Monday, 27 April 2015

Rector's Annual Address to the people of St Andrew's Church, Rugby

Sermon/ Address 2015 APCM

Reform and Renewal in the Church of England

We have three very clear objectives at St Andrew’s Church, set through the PCC-led consultation last year, to focus on Prayer, Teaching, Children and Young people. These objectives sit alongside the Coventry diocesan mission of worshipping God, making new disciples and transforming communities. The Church of England is finding a new sense of direction and purpose, under the leadership of the Archbishop of Canterbury. The Archbishop has focused in his reforms on growth: spiritual and numerical and the directing of resources to the most deprived communities. National funds will be directed to dioceses for these mission priorities. The reports are clear that decline will not be subsidised, only targeted mission work and innovation; in the same way, wealthier communities will be expected to resource themselves. At the same time more resources will be targeted at the most deprived parts of our country. This seems to me to be very necessary and appropriate reform. For us to thrive in such a national and diocesan environment we too need to be directing our resources towards innovation in mission as well as towards the most deprived part of our parish.  Under my leadership the PCC will lead on those priorities in 2015: for growth in our hearts, our minds and in our Christian community; for targeting our resources towards the most deprived. It is a deeply Christian and contemporary response to our mission situation – we cannot hide from the Bible imperative to communicate the Good News; nor can we hide from the Biblical bias to the poor. Each generation has to work out how to do that in a way that the contemporary culture can hear. Churches across our country are exploring ways of doing just that. So, for example, at Liverpool Cathedral, alongside their Choral Eucharist on a Sunday morning, they host Zone 2. An informal, all age service, starting with coffee and breakfast, they are engaging a new generation of people, young and old, who have never before connected with the Christian message or tradition. It is about recognising that the needs of life long Christians are going to be different from those who have never even before heard the Gospel message, let alone worshipped on a Sunday morning.

As a church over the past year I have been encouraged by this church’s willingness to embrace a new way of doing things in order that more and different people might learn about God’s love. For example, the Family Service has been very well supported by our team of volunteers- through it we are learning what it means to be childlike, to be simple, to nurture our faith, and that’s for the adults just as much for the children.

There has also been the Julian meditation group on Wed lunch times, a silent prayer group that is attended by regulars as well as by those who don’t attend on a Sunday. Tuesday Communion is growing as a body of people, learning in faith and fellowship. Our ministry to those at home through regular home communion, prayerfully and compassionately done by a group of volunteers is also another vital part of our work. Bible classes run by Matt in the Barbershop have also enabled this church to support the spread of the Gospel into the lives of people who would never normally come into this environment.

Looking ahead in 2015 we are very soon going to be training a team of lay chaplains who will be helping us as a church realise our vision of being there for our visitors. They will be the friendly and prayerful face of the church, outside of Sundays. Alongside the ministry of hospitality we practise through the café, their more specific role will enliven our desire to be the presence of Christ in this place.

This year we have said goodbye to the Hope 4U cafe, for the past ten years this church has given to that charity an enduring gift of place. Now we need to think again about how we can continue to give to and reach out to the neediest members of our communities.

The PCC has also been continuing it focus, which began in the Interregnum on ensuring the financial sustainability of this church, whilst focusing on mission. There is still much to be done in that direction, but to increase giving (both from planned giving and voluntary collections) by £15, 000 over one year is a great sign of the faith of this community. For us as for the wider church, structural and financial change will not in themselves lead to spiritual transformation, but they are the necessary groundwork for our common calling. That common calling is what draws us together. Which does not mean that our mission or role is narrow or unified: we show strength in diversity, in allowing others to do things we don’t want to do, by being generous in our vision of what it means to follow Christ. Through listening to one another in love we enable our church to grow and thrive. Last year the PCC ran a consultation to decide our mission priorities; this year we are asking people to come and discuss in more detail our worship life with a particular focus on music.

Reform and Renewal, the Archbishop’s priorities are there for us to engage with. As a church at the centre of town, offering a cathedral-type ministry to the whole town, our opportunities remain vast. In God’s love and strength, we will grasp them. At the core of any spiritual renewal is prayer and the Archbishop has been using this prayer as he sets the priorities for the Church of England. It is on your notice sheet. Let us pray it together and keep on praying it:

Almighty Father,

Give us grace and strength this day to build up your church in love for the world,
in the making of disciples and to equip the saints for the work of ministry.
Plant your hope deep within us. Open our eyes to a fresh vision of your kingdom.
Give us wisdom for the common task. Draw us and all your Church deeper into Christ,
our foundation and cornerstone, that we may work together as one body,
in the power of the Spirit and for the sake of your glory. Amen.

Friday, 3 April 2015

Easter Letter

Holy Week is a mysterious week of both dreadful and glorious imaginings; as we walk the way to Jerusalem with Jesus and his disciples, we find ourselves drawn into an extraordinary narrative where anything could happen. Rev’d David Houghton spoke on Maundy Thursday of the unexpected quality of Christian discipleship; the parts we end up playing are likely to be a surprise to us. Was Judas surprised that he was the one to betray Jesus? Was Mary Magdalene surprised to find herself the first to see the Risen Lord? Undoubtedly all who encountered Jesus were deeply surprised to experience themselves in a new way. In encountering God we are given our real selves, and that is both dreadful and awesome: God gives us insight into our own sinfulness; at the same time God kneels down and washes our feet.

Together as we learn from one another in the journey of faith we are encouraged to take steps of trust, where what we had previously known dissolves into a broader and altogether more mysterious focus. We may be surprised by who we are standing next to in the journey of faith. We may be surprised to find that God asks something of us we didn't even know we had to give. God in Jesus reveals to us our deepest fears as well as our deepest longings, yet what we see when we look at the face of the suffering Christ is one who reaches out to us, drawing us into the life of God.

It is as always an extraordinary privilege to participate in the ministry which belongs to Jesus Christ. I do not presume to take on this task alone; more and more I am aware of my inadequacy to complete the work that has been given to me. My prayer for us all is that in drawing more deeply on the love of God that we will be transformed; that wounds will heal; that problems will be solved and that we will learn anew what it means to sit and eat with the God who serves at table and washes our feet. For it is only in participation that we will grow together in the love of God; if we do not let God in Jesus wash us, then we cannot share in his life (John 13.8). If we do not get involved in the work of Christian discipleship we cannot share in its glories. May each of us hear and answer the call that God makes to us and play the part that has been allotted to us, before the beginning of the world, the vocation of eternal life lived at the heart of God: to Him be the glory for ever and ever AMEN.

Pax Christi

The Year of our Lord 2015

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Silence as Creativity and Liberation

Lent is a really good time to consider spiritual practices of silence and of renunciation. Fasting and silence help us to understand Jesus’ experience in the desert or wilderness. We think of Jesus in the desert for 40 days and 40 nights as a metaphor for our own need to strip away in our life unnecessary distractions. Desert spirituality is about raw encounter, with ourselves and ultimately we hope with God.

Sara Maitland writes in A Book of Silence about her own journey into silence as a modern day, somewhat alternative hermit. In one particular chapter Sara describes some time she spent in the Sinai Desert and this leads her into some specific insights. In an engaging paragraph she writes:

I started to think that perhaps silence is God. Perhaps God is silence – the shining, spinning ring of ‘pure endless light’. Perhaps God speaking is a ‘verb’, an act, but God in perfect self-communication in love with the Trinity, is silence and therefore is silence. God is silence, a silence that is positive, alive, actual and of its ‘nature’ unbreakable.

Sara’s reflection on silence in the desert made me wonder about the relationship between the desert and God’s creative silence. It’s true that we spend a lot of time in the Church reflecting upon the Word – the act of the Father in Christ the Son. But if what lies behind that act is God’s silence, what is the implication for our devotional practice, for our seeking of wisdom in the Holy Mystery of Divinity? Silence and desert monasticism has a long history in Christian devotional practice, and perhaps it is enjoying something of resurgence today as people seek out new spiritualities.

I have found, as many have, that periods of silence in worship have become deeply enriching and necessary, as my spiritual journey has progressed. My own first real experience of communal silence was at theological college where with Sarah Coakley, we sat in an hour’s silence each week. Also, every morning before prayer we had 20 minutes of silence. These silences rather than being empty were full, and that perhaps is the essential paradox. They seemed able to take me further, to explore more, to enter more deeply in to God.

Yet silence has also had to answer some criticism. Is silence really a retreat away from the world, a form of escapism from real problems? For those groups or individuals who have been oppressed and literally silenced, surely we should be encouraging them to come to voice?

Sara Coakley, a feminist theologian, has written on the interplay between justice and silence. In Powers and Submissions, she addresses the charge of whether ascetic practices have been used to encourage women’s submission, disassociated introversion, apolitical anaesthesia and ultimately the silencing of women. Have women been silenced, she asks? Of course yes women have. But that doesn’t have to be the last word on silence.

She argues  for an alternative interpretation: contemplative practice should be at the centre of feminist theologies, as being that which leads to a proper disciplining of self as well as assisting freedom from all that binds and manipulates. She writes: ‘the means of peace, and indeed of the final gender equity that must attend it, are patient practices of transparency to God, by whose light political strategies must ultimately also be illuminated.’

If the ‘Church’ and religious traditions have been guilty of subjecting women and others into various limiting stereotypes and models, freedom from religious misuse of power and subjection comes for Coakley through the patient practice of silence. And this can be deeply empowering. We remember Jesus’ silence before Pilate. We remember the long silence that Rowan Williams apparently made on Radio 4 when asked a question. A silence that actually empowers us by its deepness; silence is in many ways the final act of defiance from those who are being oppressed and manipulated. For in silence we refuse to engage in the cunning of words and politics that seek to condemn us.

It is perhaps no coincidence that two very different but similarly engaged contemporary (feminist) writers on religion should be drawn to silence and contemplation as a means of liberation. It is perhaps only from the deep creative silence of God that a proper religious renewal can emerge, one that re-generates religious language and practice.

The question of the language we use to speak of God and to God is at the heart of course of the practice of religious belief and doctrine. I remember that I had a spiritual crisis during which I felt that the language of the church was inadequate and limiting when it came to its naming of God and my relationship with God. Calling God Father as we do in the Christian religion can become a stumbling block for many for different reasons; language which at one time was very helpful can become unhelpful. Any language which becomes static, inflexible, unchangeable is a language that is not honouring God or Her creation. Language has to move and adapt and this is true too of liturgical and religious language. The language should not simply mimic culture unreflectingly in order to be relevant but through diversity, play, creativity, freedom and novelty, it should challenge and empower people once again to find a language to talk to God and about God. As we experiment with prayer we translate a theology of inclusion into a practice of inclusion. And yet, the silent source of that movement and creativity is of course the inexpressible, unknowable mysterious God.

If communities find that language is a barrier to communion perhaps sitting in silence together (for a time) is a strategy for renewal. At an Inclusive Language conference I attended I was very moved and challenged by the idea of a silent Eucharist which one woman told me she had been involved in. I imagined being part of such a service, where the actions of Christ are brought into silent focus, as we keep silent and remember the story through mime. What possibilities of renewal of liturgical language might come through such a discipline?

Desert spirituality of course in only part of the journey; it is a time of purification and testing. But Christ comes out of his forty days in the desert not a broken an exhausted man, after all, but one ready to boldly start his ministry, to proclaim the Good News. He comes out of the desert ready to speak – not to remain silent: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news.” (Mark 1: 15)

There is a time for silence and a time for speech; but speech without silence is likely to be arid and empty.

Money - 'thought for the day' BBC Coventry and Warwickshire

It’s been a week for me of thinking about money. It has of course for the nation as well as we listened to the detail of the Chancellor’s budget.

How much money we have got, how we get it and how we spend it are questions that every household has to ask; every business and charity too. The questions are the same for the nation, if on a much larger scale.

This week in my church we have been looking closely at our finances and the resources available to us. It has been challenging, making all of us vulnerable. For questions of finance and money get right to the heart of things. They ask us to seriously reflect upon what is important and who is important. In so doing they reveal our deepest values. Jesus taught unequivocally that we cannot serve two masters – we can serve either God or wealth. Yet I suppose the temptation is to think that we can divide our loyalties. We can blur the line and keep our feet in both camps.

I was inspired to read this week about the Sikh tradition of langar. Langar is a free community kitchen, instituted by Guru Nanak, which today forms part of every Sikh gurdwara or temple. What is so fundamental to this tradition however is Guru Nanak’s teaching of upholding the equality of all people. The way that the food is donated, cooked and served reflects this. Anyone may come to the community kitchen regardless of wealth, background or creed and anyone can volunteer in the kitchen to prepare food or wash up. Everyone sits on the floor and eats together. Volunteering and eating in the kitchen is a spiritual discipline in which meditation is encouraged. The dignity and equality of the human person is upheld by the religious values which underpin the service.

This seems to me to be a prophetic teaching for today, reminding us that we are all equal before God and that life is blessed when we share what we have. It is not that those who have should give to those who have not, but something much more profound - that each of us needs the other in order to learn about who God is. And so whether we are thinking about personal or public finance, it seems vital to remember the equality of every human being and the equal dignity they have before God. If we keep this in mind our attitude to how we acquire money and how we spend it should better reflect the love and compassion of God. 

You can listen to the 'thought for the day' here: 7.50am 22nd March 2015

Saturday, 24 January 2015

Life before God's invitation

I wonder if you can imagine yourself in your daily life. What do you do Monday to Friday? - work at a check out, in a factory, teaching students, cooking the dinner, shopping, gardening, reading a book? Imagine that into your domestic or work space Jesus appears - Jesus is there just a few metres away and he’s calling you ‘Follow me’.  

Imagine Mary before she was surprised by the annunciation, what was she doing? Imagine Joseph as Mary came to talk to him to tell him the news, what was he doing; imagine the inn keeper who opened the door; imagine the shepherds as they were out on the fields tending their sheep; imagine the wise men before they saw the star. They all had a ‘normal’ before something strange and mysterious happened to them. And they are judged on how they respond to that mystery and that invitation.

-‘be it unto me according to your word’

These narratives tell us, as the incarnation reveals to us, that Jesus/God appears in our normal ordinary world. Jesus meets the ordinary person in their ordinary lives and makes an invitation -he presents a new reality and says: do you want to help me in this work? ‘ ‘Follow me and I will make you fish for people’….

It might be easier to keep on fishing, keep on shopping, keep on reading, keep on cleaning, it might seem easier to look away, to not notice that someone in the near distance is calling you, is looking at you, is inviting you, is asking you – it’s perhaps simpler to imagine that it’s not you that’s being addressed. But,

What if like Simon, Andrew and James we should respond to this stranger who is calling us? We should get up, leave our dishes, leave the check-out, leave the book and follow?

Most of us no doubt at some stage have taken that step, listened to that voice and had the courage to get up and follow. But, I wonder if Jesus has more to ask of us, more to show us, more to invite us to see?

He did with Martha, who wanted to draw her sister back in to domestic tasks, but Jesus said no, she has chosen to follow that call, to take the time to listen.

The Christian journey is one of continuing encounter, continuing relationship with God and a daily opportunity to look beyond the surface realities and domesticity of our lives. Jesus takes the disciples on a journey, one that is compelling, often confusing, dangerous, miraculous, frightening, remarkable and life shattering. Like the first disciples Jesus invites us on a similar journey – his voice and his call is as much historic as it is present and the proclamation and announcement of the good news ‘that the time is near and the kingdom of God has come near, repent and believe’ is just as compelling as well as necessary today, as it was for the first disciples.

Mark’s Jesus is one who doesn't hang around waiting for people, he makes an invitation and then is gone; he’s got a whole new world to proclaim. The frightening aspect of the Gospel I suppose is that it can easily be missed, because God turns up with an invitation, but then he is gone. For us as Christians our vocation is to keep following, keep up with that voice and keep saying yes to that invitation. For Jesus asks us to be co-workers for the spreading of the good news, co –workers in announcing the new order, fellow travellers who will see something new, who will enter into a different world, who will be challenged and who will be transformed. As we hear again that story of the first disciples, we are invited by God to remember our first response to his call and reflect upon our own faithfulness. Are we still letting the mystery and the strangeness transform our reality? Or have we fallen back into the familiar every day? 

Preached at St Maries as part of Christian Unity Week, 2015

RC Lectionary

Mark 1: 14-20

The Beginning of the Galilean Ministry

 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’ 

Jesus Calls the First Disciples

 As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake—for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, ‘Follow me and I will make you fish for people.’ And immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.

Saturday, 17 January 2015

Vulnerability and Invitation

In one of the most extraordinary poems (in the sense that it reveals to me a new way of seeing things), in the ‘Haphazard by Starlight’ collection (Janet Morley) Denise Levertov reflects on the idea of Jesus as the Lamb of God (see her Agnus Dei). In it she explores the characteristics of a lamb, and by so doing –edges us to the discovery of our own significance in the story of God. For a lamb is unintelligent, weak, dependent – he relies on us ‘cold hearts’ to give him sustenance: -is it implied(?) she writes that ‘we’ must ‘hold to our icy hearts’ a ‘shivering God’?

It’s a surprising and enlightening reflection as it turns on its head the concept or idea of God as omnipotent and all-sustaining, suggesting rather, that God depends on us for our love, kindness and mercy – that indeed our ability to nurture God has a real impact on God’s ability to be found and to excel.

This sort of discovery relies on Christians being mature grown up ones, who do not suppose that God will rescue them in a heroic fashion, but rather, that we must take responsibility for harbouring God.

It is worth seriously reflecting upon this and considering it; mulling it around in our hearts and sensing the full implication. How many of us are waiting for heroic rescue? How many of us imagine that God will sort it all out anyway, that we’ll be alright. The sort of response that St Paul was struggling with when debating with the Romans about the implications of grace – ‘what then are we to say, should we go on sinning in order that grace may abound! By no means!’ – if we make God totally dominant, able to achieve everything for us, then we are left with a humanity that is denied its free will. And yet, if we assume it’s all down to us to achieve our salvation, to work for it, then surely we are doomed? The surprising nature of God’s grace is that it works through partnership – it's not either or: the great debate between faith or works that so disrupted the unity of the Christian tradition in the Reformation period was unnecessary when one considers the question to be not about faith or works, but about the grace and invitation of God which suggests partnership and mutuality. God makes room for us and invites us to be his handmaiden, for his nature is that which rejects dominance and force, but rather shines forth in vulnerability and gentleness.

Jesus the lamb of God – who takes away the sin of the world.

A weak and gentle lamb is the opposite of the Lion and yet in the Revelation reading (Rev 5:1-10) Jesus is described both as a Lion and a Lamb. William Blake of course has written poems about the Lamb and the tiger, contrasting the innocence and meekness of the first, with the fierceness of the second. Somehow within the Christian narrative, Jesus brings together the idea of the dreadful creature with the meek. The suggestion in Revelation is that it is his suffering sacrifice that brings these supposing paradoxical elements in his nature together: meekness united with courage or strength.

It’s a mixture that can be found in some holy people – where meekness and gentleness is mixed with courage and strength which can be disarming and surprising. It is after all meekness and gentleness that invite our love and tenderness: God wants us to nurture him. Yet in this weakness is strength - again as St Paul expresses it – for it’s a strength of true depth and worth – that suffers for us, that endures for us, that maintains its fullest integrity for us – never denying us our human agency, and yet not allowing us either to destroy ourselves: God saves and invites us to be part of that saving story. He does it gently – ‘come and see’.

Lectionary Readings for 18th Jan 2015

Revelation 5:1-10
John 1:43-51

Denise Levertov, Agnus Dei in 'Haphazard by Starlight: A poem a day from Advent to Epiphany' by Janet Morley.