Tuesday, 16 July 2013

The Matter of Dominion

"Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet without your father's knowledge not one of them can fall to the ground.  As for you, even the hairs on your head have all been counted.  So do not be afraid; you are worth more than any number of sparrows." Matthew 10:29-31 (REB).  These famous words are among Jesus's instructions to his twelve disciples as he sends them out into an uncertain, even dangerous, world ("I send you out like sheep among wolves") to minister to the sick and outcast.

Being "worth more than any number of sparrows" sits awkwardly with our modern understanding of the equality of all creation. Last Saturday, I was celebrating the Eucharist on a hot morning, with all the doors of the church wide open: the sounds of the world outside thus penetrating the periphery of our consciousness in a way only possible in high summer and when worship is quiet and reflective.  I was aware, as I stood at the altar, of nature: the bumble-bees which have made a nest in a composter in a secluded hot-spot facing the south wall of the church; and of the sparrows which have nested in the eaves of the vicarage, squabbling and squealing in the sun.

If, as a follower of Jesus, I may take his words to apply to me, I too am apparently worth any number of sparrows.  And yet I believe they are creations of God just as I am, with, it follows, a right to live and to fulfil their created purpose.  In what sense am I worth more than they?

Lat week, BBC TV broadcast a number of "vintage" programmes by Sir David Attenborough, one of which looked at Darwin and his legacy.  I only caught a bit of it, but I was struck by Sir DA's claim that what Darwin's work on evolution demonstrated was that humanity does not, in fact, have "dominion" over the created order in the sense conveyed by the book of Genesis. This pulled me up rather sharply, partly because I have no difficulty with accepting (1) a theory of evolution as part of creation, albeit one which we have come to understand only lately in historical terms, and (2) the Genesis creation narrative as allegorical.  I also accept Sir DA as a great man and an undoubted national treasure, of such stature that one hesitates to enter into dispute with him.

But Genesis 1:26 does say that we have dominion over other creatures - "Let us make human beings in our image, after our likeness, to have dominion over the fish in the sea" etc - and I can't quite deal with this as allegorical dominion. The problem is, I think, associated with what we understand by the word. In this context, it is the English translation of the Hebrew radah, which has the sense of the rule which a monarch exercises over his or her people.  Such dominion implies more than simple power, although it obviously includes it - to what else would you attribute humanity's success in wiping out countless species in the last few hundred years alone?  That's nothing if not power. But radah combines hierarchical power with responsibility, with care, with stewardship, and with love.  And, through the prophets, God admonishes Israel's rulers who fail in this: "You have not restored the weak, tended the sick, bandaged the injured, recovered the straggler, or searched for the lost: you have driven them with ruthless severity." (Ezekiel 34:4)

I assume not even Sir David Attenborough or any other evolutionist would argue that you and I stand at what is currently the pinnacle of that process, and that position gives us both power over and responsibility for other creatures (and their habitats).  The fact that we stand hierarchically "above" them does not mean that we are free to exploit or ignore them without regard for their welfare as species.  It is surely our calling not just to control and, yes, to use them; but also to protect them, for they cannot always protect themselves.

Perhaps we are worth more than they only in the sense that this burden of responsibility has been devolved to us rather than to them.

Picture: a few years ago one of the vicarage sparrows flew into church and stayed for few days, making a home in a spider plant adorning the statue of our patron, St Mark.

Sunday, 12 May 2013

In Praise of Mr Duane & Mr Reade

James Duane (1733-1797) was an Anglo-Irish lawyer, American revolutionary leader and mayor of New York City in the 1780s. Joseph Reade (1694-1771) was a member of the Governor's Council of the province of New York and a warden of Trinity Church.  We may assume they knew each other, if only as nodding acquaintances of the Georgian colonial kind.  But apart from their time, location and status they may not, in life, have had much in common.  In death, as befits city notables of yore, they have streets named after them.  As it happens, parallel streets in lower Manhattan. That's nice; and that might have been it - if the three Cohen brothers had not sited a pharmacy business on Broadway between these two streets in 1960, on the edge of the now edgy district which has become known as Tribeca.  They called the business Duane Reade - after the two neighbouring streets.

The business grew - rapidly in the pre-crash decade - and now has over 250 retail outlets in New York City and its suburbs.  To the visitor, Duane Reade stores seem to be simply everywhere. Think of the ubiquity in the UK of Boots, multiplied perhaps by as much as three or four; but each store with the floor area of a medium-sized supermarket and the lower-end feel of Superdrug. They are like Aladdin's caves: I have been to New York many times, and even now I can hardly pass one without going in.

A Duane Reade store near Times Square

In recent years, they have branched out into cosmetics, greetings cards, and a range of household goods including some groceries, and these "peripheral" items now dominate (there are no big food chains like Tesco or Sainsbury's to compete with). But they are at heart a drug store, dispensing prescriptions, and many claim to have a doctor on the premises.  You usually need to go to the back of the store or on to another floor to find the pharmacy section, but it is worth doing.  Browsing the shelves is an education, partly into the American preoccupation with "wellness" (vitamin and other supplements are much bigger business here than in Europe).  But how societies deal with ailments and medicines strikes me as an indication of how they regard themselves and their welfare.  As in the UK, you cannot buy most prescription-only drugs over the counter (one exception is antibiotic creams and ointments).  But everything else you can buy in as much bulk as you can carry.  Things like aspirin, paracetamol and ibuprofen you can routinely (and cheaply compared to the UK) buy in bottles of 200.  To those of us used to H&S-conscious blister-packs of 12 or 24, this seems wildly liberating.  Before I left this time I bought 600 Excedrin tablets - an aspirin/ paracetamol/caffeine combo like Anadin Extra, very good for hangovers.  I've no doubt that if I tried to buy 600 Anadin Extra in my local Boots, they would call the police.  Plus I'd need a bank loan.

And some of the brand names are great: Tylenol sounds really dangerous (unforunately it's only paracetamol). And I suppose Excedrin is fairly dangerous in that kind of quantity, ie if you Excede the recommended dose.  It all adds to a Big-Brother-isn't-watching-you-quite-as-closely-as-in-Europe feeling, and just stepping over the threshold quickens the pulse.

Duane Reade is now a wholly-owned subsidiary of Walgreens, the drugstore giant which has 8300 stores across the USA.  It was announced in 2012 that Walgreens was to take a 45% stake in Alliance Boots, which owns the 3200 Boots stores in the UK and elsewhere, and Alliance Healthcare, which supplies drugs to 170,000 pharmacies in 21 countries.  The final stage of the merger will see Walgreens take full ownership of Alliance Boots, making it the world's largest health & beauty retailer, with 11,000 stores worldwide.  While I'm a fan of Duane Reade, I do hope the staff of Boots get to keep their nice white uniforms.

Saturday, 11 May 2013

Night Flight to London

You leave JFK just as the homeward traffic hits the Van Wyck: it snakes below as you soar above. You leave it behind, land and grid locked, as you cruise under and across Long Island and its serene Sound, and on up along the east coast of North America. As dusk settles, you look down, via your aircraft's moving map, on homely Poughkeepsie, quaint Kennebunk, the New England spring evening as folksy and calm (you imagine) as you are in inhumanly fast forward motion. Onward, north-east you go, over the Gulf of Maine, past Nova Scotia, over the mighty Gulf of St Lawrence, to the easternmost tip of Canada above Newfoundland. Until you run out of land: until there is no coastline left to hug. As night falls, you head out into the dark blue; the nearest landfall now the southern tip of Greenland, too distant to be of comfort.

It's a long way from here to the shores of Sligo, which you will cross as dawn breaks; until you start your descent into London's new day. You know that this flying steel tube, with the earth, rolls onward into light. But for a few small hours, there's nothing above you but space, dark and empty; nothing below you but the ocean, cold and deep. Your fellow passengers sleep fitfully, or watch silent, flickering films on little screens: shut off from the vast nothingness that surrounds them. But you - you are in the loneliest place on earth. Indeed nor on it or even in it, but 35,000 feet up in the icy air above it. 

Nearer, my God, to thee.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

The Wisdom of Iolanthe

Save for a couple of minor lapses, I managed to keep my counsel (ie my mouth shut and my powder dry) during the worst of the predictable firestorm of judgement and opinion that attended the death and funeral of Margaret Thatcher.  This took a bit of self-restraint: some of the stuff that was whirling around Twitter and the other media was provocative to say the least; some of it thoughtful, some of it silly, some of it extraordinarily nasty. And I do have an opinion.  But I'm glad I didn't get into any punch-ups: I might well have found myself on the same anger management course as Luis Suarez, and I know next to nothing about the offside rule.

And having (almost) succeeded in keeping my opinions to myself, I'm not about to be so crude as to let them come tumbling out now.  Not quite.  Instead, I am led to wonder - given the sharp divisions so recently and graphically expressed - how the political and other opinions we hold are formed.  How, for instance, did some come to admire Maggie and to mourn her passing, while others despised her and celebrated it?  I am not persuaded that this is altogether a matter of social class, of north and south, or of Orgreave or Goose Green; even less that it is the product of informed and objective reasoning which has led, unaccountably, to starkly diverse conclusions.  If you and I share a broad level of intelligence, education and social awareness, how do we end up in such different places?

I can see that how I think - by which I suppose I mean where I stand on things like politics and (perhaps) religion - is partly the result of my background: my parents, childhood, education, life experience and other influences.  Yet even they are not a reliable guide.  There are lots of people with whom we have a good deal in common in terms of our road through life, yet we by no means always share the same outlook.  And I also appreciate that political positioning (in Britain at least - is it as apparent elsewhere?) has a strong tribal element; yet even that is not consistent enough to prevent changes of government - sometimes quite radical and surprising ones.

My conclusion is that while all these influences are formative of opinion, what seals my worldview is much more nebulous.  It's related to my character, personality and temperament.  In short, it's about my disposition, or more simply still, what kind of person I am.  It could even be genetic. If so, I may not be able to help the fact that I am red or blue of political stripe.  It may be bred in the bone.

This is not an original notion.  As W S Gilbert has Private Willis observe in Iolanthe:

Then let's rejoice with loud fa-la-la
That nature always does contrive fa-la-la
That every boy and every gal
That's born into the world alive
Is either a little Liberal
or else a little Conservative!

Thursday, 21 March 2013

Welby, Weston and Courage

In his sermon in Canterbury Cathedral today, the newly enthroned Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, preached on St Matthew's account of Jesus calling Peter to step out of his boat and walk towards him across the water.  Peter takes a few steps then feels himself sinking - until the Lord takes hold of him and restores both of them to the boat.  Archbishop Justin spoke about the need for "Christ-given courage" to "... step out of the comfort of our own traditions and places, and go into the waves, reaching for the hand of Christ".

90 years ago, Frank Weston, the Bishop of Zanzibar, concluded his address to the Anglo-Catholic conference with this exhortation:

"You have got your mass, you have got your altar, you have begun to get your tabernacle.  Now go out into the highways and hedges where not even the Bishops will try to hinder you.  Go out and look for Jesus in the ragged, in the naked, in the oppressed and sweated, in those who have lost hope, in those who are struggling to make good.  Look for Jesus.  And when you see him, gird yourselves with his towel and try to wash their feet."

Different times, very different men.  Archbishop Justin describes himself as a "small 'e' evangelical" from the extraordinary HTB stable; Bishop Weston was a card-carrying Anglo-Catholic - indeed a hero of that movement.  How little they seem to have in common, yet how similar their call to us!  Call it mission, call it outreach, call it whatever you care to call it - what we are to do is to get out there.  Out of the places and people in and among whom we feel comfortable, and into the indifferent, inhospitable, needy world.  And when our courage fails us (as it surely will) we can trust the Lord to take our hand and guide us to safety. "Take heart, it is I" he says, "do not be afraid".

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

On God and Government

In June 2011, a little over a year after the present UK government came to power, the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, guest-edited an edition of the New Statesman, regarded as a sort of house-journal of the British political left. (I assume that being "guest-editor" is really an invitation to write the editorial, and does not involve detailed editorial decisions about what other material, and in what form, is included the publication in question. In any case, it was Dr Williams's editorial here that hit the headlines.)  Re-reading it now, it hardly seems worthy of the fuss it caused, but it is worth reflecting, with the benefit of hindsight, why it did.

Getting inside the head of the Coalition may not be an attractive proposition to some; but it is always useful to understand the motivation of those who govern us, even if we find them unsympathetic.  A year in, the Coalition thought, genuinely and without irony, that they were doing a reasonable job under unprecedentedly difficult circumstances.  These included (fairly obviously) the dire economic situation - for the genesis of which, as they still feel a need to remind us, they were in no way responsible - but also the fact that they were obliged to undertake the Herculean task of restoring and rebalancing the British economy as a coalition of two political parties which had been - and au fond clearly still are - mutually inimical.  (I continue to believe this aspect has been seriously and persistently underestimated in judgements about the Coalition's competence, but that is perhaps the subject of another blogpost.)

In addition, and more particularly, they thought that they were open to the contribution of the Churches and other religious groups in a way that the previous government had not been. This was not, I believe, based on a hope that the Church would step in to provide social services whose state funding they were preparing to cut (although they wouldn't say no to that - who would?) but rather that Blair's and Brown's instinctive suspicion of religious interests had led them to miss a trick in terms of what existing community resources could be drawn on in the task of what might be called "social healing".  Already, very positive noises were coming out of the new government about the role of the "faith sector" and many in the Church were encouraged and slightly surprised by the doors that were being opened to them (for example, that of Communities Secretary, Eric Pickles).  No doubt some Conservative ministers continued to view the Church as just another brick in the wall that is the liberal establishment, but there seemed to be goodwill on both sides and the prospect of collaboration was real.  The government did not think the Church had reason to attack it.

As attacks go, it was probably the most devastating of the many to which the Coalition has been subject, partly because it did not come from Labour or any other obvious political source, partly because it was utterly unexpected - and partly because they felt it was completely undeserved.  They were knocked back by it; hurt, even.  Writing in the Church Times a week after Dr Williams's article, Tony Baldry, the Second Church Estates Commissioner (the Conservative MP who answers for the Church in the House of Commons) said he was "dismayed" by the NS editorial, and that ministers simply felt "monumentally misunderstood" by the Archbishop whom they felt had not grasped the scale of the financial difficulties the government faced.  "I am disappointed" he continued, "that less than a year into this Parliament - a Parliament almost certainly of a five-year term - the perception of many MPs sitting on the Coalition benches is that the Church of England is shouting at us from the other side of the street".  If you prick us, do we not bleed?

Now, there's been a lot of water under the bridge since then, and such an attack would no doubt not now occasion the same sense of dismay and disappointment on the part of the government. But that is the point.  The Archbishop's broadside sank the new and modestly promising barque of Church-government co-operation below the water line, and it has since lain where it had before, full fathom five.  The trust which had begun to be built was gone in a day; and the Coalition now expects the Church to attack it as a matter of course.

This state of affairs seemed to be confirmed by the letter which appeared in last Sunday's press signed by 43 bishops, and backed by both Archbishops, opposing the government's plan to cap benefit rises at 1% a year (report here).  Given recent history, the government will not have been surprised to have contempt and condemnation poured upon it from the high ground which the Church claims to occupy.  Iain Duncan Smith and other ministers will no doubt have donned their protective clothing and braced themselves for the usual deluge of liberal-left moralising.

But then something surprising happened.  Something different. Something rather wonderful.  Yesterday, as the inevitable row following the letter rumbled on, the new Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, published this blogpost.   I could hardly believe it.  It is worth reproducing this from the final paragraph: 

"This is not a great, grand political gesture, but a reasoned questioning of something that a lot of people are concerned about.  It is not me saying the government is evil (I am much less cynical than many about politicians of all sides), but that I don't agree on this particular bit of a programme which in general is incredibly brave."

When I read that, I did a little dance.  Not saying the government is evil?  Not being cynical about politicians? Speaking warmly of the Work and Pensions Secretary?  Praising his courage?  You can see where this is going, can't you?  He may feel he and his colleagues can come out of their bunkers and actually talk to you. And where will that lead us?

I profoundly hope this signals a new start in relations between the government and the Church.  We are grown-up people.  We can disagree without rebuking, denouncing and generally rubbishing each other.  We no not need to shout from the other side of the street.  We can do it.  Please say it's true.

Tuesday, 26 February 2013

On Loyalty

Loyalty: noun Late Middle English. Origin: Old French.  The fact or condition of being loyal; faithfulness to duty or in love, friendship, etc; faithful allegiance to the legitimate monarch or government of one's country.  (OED)

What are the entities to which one might feel or express loyalty? I am (among other things and in the order they occur to me but no other): a Christian, an Anglican, an Englishman, a Briton, a Londoner, a European, a companion, a friend, a son, a brother, a cousin, a godfather, a godson, a priest and a deacon.  Each of these identities inspires in me a different sense of loyalty to something or someone; and if I had to put them in order of the strength of the loyalty engendered, I would be hard put to it in some instances.  This is perhaps partly because loyalty is not just a matter of unforced feeling or affection; it is sometimes a matter of perceived duty.  It is easy to be loyal to (say) my brother because he is a human being in respect of whom my loyalty is a subset of my love, an outworking of our personal relationship. Loyalty to (say) my country is different because, although I certainly also love it, I also have a stronger sense that my loyalty is something I owe it.

But what about religious identity?  I feel a strong loyalty to the Christian faith.  I hope this means I will be faithful to it and to the truth of the gospel to the end of my days; that I will advance its cause when I can and defend it when attacked.  I am also loyal to my Church: to the Anglican tradition, to my bishop and parish, to my brothers and sisters in the faith.  I recognise that this is of a different order of loyalty to that which I owe to the wider Christian faith and Church; though in truth the two are hard for me to separate.  Within Anglicanism, tribal loyalty to the CofE is a slightly awkward thing, because of its established status and the (perhaps consequent) lazy, hazy public view of it as a quasi-official entity in the same broad category as the BBC and the NHS.  It's just there, part of the landscape: criticise it and mock it by all means, even if you work in it - that is your birthright.  But loyalty to it is not required.

Yet loyalty to it is what I feel.  I am in it and of it; I could not think of leaving it.  To turn from the Church in which I was baptised, confirmed and ordained, which has nurtured my faith and vocation, and supported me in distress and weakness would be like abandoning my own mother.  I feel pain when it is traduced, and anger when it is misrepresented and abused.  That, you may say, is a cross I carry.

But there is more.  I am an Anglo-Catholic. I stand in an ancient and continuous tradition of English Christianity, revived and emboldened by the Oxford Movement of the 19th century, and which lives on in the modern Church of England.  This tradition places the Incarnation at the centre of the Christian understanding of the faith and the world; insists on the centrality of the sacraments (especially the Eucharist) in the life of faith; regards the Church on earth as having been founded by Christ himself, and as being unbreakably united to the Church in heaven and the communion of saints; and holds to a proper ordering of its structure and life according to ancient wisdom and practice.

This little summary, you may have noticed, would be endorsed by most Roman Catholics (and certainly officially by their Church) but rejected to a greater or lesser extent by evangelical Christians, including many who worship in the Church of England. When the evangelical view is in the ascendancy, and when wider public assent to traditional Church structures is simultaneously fading, the tendency is for conservative Anglo-Catholics to move further into their comfort zone, away from what has apparently become "mainstream" Anglicanism and towards Roman Catholicism.  In this way, they can find themselves in a liminal, intermediate place between Canterbury and Rome, sometimes with a stronger sense of loyalty to the latter than to the former. This can manifest itself in small things like the use of the Roman Rite and the inclusion of prayers for the Pope at mass; but also in overt and damaging public criticism of the Church of England from the pulpit and in the media. This can be taken to the point where an Anglican becomes a sort of pretend Roman Catholic: still in fact a part of the Church of England (and in the case of stipendiary clergy, still paid and housed by it) but in spirit a citizen of the Roman household of faith.  It is this little constituency for whom the so-called Ordinariate was designed by some bright spark in the Vatican. When you are desperate for priests and you know of some alienated, sympathetic Protestants, it is simple, pragmatic common sense to help them take that final step.

Yet it needs to be said that not all Anglo-Catholics inhabit this no-man's-land.  Most, while having a proper regard for the Pope and Catholic tradition and teaching, are quite clear about and comfortable in their Anglican identity.  For them, calling the Eucharist "mass" and the priest "Father"; invoking the prayers of the saints as a natural part of worship; instinctive awareness and celebration of the incarnational in ordinary life - none of these or associated "marks" of Catholicism translate into an ecclesiastical identity crisis.  Clergy in this situation might well describe themselves as "Catholic" within their own context; but are conscious that to do so indiscriminately and without qualification can cause confusion - both among those to whom they are called to be shepherds and in the community at large. And an important pastoral responsibility of the priest is to strive to hold confusion at bay.  Their Catholicism is dispositional, not institutional.

Also, they are aware that, as enfeebled a movement as it now seems, Anglo-Catholicism changed the Church.  The battles which it fought in the late 19th and early 20th centuries - to restore the Eucharist to its proper centrality and to increase the frequency of its celebration and in an identifiably Catholic authorised rite; to restore recognition of the ancient threefold order of ordained ministry; even to be able to wear vestments and to make the sign of the cross - these battles were won. They were not won as comprehensively as some had wanted (and still want); and reunion with Rome is undoubtedly as distant as ever. But, given the history of the Church of England, they were won as far as they could be; and to an extent that the Anglo-Catholic can usually worship comfortably and unapologetically somewhere within reach of his home.  And if he is averse to women priests and bishops - and not all are by any means - he can avoid them without too much effort.

Loyalty is a state of mind - or perhaps a state of the heart.  As virtues go, it is one that has a rather old-fashioned ring.  But, for the Christian, "faithfulness to duty or in love, friendship, etc" is second nature; it is, in its highest form, what binds God and man, the essence of the covenant.  It binds us to others, whether by love or by duty.  We need it to flourish; to interact wholesomely with each other.  It is a kind of currency.  And it is of God.

Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Apologia Pro Sua Ecclesia

In my dumbed-down, over-simplified, rule-of-thumb grasp of Church history and theology, I associate the term via media with John Henry Newman.  He it was, I think, who, long before kicking the dust of Anglicanism from his Oxford brogues, used the term to describe the "middle way" between Puritan Protestantism and Roman Catholicism which was the Church of England's inheritance from the Elizabethan Settlement onwards.  Newman himself believed - at that stage, anyway - that the Church had, during the 18th century, forgotten its ancient Catholic heritage enshrined in the Book of Common Prayer, and had in the process become a dull department of a Hanoverian Protestant state.  He and his fellow Tractarians - who were to become the founding fathers of the Oxford Movement - fretted about Erastianism (the idea that the state should have authority over the Church in ecclesiastical matters) and worried that the Church of England was in danger of losing its identity, squeezed as it was between a newly restored and growing Roman Catholic Church and the vigorous Protestant sects that had grown during the evangelical revival of the previous century.  With reference to the Early Fathers and the Elizabethan and Caroline divines, the Tractarians re-imagined the true English Church.  This Church looked quite a bit more Catholic than it had done (and indeed than many were comfortable with) and effectively began what some regard as the recatholicisation of Anglicanism.  The Oxford Movement begat Anglo-Catholicism - a term I believe also coined by Newman, and a movement which survived his defection to Rome and which profoundly influenced subsequent Church of England life and polity.

But Tractarianism did not want England to revert to Rome; it wanted the Church to recover what it had lost or deprecated but which was there in black and white in the pages of the 1662 Prayer Book - its liturgical and ecclesiological authority. This, they believed, envisaged much more frequent access to the sacraments (Newman's "keys and spells"), the most radical expression of which was perhaps their espousal of the restoration of auricular confession in the Church of England.  But the "excesses" of Rome were not on the agenda, any more than were the radical claims and uncanonical practices of evangelical Protestantism.  The Church of England was not a confessional denomination like Lutheranism; it was the liberated and reformed catholic (ie universal) Church of England.  Seen from this perspective, the via media was not just a matter of advocating a moderate Christianity: it had been the Church's calling from the beginning.

If I were a fundamentalist evangelical I would be expected to believe in some or all of the following: the Bible as the literal and inerrant word of God; the claim that He created the world in six days about 6000 years ago; that ordained priesthood is at best unnecessary (and that when the Bishop put his hands on my head, nothing happened beyond his spoiling my hair-do); that the bread and wine of the Eucharist are merely symbolic; that the dead are dead and beyond my prayers; that some are predestined for salvation and that the rest are irretrievably doomed; and that the Church on earth is no more than a convenient way of organising Christians.

If I were a Roman Catholic I would be obliged to believe: the notion that a human being, however wise and holy he might be, is infallible (when speaking ex cathedra but not otherwise); that it is possible for that same person to arrange for me to spend less time in purgatory in return for my attendance at a service or event; that belief in the "immaculate" conception and bodily assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary are necessary to my salvation; that a prayer to a native Canadian woman who died in 1680 recently and miraculously cured a little boy of a fatal disease, warranting her canonisation last year; and for good measure, that my church is not a church at all, and that my holy orders are "absolutely null and utterly void". 

As it is, I am free to believe any or all of these things - but not obliged to.  (It would actually be rather odd if I believed the last of them, but some Anglican priests are doing just that in respect of the so-called "Ordinariate".)  It is probably good for me to make my confession to a priest, but my salvation does not depend upon it.  If I believe that the substance of the bread and wine of the Eucharist is changed by their consecration, I may so believe entirely legitimately, but may not insist on the same belief on the part of my fellow-worshipper.

For occupying this middle ground, and notwithstanding my decidedly illiberal credal orthodoxy, some will accuse me of being a wishy-washy fence-sitter, and/or a milk-and-water relativist. Others will conclude simply (and perhaps sadly) that I am going to hell in a handcart and that there is no help for me unless I repent of my wilful rejection of the truth. Well, they may or may not be right.  As it is, I count myself rather fortunate not to be obliged to adhere to dogma which I find ridiculous while keeping it to myself.  I belong to a Church and Communion which does not invite people to sign up to any theological propositions beyond those "uniquely revealed in the Holy Scriptures and set forth in the catholic creeds", but which says to them merely: "We are your church. This is what we do. Can you worship with us?"

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Times and Tides

I have watched many Parliamentary debates.  Some I have watched from the officials' box (one of that little row of faces to the left of the Speaker's chair as you face it), some from upper galleries out of sight to TV viewers, and some - like yesterday's - from the privacy of my own home.  They have been, on and off, a part of my professional life.  I have rarely enjoyed them.  This is partly because, for me, they have been work.  When, in my civil service career, I sat in the officials' box, I was usually there to produce information that would enable my minister to provide immediate answers to unforeseen questions raised in debate. When, nowadays, I sit in one of the galleries in the House of Lords, I do so to hear contributions on subjects on which my bishop speaks for the Church and, when he is participating, to tweet a sound-bite or two.  Yesterday's debate on the same-sex marriage bill I watched at home on TV for sheer pleasure (if that is the word).  I say "if that is the word" because I know enough about myself to realise that I dislike conflict and that I am prone to become personally involved to an extent that militates against the impartiality required of a Government official.  And although I no longer occupy that role, I can't get out of the habit.

There was little great oratory yesterday.  But there were some courageous and moving speeches.  I found myself marvelling that Tories like Nick Herbert and Mike Freer were able to stand in the Commons and on national TV and be open about themselves and their support for this gloriously unconservative bill.  Could they have done this 20, even 10, years ago?  I doubt it.  The old Tory dogs were still there behind them, yapping and snapping at their heels; but the earth has turned another quarter-turn, and for Herbert, Freer and a host of others, it is moving perceptibly from darkness into light.  To his credit, David Cameron understands this; I don't think his opponents do.  Not really.

If I had to pick an "anti" speech for special mention it would have to be Edward Leigh's.  Leigh is a proudly devout old-style Roman Catholic and gave an elegant and poetic (and accurate) account of the traditional Christian understanding of marriage.  Towards the end, in response to the claim that the world had "moved on" (from the civil partnerships debate), he replied: "The worry that some of us have is that the world...could move on again".  Yes. It could and it will.

The same theme was picked up by Sir Menzies Campbell (a supporter of the bill) who began his remarks by saying: "there is a kind of inevitability about what many of us are hoping will be decided here this evening".  He saw gay marriage as the next step along the road towards the full inclusion and equal treatment of all outcasts: a destination that we know we will reach eventually.  There is something profoundly Christian about this.

And inevitability is the point.  I expect this bill, which still has a good few parliamentary hurdles to jump, to become law in due course.  But even it if doesn't, a future Labour government will introduce a similar one which certainly will.  One way or another, sooner or later, we will have gay marriage.  And we all know it. Isn't the honest (and brave) thing to do to accept that, and to focus on introducing it in a way that commands the widest possible assent and calms the greatest number of fears?

It's been noted that this is a huge gamble for David Cameron; that he has betrayed Conservative principles and will lose "core" votes without gaining any others.  I wonder if his motivation rests upon his honest assessment that he will not, probably, in any event, be Prime Minister after 2015: that the times are simply against him.  Given that, perhaps he wants to be remembered for something other than austerity and benefit cuts and rising debt. Something that's not coloured grey. Something that makes us more human. Something lasting.  Perhaps this is the thing. Perhaps now is the time.

There is a tide in the affairs of men
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a sea are we now afloat,
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.

(Brutus, from Julius Caesar, Act 4, Scene 3)

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

The Friendship of Dorothy

I blogged recently about the ordinariness of my suburban parish. Such places can be the context for the extraordinary.  Exactly 50 years ago this Saturday, on another snowy January day, died Dorothy Kerin, visionary, mystic and healer, who received the stigmata (the marks on her own body of Christ's wounds on the cross) in the vicarage of the parish I serve as assistant priest.

Here is a piece I wrote for the Bishop of London, who recently preached about her at the church of St Martin-in-the-Fields, central London.

Perhaps within the pantheon of the ancient Church, Dorothy Kerin might have been viewed as a great saint. Within the Anglican tradition, during her own lifetime, she was considered a pioneer in the recovery of the Church’s healing ministry.

Aged 22, she suffered from tuberculosis and its complications. After two weeks of very considerable poor health, she was, it seems, miraculously healed. She claimed to have not only seen the Risen Lord but to have actually met him. In this meeting, she was given a commission: to go into the world and perform an important work for Him.

‘I seemed to be going somewhere with a definite purpose.  For me it was a time of indescribable joy and bliss in a place and environment of exquisite harmony, when suddenly I was aware of a lovely form in dazzling white. He was coming towards me and I knew it was Jesus. He said “Dorothy, will you go back and do something for me”, to which I answered “Yes, Lord”. Then I was told to get up and walk.’

In 1915 Dorothy began a period of spiritual direction under Dr Richard Langford James, vicar of St Mark’s, Bush Hill Park in north London. He was well versed in mystical and ascetical theology particularly in the Carmelite school; and Dorothy lived in the vicarage through the London bombings of WW1 and beyond. Her faith was informed by the mystical tradition, with a clear Anglican sense of appropriateness and dignity.

During this period, and while in extended prayer in St Mark’s vicarage, she experienced the manifestation of the marks of the wounds of Christ on her own body, her hands, feet and side.  She is thus one of the few attested Anglican stigmatics.

In a letter to Dr Langford James she says: “Is it not splendid of Our Blessed Lord to accept tiny gifts of sacrifice that we can give to Him, when His gifts to us are so great and glorious? His love makes one ashamed.”

In 1929 she left Bush Hill Park and opened her first residential home of healing (St Raphael’s, a rented house in Ealing, west London).  It was to become a place “to strengthen the weak hands and to confirm the feeble knees of many suffering souls”.

Dorothy emphasized through her long ministry that although physical healing may occur through prayer, most important are the healings of mind and spirit, in which the recipient of grace is reconciled or drawn closer to God.

Like the compassionate St John of the Cross, whose writings she had studied at Bush Hill Park, her appearance often was marked by simplicity of externals, and her great love for souls. She would eschew her own comfort to go the extra mile with those in need, by giving them ‘lovely clothes’ and drives in the country.

Dorothy understood that while we struggle and suffer, God sees every life from the perspective of eternity.  She emphasized that healings often were not dramatic but were gradual and always with a movement towards God.

Dorothy’s personal experience of the living Christ turned her life around and set her on a course of wanting to share with others the wonders of God’s transforming love, and she wanted to share this by setting aside a place where others could come and find the same transforming touch.  Her life was a continuous sacrifice of self.

With her dedicated band of followers she established successively three homes of prayer and healing in the south.  In 1948 she was able to develop the land and buildings that make up the core of the present-day Burrswood.  Here, medicine and the church could work together.

Dorothy espoused a ‘resting theology’… in which the individual is encouraged to identify with the will of God, not in a simple, “if it be according to thy will” sense; but one in which the individual soul places itself entirely at the disposal of God: more like “into thy hands, I commend myself”. For her, the seeing of God’s Kingdom was foremost.

Dorothy Kerin’s own words about Burrswood in a speech she gave in London in 1958:

“As the making of physical fire was one of the great milestones in the rise of man, so also, I believe, was his discovery of prayer as a means of kindling and fanning a flame he found within him; a flame which, like a spiritual engine, has brought him to higher things. Let him not throw it away.  It seems to me that a glorious bonfire - if you will - has been erected at Burrswood. We have watched it growing and growing, with thanksgiving and blessings and wonders, as it has built up over the years. And now it has been ignited with a flame - that living flame –that burns with love and power. It has flamed up; and now so long as this world lasts that flame will not go out. It is an eternal fire glowing on earth with the love of God…”

A week after her death on 26 January 1963, Bishop Cuthbert Bardsley (who was Bishop Warden of Burrswood) wrote in the Times: “At the centre of this dynamic work [Burrswood] was a fragile, gifted and inspired woman, Dorothy Kerin.”

Perhaps here there is a clue to the character of the woman. In her fragility, her weakness, lay her strength. It brought her to a real encounter with the eternal beauty of God. It enabled her to see beyond ill health and to go out in compassion towards others.

A prayer from Dorothy Kerin’s own note book:

By the bruising of
my whole life,
strengthen me with
sympathy for every wounded soul, and
let my prayers be as
balm for the wounds
of thy children, that
they may be healed.

Dorothy Kerin is one of 29 new commemorations in the Kalender for London, which complements the Common Worship national calendar of saints and other holy men and women, and which can be found here:

Sunday, 20 January 2013

I Am A Parish

I'm a town in Carolina, I'm a detour on a ride 
For a phone call and a soda, I'm a blur from the driver's side
I'm the last gas for an hour if you're going twenty-five
I am Texaco and tobacco, I am dust you leave behind

I am peaches in September, and corn from a roadside stall
I'm the language of the natives, I'm a cadence and a drawl
I'm the pines behind the graveyard, and the cool beneath their shade, 
where the boys have left their beer cans
I am weeds between the graves.

My porches sag and lean with old black men and children
Their sleep is filled with dreams, I never can fulfill them
I am a town.

I am a church beside the highway where the ditches never drain
I'm a Baptist like my daddy, and Jesus knows my name
I am memory and stillness, I am lonely in old age; 
I am not your destination
I am clinging to my ways
I am a town.

I'm a town in Carolina, I am billboards in the fields 
I'm an old truck up on cinder blocks, missing all my wheels
I am Pabst Blue Ribbon, American, and "Southern Serves the South"
I am tucked behind the Jaycees sign, on the rural route
I am a town

Transpose, if imagination will allow, from the southern American to the British suburban context the insignificance of the town which country singer Mary Chapin Carpenter describes in this lovely song I Am A Town, and you have a feel of the parish in which I am pleased to serve as assistant priest.  

You might pass through our parish on your way in or out of London on the A10 - one of the dual-carriageway trunk roads built in the 1930s and quickly lined with light industrial plants, predominantly manufacturing electrical appliances.  These have been replaced by car showrooms, furniture warehouses with permanent sales, and supermarkets of various stripes - the whole a nice microcosm of the shift from making things to simply selling them.  Recently, a cheap hotel has - apparently pointlessly - sprung up on the site of one of the old factories. You might have passed through, but you probably won't have stopped.  You will have pressed on into London or towards Hertford or Cambridge. I'm a blur from the driver's side.

We are a small and undistinguished triangle of outer suburbia, carved out of the much larger, ancient neighbouring parish at the turn of the last century; and consisting almost entirely of housing speculatively built around a station on a new railway line north from central London into leafy Middlesex.  Almost overnight, it became possible to work in the Big Smoke and live in the countryside, and this London suburb - like others at every compass-point - was born.  Bylaw terraces and railway cottages for the teeming workers; some larger houses for the management.  A parade of shops, a few pubs, a school, and of course - this being the 1890s - a church.  In fact, since you could not expect everyone to submit to the Anglo-Catholicism supposedly favoured by the urban working-class, two churches. Ours - bells, smells, solemn high masses, and Father Surname-Only in full vestments.  A neat example of what writer A N Wilson has called the Church of England's  "bricky slum shrines", its head in a cloud of incense and its hands and feet in the mire of poverty, midway between Canterbury and Rome.  And, a matter of yards away yet within a stone's throw of Geneva, the Congregationalists: unbending in their devotion to the unmediated Word of God, a life of plain obedience to the same, and a simplicity of worship (Sundays only).

120 years on, most of the shops have gone and all but one of the pubs.  The school - a stern but kind, imposing but rambling, confection in Edwardian terracotta - now educates mainly Muslim children.  The old families, generation after generation living in the same house, have gone: parents and grandparents buried with due ceremony (High or Low, according to conviction), children moved to Hertfordshire dormitory towns.  The railway station still does its job - a 25-minute commute to the City (and, by London standards, relatively affordable property) makes this fertile first-home territory.  But few stay for long.  I am not your destination.

Yet the church is still here.  It still does what it did, except differently.  The people for whom, and to whom, it does it are different.  Compared to 50 years ago, they are of highly diverse ethnic origin, religious background, and personal lifestyle.  For the most part, they will not live in their present homes for the rest of their lives; their children will certainly live elsewhere. They are passing through.  They are less disposed than their forebears to do what Father says without question; and, for the most part, Father is not disposed to lead so unassailably from the front.

Importantly, these people do not come because it is the proper (or only) thing to do on Sunday morning.  They come because something draws them.  They come with hugely various spiritual and moral baggage; and with, perhaps, some heterodox doctrinal understanding.  My very favourite thing about the Church of England is that we do not say: "Will you sign up to this set of theological propositions?"  We say rather, "Can you worship with us in this way?"  Given the combination of factors which seem to compromise the Church's calling - it warms the heart to see how many still can.