Covid-19, Theodicy and Common Grace

by the Revd Canon Rosie Harper, Chaplain to the Bishop of Buckingham, Member of General Synod and Trustee of the Ozanne Foundation

Rosie Haarper

In the middle of last week, when we’d been physically distancing for three or four days this message popped up in messenger:

‘This is a one time prayer request!  I was asked to be part of a 1 million Lord’s Prayer chain to slow and stop Coronavirus. The idea is you pray and then pass the message to 8 other people. Let me know if you can’t, so we don’t break the chain. It took me 30 secs to do it. Thank you!’

Apart from the basic principle that I never respond well to anything that tells me not to break the chain, it does make me ask all sorts of questions about what we think praying is about. Is the proposition here that if a million people were to pray the Lord’s Prayer, God would decide to slow down and stop the corona virus? Is that really any different from doing a rain dance in a drought?

To be clear; Covid-19 is not malign. It is not evil. It just exists, and part of its nature is to spread and it is very successful at doing that. The cough that most people develop is ideally suited to getting the droplets passed on. You might want to argue that the conditions through which it emerged and transferred to humans had a moral dynamic to them, but it seems to me that to pray about a virus is no different to praying about a brick. That’s not prayer it’s superstition.

So it doesn’t make any sense either to talk about God ‘allowing’ this virus for some greater purpose. There is a natural human search for meaning in the face of threat. We tell stories because the idea of something being random is hard to live with, but to tell a story in which God is in a battle with a virus and eventually wins, is at best nonsense and at worst blasphemous. Do we really believe that God allows Covid-19 to kill some people but not others? If so, how does God choose  – by how hard the relatives pray?  Personally I’d go down the road “that shit happens” – don’t blame God (or the Devil for that matter).

Does this mean there is no point praying? Of course not!

There are many reasons why we need to pray. Most crucially because prayer is a breeding ground for love and compassion. It settles our hearts, allows us to off load our anxiety and expand our horizon beyond self-obsession to the people around us.

Which brings me to Common Grace.

At one level it is a tricky one because it goes hand in hand with predestination.  However, painted with a broader brush it helps to talk about the extraordinary good that is in the heart of most people.

As a child I always wanted to know why, if Christians were supposed to love God and love their neighbour, many of the non-Christians I knew were good and loving people and many of the Christians I knew were mean and judgemental. The answer from my Dad, who was also my vicar, was that goodness from God is given to all humanity.

We have seen this rather gloriously over the past couple of weeks. Over 700,000 people volunteered to support the NHS. In every community there are schemes to ensure that no-one will be left without food or medicine. People are finding extraordinary ways of creating joyous and crazy ways of being community on-line. I’ve been very keen to encourage Christians to support local community ventures rather than set up alternative ‘holy’ versions.

There is a profound challenge in the new dispensation. It teases out what we mean by “gospel”. It reveals what really matters to your heart and soul. It invites us to put our faith into action beyond the institution and get behind Jesus’ very simple and clear mission statement: love God and love your neighbour.

So please stop twittering on about the church buildings being closed for a few weeks, or how valid your virtual communion is and, if you haven’t already done so, pick up the phone instead and have a chat with someone who is lonely. It might just be that this is our biggest mission opportunity ever. Instead of talking about the gospel we could actually be the gospel – no preaching, just loving.

 

*Theodicy is the question of how God can exist when there is evil in the world, or a good reason or explanation for this

 

 

Posted in Coronavirus, Rosie Harper | 5 Comments

A Sermon for Our Time: Tears & Tombs

by Wendy Bower, Trained Counsellor and Member of Littlemore Church, Oxford

Wendy Bower

I prepared this sermon a couple of weeks ago, when the world was a different place. However, the two things from the story of Lazarus (John 11) that drew my attention, seem even more relevant in the place we find ourselves in today.

The first of these is ‘tears’. It was not just Mary and Martha who wept at the loss of their brother, this is one of the very few places in the Bible where we read that Jesus wept. Most of us would probably expect to see some tears shed at the death of a loved one, but I wonder if we have lost sense of the much wider language of tears and as a result we have stopped listening to what they have to tell us?

Tears are the first language we learn when we enter this world. As a helpless baby we have no words with which to communicate and so our communication very often is in the form of tears. Many of you will know that I do some voluntary work as a counsellor, and one of the phrases that I hear frequently is “I don’t know why I’m crying”. It is only as we explore together the possible meaning of their tears that things begin to make sense and to shift. Tears flow from the most authentic place within us. The place that is hidden from others and maybe even from ourselves.

David Runcorn has written a book entitled ‘The Language of Tears’, in which he says that one of the things that makes tears particularly significant is that they are a point at which our emotional, spiritual and bodily selves meet. Tears have huge significance for how we develop our understanding and consciousness, and our search for meaning and purpose in our lives. Yet even within the Church, awareness or discussion around a spiritual dimension to our tears is largely absent.

In the Bible there is a particular expression of pain known as lament. It is an expression that is largely absent in Western culture and in the Church. Many of the Psalms start off on a note of lament: Psalm 4 ‘Answer me when I call, O God; Psalm 10 ‘Why, O Lord do you stand far off?; Psalm 13 ‘How long O Lord? How long will you hide your face from me?’; Psalm 55 ‘Attend to me and answer me’. The prophet Jeremiah was known as the ‘Weeping Prophet’ because he felt the distress of the people so deeply, and was so overwhelmed at times that he prayed for a greater capacity to weep.

I have a very vivid memory of an event that took place when I was a young child, probably around the age of eight. My father was a very busy man – working, studying, a church leader, lay preacher and charity representative. When he could do so, he also loved to spend time gardening. He was a gardener of the old fashioned kind, in that he would clear his boarders every autumn and spring and replant with colourful displays. This particular Saturday afternoon he had planted out all the annuals that he had grown from seed and carefully nurtured in his greenhouse. He then went off to a charity fund raising event in the evening. While he was out we had the most spectacular storm, the like of which I have not seen since. The heavens opened and there were hail stones the size of golf balls that smashed glass panes in the greenhouse and decimated the garden. I remember going to my mother in floods of tears and asking her why God had let this happen, and that it was so unfair when my Dad was so busy doing things for God! My mothers response was to give me a telling off for daring to blame or question God! That response stayed with me well into adulthood. It wasn’t my Mum’s fault, she was only passing on what had been taught to her in the church we attended – a theology of submissive acceptance, but the result was that for many many years I lost the whole language of lament because I thought it was unacceptable to God.

The book of lamentations in the Bible is probably the one that is least read, studied or preached on. It is an outpouring of raw grief, bewilderment and anger over the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple. It also has resonance with some of the distressing things we experience in the world around us today. The pain of the world has to go somewhere, it doesn’t simply disappear if we ignore it. What do we say to God when the world has gone wrong, when we experience those times of deep disappointment, fear or sorrow? Lamentation is a call to remember and stand alongside those who suffer, it is an acknowledgement that things and systems are broken. In fact it is more than an acknowledgement, it is an outcry. If we exclude lament we exclude the possibility of wrestling with our faith. We may not find it easy to ask the question why, but it does not go away. If we are going to be authentic in our relationship with God then there are going to be times when we protest and lament.

There is increasing anger and protest in the world around us, and we might think those things have no place in our faith or in our church; that they are things that distance us from God. But if we look again at those places of anger and protest in the Bible we can see that they reveal a closeness to God, not a distance. Anger has no place in an apathetic relationship – why bother? Anger comes from a place of hurt within a relationship of love.

It is often in that raw place of lament that we encounter God. We see this again in many of the Psalms that begin with lament but end with deliverance and praise. This is not the same as a happy ending. The circumstances which caused the lament may not have changed, but in the passion of honest tears we meet with God and hope is forged. We do not need to protect God, He is able to absorb our anger, our sorrow, and our pain.

The lament in this story of Lazarus comes out of the closeness of the relationship that Mary & Martha had with Jesus. It was that close relationship that enabled them to admonish Jesus with the words, “if you had been here, our brother would not have died”. In other words, “where were you when we needed you”? Jesus had his reasons for being absent, nonetheless he was absent. It is at this point that we read that Jesus wept. How are we to interpret Jesus’ tears? I wonder if in part they were due to the terrible position he was in, of having the power to prevent the pain and loss that his friends were going through, and yet having to decide not to use that power, at that particular time, in the way that they wanted him to. When we lament the things that are broken and painful in our world, I imagine God weeps with us as he encounters again that same paradox of having the power to intervene but also having to decide, for reasons we may not understand, that he cannot use that power in the way we want him to.

From the gospel reading we know that this particular story has a positive outcome and that Jesus calls Lazarus back to life from the tomb. However, it was the tomb that was the second thing which caught my attention in this gospel reading.

For Lazarus the tomb was a literal physical place. Outside the tomb people were gathered to talk and weep, inside the tomb all was silent. Jesus cuts across both the noise and the silence and cries out with a loud voice ‘Lazarus, come out’. Lazarus hears the voice of Jesus calling him by name out of the tomb, and into freedom and life, and comes forth. There are other resurrection stories in the New Testament where it is the voice of Jesus that calls the dead one back to life.

There are times in life when we find ourselves in a tomb. Not a literal one but a part of ourselves that feels empty, or bound, or voiceless, or perhaps even dead. It may even be that we are reluctant to leave our particular tomb – it has become familiar to  us, and who knows what might happen if we step outside it? Perhaps the current social distancing and isolation feels like a tomb to some. It is not always easy to believe and accept the promise that Christ makes to us, that he came to give us life in all its abundance. It is not always easy to make the choices that are the most life giving, especially in dark times. But know this, however, impenetrable we feel our tomb to be, it is no barrier for a saviour who shouts salvation through the rock.

Lucy Winkett in her book ‘Our Sound is Our Wound’ puts it like this: the sound of resurrection is for us the same as it was for Mary Magdalene and for Lazarus and for Tabitha. It is our name yelled, whispered, implored, by a God who with unimaginable compassion … searches and pleads for us to emerge into the light of such love we have never thought of.

So, there is a two fold invitation to us today. The first is, dare we be authentic and allow ourselves to voice our cries of lament before God and each other? The second is dare we listen to Christ’s voice calling us out from the tomb, and to say yes to the life that He offers us?

Posted in Coronavirus | 1 Comment

Space, Time, Prayer and Cranmer

by the Revd Canon Dr Mandy Ford, Canon Chancellor at Southwark Cathedral and author of “God, Gender, Sex and Marriage

Mandy Ford

https://zoom.us/j/2037804362

I don’t even pretend to understand the physics of space-time. But I do understand the concept of time perception, because I experience it every day, just like you. And I’m finding that my perception of time has been doing some very interesting things in the past few days.

Psychologists tell us that time appears to stretch when there is a lot going on and it does seem hard to believe that it is only a matter of days since we closed the doors of Southwark cathedral. We have been busy! We’ve had to make decisions about live streaming; managing funerals; worship and teaching in Holy Week, just for starters. And many of those decisions have been changed more than once as the guidance shaping them has changed in turn.

And yet, as a colleague observed, while there seems to be a lot to do in responding to this new situation, there is also a sense that there is less to do, and so time seems generously available in ways that we don’t normally experience. With fewer meetings and less urgency about some activities, life is beginning to take on a different pace. We pray together an hour later than usual, which means more time in the morning or a bit of a lie-in. The importance of getting fresh air and exercise means a break mid afternoon for a walk, jog or cycle. There is time for a phone call to a family member or friend before supper.

Many of us are recovering the ancient monastic wisdom of routine in every day life, shaping the day around prayer, refreshment, and work – with the work perhaps taking on a different quality and becoming more mindful as well. And in times of anxiety, it is good to remember the practice of the present moment, stopping to breathe and take account of the world around us when there is any danger of being overwhelmed by sadness or fear.

Time (and space) has collapsed in another way as I’ve been more conscious of sharing the experience of Christians across history and across the world, for whom fear has been, or is, an integral part of every day life. And so I found myself thinking about the words of prayer and comfort we turn to instinctively at such times.

On 21 March, the Church of England remembered Thomas Cranmer the author of the Book of Common Prayer, whose words have nurtured Christians in Britain and around the Anglican Communion for centuries. While Cranmer wrote the English prayer book in times of crisis, responding to the needs of the Church of England suddenly severed from Roman Catholic structures by Henry VIII’s urgent need of an heir, it took over a hundred years before the Book of Common Prayer became the established prayer book of the Church in England. Since that time they have been read, learned and prayed, through war and civil disturbance, plague and fire, through times when the church was barely functioning and through the great Victorian Evangelical and Catholic revivals.

While we may chose to put aside some of its provision – I have never been asked in my twenty years of parish ministry to “church” a woman after childbirth for example – the Prayer Book remains a masterpiece of Anglican compromise. By providing words for prayer, but not instructions about how they are to be used, Cranmer enabled Anglicans of many different persuasions to pray together, and preserve a sense of collective identity through the idea that what we pray is what we believe (lex orandi, lex credendi).

Prayer book language matters not only for church goers, as Cranmer’s beautiful poetic prose echoes in our daily language whenever we use those little phrases; “dust to dust” “miserable sinners”, “the face of the enemy”, “vile bodies”, “the secrets of our hearts”.

We are called upon to proclaim the gospel afresh to every generation and it has been exciting to observe the plentiful demonstrations of the hashtag #newwaysofbeingchurch, as colleagues respond to this new situation. At the moment we are sharing online morning prayer in Southwark with as many as thirty people, many more than join us in the cathedral each morning! But, I’m conscious as we do this, of the telescoping of time, as we draw on deep wells of tradition, maintaining the rhythm of prayer that is hundreds of years old.

So, for those of us who long for the Church of England to do new things for LGBTI+ people in our communities and churches, through and beyond Living in Love and Faith, what might feel different for us in the coming months?

When we meet again, will we be frustratedly straining at the starting blocks, wanting to make up for “lost time”? Or will our enforced period of spiritual and physical retreat hone our sense of history and our capacity for patience?

Posted in Coronavirus, Human Sexuality, Mandy Ford | Leave a comment

Flattening the Curve

by the Ven Peter Leonard, Archdeacon of the Isle of Wight, Chair of OneBodyOneFaith and Member of General Synod

peter leonard

I am sure you will be familiar with the statements about ‘flattening the curve’.

I am of course referring to the curve of coronavirus infections and I hope you are reading this at home, unless you are a key worker, so that we can support the NHS and do our very best to help them cope with current health crisis. I’m working from home, which as an Archdeacon is more straightforward then many jobs, supporting parishes across the Isle of Wight to care for their communities and continue the work of prayer and worship albeit not publicly.

There is of course another curve which I am trying to flatten, the curve of my mental health. Those of you who know me or follow me on social media will know I have a history of depression which, thanks to therapy and the support of friends, is manageable. For those in a similar position to me this management becomes critical as the mental health curve fluctuates up and down like some reckless roller coaster.

I wake up and do a work out at home  – this feels good and I am relatively calm. I watch the news and anxiety levels increase. I pray and the calming presence of Christ restores peace. I check social media and the peace dissipates. I speak to some of the amazing people in the churches in my archdeaconry and peace is restored along with hope. Someone phones me in a panic and their anxiety feeds mine. Whether you struggle with your mental health or not this pattern is probably very familiar right now.

If you are expecting me to list a series of helpful suggestions as to what to do during the current crisis which is expected to last for some time yet, then you are about to be disappointed. There are more than enough self-proclaimed ‘experts’ broadcasting on social media telling us what we should and shouldn’t be doing. Personally, I find that unhelpful and you do not need me to add to them. Instead I am going to share with you the single most useful thing for me at the moment.You do YouYou do what works for you in the current situation, within the Government guidelines obviously!

I started last week wondering what it meant to be the Archdeacon of the Isle of Wight in this unchartered territory. What did it mean to be Chair of OneBodyOneFaith when our members will be concerned and possibly self-isolating? How should I be a priest, a father a partner? How should I behave and what could I do? Should I have rushed out and bought toilet rolls for all my neighbours? Should I have set up a TV studio in my office and started broadcasting inspirational messages across the airwaves?

In a fast-changing environment I guess I am still working out the answers to these questions and they are changing as fast as I start to grasp them. The truth is, with or without a national health crisis the thing I do best, the thing I know how to do and can be is Peter. So that is what I am doing, and it looks slightly different to what doing and being Peter looked like a month ago.

Firstly, I have rediscovered the power of personal prayer, not that my prayer is so good that I am changing the world around me, but that prayer is changing me. It is enabling me to be calmer, more peaceful and thus to be more useful to my family, friends and neighbours. Prayer is a stone which casts significant ripples. Peter prays right now.

Secondly, I am working out at home rather than the gym. As an extrovert, who gets his energy from others, this is a big deal for me. But the home workouts are helping me feel better about myself and my situation. Do I work as hard as when I visit the gym? No. Given the third thing below will I gain some weight? Quite possibly. Does that matter – not in the great scheme of things and I can tackle it at some point if I choose to. Peter works out and doesn’t add guilt to his curve.

Thirdly, biscuits! Well, strictly speaking tea and biscuits. I had forgotten how immensely comforting tea and biscuits are. Alongside drinking lots of tea and eating biscuits I am also baking. I find baking incredibly therapeutic and so that too brings a sense of calm and well-being. Peter finds time to do the things that make him feel good.

Fourthly, resisting the pressure which others put on me, or more likely I put on myself, to do and behave in certain ways. There are plenty of amazing people broadcasting worship and prayers and reflections. I do not need to add to it. I was overcome with hope and peace and pride this morning as I visited more churches in my patch than I have ever done before – via live streams, recordings, podcasts, prayer leaflets and emailed liturgies. All from the comfort of my study. Peter receives from others.

Fifthly, connecting with my neighbours via a WhatsApp group has been wonderful. I have had conversations about supporting each other, shared jokes and even been passed a recipe for hand sanitizer made from sexual lubricant! No, I am not posting this to my Facebook page! Peter does what he can to help others.

Be the person God created you to be in these testing times. Do what brings you hope and peace and calm and joy. You do you.

Posted in Coronavirus, Mental Health, Peter Leonard | 3 Comments

Dolly Parton and ++Michael Curry on the Power of Love

by Savitri Hensman, community worker, author of “Sexuality, Struggle and Saintliness” and LGBTI+ equality activist

Savi

The Most Revd Michael Curry is the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church. In 2018, watched by many millions across the world, he preached at the wedding of Harry Windsor and Meghan Markle. Dolly Parton is a talented, bestselling country and bluegrass singer and songwriter. She is also an actor and founded a non-profit organisation.

No-one would mistake one for the other.

He is black, she is white with a trademark blonde wig. Both are American and both are Christians committed to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) inclusion. Also, both have recently prompted numerous people in various countries to think afresh about marriage and love.

Two weddings and a lot of love. Storytelling is often a feature of Dolly Parton’s music. She takes this a step further in a new Netflix series, ‘Heartstrings’, with episodes based on several of her most memorable songs. At the beginning of ‘Two Doors Down’, the second episode, she describes how those she toured with included people of ‘different colours, gay, lesbian, transgender and all different faiths. But it didn’t matter, as long as we all loved each other and got along,…What it all comes down to is love is love, in road families and real families.’

In this funny, moving drama which she worked on with screenwriter Mark B Perry, she focuses on how a mother plans an elaborate wedding for her daughter which goes wildly awry. Gay and trans family members do not easily fit into her narrow view of how the world should be; there again, few of those gathered are quite as they seem. As the big moment approaches, numerous closets tumble open and various secrets are revealed – with an accident or two thrown into the mix!

This proved strong stuff for some of her more ‘conservative’ fans and a number walked out of a preview in the deep South, although others stayed. The episode works dramatically by keeping viewers guessing what will happen next whilst also providing some characters to whom they can easily relate. These, naturally, will be different for different audience members.

Yet whether or not immediately sympathetic, none of the bride’s family are mere caricatures. And those watching may, by the end, find their perspective broadened (I must admit I did). Change can happen when connections are made and others see, in another’s story, something which resonates with their own story or when they glimpse some shared values.

Whilst religion does not play a major part in the drama in any obvious sense, such themes as kindness, faithfulness, truth and forgiveness will be familiar to all Bible-readers. So will the motif of a party where neighbours are invited to set aside their hurt, rejoice with others and find healing and love again.

The real-life wedding in 2018 thankfully went far more smoothly.

In the years preceding this wedding, Bishop Michael had taken a fair amount of flak on behalf of his Church, based mainly in the USA, because of its stance on justice for all, including for LGBT people. As many will know, the Anglican Communion has many senior clergy who are not just non-affirming but who are actually openly hostile to the LGBT community. In dealing with these leaders he had been both gracious and firm, which we know reflects his own beliefs and approach.

His memorable sermon started with a theme set out in the Song of Songs, centred on passionate love. ‘There’s a certain sense in which, when you are loved, and you know it, when someone cares for you, and you know it, when you love and you show it – it actually feels right. There’s something right about it,’ he said. ‘Ultimately, the source of love is God himself: the source of all of our lives.’

This goes beyond the love of a couple for each other. ‘Christ’s ‘way of unselfish, sacrificial, redemptive love changes lives, and it can change this world.’ It lights a fire that can feed the hungry, end war and lead to ‘a new heaven, a new earth, a new world, a new human family.’

Not everyone liked the style of his sermon. Others disagreed with his theology, which was focused on God’s realm on earth where all are valued. Yet his words touched and inspired many – non-Christians included. The high-profile occasion made it harder to marginalise his church’s attempts, however imperfectly, to put these ideals into practice.

Changing hearts, minds and practice

It is a huge challenge to transform Church communities, institutions and the wider world into a place where LGBT+ people (and everyone else) feel fully valued. There is a risk of feeling as if nothing we do makes much difference, instead of celebrating what has been achieved and building on these foundations.

Alternatively, we may each assume that the approach we tend to take, which plays to our strengths or works in the settings with which we are familiar, is best.

The prophetic tradition is important – for there are times when the powerful and privileged need to be jolted out of complacency. Yet even in the Hebrew Bible, prophets often switched back and forth between diplomacy and fiery rhetoric to try to shift society towards holiness and justice. Both there and in the New Testament, poetry and stories tap into the imagination of readers and listeners, calling into question who is an ‘insider’ or ‘outsider’.

While safe places to vent indignation and frustration are needed, so too are spaces to share different opinions on how common goals might be achieved. Whilst it is helpful for those seeking change to question, indeed challenge, one another it is also important to listen to answers and value what people do, as well as noting what they do not do.

Dolly Parton and Michael Curry would not be as effective as they currently are if each had tried to work for LGBT inclusion using the other’s methods.

Few of us communicate as skilfully as either of these two giants but perhaps all can learn something from them, including the value of prayerfulness. Using our varying gifts and opportunities for influence, we can share the Divine invitation to set aside prejudice, break down barriers and, even amidst sorrow and uncertainty, join in celebrating love.

Posted in Human Sexuality, Savi Hensman | 1 Comment

“Yoga-Gate” – Fundamentalism in a Twist

by the Very Revd Nicholas Henshall, Dean of  Chelmsford

Nicholas Henshall

One of my fellow Deans recently faced “Yoga-gate”. A yoga class meeting in the nave of the Cathedral attracted negative attention. Just before Christmas a vicar banning yoga classes from church premises made it on to BBC Radio 2’s Jeremy Vine Show. And then just as Covid-19 made its presence felt the comedian Jenny Eclair poured public scorn on the whole Christian community for obsessing about such trivia at such a time as this.

On one level it is a side show that does not warrant serious attention. However, it is yet further evidence of a level of confusion and amnesia sometimes masquerading as “what the Bible really teaches” that is profoundly corrosive of the whole Scriptural witness.

Part of the issue here is that many contemporary Christians are unfamiliar with contemplative practice in the Christian tradition itself. Breathing exercises while seated are characteristic of all meditation practice and that is true as much of Christianity as of Hinduism and Buddhism. And for Christians – from Jesus’ early morning prayer times to the desert fathers and mothers, through the Hesychast movement and the Cloud of Unknowing to the opening up of contemplative prayer in the last few decades – there are precious gifts to share.

“Yoga-gate” also suggests that many of us are unfamiliar with the origins of yoga itself as practiced in the West. There is wide scholarly consensus that contemporary hatha yoga owes its origins to a combination of Danish and Indian gymnastics, plus British Army exercises as observed in 19th century Mysore. One of the perhaps quaint features of much contemporary yoga is that these origins are sometimes felt to be insufficiently glamorous. As a result, many yoga practitioners provide completely modern yoga postures with apparently ancient Sanskrit names. This is not helpful. It is what Eric Hobsbawm called “invented tradition”.

Even if it were the case that hatha yoga did spring from a clear alternative faith tradition, banning yoga from church premises remains problematic, not least in terms of what the Bible says. Certainly, the Bible and the whole Judaeo-Christian tradition are radically opposed to doctrinal syncretism. However, from Melkizedek onwards, the Bible is quite clear that God blesses pagans, gentiles, unbelievers, followers of other faith traditions, and uses them as both instruments of God’s purpose and as examples for us to imitate. God even gives the pagan Persian king Cyrus the Jewish title “Messiah”.

Jesus himself is clear in both teaching and practice. In Luke 4 the murderous anger of the synagogue congregation at Nazareth against Jesus is provoked not by his challenging manifesto (“the Spirit of the Lord is upon me…”) but by his insistence that God chooses to bless pagans like the widow of Zarephath and Naaman the Syrian rather than the faithful gathered in the synagogue. They are so shocked and appalled that they attempt a summary execution. It is no accident that Jesus makes the hero of his most famous story the despised follower of a heretical religion. We call him the good Samaritan.

Learning from the practice of other faith communities is also deeply characteristic of the Christian tradition. Christians inevitably inherited extraordinary gifts from Judaism, and – despite our contemporary stereotypes – Islam and Christianity have been very generous in learning from one another. Christians probably taught Muslims the practice of prostration in prayer, and then stopped practicing it ourselves. The ringing of bells before Christian worship derives directly from Francis of Assisi’s delight in the Muslim call to prayer during his visit to the Sultan. Again, the use of prayer beads – from the western rosary to the eastern prayer rope – is almost certainly a gift from Islam.

Most significantly, medieval Islamic scholars made Aristotle available to Christian theologians, something that changed the nature of western theology – catholic and evangelical – fundamentally. I love it that the leading UK Muslim lifestyle magazine, Emel, regularly runs features on St George as patron saint and common heritage for both English Christians and English Muslims. On a very pragmatic level it was beautiful to hear the Ethiopian Orthodox priest, Abba Aklilemariyam Komos, recently insisting that only building a new church in his community without restoring the local mosque would “disappoint God”.

Thomas Merton engaged deeply with other faith traditions. He was completely uninterested in their doctrinal superstructure as he fully recognised that different faith traditions believed different and incompatible things. But he was equally clear that people of different faith traditions can and should learn from each other’s practice without any doctrinal syncretism. Thus Sufis, Buddhists and Christians have little doctrinal shared ground but huge areas of shared contemplative practice from which they can and do all learn together. Indeed, I would suggest that over-busy Christians who have forgotten their contemplative roots have a great deal to learn about their own tradition from the contemplative practice of other faith traditions.

Which brings me back round to some serious theology. In the incarnation, God says a fantastic YES to the fact that we are embodied. Unfortunately, an overdose of Neo-Platonism in early Christianity and Augustine’s pessimism about the human body (for the west at least) has left a complicated legacy. Even extraordinary figures such as Francis of Assisi could still only see the body as “Brother Ass” to be drilled into submission. That has engendered among Christians a negativity about the body quite alien to the Bible.

The failure of the Christian tradition to find a way of giving a positive account of the body, with the consequent disastrous outcomes for our understanding of human sexuality, human dignity, the impact of poverty and so on, means that we urgently need better ways of discovering for ourselves the glorious and challenging implications of God “being found in human form”. Yoga is just one small way in which Christians can learn some great biblical values about the body.

Finally, maybe I need to declare an interest.

I wrecked my right shoulder in a road accident some fifteen years ago. They were in a car and I was on a bike, an unequal battle. Without yoga practice (much of it learned from physiotherapy) my right arm wouldn’t work and I wouldn’t be able to type these words. If you are interested in exploring yoga practice – especially as many of us will have enforced leisure in the months ahead – my own personal recommendation would be the videos of Barbara Curry. My three children (all in their mid-20s) would firmly go for Yoga with Adrienne (available online), but I am no longer quite that flexible! There is no evidence that either yoga teacher has ever misled us practitioners into worshipping foreign gods.

Posted in Establishment, Nicholas Henshall, Safeguarding, Social Justice | Leave a comment

Minding Our Adjectives…

by the Very Revd Dr David Ison, Dean of St Paul’s, Member of General Synod and Vice-Chair of the Ozanne Foundation

David ison 2

What do the words ‘biblical’ and ‘orthodox’ mean for you?

I trained at theological college (a very long time ago) with a particular calling to serve in the inner-city. I had a year’s placement in a city parish in Nottingham, and thought I was prepared for what lay ahead. But when I went to inner-city Deptford in London, I started to discover the adjectives I hadn’t been aware of before. In modern-day terms, I became aware of my unconscious bias.

At college, there were adjectives for specific perspectives on theology, such as ‘black’, ‘third-world’, or ‘feminist’. But what I’d failed to notice (Foucault and Derrida weren’t in vogue in my theological world) was that that there was no such thing as theology without adjectives. In the same way that there’s no context-less human being – we have a family, a nationality and a particular culture – so the way we do our thinking about God inevitably has adjectives in front of it.

Because I was a white, evangelical, middle-class, suburban, prosperous, educated, logical, male, heterosexual Christian, I hadn’t noticed that my theology (mostly) and my teachers (as far as I knew) were white, evangelical, middle-class, suburban, prosperous, educated, emotional, male, heterosexual… It was when I went to minister in a multi-cultural, unchurched, working-class, inner-city, poor, non-intellectual, disordered, stressful environment that I discovered what my adjectives were, and had to re-evaluate the theology I’d learnt which had prepared me for a very different culture.

That didn’t mean leaving the Christian gospel behind. But it did mean going back to Scripture to find other ways of reading and being read by the text, rather than starting with what people like me said the text was going to mean. And that required leaving behind some of my adjectives, the inherited culture I’d taken for granted: for example, having a very restricted view of who should receive communion based on a particular interpretation of what’ worthy reception’ meant in 1 Corinthians 11. It’s been uncomfortable and liberating over the years to discover more of what it means to follow Jesus Christ in the light of my comfortable assumptions being forcibly questioned by God’s reality.

Which brings me back to ‘biblical’ and ‘orthodox’: two adjectives which are apparently of universal meaning, but which are being used as markers of a particular, culturally conditioned theological perspective for those who have views which they might describe as ‘traditional’. The adjectives aren’t factual statements, but shorthand for perspectives which agree with a particular view.

The fact that people like me, who believe in the importance of Scripture and tradition and the need to engage with them, disagree with certain views (notably about women in ministry and marriage, and same-sex partnerships) must in the view of others make us unbiblical and unorthodox, ‘false teachers’. Whereas from my perspective (whatever adjectives you might give that depends on where you stand – I go for ‘inclusive and challenging’) I would agree on much of what ‘biblical and orthodox’ Christians believe as the fundamentals of the Christian gospel, but see beliefs around gender and sexuality as needing to be dynamic and eschatological (forward-oriented) rather than unchanging and creation-oriented: what is God calling us to become in Jesus Christ?

Another adjective which gets bandied about is ‘revisionist’. But revision and reform today can become tradition tomorrow. Look up the histories of Christian doctrine regarding violence, contraception, clerical power and clerical celibacy, for example, let alone the history of the Reformation.

It is of course possible for the Church to compromise with the ‘spirit of the age’ and deviate from its Christian roots. My predecessor, WR Inge, wrote shortly after becoming Dean of St Paul’s in 1911, ‘If you marry the spirit of your own generation you will be a widow in the next’. But that cuts both ways; it’s equally possible for Christians to cling on to the cultures of past generations and refuse to change when it’s needed.  When I was in training for ministry, our college principal Colin Buchanan used to say that the Church was only different from the world because it was ten years behind. I think he was being rather generous: it’s usually much further behind than that.

Holding onto the Christian culture of the 1950s, or of the 1550s, as if it were divinely inspired and the yardstick of what is ‘biblical’ and ‘orthodox’ is as mistaken as regarding Scripture and tradition as outmoded. The soon to be unveiled Learning in Love and Faith project in the Church of England is an opportunity to engage with the complexities of this in regard to human sexuality, and an opportunity for all of us to face what we will find to be uncomfortable realities, in order to unearth those adjectives we hadn’t noticed we possess, and use them with more care regarding ourselves and others.

It will be both biblical and orthodox to seek God in Christ by engaging in this self-critical encounter together…

 

 

 

 

Posted in Dean of St Pauls, Human Sexuality, Living in Love & Faith | 5 Comments