Saturday, 4 July 2015

The Good Samaritan, Civic Sunday 28th June 2015

‘A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead’.

One of the elements of life that the majority of us who live in England are protected from on a day to day basis is violence; yet Jesus makes it a matter of fact element of this story which he tells. A man is stripped, beaten, robbed and left half dead. It’s the kind of story we are used to reading in our newspapers and seeing on our televisions, stories of violence happening to somebody else. But, Jesus asks the lawyer to consider that violence coming closer to him. What would happen and what would his response be if he found someone left like that half dead on the road?

Jesus is fully aware that violence lies just neatly under the surface of civilised communities and nations, a violence that can erupt equally in our homes, on our streets and through war. Jesus will confront that violence in a more profound way on the cross. But, we continue to have violence only quietly under wraps. And only those who have a memory of what the eruption of violence can do to nations and communities can truly appreciate the value and necessity of those who protect and confront violence for us. As the Queen noted in her recent speech in Europe:

‘In our lives, we have seen the worst but also the best of our continent.’
"But we know that we must work hard to maintain the benefits of the post-war world’.

Of course for many nations there is no ‘post-war world’, only continuing life- shattering violence and disruption. And as we today remember all those who have given their lives in service or who give their lives today for our safety and security, we must be thankful for their courage and sacrifice in facing the darkness and violence of humanity for us all.

But outside of the particular nature of war, we do well to reflect upon Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan and we need to allow ourselves to be challenged. It is worth considering how we might respond to someone in need, who has been so or similarly treated.
Would their skin colour, their class, or status give us reason to walk on by?
For violence can make cowards of us all.
Is there violence near to us that we are refusing to see? Is there pain and suffering near us that we are crossing over the road to avoid? Have we divided the world off into those we are bound to help and those we are not? For Jesus says, violence, unkindness and complicity are normal, compassion, mercy and selflessness are extraordinary.

The Samaritan was a member of an inferior race, not holy or set apart, as understood in that culture in that time. Yet, Jesus re-describes what holiness is; by saying it is how we behave which determines our holiness, nothing else. Being a priest or Levite (they were a priestly caste) is not a guarantor of righteousness. And it is the unexpected person who shows compassion.
Indeed, the power of Jesus’ story lies in how it upsets our satisfaction with our standard morality codes; codes that we build to defend ourselves from the requirement to be truly compassionate, merciful and courageous. 
The lawyer asked the question of Jesus, remember, to justify himself.

Councillor Richard Dodd has given his Mayoral year the theme of saving lives. And it seems to me that the story of the Good Samaritan is the quintessential story of life saving. But, the lives are saved, not simply through the act of compassion which is shown by the Samaritan. No, Jesus tells the story to change and challenge the heart of the lawyer. He tells the lawyer that compassion and mercy are always requirements, whatever badge of office we hold, whatever group we belong to, however sure we are of our own righteousness and most importantly however we seek to avoid it. Compassion and mercy are required of us, whether we like people or detest them, whether the people are like us or different, whether we feel them to be blame for their situation, or not. Compassion and mercy are to be indiscriminately applied. Who is my neighbour? If we look into our hearts, we know the answer to that question.

Saturday, 30 May 2015

Gifts of the Spirit: Unity in Diversity

One of the things that Christianity has struggled with is how to hold with integrity- unity in diversity. With Roman Catholicism unity is powerfully enacted through the figure of the Pope and through the catholic creeds and sacraments. With Protestantism diversity is practiced, through personal interpretation and access to God and a plethora of denominations and creeds.

Yet, it seems that both full short of ‘unity in diversity’.

It is harder to enable unity in diversity than it is to practice one or the other. It is harder because it requires a creative interplay which involves risk, freedom and discipline.

Such a creative interplay of unity in diversity is revealed in the Trinity: the unity yet diversity of the Three allows creativity and difference, whilst never allowing controlling subjection of one over the other. In absolute trust and unity of will each plays its part.

At the heart of the Trinity is loving relationship, trust and fidelity.

No church can operate as the Body of Christ without these qualities – yet loving relationship, fidelity and trust are absent where either the institution or personal will is allowed to dominate. And so it is that any Christian community has to balance individual preference or interpretation and the common mind or institution.

This has been a long introduction to the worship/music life audit that we have recently conducted at St Andrew's, Rugby and the results of which are out today. The consultation reveals great unity of mind whilst also reflecting our diversity. And so it is our common task, to hold in tension unity in diversity, through the way in which we worship and praise God together. Such a common task necessarily asks each one of us to be generous and flexible. We cannot always get exactly what we want, but loving one another we share, give a little, give back in return, and enable each to flourish. We are generous in being able to see good in what another likes, rather than in putting it down, or dismissing it. But what above all is essential is that we are all invited to participate in the way that is suited to us. For it is God that invites us to participate, for Jesus is the host in this building and we are all his guests. And he invites each one of us to raise our voice in praise and thanksgiving and to offer our very selves; as Jesus is the host, so not one of us or our views is more important than the other, but all are invited to take our place around the table.

As God’s guests in this building, we must remind each other that the quality of our relationships with one another and with God are the heart beats which determine the quality of our common life. We cannot avoid those relationships and we cannot exclude any part of our community.

On the day of Pentecost the Holy Spirit came enabling the disciples to communicate with all people from all nations in their native language. God speaks to each one of us in a language we can understand and receive. And so it is that as God’s community in this place we are each called to communicate with one another in a language we can receive and understand. And that requires faithful listening, gentle speaking and constant prayer. Could you listen to a voice you have not listened to before today? Could you pledge to speak gently about what is important to you? For it is in listening and speaking gently to one another that we show that we value each other as brothers and sisters in Christ; it is in listening that we will be able to receive each other and it is in receiving each other that our community will more greatly reflect the transformational love of the Trinity. Above all, in constant prayer we offer each other the gift of the Holy Spirit. So as we receive the results of the audit, let us listen faithfully to its many voices; speak gently as we discuss it with one another and hold each other in constant prayer.

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