THE ABDICATION OF GOD

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Although here in the UK we have a Queen as our nominal head of state, we are not ruled by monarchy in the traditional sense. We live in a democracy, in the hope that the self-evident dangers of investing power in one person alone can be avoided. If we hold that to be a morally sound principle of government in the secular world, then surely we should apply the same philosophy within our spiritual lives.

That is exactly the focus of Pentecost : the power, energy, life and responsibility of God are poured out on each of us. Together as the body of Christ we have the responsibility to act in the world. We have the power to forgive, the power to create, and the power to love.

I think there is a tendency to view the spiritual life as akin to the polarised society of Downton Abbey, or of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited; a world of glamour, bright lights and luxury upstairs and a world of darkness and drudgery downstairs.

Even through the distortions of those rose-tinted, period-drama spectacles, we can see clearly what an inherently unsatisfactory existence it must have been; Women wouldn’t have the vote, the food would be cold having been brought long distances from the kitchen, medical treatment would be primitive by today’s standards, not to mention the lack of wi-fi in the house…..and that’s just upstairs.

Some still peddle the notion that down here in our earthly existence we toil away against the odds of nature and disease and then in the life to come we will enter the bright, glamorous world of heaven.

The Gospel of the incarnation asserts that God is with us, born among us, and power is outpoured upon us. We are here to build heaven on earth, indeed the kingdom of God is among us already.

If we think of the spiritual life in terms of an upstairs and downstairs realm, all power will be invested in God alone, allowing us to abdicate our own responsibility to others and society.

Read the parables of Jesus which begin “the Kingdom of heaven is like . . . the kingdom of God is like” . . and you can begin to understand early Quaker Gerrard Winstanley’s notion of the Republic of Heaven. Kingship and God are simply not compatible in post-Pentecost thinking.

In an open, liberal society words themselves cannot be banned but if we are to continue to use the image of kingship in our theology, let us at least have the right sort of image to inspire us. Think of Prince Harry on his Arctic Charity trek trudging to the North Pole with wounded fellow servicemen, enabling them to become the first amputees to ski to the North Pole unsupported; or think of the Queen, powerless to speak her mind in public.

After all, in the New Testament, it is the dying Jesus, powerless, subjugated and nailed to the cross, who is described as king.

GAY DEAN

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I had been unaware that Norman Tebbit lived in my neck of the woods until he recently popped up in the media, unhappy about the appointment of the local cathedral Dean. Lord Tebbit said he found it difficult to accept a “sodomite” as a member of the clergy and would not be attending services at which the new Dean was officiating.

Rev Canon Joe Hawes was gentle and diplomatic in his response, saying he felt “no ill will” towards Tebbit and admired the way “he has cared for his wife with such devotion following the Brighton bomb”.

The Church of England itself also took a very measured stance after the statement was made public: “It has been clear for more than a decade that clergy are entitled to be within civil partnerships. Lord Tebbit is welcome to his views.”

Yet on closer examination the Anglican church is far from even-handed in its attitude to gays, gay marriage and civil partnerships. Certainly ministers are allowed to live in a civil partnership, providing they remain celibate, as “sexual intercourse, as an expression of faithful intimacy, properly belongs within marriage exclusively….” and …”it would not be appropriate conduct for someone in holy orders to enter into a same sex marriage.” There are times when I’m embarrassed to be a priest in the Church of England.

Such hypocrisy cannot remain and should not be tolerated. How can there be one rule for lay people and one for priests? What exactly do the bishops in the Church of England profess their God finds so objectionable in a physical relationship between two people of the same sex? What constitutes a physical relationship anyway? Will the gay priests be allowed to kiss, to kiss with tongues? Which parts of the body will they be allowed to touch, hold, stroke? How will the Bishop of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich ensure the new dean refrains from a physical relationship?

Of course many leaders of the church are afraid that promoting same sex relationships will offend and alienate others within the Anglican Communion, but the cause of equality must take precedence over the risk of schism. The Church of England should affirm gay relationships in all their fullness, and rejoice both in civil partnerships and gay marriage.

COMPASSION FATIGUE

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My friend Paul rightly took me to task this week for not crediting the painting of the Tower of Babal in my last blog, so retrospective apologies to the 16th century Flemish painter, Pieter Brueghel the Elder. He’s perhaps best known for landscape paintings such as “Hunters in the Snow”, which adorns many Christmas cards.

“Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” has a remarkably modern message; if it weren’t for the title, one might easily overlook the hapless subjects’ legs disappearing beneath the waves after his father’s warning against flying too close to the sun remained unheeded. There’s perhaps a look of mild surprise or puzzlement in the faces of the shepherd, ploughman and sailors but if they did notice the plumetting figure, they quickly returned to their tasks, indifferent to the drowning Icarus. Like the priest and levite in Jesus’s parable of the Good Samaritan, the farmers and sailors have things to do and places to go.

In his poem “Musée des Beaux Arts”, WH Auden makes reference to the painting with this insightful observation. It begins:

“About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along….”

I once took the funeral of a young man who threw himself from the top of a carillon tower. His father read Auden’s poem, partly because he felt his son had metaphorically flown too close to the sun, but also because he felt others had been indifferent to his son’s needs.

Indifference to suffering has always been part of human history and with today’s ubiquitous and inescapable  media coverage of world events, we are even more likely to suffer from compassion fatigue. Painter, poet and prophet challenge us to be prepared to step aside and help those we meet along our paths.

THE TOWER OF BABEL

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The Tower of Babel is one of my favourite Old Testament stories, and one that I’ve always enjoyed telling to children of all ages in assembly, while building a large tower from shoe boxes. “How would you stop the tower builders reaching the heavens?” I would ask. There would be lots of suggestions – knock it down as a child in a tantrum, alter the laws of gravity, kill the builders, make the stones soggy….?

The solutions of the gods (and there is more than one god in the story) is ingenius. They confuse the constructors’ language. Without communication we cannot discuss or collaborate on planning, inspire and cajole others to join in the project, or share technology and know-how. Politicians and planners, priests and parents also need good communication skills.

Sometimes the students would answer my question with another: Why did the gods want to stop the builders reaching heaven? Why indeed? After all, Christians in the Lord’s prayer pray for the coming of heaven; it’s the goal of most spiritual journeys. There’s an equally probing enquiry to be made into the story of Adam and Eve. Why are they forbidden to eat the fruit of the tree of good and evil, when surely we should already recognise the difference?

As Christians know well, the story of the Tower of Babel is mirrored in the story of Pentecost. In the Acts of the Apostles we read of the disciples preaching to a great crowd of people from across the world. They speak different languages, yet each hears and understands the message in their own tongue. The Tower of Babel looks to answer the question as to why people across the world speak different tongues. Perhaps this story presents it as a curse imposed upon human beings for their divine ambitions? I propose the existence of language as quite the opposite; the variety of our languages reflects the wonderful richness of human life. Seeking to understand each other and crossing linguistic boundaries brings us not only to a greater understanding of each other and make new projects possible, but also gives us a greater understanding of the spirit of God.

 

PADDY’S WIGWAM

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Paddy’s Wigwam
The Sea of Faith network which I helped to found in the mid 1980s has a Statement of Intent “to explore and affirm religious faith as a human creation”. This ought not to be contentious. Every religious object, prayer, ritual and theological statement can be dated and placed as accurately as any historical or artistic object. 
 
Take for example the design of Christian churches. In some churches, the altar stands several metres higher than the nave floor. Moving from the entrance to the sanctuary involves climbing several steps. Often, in worship, only specially designated people dressed in robes are allowed into certain areas of the church. There may be a screen or rail preventing movement from one part of the church to the other. Only at special dramatic moments are these boundaries crossed: the priest enters the nave to read the Gospel; the people enter the chancel to take communion.
 
However not all churches are built in this way,  reflect a diversity in understanding of the spiritual path. In Liverpool, near my home town, the Roman Catholic cathedral, affectionately known as “Paddy’s Wigwam”, is built “in the round”, with the altar at the centre of the circle and the congregation sitting around it. Other churches and chapels are dominated by a huge, central pulpit, or a baptismal pool. A Friends Meeting House will have no altar, no pulpit, no screened-off areas, no special robes, and there are some churches that do not even have a special building in which to meet. Members of a “house church” gather in each other’s homes to worship. All these reflect a church’s understanding of the spiritual path, the way to God and where authority is to be found.
 
Architecture has such a strong influence upon faith and its practice, that reformations in faith lead to new styles of church design. Methodism, the Oxford Movement, and Vatican II, all had a profound influence upon church architecture, providing a symbolic representation of evolving attitudes towards the priesthood, the authority of the bible, the sacraments, the importance of mystery and the role of the lay congregation.
 
What is true of architecture is true of every aspect of faith. The design is not simply a matter of taste but a reflection of the understanding of the path of faith itself. This should be liberating. Faith is creative and isn’t handed down on tablets of stone. It has changed constantly over time and we can change our faith when our understanding changes, or when its implementation has become meaningless or oppressive.
 
Soon we shall celebrate Whit Sunday, the coming of the Holy Spirit and what is often called the Church’s birthday. The church is born and stays alive through the creativity and imagination of the spirit. 

IMAGINATION

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Imagination

As a choirboy I was always intrigued by the line in the Magnificat, The Song of Mary, “he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts”. It was also fun to sing, with the organ used to dramatic effect in the accompaniment. However, on one level it seemed to be giving imagination a bad press. “You’re imagining things” we’d be told when being accused of subscribing to conspiracy theories or in over-zealously seeking out the truth, whilst conversely being urged to “Use your imagination” if the details of that very truth prove too uncomfortable to air publicly.

Today I think it’s well recognised that using our imagination is an essential part of what it is to be a living, thinking, understanding and responsive person. It takes a leap of imagination to make a scientific discovery, just as much as it does to make a sci-fi movie. It takes imagination to act in the world and to have a vision and set goals. It helps us to understand people, to step into their shoes and empathise with them. It isn’t reserved for day-dreams and art projects. It deepens our insight, clarifies our vision and motivates our action.

Interestingly, for Christians, much of this work of the imagination is characteristic of the work of the Holy Spirit. In Genesis, the creativity of God is seen in the spirit brooding over the face of the waters. In the Old and New Testaments it’s the spirit that gives wisdom and understanding. Through the spirit, the prophets have visions and the people dream dreams. In the New Testament, to be filled with the spirit is to give birth to love, joy, peace, kindness and goodness. To live in the spirit is to be bound together in love. In short, we are the image of the creator God, or as the British theologian John Macquarrie said, “life in the spirit is life in the imagination of God”.

Making a connection between the Holy Spirit and the imagination might appear blasphemous as it seems to suggest that God is merely a figment of the imagination. However, imagination is crucial to human life and faith. As Whit Sunday approaches and we prepare to celebrate the story of the coming of the Holy Spirit to Jesus’ disciples at Pentecost, we need to rejoice in and encourage all the creativity and imagination that has formed our faith and its practices over many generations.

THE GREAT BBQ COMPETITION

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THE GREAT BBQ COMPETITION

There’s been something of a minor heatwave here in the UK this week and people have immediately rushed to light their barbeques and enjoy al fresco dining. The Great Barbeque Competition in the First Book of Kings is a dramatic encounter between the prophet Elijah and the four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel. They set up their rival bonfires and place a prepared sacrificial bull on the top. “The God who answers by fire”, says Elijah, “he is God.”

The prophets call on their God but to no avail; the fire remains unlit. Elijah taunts them – perhaps Baal is meditating, or asleep or has “stepped aside”, a Hebrew euphemism for visiting the toilet!

Elijah has the people pour four large water pots over his offering and calls on the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. “Then the fire of the Lord fell and consumed the burnt sacrifice, and the wood and the stones and the dust, and it licked up the water that was in the trench.” It ends badly for the prophets of Baal who are taken down the mountain and executed.

One cannot imagine the Archbishop of Canterbury or any other religious leader today setting up such a challenge to see which, if any, gods exist. As the philosopher John Wisdom wrote “The existence of God is not an experimental issue in the way it once was”. Believers do expect their faith to make a difference, and there is thought to be a difference between believers non-believers. But what is that difference?

John Wisdom writing just before the Second World War in a paper entitled Gods, went on to ask how something that was once an experimental issue could become something very different and tells a parable about two men surveying a piece of ground. One points to things that he thinks show there is a gardener at work. The other sees only signs that no one is looking after it. So they start to look for more evidence in this and other gardens until, having studied everything, they still disagree. You can read the parable here and the full paper. It led to a long debate about the nature of belief. Is belief a way of seeing the world, having a particular attitude towards the world? Is it using a certain vocabulary to talk about life, practising various rituals?

Readers of this blog will know that for me (and I suspect for many believers) God is not an extra thing that exists and is alive in the world but life itself. The practice of faith can make a difference just as art and music can. What matters is that believers and non-believers alike acknowledge that the existence of God is not the experimental issue it once was.

 

DOUBT

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DOUBT

Doubt can play a crucial role within faith; it avoids the certainty of the fanatic, develops humility and as in science, often opens the path to truth. A few years ago, Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby created something of a storm when he questioned whether or not God was actually “there”. He is reported to have said “The other day I was praying over something that I was running, and I ended up saying to God, ‘Look, this is all very well, but isn’t it about time you did something, if you’re there?’ Some headlines ran “Archbishop doubts existence of God”, another columnist of atheist persuasion simply declared “Victory!”, whilst others were keen to support, pointing to the archbishop’s humanity as a man who knew the agony of grief, having lost his first-born child in a car accident.

However there is one concept which cannot be doubted within a Christian philosophy: the existence of God. For Christians, God is that whose existence cannot be doubted because God is existence itself. God is that in whom we live and move and have our being. The language of faith may not always be helpful in exploring that which is essential to life. It may be doubted whether there is any value in exploring existence itself, but to talk about God is to talk about that which cannot be doubted.

People may have reservations about the value of religious practices like prayer and worship, they may have doubts about Jesus and what he said and did and about the institution of the church. They may be uncertain as to what course of action they should take as a Christian, they may lose faith in standing up for justice but not about the existence of God. It simply makes no sense to say existence itself doesn’t exist.

Christian faith should not concern itself with questions over the existence of a separate entity called God, either in or outside our universe. It is about our relationships within the world we inhabit, both with ourselves and those around us. It should lead us in life and love, helping us to make society a better place for more people. The most effective way to bring about these changes may be shrouded in doubt, but God must not.

MAUNDY THURSDAY

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MAUNDY THURSDAY

As Dido Queen of Carthage, the eponymous heroine of Purcell’s opera faces death, she cries “Remember me but ah forget my fate.”  Dido has pledged herself to newly-found lover, Aeneas, but at the height of their joy, he is summoned back to war. It presents him with an agonising decision. Should he obey the gods and fulfil his military duty or should he follow his heart and stay with Dido? “Offend the gods and love obey” he sings to the queen but ultimately she urges him to follow Jove’s command. He sets sail, abandoning the heartbroken Dido to her fate as she stands before her own funeral pyre. The tragedy is that in fact through an act of treachery and deceit, it was the wicked Sorceress and her crones who summoned away the unsuspecting hero, rather than the gods.
 
When people die, one of their fondest hopes is to be remembered by friends and family, eclipsing the memories of any pain or suffering.  Another dying wish may be that loved ones will go on to enjoy life, experience good fortune and prosperity and learn from their example. “Look after yourselves” says ancient Greek philosopher Socrates to his friends as he prepares to drink the cup of poison, the punishment meted out to him by the city of Athens for corrupting the youth of the city. “Keep your spirits up. Tell yourself it’s only my body you are burying.” When all this proves too much and one of his followers cannot control his grief, Socrates says. “Really, my friends, what a way to behave. That’s why I sent the women away to avoid this sort of disturbance. We should approach our end in a tranquil frame of mind.
 
What of Jesus’ hopes on the night he was betrayed and faced his own death? Like Dido he wished to be remembered, but for him, the nature of his earthly demise was an integral part of the legacy of his life and teachings. This explains why Christians take the opportunity in Holy Week, to recall and reflect on the suffering and death of Jesus. A third of the gospel story is taken up with the passion narrative.
 
In the Garden of Gesthsemane Jesus faced an agonising decision of his own, but unlike Aeneas, in his story as portrayed in the gospel, Jesus’ obedience to death is a response to the call of love. Jesus, like Socrates met with his disciples before his death and urged them to live by his teaching, but not with a “Calm yourself” and “Send the women away”. The women  closest to Jesus are in fact the ones who watch at the foot of cross and attend to his body for burial. Jesus invites his disciples to share his fate, to take up their cross, almost as if Socrates had taken the cup of poison and passed it around his followers. In this way Jesus, with remarkable creativity and daring takes the thousand year old ritual of the Passover meal, traditionally a celebration of the Israelites’s freedom from slavery in Egypt and says “do this in remembrance of me”.
We need to appreciate what a remarkable and unique human story this is before exploring any theological significance.

SACRIFICE

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SACRIFICE

Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring caused an uproar at its first performance in 1913, with witnesses reporting that blows were exchanged, objects thrown at the stage and one person at least challenged to a dual. The subject of the ballet was even more shocking, with its depiction of ritual abduction and a young girl dancing herself to death in the presence of old men.

Most ancient societies practised human sacrifice, later abandoning it in favour of the offering of animals. The story of Abraham climbing the mountain to sacrifice his son Isaac, only to be interrupted by God with the order to substitute a ram, originates in this moment of change in human history. However, animal sacrifice might be perceived as no less barbaric: according to the First Book of Kings, at the dedication of the Temple in the space of one day,

“Solomon offered a sacrifice of fellowship offerings to the Lord: twenty-two thousand cattle and a hundred and twenty thousand sheep and goats.”

In 2016, after a break of two millennia, a Paschal Lamb was again sacrificed on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem in an effort by right-wing activists to lay greater claim on the site.

At this time of year Christians prepare to retell the story of Jesus’ passion, the sacrifice of the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of world and brings to an end the need for further human or animal sacrifice. So what place has the notion of sacrifice in our time? We still talk of self-sacrifice and the sacrifice of those who have laid down their lives for our freedom, giving their today for our tomorrow.

During Holy Week we could ask ourselves two questions. Is there anything for which we would sacrifice our lives? Most of us could imagine a context in which we might at least hope for the courage to lay down our lives; to protect our children, defend the freedoms of our society, or in an attempt to prevent abuse and slavery.

The second question follows. If we think there are situations in which we should be prepared to risk our lives, then are we physically and mentally prepared? Part of our Lenten discipline and the following of Jesus’ passion should be to strengthen our resolve and take up our cross if called.