About Elizaphanian

Rector of West Mersea

Evidence ≠ Proof

There are so many remarkable things about what is happening in the United States at the moment. It is clearly in the throes of a constitutional crisis, which has been a long time coming, and will take many years to work through. We can hope and pray for wisdom, mercy and civil peace while they go through it. The US – and the world – may look very different on the other side, and it is in everyone’s interests for the US to be healthy.

I want to draw attention to one thing, though, which troubles me. The US mainstream media (MSNBC, NBC, ABC, etc! ) have been consistent in cutting off Trump’s rather bizarre speech last night. The “print” media has followed suit, and is being remarkably robust in pushing back against Trump’s claims.

I have no doubt that there is an immense amount of untruth, half-truth, exaggeration and simple bull$H!+ in what Trump has said – I haven’t listened to it, nor will I, but I base that remark on everything I have heard from him in other contexts. He’s an appalling politician, on all sorts of levels (still might be the best available option – that’s another conversation).

Yet all that can be true and it still be the case that ‘there is something rotten in the state of Denmark’. Just because a fool says that the sun will rise tomorrow, it doesn’t mean that the sun won’t rise. These claims need to be investigated thoroughly, and due process needs to be followed. If the system breaks down – and one of the more dangerous things that Trump has done is undermine faith in the system – everyone loses. The rule of law and the democratic process MUST be upheld, and seen to be upheld. It’s a Caesar’s wife situation.

I found the video footage (circulating on twitter) of what appeared to be an election official filling in blank ballot papers alarming to behold. Then I read that this is apparently standard practice when the original ballot paper cannot be machine read. There is claim and counter claim – evidence gets offered one way or the other (that’s what evidence IS) and eventually a judgement is reached. Evidence is not proof of wrong-doing, it’s saying ‘there is something funny going on here’.

From what I have observed in my semi-detached state, I think that there is evidence of wrong doing that needs to be investigated thoroughly and properly. There are clearly many problems in many states relating to due process, many of which were flagged up twenty years ago with Bush/Gore. It’s interesting to me that Florida seems to have updates its processes in a way that other states have not, but I’ve not examined things closely. I suspect we’re going to have a 2020 equivalent of ‘hanging chads’ pretty soon – Sharpie smudges perhaps?

Trump’s claims are ‘unproven’ and ‘alleged’ and so on. I think it’s fair enough to describe his claims in that way; I’m not sure it is right to shut him down completely and exclude those views from the public square. I think 2020 still has some surprises in store for us, and it would not be out of character for this year for Trump to eventually succeed in remaining President, which would leave the various media organisations with something of a problem. Well, they have lots of problems already.

More broadly, it seems to me that the coalition that Trump has pulled together – effectively the US equivalent of Red Tory – is going to win huuuuugely next time out. It’s the person who wins the next presidential election – who I expect to be a younger, more charismatic and charming version of Trump – who will end up guiding the US forward. I just hope the world doesn’t endure too much damage whilst the US undergoes some necessary refitting.

Open Source Anglicanism

I wonder how many readers of this article have heard of Open Source software? This is software for which the underlying programming code is publicly available and open to general use. Linux is a good example – it is a computer operating system run on open source lines, and does the same job as Windows, the product made by Microsoft. Due to the advantages that open source has over Windows, Linux, and software derived from Linux, now makes the digital world go round – it powers 8 out of 10 servers, which are what enable the internet to function.

One of the key advantages of Linux is that it avoids what is called ‘bloatware’ which is when a program becomes bigger and bigger over time – and takes up more and more room on your hard drive – and then slows down your computer, which becomes more and more prone to crashing. Bloatware means that the processing power of your computer is expended on inessential tasks. Microsoft filled Windows with bloatware because they thought that more features made their products more attractive, and they wanted to make more money. The Microsoft way is of a managerialism seeking to control everything from the centre, whereas the open source way is all about letting go of a desire to control the outcomes. It is purely about the process. Simply put, in the great majority of contexts, open source software is better than closed source software – it fosters co-operation and creativity and it is more reliable and more secure.

My question is: might it be possible for the Church of England to learn something from this? Might we be able to establish an ‘open source Anglicanism’? If we take the equivalent to the software code as ‘the gospel as the Church of England has received it’ then it is the job of those in the line of apostolic succession to spread that code and nothing else. The apostolic task is to teach the truth of the gospel, and to guard it against error, against heresy. This guarding doesn’t have to be done by an inquisition, it can be done simply by guarding boundaries – and the mechanism for this is already in place, it’s called a Bishop’s license. Everything else is ultimately disposable.

That means letting go of the fears which drive the need to control the outcomes – it’s a spiritual undertaking that can only be carried forward when we let go of our fears and properly learn to love God and trust the Holy Spirit. Everything else runs in the direction of ecclesiastical bloatware, and the Church of England has been suffocating for decades beneath that bloat, giving rise to tragedy and fiasco in equal measure. It is why our numbers have collapsed; it is why if we don’t change what we are doing, we will cease to exist within the next generation or so.

Open source Anglicanism doesn’t do anything other than teach the gospel as the Church of England has received it; or, to be clear, open source Anglicanism allows a very great many things to be done under the umbrella of Anglicanism, but they are not done by central direction, management and control. They are simply what are done by enthusiastic and faithful Anglicans in their own place and time.

So there are no central initiatives. There is simply a central teaching resource, embodied in the Diocesan Bishop and continually renewed, so that the gospel is proclaimed afresh in each generation. How that is done is then left to those who have the license in their own context. There is a minimal central organisation. The Bishop has a small staff of administrative and legal support, but concentrates on teaching the faith and enabling those who share in the cure of souls to conduct that task – so pastor to the pastors.

As for the clergy, once they are ordained and licensed, they have independence within that framework. Incumbency drives out priesthood – so let’s not have any clergy incumbents, and give all the legal control over parishes to the laity. Why on earth is it the business of a priest to decide what wording goes on a gravestone? Let priests be required to minister word and sacrament – and let anything else that they do be up to them. Let the stipend return to truly being a stipend!

Open source Anglicanism – in which the role of the officers of the church is to share the gospel by word and sacrament, and almost nothing else – is really a return to how the church started. All the essential things about Anglicanism, the Lambeth quadrilateral, these remain untouched – but all that has accumulated around those essentials is let go of. So often I feel that as a Church we have forgotten our core purpose, and we spend all our energies scratching around for more or less suitable substitutes, which, funnily enough, regularly follow the fashions of the day. We have forgotten that we are supposed to focus on the gospel, so we end up focussing on myriad other things, and we do them very badly, and the outside world looks on us with bemusement and contempt. We wrestle with the inertia of our inherited habits, and we don’t give ourselves the time to dig deep and ask who or what our present practices are actually serving.

If the Church of England is to pull out of its terminal descent it will only do so if it remembers how to trust the Holy Spirit, and recognises that the gospel itself is inherently contagious. We need to overcome the inertia of our inherited institutional imperatives – the blockage of ecclesiastical bloat. This is where we’re going to end up anyway, so why not co-operate with what God is bringing about? I passionately believe in the Gospel as the Church of England has received it, so why not try Open Source Anglicanism? Let’s set the gospel free.

(A more fully worked out description of what I was originally mulling over here)

Can an Archbishop be a Christian witness?

On the day that the IICSA report was published, the Archbishop of Canterbury released what was described as a ‘personal statement’, which was remarkable for its absence of Christian language, sentiment or perspective. Why?

Part of the reason why it was so remarkable is that Archbishop Welby has displayed a distinctively Christian witness at other times. When his unconventional family background was disclosed Welby remarked graciously that he ‘found his identity in Jesus Christ’. He has also sought to speak clearly about Jesus whenever he is interviewed, which is a standard for all clergy to aspire to. He is clearly capable of explaining and advocating for the Christian faith – which is surely a minimum job requirement in his present role.

So the remarkable absence of a Christian witness from the Archbishop’s ‘personal statement’ cannot be explained away with accusations against our Archbishop’s own perspectives or theology. That would be both unkind and untrue.

There may be a clue in the text. Within the statement there are two mentions of the word ‘Church’ and one use of the word ‘pray’. There is no mention of Jesus, let alone reference to the great theo-drama of repentance and grace, of forgiveness and redemption. In other words, if we change the word ‘church’ to the word ‘institution’ then we have something that could have been sent out by any organisation in the corporate world.

This is the problem. It is boilerplate drafted by lawyers. So how have we come to such a pass as this? Someone who is evidently capable of distinctive and inspiring Christian witness is – in the very position when such witness would be most expected – unable to give, or is prevented from giving, a distinctively Christian response.

At which point I call to mind that salt that has lost its saltiness is no longer good for anything, and is fit only to be trampled underfoot.

The problem is clearly an institutional one, not a personal one. Those with greater insight and information than I may be able to specify which institutional forces are responsible for this eclipsing of the capacity for Christian witness on the part of our Archbishop of Canterbury. I suspect that it is insurance companies not wanting a public admission of liability, but I could well be wrong.

Yet what most concerns me is that, as an institutional body, we may have lost the capacity to exercise theological discernment on such a situation as this. We do not see how shocking and damaging it is for there to be an absence of distinctive Christian witness at a moment when – for awful and terrible reasons – the attention of our nation is upon us. Our leading representative is constrained to speak in the language of secular reputational management, and I want to ask ‘what does it profit a man if he protect a reputation yet lose his own soul?’ We have given the devil a foothold.

Because we cannot see, we cannot respond with faith. Clearly when it comes to our corporate response to all that IICSA has investigated we have gone out from the presence of Jesus – “and it was night”.

It seems to me that in order to maintain a capacity for manifesting a Christian witness we need to have an institutional memory of what it means not to be captured by what Scripture calls the principalities and powers. When the early church became acceptable to the wider culture, those who were most sensitive to the risks of being captured by the interests of the Empire withdrew to the desert, and we still benefit from the insights discovered then.

As the Church of England we need to remember what it is to go in to the desert, to live by faith alone, to be willing to let go of everything except the knowledge of Christ and him crucified.

Doing this will require real spiritual leadership, not corporate reputational management. We choose the latter rather than the former because we are frightened of the desert. We cling to inherited status. We strive to protect our image. We are unwilling to sell everything we own to gain the pearl of great price.

And because we fear, we die. The spirit of the Lord is departing from our places. We cling to the vessel, but have forgotten that the purpose of the vessel was to share the holy wine.

So what is to be done? We must remember our faith and let it once again bear a genuine weight in our corporate life. We must repent, and speak the language of repentance, and return to the Lord who has torn us and will heal us. We need to start taking the living God seriously again, and then let Him look after our reputation.

What is God doing with the Church of England?

(Something shared with my Deanery colleagues, as part of our conversation about finding a way forward)

This middle section of Thomas Hardy’s De Profundis really speaks to me:

Considerabam ad dexteram, et videbam; et non erat qui cognosceret me (Ps142.4)

When the clouds’ swoln bosoms echo back the shouts of the many and strong
That things are all as they best may be, save a few to be right ere long,
And my eyes have not the vision in them to discern what to these is so clear,
The blot seems straightway in me alone; one better he were not here.

The stout upstanders say, All’s well with us: ruers have nought to rue!
And what the potent say so oft, can it fail to be somewhat true?
Breezily go they, breezily come; their dust smokes around their career,
Till I think I am one horn out of due time, who has no calling here.

Their dawns bring lusty joys, it seems; their eves exultance sweet;
Our times are blessed times, they cry: Life shapes it as is most meet,
And nothing is much the matter; there are many smiles to a tear;
Then what is the matter is I, I say. Why should such an one be here?

Let him to whose ears the low-voiced Best seems stilled by the clash of the First,
Who holds that if way to the Better there be, it exacts a full look at the Worst,
Who feels that delight is a delicate growth cramped by crookedness, custom, and fear,
Get him up and be gone as one shaped awry; he disturbs the order here.

Like many others I have long been frustrated with the pervasive sense of unreality that seems to govern decisions made within our church. So many initiatives, so much cheerleading, so much refusal to face what is happening (for an example, see this General Synod paper on ‘resourcing the future’ from 2015, which begins “This is a moment of great opportunity for the Church of England.”)

“… things are all as they best may be, save a few to be right ere long…”

I want to begin our conversation in a different place. I want to ask “What is God doing with the Church of England at the moment?” For what I see is long-term structural collapse, that has been rolling forward for at least fifty years, with roots that extend backwards much further than that. I want to ask ‘what is God doing?’ because if we have no awareness of what God is doing we will not have the capacity to co-operate with what God is doing, and then all our doings are as nothing worth.

Most especially I want to insist of what is happening with the Church of England, the collapse that we are living through, that this is not an accident. I see the hand of God in this. If we thank God for the good why do we evade that with the bad? It’s as if we are comfortable saying thank you to God for good things and blessings that we received, but have somehow lost the capacity to experience God’s hand in the bad things that we experience. The bad things are assigned to rational or secular causes, or considered meaningless – which is an atheist framework. I want to say: the structural collapse of the Church of England is the working out of God’s Wrath, and unless we recover an understanding of what is meant by this language we will not be able to navigate forward.

So I ask: what is the most prominent cause for God’s Wrath when described in Scripture? Surely it is a lack of faith, a failure to worship the living God alone, a falling away from the first commandment which then has consequences for social justice, and, in time, political fallout too (most notably the Exile). We live in a society when it is comparatively easy and acceptable to live out the second commandment. I think we have settled into that comparative ease, and let the first commandment slide.

Before anything else, therefore, I think we need to honestly lament, and cry ‘God have mercy on us’ for our corporate lack of faith, with perhaps a day of fasting and prayer. We need to be able to grieve for what we have lost, and spend time recognising that we have played a part in this collapse due to our lack of faith.

What does our lack of faith look like?

I wonder how many of you saw Justin Welby’s ‘personal statement’ released following the publication of the IICSA report (text available here) I find it remarkable that the response of the institution to criticism is such a perfect example of legal boilerplate, without any reference to Jesus, let alone the theological drama of repentance and forgiveness, redemption and salvation. If the Archbishop of Canterbury cannot offer an authentic Christian witness at a moment like this (and I do not doubt his personal capacity to offer such a witness, this is a critique of the institution, not of him) what hope have the rest of us?

In my view the collapse of the Church has its roots in a lack of faith (that’s what I take from Scriptural precedent) and in our particular case it is a fundamentally doctrinal collapse, specifically, that as an institution we have unconsciously absorbed the secular framework of our surrounding culture. We have, in Scriptural language, gone whoring after foreign gods. The result of this is that we can no longer use spiritual language with confidence, and so we spend our time parading our secular virtues in order to be acceptable to the society in which we live. We are happy to demonstrate our sociologically convenient bona fides – such as giving support to measures designed to combat climate change, or genuflecting in church in solidarity with Black Lives Matter – and yet we have forgotten the rich spiritual language within which the second commandment can only make sense. That is, unless we have a true relationship with the living God we simply will not know what true love of neighbour looks like.

Most damagingly of all, with this collapse of doctrine the framework within which to understand the role of a priest has vanished. Instead of a ministry of Word and Sacrament we have had an evacuation of priesthood in favour of incumbency. I read this in a Sheldon Hub forum last week: “I have only been ordained for 18 years. I wasn’t trained (on a 2 years full time residential course) to be the CEO of a small-to-medium sized enterprise, and one which is becoming increasingly irrelevant in the modern world, in part because of its attitude towards matters of human sexuality, & its attitude towards equality. I wasn’t trained in charity management. I wasn’t trained in people management, or H&S, or food safety, or in being a “venue manager”. And simply saying that all of those things are someone else’s responsibility within the church doesn’t take away the fact that as the incumbent, the buck stops on my desk if they are not taken heed of and someone is hurt as a result of ignoring them.”

How then shall we turn again to the Lord, who has torn us and will heal us?

I believe that we have to be utterly ruthless and relentless in narrowing down our focus upon our core task – which is the Great Commandment, to proclaim the gospel and teach people to obey all that Jesus has commanded. As an institution we spend a vast amount on training clergy to be ministers of Word and Sacrament – to teach the faith and administer the spiritual medicine of the gospel – and then we ask them to do so many things other than that.

I am using the language of ‘we’, and clearly talking about ordained ministers. I believe passionately in the ministry of all the faithful, I am, after all, a Vocations officer for the Diocese as well as Assistant DDO, but I see something in the current emphasis on lay ministry as a manifestation of the doctrinal collapse I pointed to earlier. We (corporately, as an institution) don’t have an understanding of spiritual matters any more, and so we think that those set aside for the especial purpose of handling those spiritual matters are replaceable. I want to insist that the truth is precisely the opposite – we need to let priests be priests (not incumbents) – and set them free to manifest their full calling. We need to take spiritual matters seriously again. If we do that, it will in turn liberate the laity to manifest all their gifts, to be the church in the world.

There are other things I want to say here – about learning how to proclaim gospel in today’s society (both content and medium), which I am feeling a particular calling towards, and the need for us to concentrate on the intense discipling of small numbers of people, teaching them how to share transformed life and faith in turn, but this has already gone on for long enough.

I could be excited about these possibilities. I remain utterly convinced of the truth of the gospel as the Church of England has received it, and I also remain a loyal Anglican. I just feel so often like one “horn out of due time, who has no calling here”, whose role is simply to disturb the order as I watch the wheels continue to turn and crush the life out of clergy.

We need to concentrate on feeding the sheep, for if the sheep aren’t fed, they leave or they die – and that, to my mind, describes the history of the last fifty or so years of our Church. My lament is that, because we have corporately and unconsciously imbibed so much atheist thinking, we have forgotten what the food we can offer looks and tastes like, and so we scratch around trying to find more or less acceptable secular substitutes, chasing the latest fads out of fear and desperation, and the more this goes on, the more we fade away.

“…if way to the Better there be, it exacts a full look at the Worst…”

With love and respect to all of you, and looking forward to the continuing conversation,

Sam

PS totally gratuitous plug: I have a chapter in this book, being released on Thursday, which expands on some of the themes here

TFT20200909 The old and the new

Once upon a time, I lived near a beach, and had a dog, and therefore walked twice a day. I liked taking photos and for a long time I regularly uploaded the results here – as The Beach This Morning (TBTM) and, occasionally, The Beach This Evening (TBTE).

I no longer have a dog, nor do I live near a beach, but I do live in the middle of a marvellous Forest, in which, even though I don’t have canine accompaniment, I still love to walk most days.

So every so often, there will now be a TFT – The Forest Today.

The virtue of Christian hope (2): actively remembering

Yesterday I spoke about Christian hope being a choice.Today I want to say that it is also a virtue. That means it is something that we can practice and get better at.

Now in saying that Christian hope is a virtue I am drawing on the classical Christian tradition, derived from Aristotle, that describes the virtues as the building blocks of the good life. In simple terms we are what we regularly do, that is our character, and the path of Christian discipleship is, in simple terms, the pursuit of Christian virtues. So if we are to inhabit hope, then we need to make a habit of hope, and this morning I want to touch on how we do that: how do we build the habit of hope so that we show to the world the virtue of Christian hope?

I wonder how many of you are familiar with the concept of the sacred bundle? This is a native american tradition, in several tribes, wherein there is literally a cloth bundle that contains items that have significance for the tribe. These items can be anything – feathers, rocks, glass ware, old weapons, bits of fabric, anything. What binds the bundle together is that they are all significant for the life of the tribe, and each one is the focus for a story. To receive the sacred bundle, and to have the stories told, is to be initiated into the tribe.

Such things can also happen in churches of course. You are not allowed to remove this flower pedestal because it was given in memory of Vera, who ran the flower guild for many decades before she went to glory….

More seriously, our Christian tradition also has sacred bundles – we tend to call them liturgies – and we inherited this from the Hebrews. Consider the ritual of passover. Why is this night different to other nights asks the youngest person present – and this is the cue for a retelling of the story of the flight from Egypt, the wonderful acts of God that led his people from slavery under Pharaoh to freedom in the Promised Land. The sacred elements of the tribe are brought forth – the unleavened bread, the roast lamb, the herbs – and with each item a story is told, and through the telling of this story the Hebrews are renewed as a people.

Of course, Jesus consciously takes up, renews and transforms this tradition when he institutes our Eucharist. Do this to remember me he says. And when we take our sacred objects, our bread and our wine, and we tell the story of Jesus we are renewing our identity as the people who proclaim his death until he comes again; and without wishing to get too deeply into matters of theological controversy, this remembrance, just as with the passover, is not simply a calling to mind of something that has happened in the past, but also an anamnesis, a making present – in the act of this remembering we meet with him.

With both the passover and the eucharist, there is, then, a deliberate remembering of what God has done in the past, which forms and shapes us in the present, equipping us and enabling us for our work in the future.

Now I hope that you have all found an answer to my request from yesterday – what is it in your own lives that you call to mind, and therefore you shall have hope – because what I want to suggest to you is that your memories are your sacred bundle. You may have particular objects to go with them as well – this mug from which I am drinking my tea this morning was given to me by someone in my last parish, and I think of that person whenever I pick it up, and with that memory comes a whole package about my own story, about the shape of my ministry, about times of pain and joy… and so on. It is an object that conveys a powerful meaning for me – something of a sacramental.

Just as with passover and eucharist it is important to take time, regularly, to remember the elements in your sacred bundle. This can be a private activity, taken up when you go into a room by yourself, but many elements can be shared, indeed they must be shared, with trusted, close companions – with family, with friends, with a spiritual director. I think of these people in my own life as the custodians of my story. When I get bogged down with the burdens of daily life, time spent with close companions, those who have known me for a long time, recalls me to myself, and I remember who I am: a child of God, redeemed by Grace, called to his service. When we consciously remember those key elements from our own stories, it is a deliberate remembering of what God has done for each of us in the past, which forms and shapes us in the present, equipping us and enabling us for our work in the future.

Whatever is in your bundle, I would like, in closing, to add three things to it, if they are not there already – they are three things that I keep in my own sacred bundle, and which have helped me.

The first is a small piece of paper with these words inscribed upon it: this too shall pass. As Ecclesiastes puts it, there is a time for everything under heaven. Whatever Jeremiah-like conditions we may have to endure in our lives – this too shall pass.

The second is something that was emphasised at Westcott House, where I trained – the verse 1 Thessalonians 5.24: pistos ho kalon, the one who calls you is faithful. You can trust him. He who has brought you to this place, this moment, he will never leave you or forsake you.

The last item is another verse and one which, for me, encapsulates everything that I have been trying to say so far. For the purpose of our remembering is to place any present experiences into a larger context, to place our lived story into the context of the larger story that God is telling – and we know how that story ends. There are many verses that might serve to remind us of this larger story, and of where it ends, but for me this passage in Romans 8 serves me well: “Can anything ever separate us from Christ’s love? Does it mean he no longer loves us if we have trouble or calamity, or are persecuted, or hungry, or destitute, or in danger, or threatened with death? 36 (As the Scriptures say, “For your sake we are killed every day; we are being slaughtered like sheep.”) 37 No, despite all these things, overwhelming victory is ours through Christ, who loved us. 38 And I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love. 39 No power in the sky above or in the earth below—indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (NLT)

So choose hope – choose hope and make it a virtue. Practice it, practice your remembering. Practice it in your public ministry and liturgy, practice it when you go into a room by yourself. Practice it by remembering who you are as a child of God, practice it by remembering who we are as a people called by God to go out in the name of Christ to serve his people. Practice hope and make it into a habit, and in doing so, you will truly inhabit hope.

Then, whatever you meet in your ministry, you will be equipped to say with Jeremiah, “But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope…”

Amen

The virtue of Christian hope (1): hope is a choice

Christians are not called to feel hopeful; Christians are called to choose hope.

There is a passage from the Lamentations of Jeremiah that I would like to share with you (Lamentations 3.19-24):

The thought of my affliction and my homelessness is wormwood and gall!
My soul continually thinks of it and is bowed down within me.
But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope:

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.
“The Lord is my portion,” says my soul, “therefore I will hope in him.”

Jeremiah sees around himself the devastation of Jerusalem, the trauma that the people of Israel have experienced. Read Lamentations for the detail of that. Yet still he chooses to hope.

There are times when we too can feel ourselves surrounded by devastation. Our present situation with the virus is for many just such a time. I know from hearing your stories that many of you have come through difficult times to arrive here. I also know that many of you will experience such times in the years to come; times when things will start to lose their sense, when a dark fog of bewilderment descends in which all we can do is cry out ‘Oh God!’

It is to help you in such times that I say to you now: Christians are not called to feel hopeful; Christians are called to choose hope.

Our human freedom, our distinctively human soul, is found in the place between the stimulus and the response. What do I mean by that? Permit me to talk about puppies.

Specifically, I have a five month old puppy in the Vicarage at the moment – she is called Bazooka, and she belongs to my 18 year old son. Now puppies are delightful, but they need to be trained, and that means that sometimes the puppy gets told off or given a sharp tap on her nose. She’s doing well, and has learned, for example, to patiently sit whilst her food is being prepared. When she is stimulated by hunger, and the smell of the food is filling her nostrils, she has learned not to express her natural response of rushing to the food. She has become more skilled, more mature, and life is much better for everyone as a result.

When we experience devastation, when we are like Jeremiah and lamenting what has come to pass – this is a stimulus. As human beings with souls we can choose how to respond. We can choose to hope. Now, this is not a matter of denying the truth of a situation, however difficult it might be. We are not called to forget or ignore or suppress our suffering. Our calling in fact is the opposite, for the choice of hope depends upon a clear, a calm – even a cold assessment of the truth of our situation. Rather, choosing hope is about seeing the whole truth – allowing ourselves to feel what we feel, to mourn and lament the loss of what has passed away – but then… placing that truth, those feelings, into a wider context, into a larger story.

Jeremiah does that, and he chooses hope when he remembers. He remembers God, he remembers what God is like and he remembers what God has done before – and it is on the basis of those memories that Jeremiah hopes. Jeremiah remembers, and so he gains a greater perspective, a wider context, a larger story. It is this remembering which, in the face of the stimulus of devastation around him, enables him to respond with hope.

So I have a request to make of you all for this afternoon. A mission for you, should you choose to accept it. Jeremiah calls to mind all that the Lord has done for the people of Israel up to his time. My question for you to ponder is: what has the Lord done for you to lead you to this time? How has God led you, and shaped you, and blessed you? What are the essential moments in your journey of faith, in your story, that you want and need to remember? Of what are you able to say “But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope”?

Tomorrow morning we will do some work with those memories, as we learn the skill of Christian hope. But for now, let me just emphasise this: Christians are not called to feel hopeful; Christians are called to choose hope.

 

(Part one of a talk I gave to ordinands on their retreat – via Zoom! It went well)

Gesticulating with ‘wrath’ – why we need to rehabilitate traditional language if we are to learn what God want to teach us

When it comes to language about wrath I have been accustomed for a long time to quote what Julian of Norwich says – that there is no wrath in God. When pushed, I have tended to nuance that comment by saying that wrath is a real thing that we need to take account of, but I have been comfortable not to identify an experience of wrath with the experience of God’s purpose for my life.

I have come to believe that I have been missing something essential to the life of faith, which traditional language of wrath preserves, and I’d like to briefly sketch my thinking. I would say at the outset that I’m going to argue for a rehabilitation of the language of wrath in principle – I’m not here going to say how that language needs to be used in practice, with respect to COVID. Hopefully we can engage with that work in our discussion.

My title draws from a passage that I have been mulling on, which is something that Wittgenstein once wrote (Culture and Value 85e). He says this:

Actually I should like to say that in this case too the words you utter or what you think as you utter them are not what matters, so much as the difference they make at various points in your life. How do I know that two people mean the same when each says he believes in God? And just the same goes for belief in the Trinity. A theology which insists on the use of certain particular words and phrases, and outlaws others, does not make anything clearer (Karl Barth). It gesticulates with words, as one might say, because it wants to say something and does not know how to express it. Practice gives the words their sense”

My thinking is simply this: our language of wrath is a way of saying something about our lived experience before God, and if we outlaw this language then we are not making anything clearer. So what might our gesticulating with this word ‘wrath’ be about?

Now, two more elements of throat clearing, before I suggest a tentative answer. The first is to make a reference to Bonhoeffer’s Ethics, which so famously begins “The knowledge of good and evil seems to be the aim of all ethical reflection. The first task of Christian ethics is to invalidate this knowledge.” I don’t believe that it is possible to do theodicy as a Christian. That is, as soon as we start to make some sort of moral evaluation or justification of the ways of God to humanity then we have embarked upon the path of idol worship. We are not the measure of God; God is the measure of humankind.

Yet we do want to insist that God is good; that God is light, and in Him there is no darkness at all. Even with a properly reticent and analogical understanding of that language I do not believe that we can escape saying that God is good and that this is foundational for our faith and spirituality. So my second element of throat clearing is this: when Job loses his health his wife invites him to “curse God and die”, which invites the rebuke “You speak as one of the foolish women would speak. Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?”

So to weave these three things together – Wittgenstein, Bonhoeffer and Job – and finally make my point, I want to say that when we use the language of wrath, when we gesticulate with it, we are not engaged in some sort of theodicy, as if we were making some sense of judgement over God; rather we are asserting, with Job, that the good that we receive in this life cannot be separated from the evil.

As a matter of theological grammar, I would now say, we cannot give thanks to God for the good things that we receive in this life from Him if we cannot at the same time cry in lament for the bad things that we receive in this life from Him. If we say that the bad things that we receive in this life are not from God, if we abandon this sense of God’s wrath, then the blood drains out of our thanksgivings to God too.

What, to refer back to Wittgenstein’s language again, is the difference that this language makes in our lives? Or, given how widespread the abandonment of this language has become, what difference did this language make in the devotional lives of those who have gone before us? What spiritual lessons might there be for us if we pay attention to their prayers?

I would say – if we look at the Book of Common Prayer for example, that +Christopher discussed, and the language wherein pestilence and horror is taken as a form of chastisement, and an invitation to repentance – that this is above all an insistence that the experience being undergone is meaningful. That we, who are in a state of dependence upon God, experience God more intimately when we are in extremis, when we are put to the test – and that God opens up a path of redemption for us that proceeds directly from the place of our suffering.

In other words, the spiritually essential heart of this language of divine wrath is not that we gain a heavenly imprimatur for our own prejudices, nor that we come to some rationally satisfactory accounting or justification of divine activity but that: without wrath we have no redemption. To use the language of wrath, to insist upon God’s agency and responsibility in our suffering is to make the claim that all of life is meaningful, and that there is a way forward from where we are. It is, in the end, the only thing that enables us to cling to the cry that God loves us even when he chastises us.

If we are to find the path that God is giving us to walk in out of this present pestilence, I do not believe that we will succeed unless we reclaim a healthy sense of God’s wrath. We must repent of our ways and return to the living God, for he has torn us, and he will heal us.

The Lord giveth; and the Lord taketh away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.

(A talk given to the Severn Forum last night)

How to live faithfully towards the truth

To seek the truth is a blessed endeavour, for “you will know the truth and the truth shall set you free”. It is a journey common to all the great spiritual traditions of the world. Gandhi described himself as a “satyagrahi” which means ‘a seeker after truth’. As I am a Christian, I shall use the Christian language here.

To seek the truth is a journey. It flows from a decision to pursue the truth, but we cannot fully attain the truth in this world. This is because “the heart is deceitful above all things” and we are to pray “save me from my secret sins”: we deceive ourselves. To become free from that deceit is the work of a lifetime.

The journey into truth is called ‘the way’. The way is followed by developing the habits of truth, letting our yes be yes and our no be no, and putting a bridle on our tongue. Before speaking we ask, not simply “is this true?”, but also: “is it loving, is it timely?”. This development of habits is called the cultivation of virtue.

The most important virtue to cultivate in the pursuit of truth is the virtue of humility, for it is humility that enables us to see ourselves as we truly are. Humility avoids two equal and opposite errors: the great sin of pride, in which we puff ourselves up and believe ourselves to be greater than we are; and the great sin of despair, when we despise ourselves and believe ourselves to be unlovable.

We cannot go on the journey into the truth relying on our own power. We need help, help from a higher power. This is why it is a spiritual journey, and all the great spiritual traditions describe it. The journey into the truth is the journey into God. It is the Holy Spirit that will lead us into all truth, for there are things that we cannot yet bear to know.

We cannot sustain ourselves on the journey into truth unless we know that we are loved by the higher power. If we are not confident of that love then we will be terrified of making a mistake, and then we will not be able to take a single step. The love that enables us to walk in the path of truth is called forgiveness. If our hearts are set on God then it does not matter how many mistakes that we make. “While we were yet sinners Christ died for us.”

The most important thing to know about forgiveness, a spiritual law, is: “the measure that you give shall be the measure that you receive.” In other words, if we share forgiveness, then we shall be forgiven. If we share condemnation, then we shall be condemned. This is called the life of grace: “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me! I once was lost, but now am found, was blind but now I see.”

This is what it means to be perfect, and we are to be perfect in the way that God is perfect. God sends his rain upon the just and the unjust alike – in the same way, we are to share forgiveness with those who are worthy of it and those who are not worthy of it. We all sin and fall short of the glory of God, we all fail in our seeking towards the truth. Yet because we do not rely on our own power, our own goodness, we can keep going even when we stumble. This is what is meant when we are told to “bear each other’s burdens”.

There are dangers on this journey into truth. The world does not recognise the truth and is hostile to those who seek the truth. The ways of the world are flattery and manipulation, accusation and condemnation. The world will use those ways to tempt and force those who seek the truth to turn their backs upon the way. In order to progress towards the truth we must become wise to the ways of the world.

The ways of the world can be known by learning about the prince of this world, the enemy, the father of lies, the accuser, the Satan. If we were on trial there would be a prosecutor, whose job is to accuse – that is the Satan. To walk in the way of truth is to realise and know that we do not have to defend ourselves from those accusations. It is the job of the Holy Spirit to defend us from all assaults of the enemy. As we do not need to defend ourselves, we do not need to play the game of praise and blame. In this way we are set free from the world, and we “know the peace that the world cannot give”.

The prince of this world has been overcome. We do not need to be afraid of him. Indeed, fear is the opposite of truth. The command repeated most often in Scripture is “do not be afraid”. As we cultivate the virtue of humility we learn the truth of who we are, and the truth of who we are is that we are the beloved children of God who have been redeemed from captivity in the world by what Jesus has achieved. If we turn to Jesus, no matter where we are, then we will know the truth and the truth shall set us free.

The deepest lie told by the father of lies is that we are unlovable. The journey into truth is the journey into realising the nature and consequences of that lie, and slowly and patiently allowing God to heal us.

Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth and the life… If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our home with him.”

That is the destination that we find at the end of the journey into truth. We will be at home, we will know that we are loved, and we shall be at peace.

I am not a white Christian

Yesterday our Archbishop of Canterbury sent out this tweetabc white christian:

The single most important lesson I learned about racism I learned from an African-American named Steve. Before I went to university I had a gap year, three months of which were spent wandering around North America with a friend. We began with a week in New York, staying in the flat of a radical couple in which I was introduced to many intellectually exciting things – amongst them Noam Chomsky and Abbie Hoffmann – but what I most clearly remember was Steve’s insistence that racism was the belief that there are separate human races. I remember him talking about the census form, asking for information on racial category – and him saying ‘I write in “human” when they ask me about my race’.

The point I took from Steve was that as soon as you start thinking in racial terms, racism as an evil ideology is the inevitable consequence. The more that there is an insistence upon one racial category, the more that thinking in racial categories becomes endemic.

(This is not to deny that there is something real being described (objected to) with #Blacklivesmatter – there is clearly a deep-rooted structural racism within US society generally, and their police forces in particular, which needs to be addressed. At the end of our three months we returned to New York, and before meeting up with Steve again, we spent some time sat on the floor of the Greyhound station. I vividly remember policemen walking by us, ignoring us, and then hassling the African-Americans further along. That was when I realised just how deeply the racism was embedded in US society.)

The challenge for us all is to identify what is wrong without succumbing to thinking in racial categories. We have to use the right language to describe the problem, otherwise we simply repeat and amplify the original sin, we surrender that which is most distinctively Christian: that our identity in Christ surpasses all of our other identities, without obliterating them. In other words the most fundamental truth about anyone is that they are made in the image of God, and the most fundamental truth about me is that I am a Christian. As was once so wisely said, “I know that I find who I am in Jesus Christ, not in genetics, and my identity in him never changes.”

When we succumb to using racial categories and then – much more dangerously – use those categories in the form of accusations then we have left behind the Holy Spirit and are giving service to another. It would seem that a tormenting spirit is upon our Archbishop, and he has hurled a spear of accusation, which is the tool of the enemy. I shall step to one side and allow the spear to embed itself in the wall beside me.

In Christ there is neither black nor white. There are no black Christians or white Christians or Christians ‘of colour’. To add an adjective before the word Christian is to risk, blasphemously, the full meaning of the word Christian. For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. Let the one who is without sin cast the first stone. Healing can only be built upon our recognition of our common humanity, not on cornerstones of blame and accusation.

When Satan tempts me to despair,
And tells me of the guilt within,
Upward I look, and see him there
Who made an end of all my sin.

I am not a white Christian. I am Sam, a servant of Jesus Christ, and I come as one seeking the grace of God to travel with you in His service together.