy, they weren’t much enamoured of the changes, but the changes weren’t going away – although it turned out two of the chapels had, and the Church of Wales church had about it a neglected air although it was, I was assured, still open.

As in my old hometown, diversity is a reality in modern life, and however little or much we like or dislike it, it isn’t going away. Moving from an isolated rural environment to Edinburgh, I am at times almost overwhelmed by the range of diversity on offer here – and I’d not be telling the truth if I didn’t say there were times when I just want to be back in an environment with which I am familiar, and where diversity amounts to taking the high or the low road to the next village. My congregations then were all white, mostly female, and wholly middle class; an environment I felt very much at home in, fitting all three categories. Here I find myself offering the kiss of peace to and this is just thinking on the last four Sundays) a female Nigerian student, a Scottish woman, an American tourist, a German tourist, a Malaysian student, a woman from the Hebrides, a Danish woman, and a couple of English students, as well as a Scotswoman who lives in the same tenement as I do. At coffee afterwards, I had a chance to ask what they were doing there, and the answers were interesting.

They’d look at our website and found it looked welcoming in terms of the language we used and what we said about ourselves. Some had come from other churches in the city because they’d heard ‘good things’ about us. One young woman said she’d heard we welcomed ‘people like me’. I didn’t need to ask what she meant. Sometimes I go to the 8 am Communion service, and there I find a congregation more like the ones I am used to – mainly white, mainly Scottish and mainly middle class – and mainly women. We don’t have coffee, but on the way out I speak to people, and the story is always the same – the 10.30 sung eucharist is a little too ‘lively’ for them, and they love the old Scottish prayer book – so they go to the early service, or to Mattins at 9.30. The same Church, two diverse congregations. I even manage to get to Evensong occasionally, and that’s an entirely different story, many students, many tourists, and quite a lot of people who go to it because they ‘like the peace and the calm’ and they don’t feel ‘left out’ because there is no Communion service – even though in practice we’d welcome them if they wanted to come. I have not yet managed Mattins myself, but am told that is yet another diverse group.

That is our way of dealing with the fact that diversity exists. We try to offer everyone something they might want in terms of style of worship – all directed to the same Holy Trinity. In this way, at least, we can be all things to all men. Some of the implications of this I shall come to presently.

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