Saturday, August 24, 2019

Non-fiction

I am currently reading, and loving, Robert Macfarlane's Underland. On the basis of the first 100 pages it is going to be my favourite non-fiction book of all time. This got me wondering what my top five are, currently.

I think my criteria would be:

1. Something that adds to the sum of my knowledge in an area where I am already interested.

2. Something that persuades me to be interested in a subject about which I know nothing.

Here is my list. It nearly included some academic theology, sport and biography but, with apologies to Nick Hornby, Andrew Lincoln and Humphrey Carpenter, these made the cut:


Passage to Juneau
Jonathan Raban
Picador 1999

This came under category 2. I have never been at all interested in sailing although the sea had some attractiveness
when viewed form a sturdy platform, I toyed with the idea of the navy but the navy successfully put me off during a course designed to put me  on.

Then I read a newspaper review of this book. It caught my imagination, I think because the writing was praised as much as the subject matter.

Quite rightly. Recreating a 1000 mile sea voyage north from his home in Seattle, Raban speaks of the myths and truths of the sea as only an experienced mariner traveller can. During the voyage he explores ancient documents and his inner world, reaching some dramatic places and conclusions.



Prisoners of Geography
Tim Marshall
Elliott and Thompson 2015

I enjoyed many games of Risk as a child, quickly working out that the places that could be attacked from few sides were the most easily defended. Who knew that this would be the key to the dominance of the actual world as well? The winners were always going to be the people who populated North America. The Europeans are separated by so many mountain ranges and rivers they will never get on without some sort of union. The Russians need an ice-free port. The arbitrary way former empires carved up the territory of people who already didn't like each other very much. was never going to be a recipe for peace. Why is  the world like it is? Easy to understand if you have this book.


Mark Forsyth
The Elements of Eloquence
Icon 2013

I was given a good grounding in English by my two schools and owe the second one an apology for under-achieving. What my education gave me was an ear for a phrase which sounds right. When the writer hits a sweet-spot. And how to spot a dud.

What I failed to allow my education to give me is a knowledge of the science behind this. I didn't develop an interest until Junior did English Language A level and we chatted about how language works and both read David Crystal.

This book, a gift from a friend, added science to my natural ear. It answered questions I didn't know were worth asking, such as why we play ping pong and not pong ping, why Please Please Me is a good song title and why we say knives and forks when we mean cutlery (that's a merism, by the way).

Excuse the errors. It wasn't enallage it was clumsiness.


The Essential Difference
Simon Baron-Cohen
Allen Lane 2003
Men are from Mars Women are from Venus popularised the long-discussed idea that males and females see the world differently. Simon Baron-Cohen, interestingly, does an academic version of what his brother Sacha does through the medium of comedy. Sacha disguises himself as an unusual person in order to deconstruct mainstream thought. Simon analyses unusual people to find out that makes them different.

He does find differences between male and female brains - some because of nature and some nurture. One year old babies faced with videos of cars or people did divide on gender grounds. But not all men are better at stacking the dish-washer than all women. But, by and large, his research showed a male interest in systems over people and for women the opposite.

Reading this I understood myself better. It was sobering to read that people with my score, on his self-assessment paper, had, in the past, been given an autism statement.  I fell one step short of being an acute systematising male. Which makes me a cute, systematising male. You knew that.


Unapologetic
Francis Spufford
Faber and Faber 2012

The more biblical I get the more liberal I find myself. Which has always begged the question as to what speaker I might take people to listen to or what book I might given them to explain why I am still able to own the insult 'Christian'.

When all has been deconstructed what is left? An ethics teacher once told me that when you deconstruct a light bulb you are left with everything but illumination. True. But there is no need to deconstruct a light-bulb if the manufacturer is still around to show you how it was made.

Spufford deconstructs nothing. He constructs an emotional defence (wrong word because he wasn't attacked) of hanging on to a dream, a story, a meta-narrative that there is some other. Not in the gaps that human understanding will one day bridge but so far so beyond and above that only the Christian story can pull it together and provide a base from which to explore.

First time I've read the story of someone who is emotionally content to be an ordinary Christian, although an extraordinary writer.









Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Joy

I have been most influenced in my spiritual walk recently by the writings of rabbis. Jonathan Sacks 'Not in God's Name' was a profound exploration of the sibling rivalry of the Hebrew Scriptures still playing out amongst nations and faiths today. Danya Ruttenberg's extraordinary use of Twitter as a teaching tool has opened to me the insights of a female reading of patriarchical texts.

Last night I heard a new speaker, albeit one I had read and heard before but not live; one in the great rabbinic tradition. He spoke of joy.

He did it joyously, owing much to the tradition of modern stand-up with a soul. And also to the fine yiddish (can I say that? Correct me if I can't) comedians such as Jackie Mason I recall from days of yore. His jokes were funny, his visuals added much and his observations were er, observant.

Much was made of a few people who added value to what would be expected of them in their day job. Those who offered the unemployed a free dry clean of interview clothes. Those who made an imaginative sign when the door of the shop had failed. Those who played with a kid when they should have been serving the queue. Those who designed sneakers with a unicorn's horn on the top for girls of a certain age. These people, it was suggested 'get it'.

And joy was also to be found in the apparent failures of those who had given a cat-lovers magazine a strange name, or named a road using only consonants. 'They had a meeting and decided that...?'

And joy was to be found in the maths of a romanesco cauliflower (we'll forgive it being described as broccoli).

Yes, joy is knocking around for those who seek it.

The centre piece was an exploration of Ecclesiastes a book which contains the central point that living for the moment is as good as any method because we're all going to die. He exposited the Hebrew word behind 'meaningless' as 'mist or vapour' using a water mist spray as prop. If, he said, someone was being cynical you should take them down with the accusation that they haven't gone far enough because 'We're all going to die'.

So if we should spend more time living in the moment - someone in the audience was called out for taking notes 'There's always someone in the front row taking notes; thanks for doing our accounts' - what is the Christian hope? I had abandoned my iPad this evening for a notebook and pen but I chose to ignore it then and just listen. So my review is based on memory.

Well the Christian hope isn't eternal life. Not for this speaker. The hearers of Jesus would never have understood eternal life as life going on for ever. That would have been more of the same, looking on for the most as the few enjoyed the trappings of success but never enjoying them themselves. No, eternal life's secret is revealed in the 'This is what it's all about' statement as someone enjoys a great family moment, embracing all in the postprandial bloatedness of Christmas lunch.

But, I wanted to shout, there are some looking on who don't get to do that. It's terribly, well, middle class.

In my youth there was this chorus:

If you want joy, real joy, wonderful joy
Let Jesus come into your heart
If you want joy, real joy, wonderful joy
Let Jesus come into your heart
Your sins he'll take away
Your night he'll turn to day
Your heart he'll make over anew
And then come in to stay
If you want joy, real joy, wonderful joy
Let Jesus come into your heart

I hadn't sung it for nearly 40 years and I'm glad but I just wrote out the words from memory,

Christians from all over Bristol, younger than most congregations I serve, flocked to hear this stand-up rabbi. His name? Rob Bell from Los Angeles, California. Christian writer and Communicator, founding pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church and a man with disciples.

What was distinctively Christian about it? I'm not sure. I may have missed something. Help me.

Monday, August 12, 2019

Sad Story

Had been away overnight. Not been home long Saturday afternoon, about 3-4 p.m. when the phone rang. This conversation. I've changed the names:

Me: Hello, Steve Tilley speaking

Caller: (Cheery) Hello it's Jenny Hopgood

Me: (Nervously) I'm really sorry but I don't think I know who you are (Honesty is always wisest in this situation)

Caller: Is that Dave?

Me: (Exasperation showing slightly) No, this is Steve Tilley speaking. The number you have called is ... (I give the last six digits. It contains no sixes)

Caller: (Apologising) It's meant to be a six (call ends)


I go and sit down. The phone rings immediately.


Me: Hello, Steve Tilley speaking

Caller: I definitely put a six that time. I must have been given the wrong number

Me: You've either been given the right number and dialled (I know) it wrong or for some strange reason when you call the right number it is misdirecting to me. There is no six in my number (I repeat it, in full this time)

Caller: I definitely put a six on the end (call ends)


I go and sit down. A few hours later I remember I haven't listened to my voicemails. Of the six times the phone rang while I was away four left no message, one was the background sound of an office call centre and no message and one was this, from 11.00 a.m that morning. I recognise the same voice as my recent wrong number caller:

'Hello Sally, it's Jenny. I've booked a table for us at the Compass for 1 o'clock. It's by Junction 18 of the M4.'

Someone had probably been sitting alone in a pub for two hours cursing their friend

Tuesday, August 06, 2019

Bigger Barns

I did that trick last Sunday, at an early said communion service, of preaching blind. I took no notes and riffed on the readings. I used the material I came out with as the basis of a longer presentation later that morning. For those who feel tempted to say that it is appalling to preach without preparation I refer you to the forty years I have been doing this. That's gotta count for something.

Why am I owning up to this? Well, because in the volatile mix of adrenaline and terror that lack of preparation leads to (I once had seven members of the Liturgical Commission pitch up unexpectedly, doubling a congregation) I saw something new. Luke 12:13-21 goes like this:

Someone in the crowd said to (Jesus), 'Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.'
Jesus replied, 'Man, who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you?' Then he said to them, 'Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.'

And he told them this parable: 'The ground of a certain rich man yielded an abundant harvest. He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.’

'Then he said, ‘This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store my surplus grain. And I’ll say to myself, 'You have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.''

'But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’

'This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God.'

The thing I noticed is this. It is in the context of a story told to illustrate the dangers of prioritising possessions. Jesus, having given another clue as to who he is not by refusing to be a judge, a task the great leaders of the Old Testament had to accept alongside leadership, warns about the uselessness of storing ridiculous excess.

The man in the story is a rich man. He has the option therefore of extending his property. He has the wealth. But he chooses to do this following an abundant year. He has wealth and then has abundance on top. He has no need of a good year. He is set up for ordinary years.

I note here that there is nowt wrong with wealth creation. But it carries with it a social responsibility - to invest in people (employ them) or in further business (employ more). And to share the wealth rather than store it. My one-liner was this - socialism is only necessary because capitalism doesn't see the work through.

Jesus wasn't saying that God will kill you if you do this. He was saying that all of us will give up our lives at some point and a barn full of grain will be no good to us then. If capitalists were socialists as well we wouldn't need socialists. I didn't say this in a sermon, but it may have been the great insight of New Labour.

'Eat, drink (and be merry) for tomorrow you die' is Paul's lifted-quote description of life without hope (1 Corinthians 15:32b). Paul pointed to the resurrection of Jesus as the only hope-giving event worth noting. But Jesus points to the responsibility of those who have the means to eat drink and be merry now (before the resurrection hope was a thing) to give practical help to others. The Gospels were more about now, thenthan we ever realise. Still are.

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Thought for the Day

As delivered at BBC Radio Bristol this morning:

The first book of the Bible begins with a universal story. It's couched in conventional terms. There's a heavenly place. Paradise. But it has one rule. Soon the rule is broken and the blame is discussed.

Wasn't me it was the woman.

Wasn't me it was the snake.

Someone else's fault.

Every year in a boarding school I used to run a summer camp for teenagers. At the first mealtime we recited all the rules that might make the place unsafe for a young person. It was a long list. One of them was this. The school insisted we make it clear that no-one was allowed to go on the roof because it was dangerous.

As I shared this rule I sensed a load of young eyes looking back at me thinking 'Hmm. Go on the roof. Good idea. Hadn't thought of that.'

Exposing those young people to a radical idea, even though it was revealed immediately as folly, was enticing.

What is it about 'don't touch' that makes us really want to? Why does a blank wall in the Bear Pit attract the budding Banksys?

Well that, I think, is the Bible's point. We don't get tempted by sin we haven't thought of. I let down your tyres because I thought you were mean parking in my village. I don't let down just anybody's tyres. I'm not a psychopath.

On our teenagers' houseparty we settled on a couple of key rules that were life or death matters and added 'Be sensible - there may be further explanations of what it means to be sensible over the course of the holiday.' We never mentioned the roof again. So nobody ever went looking for the access door to get there.

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Adventures in a Dog Collar Part 347

This is a true story. It reminds me again that the only way anyone can become a half-decent writer (I make no claims) is to go to places alone.

A few days ago I was advised to allow extra time to get from Nailsea to Wells because of the Glastonbury traffic. So I did and arrived an hour early. I opted for a sandwich and a pint at my favourite Wells haunt, The Crown. It's my favourite because they have a knack, not available at many pubs, of fast-tracking the sandwich queue.

At the bar I was asked for a table number. This is not easy for a single diner because you need to leave a possession unguarded at a table in order to reserve a seat. I found a seat where a couple were just leaving and left my bag with them.

Having ordered I went to the table and the occupants asked if I wanted to separate two tables which they had put together. I said no and then the man noticed my dog collar and told me he understood that as I was a clergyman I was gregarious (friends, keep your chuckles down, please).

Then, having told me I was gregarious, he told me the story of how the Master of Divinity at his College suggested that as he knew a good port and could sing he ought to consider ordination and put him in touch with the Professor of Theology at Exeter, where my story-teller now was, who would ask him for dinner. Some more junior members of whichever faculty he was at were, apparently, miffed that he queue jumped the dinner list at such dinner. On arrival he was asked 'Have you met the family' and when he said he had not he was given a huge scotch and told me would need it.

This may seem garbled because I got all this in a stream of consciousness and the idea of being stopped for clarification didn't seem to occur to my speaker.

He was then asked if he wanted to join a Hebrew, Latin or Greek supper club. The story sort of ran out without a punchline (the man was not ordained, then or ever). Surprisingly he then asked me who I was and where I came from. I got as far as 'ordination weekend' when he continued with a string of how he was going to the deaconing on Sunday. I also answered the question with the single word 'Nailsea' and hit a poor joke about a chiropodist. His companion left in the middle of all this (with a resigned expression on my behalf).

Someone in the story was called Robert Mortimer I think.

Sometimes I can only be a pastor if I remember I am also a writer. I can listen because I can anonymise, retell and hopefully entertain. Do with all this what you want.

Saturday, July 13, 2019

Green Unpleasant Land

To fulfil the desire to be part of a bigger community discussion about issues facing society, the team at Andy's (a Trendlewood-style Christian community meeting in Backwell, monthly) organised an open meeting on sustainability, climate-change and the like. It took place last Thursday. I was invited to open the proceedings on behalf of the faith community. This is what I said:

It is a privilege to be here as part of the input to this discussion and also to go first.

When Archbishop of Scotland Richard Holloway wrote a book called 'Godless Morality' it caused a stir. His point was this. If I start from my faith position and say 'God says...' then all you have to say to disagree with me is 'I don't believe in God'. Our conversation ends. Christians, he argued, can be informed by their faith position, and need to be open that this is what they are doing. As a Christian my faith informs my opinions. But I need to go into the market place of ideas arguing each position on its merits.

So, some brief insights from my faith perspective with which I hope most of us will not take issue, whether we have faith or not. Three things to say to open our evening:

1. The stewardship of the world is our responsibility.

In the book of Genesis, one of the two stories of creation suggests that looking after the planet is God's first charge on humans. If we don't do the stewardship, no other creature will. The second story of creation, a little more culture-bound, suggests that work being drudgery and relationships unequal is a consequence of selfishness.

Rowan Williams said: 'In the Bible God calls the world good before human beings are on it.'

2. Later on in that creation story God asks what happened. The man then blamed the woman and the woman blamed the snake. Selfishness. The Bible knows that our natural tendency is to blame someone else. Them. But I am one of them.

Whilst big change will come from big movements changing countries and organisations the change of heart happens in us as individuals. Romans 3 says 'All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.'

A newspaper once ran a letter competition to ask what was wrong with the world. It awarded its prize to the shortest letter:

Dear Sir,

I am,

Yours faithfully

And the good news?

3. Redemption is possible. Romans 12 says we should let God transform us by the renewing of our minds. It is a passive sentence. Seeing the possibility of turning things around is something we can allow to happen to us; not something that has to be forced upon us.

We are very slowly discovering that hearts and minds can be changed. It is now anti-social to smoke in someone's house. It didn't used to be. It is now anti-social to leave dog excrement around. It didn't used to be.

What will our grandchildren find remarkable about what we do? Maybe that we value the oil companies based on the assumption that 90% of the world's oil will be available to them. Economist Paul Mason reminds us that the survival of the world depends on 90% of the world's oil staying in the ground.

Why did we ever use plastic straws, they will ask. Just as we ask 'Why did people have slaves?'

Why, they might say, did you all have your own lawn-mower? Good question.

The American satirist P.J. O'Rourke said:

'If Martin Luther were a modern day ecologist he would have to nail 95 T-shirts to the church door in Wittenberg.'

He has a point. We can be too T-shirt slogan minded and not heart-changing enough.

There is a danger that in embarking on a new wave of political populism we are also seeing selfishism. A populist government in Brazil sees local economics as more important than rain forest. A populist president in the USA sees 'nice businesses' as more important than climate change.

So, to summarise, I need to campaign and put my recycling bins out properly. Shout and listen to the voices that don't understand what I am shouting about. Demand change and try to be the change I am demanding.

And members of Christian churches should be the first to sign up, because sin, selfishness and stewardship are huge themes of our holy book.

Steve Tilley July 2019

Sources:

Post-Capitalism (a guide to our future) - Paul Mason 2015
All the Trouble in the World (the lighter side of famine, pesilence, destruction and death) - P.J. O'Rourke 1994
The New International Version of the Bible 1978 (now updated to a more inclusive language translation 1996)

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Thought for the Day

Slightly more personal TFTD today as one of the stories was about an innovative new device being used in a local dementia care home. Anyway, as delivered an hour ago at BBC Radio Bristol:

Honour your father and your mother that your days may be long... So says one of the two versions of the fifth commandment.

My Mum is 91 and lives in a dementia care home near where I grew up.

It's been tough walking the last few years with her. From the decision that she wasn't safe to live independently, to the person who now only recognises me some days when I visit.

Several good experiences have come out of this. There's the quality of the carers. Lovely people. And the power of music; some old folk who cannot speak still sing and recall lyrics. There's a friendship we develop with the other visitors - co-members of a club we wish we didn't belong to. And there's the genius of those who invent devices to help such as the high-tech touch table at Manor Park.

Mum now identifies every slightly-built middle-aged man with glasses as me. So, even though my visits are becoming less regular, she swears she saw me in the garden yesterday, or on the tele. It's stopped the guilt-trip she used to lay that I didn't visit often enough. Yes, some of the humour I find in this is decidedly dark.

Back to that commandment. Why would honouring parents make your days longer? Simple. As with much biblical wisdom it's fiercely practical. Before social security old people, who could not work the land, became an economic burden. The way the kids learned to look after you when you were old was if you had modelled it with your own folks.

I don't know the end of Mum's journey; but I am grateful for the people, known and unknown, who share it with me.

Jake Black RIP

Who, you may ask? He's the guy who did most of the spoken word bits and not a few cosy harmonies on the wonderful output of the Alabama 3. If you haven't been keeping up there's usually about eight or nine of them and they're from Brixton. They blend cool country, acid-house, gospel, techno blues with quite a lot of scotch and a few things less legal (in my humble opinion from row 15).

Still not there. OK the band who did the Woke Up This Morning theme tune from The Sopranos. They always included it in their live set and boasted it kept them fed.

Jake Black performed as his alter-ego the Rev'd D Wayne Love, a Presleytarian minister of the church of St Elvis the Divine. They used many Christian influences in their songs. Indeed the opening track on their first album Exile of Coldharbour Lane was called Converted and include the singalong gospel couplet:

Let's go back to church, let's go back to church
Been so damn long since we sang the song, let's go back to church

My Name is Johnny Cash, a tribute to a great influence, suggested that the country singer was around at the time of Jesus:

I was there when they crucified the Lord
I said to Jesus 'Hello, I'm Johnny Cash'

Blasphemy. Well maybe yes and maybe no but I ain't gonna take offence.

The first time I saw them, in Oxford, they supported themselves with an unplugged set of paired down versions of their best tunes. Their live gigs were fabulous entertainment and still will be without the good Rev'd. I had a bit of a personal bet then that their lifestyle would stop short of sixty years of age in many cases. D Wayne was 59. In this video he is on backing vocals. Find many live examples on YouTube.

Full obituary from the Guardian is here.

Monday, June 24, 2019

Holiday Reading

It's about this time that I like to show off about my holiday reading. The mark out of ten is nothing about class and all about ability to entertain a man on a beach or by a pool in the sun.

After a fairly light start I spent the whole of week two on a magnum Trollopian opus - all 870 pages of The Way We Live Now. I don't normally advise people to stick with things for the first 300 pages but in this case the middle section, as a series of relationships fold and unfold due to being conducted by correspondence and no-one ever saying what they mean, is fascinating. And later we come to discover whether Melmotte, much sought after for his investment backing and his patronage, is a man of means or just an upper-class gambler. Much serious gambling takes place in the book but only so that a series of IOUs can be passed round a gentlemen's club with no-one ever being so uncouth as to call in a debt. Even the club itself may not be as financially buoyant as it seems. And if it isn't well, where is a chap to get breakfast at noon now?

And its relevance today? How about ''Melmotte was not the first vulgar man whom the Conservatives had taken by the hand, and patted on the back, and told that he was a god.' (8/10)

Back to the start. Never read any Val McDermid before but will be. Broken Ground is a police procedural crime novel. No twists but an unusual story, several turns and a satisfying outcome. (7/10)

Kate Atkinson's Transcription is the story of a war-time counter-espionage project and how it catches up with the young heroine of the book, several years later. It does what Atkinson does best of all - flits between the dramas of 1940, 1950 and 1980 with the greatest of ease. (8/10)

Jon McGregor is one of my favourite authors. He writes dreamily slow-paced page-turners (how does he do that?) with insights into everyday events with an eye not to forensics so much as to the bits of stories that don't usually get told. So Reservoir 13, which I read last year, was about a missing girl but that incident was used as a lens to see the effect the event had on the village in which it was set. The Reservoir Tapes is the story, made for radio, of the people in the previous story; allowing them to be interviewed and to answer for themselves. (9/10)

A Peter Carey is never far from my reach and The Chemistry of Tears was a delightful piece of writing. Museum researcher Catherine, grieving for a dead lover, is given a project to investigate, to rebuild an automaton made by a great inventor to entertain his sick son. (6/10)

Mark Billingham's The Killing Habit is a DI Tom Thorne case inspired by a true life story of the M25 cat killer. Quite a romp. Page turner. Not, it turns out, much about cat killing at all. Last 100 pages shoot by. (8/10)

I try to catch up on things I missed in my yoof. I think school inoculated me against decent writing so Virginia Woolf's Mrs Dalloway was probably on some English Literature curriculum. I managed to fail the O Level but would fancy another go now. Gritty real life intrudes on a posh party in a day in the life of our eponymous heroine. (6/10)

And to add a bit of learning. Well Yanis Varoufakis, the Greek finance minister and university economics professor, distils his wisdom about trade, money and the future of the world into words his young daughter might understand. Interesting section on how cigarettes became money in WWII prisoner of war camps.

Thursday, May 30, 2019

Going Up

As I approached the church where I was covering an Ascension Day communion today I heard voices in the churchyard but couldn't see anyone. People of a nervous disposition should be assured that this will not be a ghost story.

Arriving at the church door I could still hear the voices loud and clear but still no sign of life. Then I thought to look up. Two guys were hanging from the tower by ropes working on the clock. I filed this under 'normal churchyard behaviour' although lead thieves are becoming more and more audacious.

Communion progressed without great incident until my sermon. Then, as I delivered a line about this being an anti-gravity sermon because on Ascension Day we learn that what came down must go up, one of the abseilers appeared at the back of church. He hadn't fallen; merely prusiked (I think that is the term) back up the rope and come down the tower stairs.

It's just that I could see him and nobody else could, except the choir. So the congregation wondered why the choir and I were chuckling.

And I had to admit that to have guys working on the tower on Ascension Day and to have one of them appear as a visual aid with high vis clothes, coiled rope and hard hat gave a bit of oomph to the laboured 'don't stand there looking into space' line.

Post Ascension, you won't find Jesus by climbing up anything. He's more risen than that.

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Thought for the Day

Sometimes a lighter thought is called for so I had a bit of fun with numbers today. As delivered a couple of hours ago on BBC Radio Bristol:

5th anniversary
20 miles per hour
20 thousand pounds

Today's show seems to be surviving on numbers.

Recently I celebrated my birthday, but because it didn't end in a 0 or a 5 it was not a 'significant' birthday. We love our numbers don't we? Long as they divide by 5.

Wouldn't it be strange if we only partied properly when it was a prime number? Normal people celebrate being 60 but why not enjoy being 59 and 61 far more? Certainly be odd.

The thing is that we use round numbers as a convenience. We like patterns so we tend to see sequences even if none exist. We like a party and have come to celebrate significantly every ten years.

What difference would it have made if the speed limit was 21 mph and the fund-raising target £19,999? Very little; but it would feel culturally wrong. Not rounded but weird.

Welcome to the Bible call-centre:

Press 7 for deadly sins
10 for commandments
12 for apostles and
666 to disconnect immediately

Some people try and play games with the numbers in the Bible. What do you get if you multiply the number of times Jesus said you had to forgive your neighbour by the number of the beast? Well, a headache at minimum.

The God of the Hebrew Bible self-described as 'one'. Jesus said 'I and my Father are one'. Christians believe in one God - Father, Son and Holy Spirit - three persons - one God. Monotheism.

I like 1. It's simple, memorable and celebratory. You can count on it.

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Danny Baker, Racism and the State of Things

If, like me, you are a big fan of Danny Baker, the events of Thursday night will have disappointed you. Wit, raconteur, story-teller and extraordinary broadcaster he has kept me company for maybe twenty-five years of travels and leisure time. I have enjoyed his radio shows, read his books, recently found his Lineker and Baker - Behind Closed Doors football podcast revealing and I follow him enthusiastically on Twitter. Each evening he posts a picture of himself wearing a ridiculous hat, usually a fez, holding a beer or wine and saying 'Good evening everyone.'

I have a few expressions I use occasionally which I learned from him. If there is a suitable break in the conversation I try to attribute to him:

'Pull on that thread and the whole of your life unravels.'

'Picked myself up and came in fourth.'

There are probably others.

So this morning I was disappointed not to have my weekly dose of beautifully managed and appreciated callers, minor celebrity interviews and, of course 'the sausage sandwich game' on Five Live. Sacked. For a racist tweet. And almost nobody thinks it wasn't.

If, at this point, you do not know what I am talking about then off you go into a quiet corner with a Google. Others would be bored by a summary. Searching for 'Prodnose chimp' would probably do it.

And while reading a newspaper instead of listening to his show I found myself, hugely coincidentally, reading a review of his current live tour:

'This is a show of such warmth and lust for life that the only correct response is to sit back and enjoy it. There's no score-settling, no superiority, no victims.' Later in the same review '...he chooses to be a good news gospel, preaching about what a ride life can be if you're open enough.'(Paul Fleckney in The Guardian 7/5/19)

Browsing my Twitter feed yesterday it is as clear as it always was that Baker is a Marmite broadcaster. The haters were glad he had gone and didn't care why. The lovers did not tend to condone what he did but lamented that it had happened suggesting, in as close as you can get to empathy, that insensitivity is the tax you pay on quick-wittedness.

On Thursday night the first I heard that something was amiss was to read a Tweet from Baker himself (@prodnose) apologising that he had accidentally used an image to illustrate a joke which could be misconstrued. He was clearly remorseful and deleted the Tweet as soon as the error was drawn to his attention. The sign, to me, of a good apology, is one that is issued before the receiver becomes aware that they need it.

So, although others feel he must have known what he was doing, I simply don't accept that the quick-witted (a club I try to belong to) work like that. It is possible, I think, to be racist without being a racist. And the speed of apology and withdrawal is key.

I don't think the BBC had any choice. A little bit of me understands that. Another little bit wishes it lived in a world where they did.

Thursday, April 25, 2019

Song of Songs Goes to a Bar

In honour of the Morning Prayer readings from Song of Songs here is a sketch I wrote for Scripture Union's Word Live a few years back.

Bad Chat Up Lines

The scene is a bar. The mood can be set by quiet 'lounge' music and the occasional clinking of glasses or noise of cutlery and crockery.

Barkeeper Yes what can I get you?

Female customer Can I have a Diet Coke please?

Barkeeper Sure. Are you alone? Waiting for someone?

Female customer No. Yes I am. My friend will be along in a minute. Is there a (pause) problem with that?

Barkeeper Oh no, no. But Derek's in the bar over there and he comes over and chats up any new attractive female customers. I just try and keep him away, that's all. His lines are all terrible clichés.

Female customer You mean 'Your father was a thief...'

Barkeeper '...he stole the stars and put them in your eyes.' Yeah that's about the measure of Derek.

Female customer Do you believe in love at first sight?

Barkeeper Or should I walk past again? Is there an airport round here?

Female customer My heart is taking off. I think I've heard them, all.

Barkeeper Watch out for 'You see that Porsche in the car park...'

Female customer Ooh sorry, not familiar.

Barkeeper When you say 'Yes' he says, 'Well mine's the Transit van parked behind it.'

Female customer Oh dear (pause), but listen. Can I have a go? I think I'm quite good at repelling boarders.

Barkeeper Of course. Be my guest. I don't want to interfere. I'll be over here if you need me. Ey up. Here he comes.

Derek Well (cheeky laugh), what's a nice girl like you doing in a place like this?

Female customer Girl? Girl? If I were a girl I would be under age and should be thrown out.

Derek I'm sorry. I was confused by your beauty.

Female customer Easily confused are you?

Derek Only in the presence of such grace and elegance. Can I buy you a drink?

Female customer Can you do the sweet smell of mandrake and the fresh fruit of the vineyard?

Derek You what? I was thinking of another Coke.

Female customer Moving on. My round thighs? Perhaps you consider they are like jewels, the work of an artist's hands?

Derek Eh?

Female customer Surely my neck is an ivory tower and my nose a mountain?

Barkeeper There's nothing wrong with your nose; it's lovely.

Female customer Do you not find my eyes like pools of infinite depth?

Derek (A little embarrassed) Well they are, er very nice but er, that is...

Female customer Isn't my hair like finest purple cloth?

Derek It looks blond in this light.

Female customer Does not my breath smell of sweetest apples; my mouth of finest wine?

Derek I know they don't clean the pipes that often but that Coke must be off.

Barkeeper I heard that.

Derek Sorry Trev.

Female customer I haven't yet heard you praise my navel like a drinking cup, my stomach a pile of wheat surrounded by lilies. My breasts are like fawns. I am a tall palm tree and my breasts like its bunches of ...

Derek (Running away) Hey lads. Leave this one. She's a nutter.

Barkeeper Wow. Have one on the house. Where did all that stuff come from? That was an epic performance.

Female customer Oh, it was more than epic. It was (pause) biblical. Here's my date now. Isn't he just a gazelle? Pomegranate wine darling (air kissing) - mhwa mhwa.

Barkeeper (Aside) Oy Derek. I think you could be right for once. Weird this one. What sort of Bible can she have been reading?

Saturday, April 20, 2019

39 Articles - A Summary

THIS Book of Articles before rehearsed, is again approved, and allowed to be holden and executed within the Realm, by the assent and consent of our Sovereign Lady ELIZABETH, by the grace of God, of England, France, and Ireland, Queen, Defender of the Faith, &c. Which Articles were deliberately read, and confirmed again by the subscription of the hands of the Archbishop and Bishops of the Upper-house, and by the subscription of the whole Clergy of the Nether-house in their Convocation, in the Year of our Lord 1571.

This paragraph is how the 39 Articles end. We discussed earlier how the job of the ordained in the corridors of the good and the great is to speak truth to power. Bishops in the House of Lords have that responsibility. Trouble is, dumbing down at the other end of the priestly spectrum does not mean we should see our job as speaking truth to stupid. But we might accidentally behave like that. Sorry.

In one of his essays Martyn Percy uses a wonderful quote from writer Bill Vanstone about the Church of England, 'Why, he asked, is it like a swimming pool? Answer: all the noise comes from the shallow end.'

This last few weeks has been an opportunity to have a go at some of the harder and deeper things, understand them, and try to make their meaning plain. You will be the judges as to whether I have succeeded.

These 39 Articles were set out at a time when the Parish Priest was often the most educated member of the community and had a leadership role because church and state were connected.

I take from this exercise not a desire to be shouting spiritual truths into the shallows as an over-confident deep-ender. No. I want more people to come to the deep end. There are things to explore and it's not dangerous. Try swimming. You can do it. Let's have deeper conversations.

Sincere thanks to my companions on this journey:

On the Thirty-Nine Articles (Conversations with Tudor Christianity)
Oliver O'Donovan
SCM 2011 (1st published 1986)

Thirty Nine New Articles
Martyn Percy
Canterbury Press 2013

Reformed and catholic; happy Easter to you all.

Oaths - Article 39/39

XXXIX. OF A CHRISTIAN MAN'S OATH
AS we confess that vain and rash Swearing is forbidden Christian men by our Lord Jesus Christ, and James his Apostle, so we judge, that Christian Religion doth not prohibit, but that a man may swear when the Magistrate requireth, in a cause of faith and charity, so it be done according to the Prophet's teaching, in justice, judgement, and truth.

Christians have had a difficult relationship with oaths down the ages. In trying to be people of the truth, people of no-lying lips, people who let their no be no and their yes be yes we find it hard to swear on the Bible as if that raises the standard somehow.

But an oath in court is a matter of record and judgement. So whilst not wanting lies to pass our lips on any occasion we are allowed, by this final Article, to agree to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth in a court of law and be legally bound by it in a way we are not in everyday life.

We may want to ask questions about the court process, which uses a method of examination and cross-examination which can hinder the arrival of the whole truth rather than help it along. But the Reformers were happy for the Christian individual (they said 'man') to take part in legal process and not be exempted.

But swearing in court is not contrary to Scripture for the Reformers.

Possessions - Article 38/39

XXXVIII. OF CHRISTIAN MEN'S GOODS, WHICH ARE NOT COMMON
THE Riches and Goods of Christians are not common, as touching the right, title, and possession of the same, as certain Anabaptists do falsely boast. Notwithstanding, every man ought, of such things as he possesseth, liberally to give alms to the poor, according to his ability.

It's OK to own stuff. Be generous. I'm not just doing a short post in order to finish all 39 in Lent. This one really is that simple.

So Who's in Charge? - Article 37/39

XXXVII. OF THE CIVIL MAGISTRATES
THE King's Majesty hath the chief power in this Realm of England, and other his Dominions, unto whom the chief Government of all Estates of this Realm, whether they be Ecclesiastical or Civil, in all causes doth appertain, and is not, nor ought to be, subject to any foreign Jurisdiction.

Where we attribute to the King's Majesty the chief government, by which Titles we understand the minds of some slanderous folks to be offended; we give not to our Princes the ministering either of God's Word, or of the Sacraments, the which thing the Injunctions also lately set forth by Elizabeth our Queen do most plainly testify; but that only prerogative, which we see to have been given always to all godly Princes in holy Scriptures by God himself; that is, that they should rule all estates and degrees committed to their charge by God, whether they be Ecclesiastical or Temporal, and restrain with the civil sword the stubborn and evil-doers.

The Bishop of Rome hath no jurisdiction in this Realm of England.

The Laws of the Realm may punish Christian men with death, for heinous and grievous offences.

It is lawful for Christian men, at the commandment of the Magistrate, to wear weapons, and serve in the wars.

The Queen is the boss of the church in 2019 in our Constitutional Monarchy; Defender of the Faith. Remember the fuss when Prince Charles said he would prefer to be 'Defender of faiths'? Article 37 says no. The Monarch would expect the clergy to look after the church but she looks after taxes, the administration of national justice and conscription to a fighting cause.

What we find here, as we have discovered in other Articles, is that the monarch is subject to the word of God (Scripture) but only in all things legal and honest do church members bear due allegiance to her. That expression 'in all things legal and honest' has been carried down into contemporary licensing services for new minsters in the Church of England where we offer due and canonical obedience to our Diocesan Bishop only in such terms. We can be taken forward no further than the Bible allows us to be taken. And of course some of the current disputes about episcopal authority are over the acceptability within Scripture of, for instance, female headship and same-sex partnerships.

O'Donovan points out that the organisation of society, very differently done between Tudors then and liberal democracies now, is not something on which Scripture has a view. Today we view the church as believers gathered out of society; the Tudors did not.

The unwitting testimony (if we can call it that) of our Bibles is an observation of the way land-grabbing led to settled societies which were occasionally conquered by other settled societies anxious to increase. Step on to the stage Assyrians, Persians, Babylonians, Egyptians, Hebrews and Romans to name but six and not in the right order. Scripture is interested in behaviour in the light of events. The Bible sets out the idea that after losing a battle the only attitude to have before God is penitence.

And the job of the prophet, in the courts of kings, was to speak God's truth to power, often at personal cost.


Friday, April 19, 2019

Ordination Rites - Article 36/39

XXXVI. OF CONSECRATION OF BISHOPS AND MINISTERS
THE Book of Consecration of Archbishops and Bishops, and Ordering of Priests and Deacons, lately set forth in the time of Edward the Sixth, and confirmed at the same time by authority of Parliament, doth contain all things necessary to such Consecration and Ordering: neither hath it any thing, that of itself is superstitious and ungodly. And therefore whosoever are consecrated or ordered according to the Rites of that Book, since the second year of the forenamed King Edward unto this time, or hereafter shall be consecrated or ordered according to the same Rites; we decree all such to be rightly, orderly, and lawfully consecrated and ordered.

This may not, at first, seem anti-Rome. But it allows the Church of England to confer valid ordination on a candidate and does not require continuity with the Roman idea of apostolic succession.

The way we do things round here (as good a definition of culture as any) does not invalidate holy orders taken since the Reformation. Recognition of each other's ministries is still one of the stumbling blocks to unity between Canterbury and Rome (especially since we now ordain, gasp, women).

But the bishop who laid hands on me to ordain me had a valid right to do so and so did the people who consecrated him and so on and so back.

So a quick story from my own ordination. Denis, Bishop of Southwell in 1984, was conducting the rehearsal himself. He turned to his chaplain and asked, 'How do you think it would be most seemly for me to share the peace with the candidates?'

His chaplain, well settled into a career of pricking the bubbles of pomposity, didn't miss a beat. 'I'd come down off the dais Bishop' he said.

And that, when sought, has been my advice to bishops ever since.

Proper Preaching - Article 35/39

XXXV. OF THE HOMILIES
THE second Book of Homilies, the several titles whereof we have joined under this Article, doth contain a godly and wholesome Doctrine, and necessary for these times, as doth the former Book of Homilies, which were set forth in the time of Edward the Sixth; and therefore we judge them to be read in Churches by the Ministers, diligently and distinctly, that they may be understanded of the people.

Of the Names of the Homilies

1.Of the right Use of the Church.
2.Against peril of Idolatry.
3.Of repairing and keeping clean of Churches.
4.Of good Works: first of Fasting.
5.Against Gluttony and Drunkenness.
6.Against Excess of Apparel.
7.Of Prayer.
8.Of the Place and Time of Prayer.
9.That Common Prayers and Sacraments ought to be ministered in a known tongue.
10.Of the reverend estimation of God's Word.
11.Of Alms-doing.
12.Of the Nativity of Christ.
13.Of the Passion of Christ.
14.Of the Resurrection of Christ.
15.Of the worthy receiving of the Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ.
16.Of the Gifts of the Holy Ghost.
17.For the Rogation-days.
18.Of the State of Matrimony.
19.Of Repentance.
20.Against Idleness.
21.Against Rebellion.

The job of the preacher these days has much more scope for individuality. Article 35 recalls a time when the clergy could read but were not necessarily theologically educated. So there were homilies (talks) available to ensure the congregation were soundly taught. And reading down the list you can see the sorts of issues that were concerning. Not for nothing did Philip Pullman accuse the church of being an institutional vehicle to keep people in order.

But O'Donovan rightly points out that the Reformers had to come to terms with a situation that the New Testament did not; the conversion of a whole nation to Christian allegiance. And these Reformers wanted, just as much as the politicians (in fact some of them were the politicians), a hard-working, well-behaved population who kept the church building clean.

These days a preacher only has to irritate someone in a very minor way for them to google three other sermons which they find more comforting. The wise preacher today sets out the options within which people might choose to be holy and allows for some personal discretion. A return to the Homilies would scare the living daylights out of most congregations. Hmm. Might try it.

My Good Friday sermon would thus end:

'For it shall little auayle vs to haue in meditation the fruites and price of his passion, to magnifie them, and to delight or trust in them, except we haue in minde his examples in passion to follow them. If we thus therefore consider Christs death, and will sticke thereto with fast fayth for the merit and deseruing thereof, and will also frame our selues in such wise to bestow our selues, and all that we haue by charity, to the behoofe of our neighbour, as Christ spent himselfe wholly for our profit, then doe we truely remember Christs death: and being thus followers of Christs steps, we shall be sure to follow him thither where he sitteth now with the Father and the holy Ghost, to whom bee all honour and glory, Amen.'
(HOMILY ON THE PASSION FOR GOOD FRIDAY )

Amen to that indeed. Now excuse me while I visit all those who haven't been to church today and turn their faces to the dust in due penitence.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Nothing Changes Here - Article 34/39

XXXIV. OF THE TRADITIONS OF THE CHURCH
IT is not necessary that Traditions and Ceremonies be in all places one, and utterly like; for at all times they have been divers, and may be changed according to the diversities of countries, times, and men's manners, so that nothing be ordained against God's Word. Whosoever through his private judgement, willingly and purposely, doth openly break the traditions and ceremonies of the Church, which be not repugnant to the Word of God, and be ordained and approved by common authority, ought to be rebuked openly, (that others may fear to do the like,) as he that offendeth against the common order of the Church, and hurteth the authority of the Magistrate, and woundeth the consciences of the weak brethren.

Every particular or national Church hath authority to ordain, change, and abolish, ceremonies or rites of the Church ordained only by man's authority, so that all things be done to edifying.

'The choir are singing 'Thou Visitest the Earth' at Harvest', said my training incumbent.

'Didn't we sing that last year?' (my first) I asked.

'As it was in the beginning, is now...' he replied.

It was indeed a church where the hymn line 'nothing changes here' was sung with more than the usual amount of verve.

But Article 34 gives local churches wriggle room to deviate from a national norm in unimportant matters, and for individuals to deviate from the local norm in their private devotions. But traditions and ceremonies, part of the 'common order', are to be respected.

Where does that leave us, a little planted church in a small part of Christendom? I once asked my neighbouring, previously mentioned, more Catholic colleague about this. As we considered what rites and ceremonies (to use the old expression) we were going to establish in a new church plant I wondered what he considered was the minimum such a church should do to consider itself part of the Church of England's fold. He didn't think for long. 'It should put itself under the authority of the Bishop' he said. It took me aback in its simplicity and elegance. Of course. We can all unite round that. I don't have to be abundantly clear with my diocesan authority figures about everything that I am doing which is close to the edge of legality or a few steps beyond. I simply need to make it clear that I am under their authority and if they ask me to step back then back I will step.

National churches can change things that national churches have decided to do. To paraphrase Woody Allen, traditions are no more than the illusion of permanence.

All things be done to edifying may take a litle longer, but bear with.

How to Avoid the Excommunicated - Article 33/39

XXXIII. OF EXCOMMUNICATE PERSONS, HOW THEY ARE TO BE AVOIDED
THAT person which by open denunciation of the Church is rightly cut off from the unity of the Church, and excommunicated, ought to be taken of the whole multitude of the faithful, as an Heathen and Publican, until he be openly reconciled by penance, and received into the Church by a Judge that hath authority thereunto.

Every year there is an award given to the book published with the weirdest title. The prize has been won by:

The Book of Marmalade: Its Antecedents, Its History, and Its Role in the World Today (1984)
Greek Rural Postmen and Their Cancellation Numbers (1996)
Cooking with Poo (2011)

But my favourite was 1992's 'How to Avoid Huge Ships'.

A bit of light relief for you there, but it came to mind because it reminds us that avoiding things is not as easy as we might think. It was discovered by archaeology that some of the 'ritual washing pools' described in the New Testament had a single stairway entrance with a central rail. This rail seemed far more sturdy than one would expect. Experts realised that a substantial division existed between the way in and the way out so that those on the way out did not accidentally touch those on the way in and have to go down again 'trapped in a clean/unclean groundhog day' (an expression I heard theologian Crispin Fletcher-Louis use at a New Wine Summer do a few years back).

The Article is clear. The excommunicate should be avoided. Probably, living in smaller communities then, with the church as the hub of communication, all offenders were well known. One would be in trouble associating with such people.

Many of the Reformers were excommunicates themselves. But, they would argue, by order of the church not Christ. They might, as O'Donovan discusses, have considered doing away with the idea of excommunication all together. Instead they opted for it not necessarily being permanent.  An appropriate judge could decide that a person could return by penance.

They were bit down on publicans in those days too. We have let that idea lapse.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Married Vicars and That - Article 32/39

XXXII. OF THE MARRIAGE OF PRIESTS
BISHOPS, Priests, and Deacons, are not commanded by God's Law, either to vow the estate of single life, or to abstain from marriage: therefore it is lawful for them, as for all other Christian men, to marry at their own discretion, as they shall judge the same to serve better to godliness.

Why this Article? Clearly not so I could bring 34 of my 41 married years into the ordained ministry although that is a blessing.

No, the church had, at the time of the Reformation, taken on a post-monastic tradition to clericalism and insisted on an unmarried, celibate, male priesthood.

But marriage or singleness is a discretionary matter within the new Testament. There are no special stipulations for leaders, priests and deacons.

So priests in the Church of England can arrive married and be married once ordained. Bible trumps Pope.

O'Donovan points out that Articles 32-36 are about discretionary matters within the church. 37-39 will be different. These articles were honed at the time of the Divine Right of Kings and therefore tend to separate those matters which are separate to the State form those which are bound up with the State.

At a time when our country's constitutional monarchy is being stretched to breaking point and may need substantial re-imagining we do well to remind ourselves, as the Reformers did, that Kings have to obey God. Or else.

Praying for the Dead - Article 31/39

XXXI. OF THE ONE OBLATION OF CHRIST FINISHED UPON THE CROSS
THE Offering of Christ once made is that perfect redemption, propitiation, and satisfaction, for all the sins of the whole world, both original and actual; and there is none other satisfaction for sin, but that alone. Wherefore the sacrifices of Masses, in the which it was commonly said, that the Priest did offer Christ for the quick and the dead, to have remission of pain or guilt, were blasphemous fables, and dangerous deceits.

One of the reasons I feel personally that the celebration of communion should be inclusive is that it defines the community. The Christian community in this particular place are those who gather around the Lord's table. Some are of long-standing faith but struggling to believe at the moment. Others are coming to faith and want to enjoy belonging before they have completely mastered believing. Some are children and enjoy a child-like membership which one day they will affirm or reject for themselves. And almost all Christian communities include those who, for one reason or another, would not be considered of sufficiently sound mind to enter into a valid contract.

The grace of God to all people is celebrated and demonstrated at Communion. The exact and actual faith of each individual participant is not.

This Article adds one more line to that list. The dead are excluded. We don't pray for the dead; we entrust them to God. They rest in peace and await the resurrection. We do not interfere with their rest. We cannot change their status before God by offering a mass for them. To suggest that we can was, for the Reformers, a blasphemous fable and a dangerous deceit. Christ has died for them, once for all. You cannot do any more for them.

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

A Little Nod To Paris Today


Learning today that the trad tune behind Now the Green Blade Rises is French it felt appropriate to offer a French, jazzy, bluesy cover. Done in one take; excuse rough and readiness and general lack of finesse.

Pass the Cup - Article 30/39

XXX. OF BOTH KINDS
THE Cup of the Lord is not to be denied to the Lay-people: for both the parts of the Lord's Sacrament, by Christ's ordinance and commandment, ought to be ministered to all Christian men alike.

I grew up low church. I was part of a conservative evangelical parish church by birth which eventually I joined by conviction. It was several years before I found myself at the sort of Eucharist (which I had never called it) where the administrators would not let go of the cup for love nor money. It was a learning experience. It is still the way some churches operate. But denying the cup to the laity is not. This is more of that 'Romish' behaviour to which the Reformers objected.

A few years ago, during the swine-flu epidemic, we were instructed not to share a common cup at communion. The minister was to drink on behalf of all. I think this was one of several moments when I felt keenly my set-asideness. I found it unusually emotional.

My understanding of my priesthood is functional, not ontological. I am freed from the necessity of earning my living in order to serve the church full-time. I get stipend (not salary) and a house rent and rates free.

But this opportunity, with its duties which come with the territory, is not because I am different. So denying the communion cup to lay people is divisive beween lay and ordained. We might get on to lay presidency at some point. Sure hope so, but the Reformers didn't anticipate it.

On Pressing with Your Teeth - Article 29/39

XXIX. OF THE WICKED WHICH EAT NOT THE BODY OF CHRIST IN THE USE OF THE LORD'S SUPPER
THE Wicked, and such as be void of a lively faith, although they do carnally and visibly press with their teeth (as Saint Augustine saith) the Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ, yet in no wise are they partakers of Christ: but rather, to their condemnation, do eat and drink the sign or Sacrament of so great a thing.

'The sacraments, then, mediate to us in our time the decisive redemption of mankind by Christ in his.' (O'Donovan)

Christianity is not a matter of pressing bread with your teeth (nicely put, I think) but of partaking in Christ. You can partake in Christ without bread and wine. You can feed on it but not in your heart by faith with thanksgiving (as the modern words put it). You can't conjure up Christ (O'Donovan's expression) by doing something. Not ever. It would be like standing on a tray and trying to lift yourself.

The sacramental articles have constantly turned our attention back to Jesus. And so they should. I have no particular problem with my Anglo-Catholic brothers and sisters apart from when they cast doubt on the 'validity' of my presidency because of details.

When it was explained to me that the reason for a Gospel procession to the middle of the nave in an Anglo-Catholic Eucharist was because the word of God was central, it was an eye-opening moment. Of course. I fear that in some churches it is more a ceremonial centrality than an actual one but at least it is acted out.

Every lasting reformation of the church is Jesus-centred.

Monday, April 15, 2019

Bread or Body? - Article 28/39

XXVIII. OF THE LORD'S SUPPER
THE Supper of the Lord is not only a sign of the love that Christians ought to have among themselves one to another; but rather is a Sacrament of our Redemption by Christ's death: insomuch that to such as rightly, worthily, and with faith, receive the same, the Bread which we break is a partaking of the Body of Christ; and likewise the Cup of Blessing is a partaking of the Blood of Christ.

Transubstantiation (or the change of the substance of Bread and Wine) in the Supper of the Lord, cannot be proved by holy Writ; but is repugnant to the plain words of Scripture, overthroweth the nature of a Sacrament, and hath given occasion to many superstitions.

The Body of Christ is given, taken, and eaten, in the Supper, only after an heavenly and spiritual manner. And the mean whereby the Body of Christ is received and eaten in the Supper is Faith.

The Sacrament of the Lord's Supper was not by Christ's ordinance reserved, carried about, lifted up, or worshipped.

So what about the real presence of Christ at the Eucharist because the bread changes substance? Article 28 doesn't muck about. It's wrong. It cannot be proved from Scripture, it is not implied by Scripture and is thus repugnant to a Scriptural church.

So why does the Rector of the parish next door believe it, talk openly of it, introduce practices which draw attention to it and yet insist on his allegiance to the Church of England. This 'historic formulary' does not bear witness to transubstantiation. It denounces it.

An Anglo-Catholic contact on Twitter who I know has announced to his followers his joy at being 'the first person to expose our Lord in the monstrance' when concelebrating. The monstrance is an ornate backdrop against which a wafer is exposed (shown).

Anglo-Catholics would argue they are simply following a pre-Reformation tradition that has never gone away. The Reformers would have said they were Romish and to Rome they should go.

Two quotes from my set books:

For the Reformers, 'If someone believed, it was because the gospel had aroused faith within his heart; if someone disbelieved the gospel, no pious attention to the sacramental act could compensate.' (O'Donovan) 

'...there is a tension between being an identifiable community with creeds and fundaments, and yet also being a body that recognises that some issues are essentially un-decidable in the Church.' (Percy) 

The Church of England has always struck me as an organisation which, to its credit, keeps talking about every important issue until a more important one comes along. It is fine as a policy as long as it is consistent. And if it is to be consistent then blatant deviation from an Article is cause for conversation not excommunication.

Saturday, April 13, 2019

Opening Ceremonies - Article 27/39

XXVII. OF BAPTISM
BAPTISM is not only a sign of profession, and mark of difference, whereby Christian men are discerned from others that be not christened, but it is also a sign of Regeneration or new Birth, whereby, as by an instrument, they that receive Baptism rightly are grafted into the Church; the promises of forgiveness of sin, and of our adoption to be the sons of God by the Holy Ghost, are visibly signed and sealed; Faith is confirmed, and Grace increased by virtue of prayer unto God. The Baptism of young Children is in any wise to be retained in the Church, as most agreeable with the institution of Christ.

We note that the words baptism and christening were interchangeable for the Reformers. Initiation rites are important but, as discussed previously, controversial. Our local Baptist Church used to borrow one of our Parish Churches with a baptistery for their baptisms. We used to ask, as a courtesy, that they did not baptise people there who had previously been baptised as infants in the Church of England.

A member of my church, previously baptised as an infant, came to a living faith of his own. Wanting to make a public profession for himself we prepared him for confirmation and he was duly confirmed. Some years later he and his whole family left for a free evangelical church in order to allow his teenage children to experience a larger youth group (how hard it is for small churches to keep their teenagers) and they persuaded him to be baptised.

Now that's odd but it does show that many people desire the experience of baptism over and above the willingness to come to terms with the responsibilities of being a baptised person. I was baptised at four months and came to faith at about 19. Having been an ordained minister for 34 years now it is strange that many Christian churches will not consider I have been properly initiated.

Here's a tale. The Queen is booked to open a shopping centre. It is one of those rare occasions where the building project finished early and so shops are merrily trading for three weeks before the grand opening ceremony. On the day of the ceremony the Centre remains closed until 10.00 a.m. until the ribbon is cut and the plaque unveiled. Then trading continues.

Alternatively it is one of those less-than-rare occasions where the building work over-runs. On the day Her Maj is due all work stops and red carpet is placed over concrete. Barriers are erected in front of incomplete structures. The ribbon is cut, the plaque unveiled and then the builders hasten to finish the job.

Opening ceremonies do not have to precisely match the beginning of functionality.

Friday, April 12, 2019

We're Not Worthy - Article 26/39

XXVI. OF THE UNWORTHINESS OF THE MINISTERS, WHICH HINDERS NOT THE EFFECT OF THE SACRAMENT
ALTHOUGH in the visible Church the evil be ever mingled with the good, and sometimes the evil have chief authority in the Ministration of the Word and Sacraments, yet forasmuch as they do not the same in their own name, but in Christ's, and do minister by his commission and authority, we may use their Ministry, both in hearing the Word of God, and in receiving of the Sacraments. Neither is the effect of Christ's ordinance taken away by their wickedness, nor the grace of God's gifts diminished from such as by faith and rightly do receive the Sacraments ministered unto them; which be effectual, because of Christ's institution and promise, although they be ministered by evil men.

Nevertheless, it appertaineth to the discipline of the Church, that inquiry be made of evil Ministers, and that they be accused by those that have knowledge of their offences; and finally being found guilty, by just judgement be deposed.

My College Principal used to say 'A clock that strikes thirteen is not only wrong once but also casts doubt on all further teaching from the same source.' So it is tempting, on discovering that your favourite theologian has been stealing money from her organisation, to disbelieve everything she ever wrote.

One of the things the Church of England has which may, at first, seem weird is a theology of intention. That which we intended to do can be deemed to have been done even if it was not done wholly, completely and utterly properly or, in the case of this Article, was done by evil men.

So the efficacy of Holy Communion, to the recipient, is not changed by the discovery that, at the time the vicar was having an affair with the Church Warden.

A marriage is not voided by the accidental use of the wrong words in the vows. And so on.

That we have safeguarding issues is sad, but not entirely unexpected, given that the church consists of sinners led by sinners. Evil ministers ought to be held to account, but their ministry up to that point can still be said to have been effective.

It is interesting that this Article begs many questions about the behaviour of the priesthood at the time. Enquiry into calling was a bit more hit and miss then than now. We still manage to ordain a few chocolate tea-pots but possibly slightly fewer criminals.

I am aware some of my ministry friends have chosen to rid themselves of the written works of those who have been found guilty of sexual misconduct. Respect to them. But I fear that such an attempt to purge the evil from the good is doomed to failure and Cranmer knew this. God bless the 'ever mingled' good and evil church.

Thursday, April 11, 2019

Sacraments and All That - Article 25/39

XXV. OF THE SACRAMENTS
SACRAMENTS ordained of Christ be not only badges or tokens of Christian men's profession, but rather they be certain sure witnesses, and effectual signs of grace, and God's good will towards us, by the which he doth work invisibly in us, and doth not only quicken, but also strengthen and confirm our Faith in him.

There are two Sacraments ordained of Christ our Lord in the Gospel, that is to say, Baptism, and the Supper of the Lord.

Those five commonly called Sacraments, that is to say, Confirmation, Penance, Orders, Matrimony, and extreme Unction, are not to be counted for Sacraments of the Gospel, being such as have grown partly of the corrupt following of the Apostles, partly are states of life allowed in the Scriptures; but yet have not like nature of Sacraments with Baptism, and the Lord's Supper, for that they have not any visible sign or ceremony ordained of God.

The Sacraments were not ordained of Christ to be gazed upon, or to be carried about, but that we should duly use them. And in such only as worthily receive the same they have a wholesome effect or operation: but they that receive them unworthily purchase to themselves damnation, as Saint Paul saith.

The Reformers achieved a reduction in the number of stated sacraments from seven to two. I have never really understood why foot-washing wasn't ever in. Christ instituted it and it confers an inner valuing of washer and washed; as servant and served. And an inner humility to get down and dirty and to receive a cleansing. But then what do I know? The reason why the other five are out seems to be a reason why foot-washing should be in. Maybe it was simply not popular. Or they couldn't find enough humility in the ranks of the clergy?

We remind ourselves that the Reformers return, again and again, to the one-off, once-for-all achievement of Christ. They wanted to avoid any idea that this might be added to by Eucharistic practice. They were, as indeed am I, memorialists. Everything we do is to remind us of Jesus. My own church has a liturgy simple enough for the youngest child with language to join in:

This bread reminds us of Jesus' body
It reminds us of Jesus

This wine reminds us of Jesus' blood
It reminds us of Jesus

We have this bread and wine to share
They remind us of Jesus

We never quite understand how a lengthy Eucharistic Prayer adds anything to this.  Once a year, on Maundy Thursday, we do it properly. Feels about right to me.

'The Reformers wished to say that the sacraments could not substitute for the gospel in providing a primary ground for faith.' (O'Donovan)

They were pretty down on transubstantiation too and both this, and Article 28, emphasise that 'carrying about' the consecrated bread is not to be done. A reformed church shouldn't do it but a new minister at one of my neighbouring parishes, only one incumbent on from a significant evangelical ministry, introduced it. Possibly that ship sailed.

Why is all this important? Because attention should be drawn to Jesus, not the bread and wine which represent him. That is the doctrine of the Church of England

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

The Story of My Life

I went to the same school as Jonathan Coe. He was about five years younger than me so we never communicated.

He has visited and revisited the formative years of life at school in three novels.

The characters he has followed who went to King William's (what he calls it) are set up for life by the experience. The geography of the school is recognisable and even some of the teachers are sketched thoroughly enough for me to put a real name to them.

But the books are more than about what school does to you. The context of the Rotter's Club is 1970s industrial strife and IRA atrocities. Two characters, carefully drawn to have interesting futures, die in the Tavern in the Town bombing of 1974. My wife and I were in that pub the night before.

The Closed Circle catches the key players twenty years later and offers a commentary on Blair's Britain.

The third book, which I have just finished, 'Middle England' joins the cast again in Brexit Britain. How did they vote? What did that do to their relationships?

It's a great trilogy. In fact it's bostin'.


Hocus Pocus - Article 24/39

XXIV. OF SPEAKING IN THE CONGREGATION IN SUCH A TONGUE AS THE PEOPLE UNDERSTANDETH
IT is a thing plainly repugnant to the Word of God, and the custom of the Primitive Church, to have publick Prayer in the Church, or to minister the Sacraments in a tongue not understanded of the people.

The very language of Article 24 is not easily understanded of the people. But this is not about reducing clerical input to kids' talk; it is about doing it in English. That is its precision.

Latin had been the language of the church. And almost nobody understanded it. When the celebrant stood with his back to the congregation and said 'hoc est corpus meum' all the people at the nave end, separated by sanctuary rail, chancel/choir and rood screen heard (in the days before PA) was 'hocus pocus'. Which is as good a story of the origin of that expression that I have heard.

We still have many discussions in the church about the nature of religious language. From time to time I try to explain short words that have specific theological meanings – sin, the Word, saving. And any foreign words that we still use – hosanna, hallelujah, maranatha. Should we keep it simple? Or should we make sure we explain? Or should we ask people to make an effort to understand? That is its problem.

Church services should feel special, carefully crafted and understandable by ordinary people. That is its principle.

Thought for the Day

As delivered at BBC Radio Bristol this morning, a fine place for a Baggie after a 3-2 defeat by City:

Although our Bibles are full of writing, many of the stories were passed down orally before they were recorded.

We learn that 94 year old Leonard Trewin from Yate has been given a Légion d’honneur for his part in the liberation in France in World War 2. He’s apparently a bit of a legend. His party trick for years was to move the shrapnel under his eye around with a magnet.

So when I got the details of today's stories from the producer yesterday afternoon they included a note, after the details of Leonard's story. The note said, in capitals...

PLEASE CHOOSE THIS ONE - followed by four exclamation marks.

I had an English teacher who was anti-exclamation marks. 'If your words aren't exclaiming what are they doing on the page?' I can still hear him shout.

Many of us have our party-tricks. And of course we all have our bugbears.

Emma please tell your producer that for four exclamation points she has earned a detention.

But we're running out of people who were heroic in the Second World War. Maybe we're also running out of shouty English teachers.

My thought. What's my thought?

It's this. Don't forget to take advantage of the stories older folk can tell. My Mum has dementia. She is 91 but can't answer questions or tell stories. I wish I'd quizzed her a bit more.

The Bible has no exclamation marks because they don't exist in Hebrew or ancient Greek. But it has great stories which were told and told and told until printing appeared.

Ask Leonard and his generation to tell you their tales. You hide the magnets. I'll hide the exclamation marks.

Tuesday, April 09, 2019

Ordination? - Article 23/39

XXIII. OF MINISTERING IN THE CONGREGATION
IT is not lawful for any man to take upon him the office of publick preaching, or ministering the Sacraments in the Congregation, before he be lawfully called, and sent to execute the same.

And those we ought to judge lawfully called and sent, which be chosen and called to this work by men who have publick authority given unto them in the Congregation, to call and send Ministers into the Lord's vineyard.

We have not, in the Church of England, encountered many experiences of breaking the rule about administering the sacraments. They would become public. I would expect to be severely rebuked and disciplined if I allowed lay presidency. That's probably the main reason I don't do it. I have no theological objection to it personally. I find it weird to invite strangers to preside at communion when I am missing, if the congregation is full of well-known (locally) mature Christians who could do the job equally well.

But we are much quicker to allow preachers without authority. I guess the key is that we don't present them with the authority to go elsewhere and preach. And we do, if people have a gift for preaching, look to find ways to publicly acknowledge this and seek appropriate authorisation. The ministry of a Reader (once called a Lay Reader) used to be the ministry of someone, other than the priest, who could read. Now it is broader and some, who only wish to preach occasionally, do not want the full three year reader training course.

O'Donovan reminds us that this Article is about order. He would like the Reformers to be more thorough about the distinctive ministry of every person of God gifted for service, before talking of those set aside for 'special' purposes. It was my choice to put 'special' thus. I personally understand my ordination in functional rather than ontological terms. The best way I can put it is that in 1984 I was saved from the necessity to earn my own living in order to serve the church full time. This after appropriate testing and training which took nearly six years.

But my main work is to support, encourage and equip my volunteer members and co-leaders.

O'Donovan also notes that the threefold order of Bishops, Priests and Deacons is not discussed here (it comes up later) because, for the Reformers, that was a matter of discretion and ceremony, whereas word and sacrament were fundamental.

Monday, April 08, 2019

Purgatory - Article 22/39

XXII. OF PURGATORY
THE Romish Doctrine concerning Purgatory, Pardons, Worshipping, and Adoration, as well of Images as of Reliques, and also invocation of Saints, is a fond thing vainly invented, and grounded upon no warranty of Scripture, but rather repugnant to the Word of God.

The Articles have not been slow to condemn Rome. The great Protestant Reformation was a desire to move away from all doctrines that had developed that were not only invisible in Scripture (not necessarily a problem) but also repugnant to it.

O'Donovan differentiates between theological speculation and elucidation. The former involves invention; the latter an attempt to understand.

All preaching is an exercise of imagination but the Article is condemnatory when that raises imagination to the level of ritual. It was abhorrent to the reformers to worship relics or to process consecrated bread and wine and adore it.

I will not pretend that my church tradition respects the Articles and Anglo-Catholic traditions don't. In fact we both pay a bit fast and loose with them. What I will say is that those rituals which draw people back to a full exploration of Scripture are good; those that are seen as an end in themselves are less helpful.

A useful check as we embark on Holy week. Duty or joy? Mindless ritual or re-exploration?

The focus on purgatory in the title would have been the main bugbear of the reformers. Those who had rediscovered forgiveness as the grace and gift of God were appalled at the suggestion that any more than Jesus' sacrificial death for sin was necessary. The pre-reformation doctrine was of a place or state of suffering inhabited by the souls of sinners who are expiating their sins before going to heaven. Not necessary says Article 22.

Sunday, April 07, 2019

General Church Councils - Article 21/39

XXI. OF THE AUTHORITY OF GENERAL COUNCILS
GENERAL Councils may not be gathered together without the commandment and will of Princes. And when they be gathered together, (forasmuch as they be an assembly of men, whereof all be not governed with the Spirit and Word of God,) they may err, and sometimes have erred, even in things pertaining unto God. Wherefore things ordained by them as necessary to salvation have neither strength nor authority, unless it may be declared that they be taken out of holy Scripture.

Here's the real break with Rome. In the battle between God's living Pope and God's living word it is the word that wins. Every time. So even a General Council of the church, however unlikely that sounds today, can err if it does not place itself at the feet of the Scriptures.

I don't know what standard people running Confirmation preparation in the Church of England require these days, but O'Donovan points out that the Reformers were of the mind to require confirmands to know the Lord's Prayer and the Ten Commandments (which are in Scripture) and the Apostles' Creed and the Catechism, which are not. However they would argue, I'm sure, that the latter two could be deduced from Scripture and are certainly not contrary to it.

By the time I was confirmed in 1974 no such commitment to memory was needed, although Don Humphreys made me learn quite a few verses.

We may well ponder awhile on the possibility of there ever being another General Council of the Church. Who would need to be invited? And who does the inviting? The article says 'Princes', which means those in authority in the land, deemed to be the monarchy in authority over those in authority in the church. You have two hours. Ask for more paper if you need it.

I end this post with a remark made by a co-writer, Alan Hewerdine, back in the 1990s. I have never bettered it. He said, 'When two Christian denominations merge, a third is formed. Be very scared of General Church councils and try to avoid them.