What is the music of Jesus?
Sermon for West Mersea Patronal Festival 2017

I had planned to make these remarks at our AGM this year, but for many good and varied reasons there were very few of us at that meeting, so I have kept them back for a more popular occasion.

When I was on retreat last December I read Amanda Palmer’s fascinating book ‘The Art of Asking’. In amongst other things she discusses her accommodation in New York when she was just starting out. The landlord was clearly a remarkable character, who was concerned as much to establish an artistic haven as to maximise his rent. He saw his role as one of enabling others to flourish creatively, rather than to do so himself.

That struck me as being very close to the role of incumbent within a parish. “In the beginning was the Word” and that applies to each of us individually, we each have a word from God that we need to speak. We often call this our ‘vocation’ – the word that God spoke which gives us life.

You are each marvellous and amazing and miraculous and wonderful – my job is to help you become all that you were originally created to be.

How might that be done?

I want to share with you an ecological term of art, which is legibility. If we think of an old growth forest then we are considering something complex that has been built up over time. Comparing that to a modern commercial tree plantation it is easy to see how that is more ‘legible’ than the first – much more efficient, much more capable of being exploited by the landowners. Similarly, if we compared the City of London with all its small streets and byways with a modern city, say Milton Keynes or an American city, the latter are much more ‘legible’ than the former.

St Peter and St Paul’s is an old growth forest, a medieval city. My role is to curate that variety, sometimes pruning, sometimes fertilising, but always with a view to preserving the breadth of life that is possible in this place. What I believe we need to avoid is an emphasis upon what is legible, able to be controlled from above, which sees human beings as resources to be extracted in favour of a different agenda. This may mean that not everything we do will make coherent sense; it means that we will have to live with frustrations and contradictions.

For this to happen, however, one thing is essential. In our common life together lots of decisions need to be made, small and large. We need to respect and affirm our differences from each other. As St Paul puts it, the head cannot say to the foot we don’t need you. We need each other! But we can only do this if we love each other more than we love our own preferences. Our unity is in Christ alone.

To that end, the PCC have supported me in developing what we have called the “Big Sing”. This is an informal and relaxed service which is designed to reach those who haven’t been reached, or who have been put off, by what we do as a church. One remark that has always stayed with me from the priest of my sponsoring parish, where I began my own journey to fulfilling my vocation, was “the empty seats also have a voice”. I believe that it is essential that we reach out to those who are not part of our fellowship. The Big Sing will not be for everyone – there will be more emphasis upon modern styles of music for a start – but I would ask you to please support it, please invite a friend if you think they might enjoy it.

Which brings me to a point about our church more generally, at a wider, perhaps a national level. I am a fan of Game of Thrones, both the books and the television series. It is a fantasy sequence, a sort of cross between The Wars of the Roses and Lord of the Rings. The foreground conflict is about the struggle between various noble houses for control of the throne of the kingdom, hence the title ‘Game of Thrones’. Yet overshadowing that conflict is the looming reality of an army of ice zombies that are about to march south upon humanity, who represent the real danger.

I rather think that this describes our own beloved Church of England. We squabble simply because we are not spiritually serious. We have taken our eyes away from the most fundamental concerns, and now we waste our time bickering about secondary questions – adiaphora.

What would it look like if we were spiritually serious? I recently had a conversation with Ian (organist) which I have been thinking a great deal about. Ian pointed out that if he wanted to learn about Mozart, he might read all sorts of good books about Mozart’s life, be taught lots of interesting things about his relationships, his context, his life and death – but if he never heard Mozart’s music then the most essential element of who Mozart was – his vocation, his ‘word of God’ – would be missed.

So the question becomes: what is the music of Jesus?

My answer is a work in progress, but at the moment it looks something like this: Jesus was a teacher, yet to say that ‘the music of Jesus’ was his teaching would, I believe, remove the most essential thing. For Jesus’ teaching was almost always embedded in the whole of a life. Jesus spent his ministry performing signs, acts of power which were often healing or exorcisms. It is these ‘signs and wonders’ that I believe to be the music of Jesus, and I believe they culminate in the events of the great three days, that is, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday.

More particularly, I don’t believe that we can capture the music of Jesus simply by considering his works as ‘doing good’. Please don’t misunderstand my point here. I do believe that it is the work of the church to ‘do good’. I have been struck by the accounts of the Grenfell Tower blaze, and the way in which the local churches became community hubs of service and aid. As Giles Fraser put it, the churches did the most essential things right: they opened their doors and turned their lights on, and the community was able to use them.

Yet I believe that the church can become distracted by thoughts of ‘doing good’, because it is in fact much easier (and more socially approved of) than the harder spiritual tasks that we are in fact called to. The feeding of the five thousand was not a proto-food bank; rather, it was a highly political event which had, amongst other things, a dismantling of social divisions at its heart.

Put simply, the music of Jesus is both more political and more spiritual than ‘doing good’ can capture. This is why our worship is more important than anything else, why we need to root our lives in the sacraments which shape us spiritually. Politics and spiritual warfare fit together like hands and gloves – it is not an accident that Jesus was executed by the state. I believe that it is only through a concentration on the spiritual essentials that we will gain the spiritual maturity that we need to cope with our differences.

I believe that there is a particular genius to the Church of England, to being a broad church, pursuing a via media between different extremes, within which a large variety of people can find spiritual nourishment and healing. I have been influenced greatly by the Tractarian movement, what is now called ‘Anglo-Catholicism’ which has a three-fold emphasis: the claim that God became physical flesh; that we can meet God through the physical substance in the Eucharist; and that we are called to serve the physical flesh of Christ in our neighbours. There is one comment from a key leader of the Tractarian movement that has served for me as something of an aim and guide, not as an achievement(!), and it is this: “Even if the Church of England were to fail, it would still be found in my parish.” (John Keble)

May we show forth something of the spiritual power of Christ as we find our own vocations here on this wonderful island of Mersea; may we hear the music of Jesus, and play it for others to hear as well. Amen.

General Election Hustings in West Mersea

Tomorrow night at 7.30pm at St Peter and St Paul’s Church, West Mersea.

Parliamentary candidates from five political parties are coming to answer questions from the public.

They will be asked about many of the issues that YOU are concerned about, including Bradwell power station.

Please do come along. It’s not too late to submit a question to me by email – the blog name at gmail dot com.

The sharing of joy, not the shouting of jargon

This morning I gave a talk to members of West Mersea church about the nature of outreach, in preparation for the Diocesan centenary next year. These are my written-up notes, not a pure transcript of what was said.

There is something a little dispiriting when someone in authority tries to ginger up activity on behalf of the Church of England by declaiming that ‘the Church will be dead in a generation!’. Frankly, who cares? My concern with such language is that it is speaking from a place of fear rather than faith, and that, as such, it can never be good news, it can never be gospel. This is precisely what I believe we must avoid.

It calls to mind something which I have been exploring with my house group recently. We have been steadily working our way through Olivier Clement’s ‘The Roots of Christian Mysticism’, and we came across this extremely striking passage, extracted from the Shepherd of Hermas:

Clothe yourself then in joy where God delights to be. Make it your delight. For every joyful person acts well, thinks rightly, and tramples sadness underfoot. The gloomy person on the other hand always acts badly. In the first place such a one does wrong by grieving the Holy Spirit who is given to us as joy. Then … the gloomy person is guilty of impiety in not praying to the Lord … for prayer offered in sadness lacks the strength to ascend to the altar of God . . . Sadness mingled with prayer prevents it from rising, just as vinegar mingled with wine robs it of its flavour . . . Purify your heart then of the sadness that is evil, and you will be living for God. And all those who have stripped themselves of sadness in order to put on joy will likewise be living for God.

Now here, as with the archetypal mad professor handling fuming test tubes with tongs, we need to be very careful, if we are not simply to add greater burdens to our backs. I take the point of this passage to be that when we are in touch with the gospel, that is, when we are in touch with the good news that has given us joy, then we are enabled and strengthened to act rightly. This does not mean that, for example, our sufferings are caused by a lack of faith. It is to insist that if we are to act fully, and act from a basis of faith, then we also need to act from the basis of joy.

Consider the poor ladies recently released from thirty years of captivity in South London. Imagine what they felt in becoming free, the total transformation of their lives, and imagine what sort of language might come close to expressing their emotions. This is how we are to understand someone like St Paul, and, most especially, this is how we are to understand the grounds for his writings. Consider the passage that we had last week from Colossians – the famous passage about Christ, which is very philosophical. What needs to be kept in mind is the context that comes first, when Paul writes about being drawn out of darkness into the Kingdom of the Son. It is this experience which comes first, and all the metaphysics comes later. Unless we are able to retain a connection with the liberating joy which is the fuel for that philosophical reflection then we become ‘resounding gongs, or clashing cymbals’.

People will doubtless be aware that I find Russell Brand quite interesting at the moment. Have a watch of this video, where he is interviewing members of Westboro Baptist Church:

I find this remarkable, but also quite chilling. I wonder how many people see a vaster array of similarities between my church and the Westboro Baptists, rather than the differences. Whilst I don’t see Brand as orthodox, he is much closer to my own centre of spiritual gravity.

What we have here, I believe, is a perfect example of bad evangelism. It is one that emphasises a particular metaphysical framework, and uses particular jargon. If we say to someone outside the Christian conversation ‘Jesus died to save you from your sins’ it invites various responses: What sin? What IS sin? Why would a loving God set things up in this way anyway? In other words, the language is baroque and meaningless. It is because we know that this is how such words are likely to be received that so many hearts sink when evangelism is discussed.

What we need to pay attention to is the pattern of life which gives the language its context, and therefore meaning. It is the pattern of life and only the pattern of life that can make such language intelligible. I worry that much use of such traditional language is simply the echo of a faithful pattern of life that has now passed away. It is only when we are able to act in loving ways to each other that those who see us talk about love so much can begin to understand what we mean by it. If we continue to use such language, but act in hateful ways, then the words fall to the floor, fruitless.

If we are to engage with the world, and share good news, then we need to be rooted in our joys and not in our fears. We need to be on the path of becoming the people that God has created and called us to be. It is when we do this, when we are helping each other pursue our passions, that God can work his way through us, and we do not hinder Him.

I believe that this is part of the emphasis of the new Pope – as with his latest encyclical, but consider this:

“In ideologies there is not Jesus: in his tenderness, his love, his meekness. And ideologies are rigid, always. Of every sign: rigid. And when a Christian becomes a disciple of the ideology, he has lost the faith: he is no longer a disciple of Jesus, he is a disciple of this attitude of thought… For this reason Jesus said to them: ‘You have taken away the key of knowledge.’ The knowledge of Jesus is transformed into an ideological and also moralistic knowledge, because these close the door with many requirements. The faith becomes ideology and ideology frightens, ideology chases away the people, distances, distances the people and distances of the Church of the people. But it is a serious illness, this of ideological Christians. It is an illness, but it is not new, eh?”

The work of evangelism is not a sales pitch. We do not have to distort ourselves in order to appeal to the world. That, in fact, is a blasphemy. We are made in the image of God, and we each have a vocation to reveal a particular facet of that image to the world. If we allow the world to determine what is revealed and what isn’t, then we deface that image.

This applies to worship too. Worship is not oriented around evangelism – which isn’t to say that worship of itself cannot bring someone to faith, obviously it can. No, worship has to be oriented around God alone, else it ceases to be worship and becomes a golden calf, a source of poison for the community. That doesn’t mean that worship never changes, it means that the grounds for the change have to be internal – ‘what will enable this community to worship God more fully?’ – rather than external – ‘what will appeal to the outsider?’

Evangelism understood as a burden is a falsehood. As if the cry is
“what can we do to make ourselves loved again?” Evangelism will arise naturally and spontaneously, as a direct consequence of pursuing our vocations – and finding joy in doing so – or not at all. Isn’t this what we mean by being led by the Spirit? As we consider how and where to reach out to the community, I believe that our joys will help us discern our answers. Let us get to know our joys and we can then build from there.

I believe that the church does have something to offer the wider world, and I do have confidence in the faith. I watched the film Gravity recently, and I believe it is a wonderful picture of much modern life.

246181id1c_Gravity_Teaser_27x40_1Sheet_CG10.indd

A human being, surrounded by the highest and most effective forms of technology available, yet utterly isolated and longing for home. I believe that this describes a great many people in our world, in our community.

What we can offer is a forgiving community, a place where people can be accepted as beings not doings. After all joy is a being not a doing. How can you ‘do’ joy? Joy comes when we experience that peace which the world cannot give, when we are at home in the world, when we are finding our purpose and point. This, in turn, gives rise to engagement in social justice – for how can we stand idly by when the opportunities for others to pursue their vocation are denied or worse? The heart of evangelism is outwardly focussed – on the welfare and service of the other – not inwardly focussed, on what might best serve the welfare of the church. In doing so, the church stands over against the world, especially a world that sees human beings as interchangeable commodities, to be used and abused as economic exigencies dictate.

We need to be about the business of sharing joy, not shouting jargon. If our inherited language retains sense then that will be shown by our lives. We need to be a blessing to the world, as salt and yeast and light, not a drain. We need to act on the assumption that God has gone ahead of us in all of our work and his gracious activity is already bearing fruit. In other words, we need to be able to join in and celebrate with the joys of the world – and it may just be that we discover and affirm our own joys in the process.

~~

The Diocesan material followed.

~~

Today is simply a beginning, to help people begin thinking about the process of outreach. There is a lot of more detailed work to be done. Further dates:
Saturday 1st March – study morning (10am!!) to plan the big weekend
Pentecost Sunday – a commissioning and releasing for the work
28th/29th June – the big weekend (to be confirmed)
21st September – gathering in for Harvest

Of Statistics, Scoundrels and Scandalmongers

Some readers may recall an article of mine discussing climate change, and especially something called the ‘Hockey Stick’. This was a graph designed to show temperatures over the last thousand years, with an abrupt and decisive upturn of temperatures in the twentieth century – in other words, a graph that looked like a hockey stick. This was featured on the cover of a report prepared by the International Panel on Climate Change some years ago, and milked for maximum publicity.

Sadly, the graph was laughably and lamentably incorrect. Indeed, it was not just incorrect, it was a statistical artefact produced by manipulating the underlying temperature records in a certain way, according to a particular method. One critic even put random information from a telephone directory into the same system, in order to demonstrate that no matter what information was put in, a ‘hockey stick’ graph would result.

After this became widely known, there was a leak of correspondence from the Climate Unit at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, which shed much light on how the hockey stick graph had come to be formed. In sum, a group of scientists were so committed to the overall story of catastrophic global warming that they actively sought to suppress alternative points of view, not simply in their own research but also through manipulating the ‘peer review’ process. If there was information that didn’t fit the story that they were committed to, then it had to be eliminated. So much for the scientific method. (For those who wish to explore this question further, the best guide remains Andrew Montford’s ‘The Hockey Stick Illusion’.)

I think of this story whenever I see statistics being used to advance a particular agenda, and it was especially brought to mind by the recent ‘Endpiece’ in these pages, which purported to show how “the world’s least religious nations are the most moral, peaceful and humane”. Where to begin shooting the fish in this particular barrel? Let me just emphasise the fundamental logical point. Even if we grant for the sake of argument that the presently secular countries are more humane places, that only establishes a correspondence, not a causation. For the Endpiece writer to justify their conclusion they would need to show that the greater social welfare in these countries was caused by non-religious activity; indeed, to be a really strong case, the writer would need to show that the secular is better at promoting social welfare than the religious. Ideally, the writer would point to all the ways in which the cultivation of social welfare was taught in secular institutions, thereby bringing out into the open precisely what is understood by ‘social welfare’ in the secular view, and contrast this with the understanding of ‘social welfare’ that is taught by the religious institutions. The greater the contrast, the more likely that the writer’s point can be justified.

Of course, I think the project is doomed from the start. Given the way in which Christian thinking has informed progressive practice over the last several centuries (health care, education, the abolition of slavery to mention just a few) and continues to do so (who are the people running the food banks?) the disentangling of Christian social practice from a supposedly secular social practice seems to me like the definition of tilting at a windmill. We need more secular Sancho Panzas to provide the requisite commentary on these Quixotic endeavours, rather than leaving it to Christians like me.

Talking of tilting at windmills with tired old tropes, I feel I should say something about Alan Shillum’s article in the last issue. Mr Shillum was responding to my claim that a culture of vindictive accusation and blame has become prevalent in our national print media. In saying that, I don’t believe that I am very far from the national consensus – informed as it has been by the investigations into such joyous activities as the hacking of Milly Dowler’s phone. Notice, however, the grounds on which Mr Shillum seeks to defend the press – he argues from numbers, as if might made right, essentially saying ‘we’re more important than the churches, so shut up’. Mr Shillum claims “many more people on Mersea buy and read the Mail on Sunday than collectively attend the island’s churches”, and then asserts that there are “5,000 readers every Sunday just on this little island”. Given that there are only about 8,000 residents on the island, of all ages, that’s a pretty impressive rate of media penetration! If we assume that those under the age of 18 generally don’t read printed newspapers – which I think is a conservative guess – Mr Shillum clearly believes that just about every adult on the island does so; and people believe that we Christians are the delusional ones.

Let’s stick to the boasting about numbers though, in particular whether it is true that “many more” people read the Mail on Sunday than attend the churches. If we compare purchasing the paper to actually attending a church on a reasonably regular basis, then I don’t see much difference. The two Anglican churches on the Island have a combined membership of around 260; if we add to that the members of other churches then “about 500” applies to both the Daily Mail and the active Christian church. Ah, but there are three readers for every purchaser! Well, how many believers are there for every member? If the last census is to be believed, something like 70% of Mersea residents claim a Christian affiliation (down from 80% in 2001 – but then, newspaper circulations seem to have halved over the same period).

The thing is, might does not make right. Even if it were true that the newspapers had ten times as many dedicated supporters as all the churches in England, it would not make their behaviour righteous. Indeed, the notion that it could is part of the problem with the overweening arrogance and disregard for ethical and truthful conduct displayed so despicably by the press in recent years. Hopefully the Leveson inquiry and the various trials will lead to a new code of journalistic ethics and a renewed vitality and integrity in journalism. Heaven knows we need the whistle-blowers, as I have argued in these pages before. We can’t do without a free press – it is one of the “foundational freedoms” that I described a few weeks ago – which is why those activities which bring the press itself into question are doubly damaging.

We need, as a culture, to become much more humble about the truth – and quite possibly, writers of opinion columns in newspapers need to take especial care to cultivate that particular virtue. Part of what this means is being open about our own perspectives, the biases that we bring to our arguments. When this is open and well understood then it is easier for others to point out the errors of fact or logic that may enable the conversation as a whole to journey closer to the truth. It is only when there is a culture of openness and transparency that the social welfare is built up. There is no such thing as a completely unbiased perspective; there is only the question of whether a particular tradition has the internal capacity to critique itself. Without that, all that is left is the power struggle.

So what are my biases? Hopefully, unlike an anonymous author, my biases are obvious. I’m a committed Christian, someone who accepts the stories about Jesus as being essentially eye-witness testimony, and who accepts Jesus as the human face of God. Flowing directly from that, I’m a humanist; I’m in favour of all that leads to the full flourishing of each and every human being on this planet, and for generations to come. Flowing directly from that, I am profoundly sceptical of the power that is wielded by the ‘principalities and powers’ that dominate our public life, amongst which I include not just the government but also the other big beasts, such as industries, unions, media and, yes, the institutional churches. What I would like to be is a gadfly, or, perhaps, the small child pointing out when the Emperor is naked. Speaking of which…

An update from Rector Sam

(This is going in the new parish newsletter; thought it would make sense to put it on here too.)

Many of you will be aware that it has been something of an eventful year for me. It may help if I simply list a few key developments:

- I was away on sick leave for three months this summer, the result of exhaustion brought on by sustained stress. I am hoping that whilst the fundamental structural problems relating to my workload (the responsibility of the Diocese) have not been addressed, I am now in a better position to cope with the consequences of that inaction;
- sadly, Rolanda and I have now divorced. We are on good terms, and the children are sharing their time between the Rectory and Rolanda’s new home in The Lane;
- I have stepped down from all of my non-parish responsibilities in the hope that I can sustain my changed family commitments. This means that I am no longer the Area Warden of Ordinands; the Area Healing and Deliverance Advisor; nor a member of the Deanery Pastoral and Standing committee. In addition my day off has reverted back to Friday, and I shall only be working alternate Saturdays;
- I have agreed with Bishop Stephen that I shall be staying in my present post for the foreseeable future.

I am very grateful for all of the love and support that I have received these last few months. I am particularly grateful to the ministry team for stepping in to the gaps thrown up by my absence. As I’m sure you will appreciate, mine and my family’s lives have been through a great upheaval, but things do now look to be settling down and I believe that we can look forward to a more stable future.

With my thanks for our partnership in the gospel…

The joy of good, live theatre

Courier article
Well, after an enjoyable cameo role in the panto I’ve managed to get myself a substantial part in the next Mersea Island Players production at the MICA. I’m acting as the director of a small amateur dramatic society, who at one point is rehearsing a part acting as a vicar, so I’m definitely cast against type.

In amidst all the enjoyable strains of learning lines and rehearsing I’ve been thinking about the nature of the theatre, and why ‘good, live theatre’ is an irreplaceable experience. I say that despite being something of a movie addict myself, who hardly ever goes to watch live performances any more. So why do I think theatre is irreplaceable? Well, it’s similar to the difference between work which is done by craft and that which is manufactured.

With live theatre, the emphasis is upon the particular moment. There is something happening in this place and at this time – there are real human beings watching and being watched – and, of course, there is the ever-present risk of something going wrong, whether that be forgetting lines or having an accident or lighting failure and so on. In other words, there is something unique about live theatre as an event. Contrast this with a movie, especially a modern blockbuster. The very essence of what is happening is that it is both manufactured and repeatable. Rather than a direct human interaction between performer and audience, the actors are often recorded in front of a ‘green screen’ on which all the special effects will later be portrayed. This is a fascinating process, and the results range from the awful (Star Wars prequels) to the groundbreaking (the Matrix) yet even when the results are good, it is a very different experience to watch a movie rather than a play.

There is something undeniably primitive about watching another human being act out a story. Small children know and enjoy this intuitively, and will happily play dress-up and act out stories for hours on end. Adults often have that sense of excited wonder drained out of them by all the vicissitudes of life – and the wonderful thing about ‘good, live theatre’ is that is provides a context in which that sense of wonder and engagement can be resurrected. It’s not an accident that I’m using religious language there, for there is an ancient link between theatre and religious ritual – indeed, there is an ongoing academic debate about which emerged from the other. Was it that religious ritual was a particular form of theatre, or that theatre was a particular form of ritual? Whichever is the case, the nature of being able to share in a common experience, journeying through a common story and being changed by that process – this is right at the heart of what makes theatre so special.

This was well known to the ancient Greeks, from whom much of our understanding of theatre descends. They talked about something called ‘theōria’ – a word that has come down to us as ‘theory’ but, as is so often the case, that ‘coming down to us’ is a descent in more ways than one. For the Greeks, theōria was something immensely practical. Aristotle argued that theōria, the philosophical consideration of the nature of things, is the highest and most enjoyable activity there can be, it is the central purpose of the best possible human life. To our ears, this sounds like something very abstract and almost passive. In translations of Aristotle, theōria is normally rendered as ‘contemplation’ which suggests a single, steady gaze held on a single impressive object, like a telescope focused on the peak of a high mountain. This is very much not what Aristotle had in mind. On the contrary, what Aristotle had in mind was something called “sacralized spectating” – the sort of very vigorous and engaged communal experience that comes from a community watching something like the Olympic Games together (either then or now) – or, of course, watching a tragedy in the theatre at Athens. In other words, to participate by watching is at the heart of what the greatest thinkers in antiquity felt was the best sort of life. Our modern media gives us many ways in which to do this – and a dark movie theatre is a very good way in which to do this – yet there is something irreplaceable about ‘good, live theatre’. It is unique, it is profoundly engaging, and it is chthonically human.

Which is why we on Mersea are so extremely fortunate to have the MICA centre available for such productions, and if my view of how the coming years are likely to unfold has any merit, I believe that we will be making much more use of such community resources in the future. To have a neutral community space that can be adapted for such a purpose is a great blessing – long may it last. So please do come along! There are two one-act plays being performed each night on Friday 3rd and Saturday 4th May at 7.30pm. They contain adult content (theme and language) and even though I’m partisan, I do think that the scripts are hilarious – the plays have been performed to great acclaim at the Edinburgh festival for example. I just hope that we actors can do justice to the lines…