The effects of love?


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We know God is love. We know, too, how little most of us do by way of demonstrating this. We have the perfect excuse ready, which is that we need to express our abhorrence of bad behaviour; if others do the same when we behave badly, we reciprocate, and the whole thing goes round again. If we were charged with being a Christian and the evidence was in the form of love, how many of us would even go to court, let alone get a sentence? In this context, it was lovely to see that the Pope and the Moscow patriarch are going to get together in Cuba. No one should hold their breath, as Chalcedon451 said to me, Orthodox ecclesiology means that the Patriarch speaks for no one save himself – but even so, it is a good sign that the two men want to meet – Churchill was right about ‘jaw, jaw’ being better than ‘war, war’. The history between the Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church has been one from which, as with so much of our history, no one emerges well, and this, we can hope, will bring a new spirit to that relationship – and mark a point when both sides turn from suspicion.

That won’t mean that all their respective followers will. Some, not least on the Orthodox side, will cry out against ‘syncretism’ and ‘heresy’. They ought to remember, but won’t, that whilst both claim they are the only Church founded by Jesus, Jesus has not confirmed it. Humility is a concomitant of love. Some people seem to be arguing that you can’t be a member of the Church until you clean up your life, others that you can be and you don’t need to clean up your life, we love you as you are, but for me, this seems to miss the point of being with Christ – it is by being with him that he cleans up our lives from within. Too often we seem to ignore the working of the Holy Ghost. Too often we act as though going to Church and taking the blessed sacrament will cure us. Too often we act as though Bible study and being ‘good’ will cure us. I am not disparaging any of these things, they are all parts of the cure for what ails us – but they are not what is at the heart of the cure – that is the operation of the Holy Ghost on our hearts and minds. It is not possible to be in Christ and for him to be in us and for us to be the same. It is perfectly possible that we sin, but if the sin does not seem worse, if we are not more tormented by remorse, then why would we seek to go to confession and be absolved?

God’s love reaches out for us. The Prodigal sought nothing from his father save a menial job and a full stomach and a roof over his head. In that he is the prototype of the sinner when repentance dawns. He does not say that he is sorry, he shows he is. All his hopes are dust. What revives him are the actions of his father. His father is on the lookout for him, his father welcomes him with extravagant gestures of love – ones which call forth from the elder son a complaint, because, after all, the Prodigal has not cleaned up his life; what guarantee is there that he won’t revert to his previous behaviour? Surely some sort of punishment is in order, some period of probation, some caution on the part of his father, who, after all, has already blown half the farm on the younger son? None of these caveats is unreasonable, what is unreasonable and unjust is the love of the father. But the father knows that the effect of that love will be to redeem the younger son – he has been punished, he has learned one sort of lesson – that the world is a hard place and that hedonism, whilst it gives you false friends in the heady days of wine and roses, leaves you bereft when the money runs out. How easy from that to drive home the lesson that the younger son needs to be penitent, to pay his dues, to work his way back. That, after all, is also the way of the world. But the father’s way is not the way of this world. The lesson the Prodigal needs is the one he gets – that love redeems all, and that it happens from within – and it won’t stop, unless we harden our hearts.

Newman once commented that the natural state of our hearts was to be hard as stone, and that as with hard soil, sometimes they needed to be broken to become fertile soils in which the seed of the Word can grow. Faith and hope are wonderful things – but without love they are nothing, and love transforms us – if we will but open our hard hearts. Let us pray we see that manifested in the forthcoming meeting between the Russian Patriarch and the Patriarch of the West.

A Christian community?


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makeshift church

One of the things which emerged from the reactions to my post here yesterday was the dissatisfaction which many feel with their local church. From the descriptions offered the last thing some folk find there is what should be there – a Christian community. Maybe it has always been so? But I am surprised, all the same, because it always seems to me that for a church to become a community there needs to be something more than a once a week get together at which we worship God and then shove off as fast as we can get out of the place. I have seen that at some bigger churches I have been too, and it baffles me. Maybe it comes from folk feeling that going to church is an ‘obligation’? If you feel that, why go? Is it some kind of left-over from the days when the neighbours would look askance, or Fr O’Fiery would give you a black mark for a ‘mortal sin’?

Bosco speaks for himself, but I have a feeling it is this sort of thing he’s getting at when he embarks on his trite hackneyed comments about ‘costumed holymen’. I recall one fellow who came to us after hearing us preach in the market place on a Saturday asking ‘do I have to come every week’? I asked why he asked the question. He thought a moment and said ‘what if I don’t feel like coming’? I asked in return what he would do instead? “Sleep in and then watch telly”, was the answer. My response was that it was up to him to decide which way he wanted to spend his Sunday morning, and to ask how he’d manage at the Bible classes in mid week without listening to the sermon. He looked a bit surprised, asking whether he had to go to that too? My response was the same: ‘what else would you be doing?” His response was “watch telly”. It was, I said, up to him whether he wanted a drive by shooting kind of relationship with us, or a proper one, and given his own considerable talents with a frying pan, we’d rather hoped he might come to the Saturday morning pre preaching breakfast. He looked and asked: “Would you like me to?” I said as long as he didn’t burn the sausages – he laughed, came, and has been an ever-present ever since. And he doesn’t burn the sausages either! The whole episode was a reminder, which we’ve always heeded, that we need to be more than just a congregation which meets twice on a Sunday.

It is not, after all, as though there is nothing to do the rest of the week. Some of us meet up to help with the food bank, others are still helping locally where people are barely recovering from the recent floods. Where, as was the case recently, one of our congregation lost her job and had problems with the benefits system, we made sure we were there to help – we weren’t having one of our own going to a food bank. When Mrs S was not well last year, there were always folk popping in to see how she was – and the odd cake, casserole and ‘little treat for pudding’ seemed to be part of the visit; they had not forgotten me in remembering her. That’s how good families work, and our little community is just that. We know each other well, we socialise outside of church, and inside church. If one is in need, we all do what we can.

That, for me, at least, is how the Spirit moves us. We can all get het up about styles of worship, we can all get cross about certain opinions, and we can all become personally offended by someone else’s remarks, but if the Spirit moves in us, none of that matters. Paul’s letters to the Galatians and the Corinthians speak as loudly to us as they did to their original recipients – which is why the church adopted them as scripture and why we study them to this day. They are calls to action, and to be a Christian is to be active in Christ’s name. We pray, as he did, we listen to preaching, as he preached, but we spend no time worrying about this or that liturgy, this or that vestment, this or that rubric – simply because he spent no time doing any of that. It is a waste of time and spirit when there are the poor to feed, the distressed to be comforted, the widow and the orphan to care for. I think if more churches concentrated on these things, they would be more Christ-like.

We are a community, or we are nothing. Christians do not exist in some splendid isolation worrying about the state of their souls, or indeed, those of others – we work as we pray – together. This means we don’t watch much telly, and that we spend our leisure time in his service – but what else was it given for?

A personal relationship with Jesus?


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In Henry IV part 1 Glendower says he will call ‘spirits from the vasty deep’ – the sceptical Harry Hotspur irritates the verbose Welsh prince by sneering: ‘aye, but will they come when you call?’ That’s a question facing every evangelist. From what I can see of the American scene, and from some British examples, a good deal of energy and thinking is put into this – hence the mega-church phenomenon and the emphasis on certain types of music as being likely to pull in people, especially young ones. But we are, as I suggested yesterday, effectively operating in a post-Christian society, where neither the education system nor anything in mainstream culture actually helps prepare people for the Word. Too often you end up with simplistic slogans which people imbibe and they say they are ‘saved’ and have ‘assurance’, and to anyone who asks serous questions quoting the Bible, they say that the ‘unsaved’ can’t understand the Bible – thus closing themselves off from fellowship with anyone but those few who agree with them.

Christianity is not a solitary faith, would be my first port of call – we have no examples in the New Testament of a man claiming ‘I am saved’ and not having fellowship with other Christians. I am deeply suspicious of those who have no fellowship with others because that is not the model we see in Scripture. Hermits may be a part of the longer history of the Church, but I see none of them in the NT, and no call for them. We are called to up and doing. That’s not a ‘works’ theology, it’s a simple fact of Christian life. If you claim to know Jesus and you are no better in your behaviour and your life for it, then your faith is, at best, theoretical, and at worst, a sham. The very idea that you can know the Savour of the world and yet it have no effect on you – except that you go round telling other folk you’re ‘saved’ is, to my mind, blasphemous. I never knew a man or woman who was not changed by the encounter. That’s not saying they, or me, suddenly became a perfect person, or, this side of heaven, ever could be – but it is to say we try, we’re conscious of our sin, we strive to do better. Not, pace idiots who talks about being ‘saved by works’ (has anyone ever met anyone who actually taught this?) because we think that is the way to salvation – but because if we know him it manifests itself in our lives.

Not once, in the whole of the NT, will you find anyone being told about having a ‘private’ relationship with Jesus – not one Apostle says to anyone that they must take Jesus into their heart and accept him as their personal saviour. We are saved into a community of faithful – as every Apostle and disciple was. Of course that means that we develop our own relationship with Jesus – how could we not? But that develops as part of a community of disciples – saints, as Paul calls them – who help each other on their journey. Private little relationships with Jesus, all by our wild lone, are not Biblical – our relationship, whilst personal, is as part of a community – the centre of gravity of that relationship is the called out community – Scripture offers us no examples of ‘saved persons’ with no relationship to the church. In fact, such a thing was impossible, because all the evangelists warn of the dangers of false prophets and emphasise the need to hold on to the tradition inherited by word and in writing. No ‘saved person’ by himself, had access to either – you got them through the church.

Paul is very clear about this. He calls the church the temple of the Lord where “you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit” (Eph. 2:21). Again, Paul prays that “you may be filled with all the fullness of God” (Eph. 3:19), which he already said resides in the local body (1:23). This is why God gave us spiritual gifts (Eph. 4:11-12), so that the body of Christ would be built up, made mature, and become unified where the “fullness of Christ” would radiate (Eph. 4:12-13). There is nothing in this, or indeed anywhere in Scripture, which posits a relationship with Jesus outside of the church. Water baptism, not some ‘sinner’s prayer’ was the instrument of reception into the Church for those who had come to know Jesus. The modern nonsense about it being individualistic is simply a heresy of our atomised society where everything is about ‘me’ and not me serving Jesus and building up his community on earth with others..

Faith and education


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C’s piece yesterday interested me greatly. As a Christian who spent his working life in education (secondary) and even taught RE (as it was then called). I’ve a deal of sympathy for anyone trying to do it, and I shared some thoughts with him, which he’s suggested I do more widely here.

The biggest difference between the start of my career in teaching (1967/8) and the end six years ago, was what educationalists call the ‘cultural capital’ pupils brought to school in respect of Christianity. As I started my career on what was then not called Merseyside, it might well be that because of a large number of Catholics of Irish descent, what I encountered by atypical, but since it tended to be the same with the more numerous Protestants, I think not. On the whole they knew the basics. No one had to explain what Easter was about, or tell them it wasn’t about a ‘bunny rabbit’; by the end that was necessary. No one had to tell them who Jesus was, although we might have had to tell them about how to understand some of the things they had read in the Bible – and they all had a Bible at home. Many of them were occasional church goers, some regular, but they were all part of a broadly Christian culture, however diluted in parts. This was reinforced by social norms. No one back then was arguing that marriage meant other than what it had always meant, or that to call children boys and girls was some sort of prejudiced comment which discriminated against the ‘genderfluid’. Shops were shut on a Sunday, which felt very different to the rest of the week; indeed, most shops closed on a Saturday lunch hour. This made teaching RE easier, as we were largely dealing with Christianity and in filling in the gaps in their knowledge – which admittedly were often quite large.

That changed across time. By the mid 1980s I was not the only teacher at my new school, which was in God’s own country of Yorkshire – who noticed that we could not assume any longer that the children would know what we meant when we talked about ‘Anglican’ or “Catholic’. Church seemed a foreign place to many. Our lessons seemed suddenly to require us to do more of what had always been a small part of them – comparative religion. I was never sure that, knowing little about the faith of their own country, the children got very much out of superficial thumb-nail sketches of what Sikhism was, but with the advent of a national curriculum, even public schools felt an obligation to steer in that direction, not least because that was where the public examinations syllabi were all going.

There was a point at which RE lessons became ‘Personal and Social Education’, and seemed to be about ethics – abortion rights, contraception rights, that sort of ethics – sex and ‘finding yourself’. A generation which on the whole, by the 1990s, knew very little about Christianity, was deliberately not taught anything, at least on the whole. I recall saying this at a staff meeting and being told that was the job of church schools and Sunday schools; the colleague had a point, not as good as he’d imagined, as in my view knowledge of Christianity was necessary to study Shakespeare and much English literature, as well as to understand our history, but of course, what he didn’t know was the extent to which the churches were failing to do this.

I wish C and his diocese well in their efforts. They are brave to set out to sea in the current stormy weather, and I shall pray for their good success – they’ll need it.

Religious Literacy


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I have written elsewhere on the theme of the importance of our secular society and its leaders acquiring a form of religious literacy – if only so they can understand what they are doing before they intervene in areas of the world where people are willing to die for their beliefs, here I want to reflect a little more on how the Catholic Church can respond to this heightened awareness of the place and importance of faith.

In my own diocese the Bishop is driving an impressive agenda of reforming the whole catechetical and educational process. He is proceeding as a successor to the Apostles should. He could have had a long consultation process, in which those most opposed to reform would have been most vocal in explaining why the current useless system should not be changed, and eloquent in analysing the 101 reasons why nothing should be done. His proposal for an annual pilgrimage of witness through Norwich was, when he first proposed it, criticised as too ‘daring’ – it worked, so it is now being called successful; if he had listened to the nay-sayers, nothing would have happened. We were told no one would come, young people wouldn’t come and wouldn’t like it, locals would feel uneasy at a procession with a Crucifix and a statue of the Blessed Virgin: well the young were highly represented, the locals welcoming, and the gloom-mongers confounded.

Now, taking some good orthodox models of catechesis for children and adults, and some good ones for RCIA, we are engaged in adapting them for our diocese and getting them out to the parishes. Those most directly responsible for the current dire state of affairs in all these areas, are prophesying doom, some even asking why it is necessary – perhaps they have grown so used to managing decline that they regard anyone going to church for any reason as a success? Who knows? We don’t really have the time or the resources to engage in an argument with them, and the Bishop is leading from the front – these things will happen.

Will they work? The evidence thus far is that if the trumpet gives a steady note, people respond. They don’t want to hear about nuance and metaphor, they want to hear the Good News. That involves ingesting some really bad news first: we are all sinners; that means sin is real; we are all in danger of hell; that means hell is real; we can none of us heal what ails us by ourselves; that means original sin is real. The Good News is that from all of these things we have been delivered by Christ, and we can encounter him every day if we will at the altar. We can follow his ways, we can walk with him. when we fall, and fall and fail we shall, we have a recourse to confession and absolution. Here, it is not just that no child will be left behind, no human need be.

Our job, under the direction of the Bishop, is to draw up the materials which will underpin this through an orthodox exposition of the timeless faith of the Church. It is, I suppose what the Marxists used to call ‘vanguardism’ – a small group of people motivated to provide leadership in the right direction. It has a longer history than that – a man called St Paul was the first Christian to do it. He wasn’t, history tells us, universally popular, and many thought him too daring, and his ideas remain ones which fail to find a consensus among those for whom fudge is one of life’s necessities – but his method worked, and in the absence of any better model, we thought we’d revert to it.


Itsy witsy teeny weeny?


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The good news appears to be that were I to become ordained in the Church of England, I could, perhaps, officiate in my bikini – had I such an article of clothing (I don’t – sorry to disappoint Neo :) ). At the moment what can be worn is strictly controlled by canon law and liturgical rubrics. Currently, a surplice or alb with scarf or stole must be worn at holy communion, morning and evening prayer on Sundays and at weddings, funerals and baptisms. In many churches it has become the fashion to ignore this, but instead of telling vicars to smarten up, the Church Synod is going to discuss relaxing it altogether. This seems a little counter-intuitive to me. Ministers have worn vestments for the longest time because it marks out what they do as sacred, different from what happens in the everyday sphere. Even the mere act of vesting before a service is a sign that something special is about to happen, and I know of instances where someone in their clericals has been approached and asked for a prayer by a perfect stranger.

My own Anglican tradition is hardly likely to be taking advantage of any lightening up of the dress code, and I do hope that whatever happens, bikinis will remain far away – but in an era where we have had clown masses in Roman Catholic Churches, who can tell?

It is a sign of a lack of reverence. I cannot help myself. When I go into Church I dress as though I am going out to an important event – as I am. So I put on my best clothes and make sure that I am ready to meet Jesus. When I get into Church I hate anyone chattering – there’s time for that at coffee after Mass. I need time to prepare myself, so I arrive about half an hour before Mass starts. How those who arrive at the last minute can be ready for what is to come I can’t imagine. Is this my form of Pharisaism? No, it is simply a matter of respect. When I go to receive communion I kneel at the altar rail and receive on the tongue because the only hands that should handle the blessed sacrament are those of the priest. Afterwards, I pray in silence. Recently someone has adopted the fashion of having a hymn during communion – I wish they wouldn’t, but I can tune out.

In short, for me, as for many, this is the highlight of the week. My priest is properly vested according to the rubrics, that is his sign of respect for the order the Church insists upon, The Church does so not because it is pharisaical, but because it wishes to mark off the sacred from the profane. In front of the reserved sacrament, I kneel, how could I not in the Lord’s presence?

It may be that our irreverent age cannot understand these things, but then, so much the worse for the age. As I say, and alas for it, any change won’t change what happens in many places now, it will just excuse it. It won’t change what we do where I worship, or, I guess, in many places, but it is a sad sign of sad times.

At the day’s ending





If we let it, our faith can do more for us than we suppose. One of the great joys of my life at the moment is being able to pray the Compline service before I go to sleep. I find the words of the general confession such a comfort, as they express what I could never express so well myself, and they lead me through, after the absolution, to the Psalms, which I always approach like one scrubbed fresh clean – with the sins of the day absolved and the words of the Psalmist pulling me into line with the countless numbers of people who have found in them comfort and healing. Psalm 31:-16 (in our numbering) allows me to cast myself onto the infinite and tender mercy of God. The words of Hebrews 13:20-21 further help my soul to go to that calm place whence a quiet and peaceful night might be found. The Nunc Dimittis  takes me further down that road, and then we come to my favourite Collect:

Lighten our darkness, we beseech thee, O Lord/and by thy great mercy defend us/from all perils and dangers of this night/ for the love of they only Son, Our Saviour Jesus Christ

Could anything make a more perfect ending to the day? As the last notes die away, we fold our prayer books in perfect silence and we make our way back to our rooms where, if we wish, we can continue our conversation with God. Me? I simply hold on to the silence and the peace and know that in there, God is with me and I am with him.

I mentioned this recently to a friend, who said she’d never been to such a service, so I invited her to ours, and she loves it too – even if it is slightly spoiled for her by the need to drive home. It reminded me of what richness we have inherited, and how profligate we have been with it. In a world where some struggle to sleep and find peace,, our forefathers left us this perfect preparation for rest – and we have all but abandoned it. we are a strange species to be sure.

I am often put in mind of some lines from George Herbert about how our attitude to death is transformed by the knowledge that Christ died so we should have eternal life

Therefore we can go die as sleep, and trust
                           Half that we have
      Unto an honest faithful grave;
Making our pillows either down, or dust.

‘Down or dust’, that is our choice, will we rise with him, or go down into that dust where we cannot praise him?

Now, all I need is to be able to get to Matins on time, and I will be able to see what effect that has on my day – and all of this is so little time too.


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