When I was a youngster, Remembrance Sunday seemed to be dominated by “the men with the medals”. I would watch from the choir stalls while these men processed to the chancel steps and lowered their… More
We are all acutely aware of the vulnerability of our personal data, since Cambridge Analytica was accused of harvesting thousands of Facebook profiles. Many companies keep an eye on our internet searches and online/ offline shopping, and their algorithms deduce our likely profile and preferences, so as to tailor their advertisements and target their propaganda.
For many Christians this has an unnerving resonance in the prayer that opens some Communion Services: “O God from who all hearts are open, all desires known…..” Their all-knowing God is even more informed than the internet giants, and disciples are called to act beneath the gaze of an all-seeing God.
Of course we should all aspire to live with a clear conscience, unafraid of how our actions might be judged by our partners, friends and colleagues. Those working for public institutions will always be mindful of the scrutiny of trustees, stakeholders and the watchful eye of the press, and must be prepared to defend their decisions. Good communication and trust is built on the sharing of personal knowledge.
Yet we would be reckless not to consider carefully in whom we place our trust. The dangers of identity theft are very real and can have serious financial, medical and legal consequences. It isn’t a new phenomena, however; the Genesis 27 tale in which Jacob steals Esau’s birthright is probably one of the earliest recorded examples of self-seeking and calculated identity theft.
Preserving our personal identity offline is probably as hard as online. It isn’t only unhealthy relationships and abusive communities that can rob us of our identity. “Make of our hearts one heart” sing Maria and Tony in West Side Story; something to which most lovers aspire. Yet alongside this idealisation of an intimate relationship, is the need to balance mutual dependence and the freedom of an individual’s emotional autonomy. As the Lebanese-American artist, poet, and philosopher Kahlil Gibran writes:
Love one another but make not a bond of love:
Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls.
Fill each other’s cup but drink not from one cup.
Give one another of your bread but eat not from the same loaf.
Sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each one of you be alone,
Even as the strings of a lute are alone though they quiver with the same music.
The same holds for the intimacy of faith. St Augustine wrote in his Soliliques “If I know myself I shall know thee, O God.”. To lose our identity is not only to lose ourselves but to lose the way to God.
I grew up near Liverpool, and returning to the city after a few years was a revelation. Places I remembered as some distance apart were on each other’s doorsteps – the Philharmonic Hall almost next door to the Anglican Cathedral, the Everyman Theatre next to Paddy’s Wigwam, the entrance to the Mersey Tunnel just behind St George’s Hall.
It’s a vibrant city, constantly renewing itself and still bathing in the glory of having been chosen as City of Culture back in 2008. Yet the wealth of the city that produced many of these great buildings was built on the back of the slave trade and thousands of impoverished dock workers whose lives are well-documented and displayed in Liverpool’s museums.
At present, figures from the the Terracotta Army, the underground battalions of life-sized warriors that secretly guarded the tomb of China’s First Emperor, Qin Shi Huang, are on display at the World Museum. The unification of China under Qin was impressive but again the cultural advancements that we marvel at today were achieved at huge human cost and loss of life, many sacrificed and buried alongside the warriors and the Emperor they had faithfully served.
We ended our visit to this great city with a trip to Crosby Beach, where the hundred cast-iron figures of Antony Gormley’s collective sculpture “Another Place” look out to sea. They reminded me, as we commemorate in 2018 the lives of those who fought in the first world war and the debt we owe, that many aspects of our lives are built upon the dedication and the sacrifice of countless others unknown to us. It isn’t only the pioneers and people of extraordinary talent we need to remember but the many who bore the burden of the political and economic life of the past.
Job by Léon Bonnat (1880)
We have no hesitation in accepting that some suffering may simply be down to bad luck. It’s no one’s fault and certainly not the sufferer’s. However, for much of human history the sufferer or someone close to them had to be to blame. God looked after the righteous and no ill would befall his chosen ones, providing they remained faithful. If it did, it was a sign that they or their forebears had sinned. There was no such thing as innocent suffering.
A positive step away from this simplistic notion can be seen in the Book of Job, where having been stripped of all his possessions, and seeing his wife and family killed, Job remains faithful. When his comforters try to convince him that his suffering is a punishment from God he pours scorn on them.
It’s a remarkable book and Job’s attitude to his supposed friends is one to be applauded. However, its theology is despicable, for in the opening chapter we learn that God has allowed Satan to inflict such pain on Job simply to prove his steadfastness. Such a God is unworthy of faith and morally indefensible.
For our sanity and well-being we must cling to the notion of innocent suffering. A lazy commentator would resort to speculating over which lifestyle choices and decisions might have brought about a person’s downfall. All decisions have their consequences but the outcomes, whether positive or negative are not inevitable or easy to predict.
Asking “Why me?” is easily answered in medical terms, but as an existential question it makes no sense. Any thoughts about God must begin from our conviction that innocent suffering is a possibility; the concept of it occurring as a result of sin is ludicrous. The “punishment” simply doesn’t fit the crime.
In the Gospels Jesus is asked of a man born blind “Who sinned, this man or his parents?” ” Neither” he replies, and suggests that the man’s blindness presents an opportunity, rather than a hindrance. Perhaps we should approach our own suffering in the same way. If possible we must try to gain some benefit from it, and in the management of it, learn empathy and a greater understanding of ourselves and others.
A friend told me of a recent visit to one of our cathedrals, where having been welcomed by the steward, was offered the pass code for the toilets. Why, she asked, do the toilets command such high security? The answer, “well we don’t want drug addicts injecting themselves in there, do we?” was delivered with an unhesitating conviction that my friend found initially rather unsettling, within the Christian context.
This response, or at least the manner in which it was delivered, so disturbed her that she looked to me for an explanation. Surely the church should be welcoming such people; furthermore, what positive action is the church taking towards engaging with, and caring for them.
Perhaps rather too keen to defend our cathedral churches, I pointed out the health and safety issues involved in having dirty needles lying around in toilets available to visitors. “People often expect the church to be a soft touch…” was a common line of argument that I proffered.
Most cathedrals and city churches do indeed have programmes of support for homeless people and their associated problems, but I knew I was on the wrong side of the gospel. Jesus tells a parable of a Samaritan travelling the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. He comes across a man who has been attacked and left for dead. A priest and Levite have already passed by the man, either fearing that they would become “unclean” through contact with the man or had urgent or ritual obligations to fulfill. The Samaritan, however, disregarding all health and safety concerns for himself and his patient, entered the crime scene, (were the muggers still around?) applied first aid (had he any idea what he was doing?), supplied ambulance support by putting the man on his donkey (was the man in a position to be moved?) took him to the nearest inn, and left money with the innkeeper to look after him (was he to be trusted to support the man?).
Who, asks Jesus, acted as neighbour to the victim? The answer might seem obvious, but for us to emulate the Good Samaritan in our own lives as Jesus commands, is rarely so clear-cut. We are both to care for our neighbours with planned and responsible programmes of action, and yet be ready to respond to the unexpected where we see an immediate and urgent need, by putting our own plans to one side and taking risks.
I’m looking forward the cathedral’s response to my friend’s letter.
According to a recent survey involving a computer generated “identikit “, this is what a sample of American Christians believe to be an accurate visual representation of God. The 511 participants in the study saw hundreds of randomly varying face-pairs and selected the one which most closely matched their ideal. By combining all the selected images, the researchers could assemble a composite “face of God”.
Note the image has no beard and even if he is younger and more feminine than the clichéd “Old Father Time” model, he’s still white and male. It’s hardly surprising, since our services address God in masculine terms and as Father.
In another American study concerned with gender stereotypes, girls as young as six believe that academic/scientific brilliance is a male attribute. The majority of children and adults will draw masculine figures of surgeons and engineers, and despite a growing interest in maths and science among girls, only 10% of their toys are focussed on science, technology or engineering, compared with over 30% of those directed at boys.
Perhaps most alarming of all, is that in nearly all cultures worldwide, men seem to enjoy higher self-esteem than their female counterparts. Surprisingly perhaps, in industrialized Western countries like the U.S. and Australia, the gap between male and female self-esteem is more pronounced than in non-Western, developing countries.
How can we improve this situation if we still think of God in male terms? As Mary Daly the American radical feminist philosopher, academic, and theologian, wrote in 1973: “If God is male, then the male is God”. Yet the Catechism of the Catholic Church is quite clear; “God is neither man nor woman: he is God”. Even St Anselm, the 11th-century Archbishop of Canterbury, prayed to “Christ, my mother” and called God “the great mother”.
The present Archbishop of Canterbury could do more for the cause of women by insisting on removing all patriarchal imagery from services and theological texts, whilst using inclusive language in all its publications. Other denominations have set a precedent which we would be well-advised to follow: the United Reformed Church agreed in 1984 to use inclusive language in all its publications and in 2014 its General Assembly called on all URC congregations to use “inclusive and expansive language and imagery in worship”. In 1996, a prayer book of Reform Judaism, was published, calling God “sovereign” instead of “king”, and “source” or “parent” instead of father. A change within all churches is long overdue.
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.
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.
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 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.