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)

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.

Fifteen years of blogging

I thought I’d mark an anniversary.

Fifteen years ago today I wrote my first blog-post. To be truthful, in my initial zeal I wrote two, one a technical/ admin one, and one on loving my job – I must have had a particularly busy day looking at that list of things now! They are best seen on my old blog here.

I sustained a very high pace of posting to begin with – that is, for the first few years – but as real life became ever more complicated, and as I started to get negative feedback from *certain parishioners* that my, eg, regular film-reviews merely made them ask ‘what does he do with his time’ I started to share much less. That process continued until I was mainly using the blog solely for my newspaper articles, and in the last year or so, I haven’t even had those!

Which is a way of saying two things.

The first is that I miss my blog. It is my pensieve, and writing is very good for my mental health. I do not serve either God or the world with integrity if I do not speak my truth. The second is that, in line with an overall healing that is going on with me (on the inside) and a sense that the unexamined life is not worth living, I feel the need to start blogging seriously and relentlessly regularly again. There is much to be said for a distribution channel that is not subject to the whims of a commercial entity, nor the painful antagonisms that have, for me, made Facebook a very unsafe space. On my blog, in contrast, I feel safe – and nobody needs to spend any time here if they do not want to (Spider Jerusalem is my hero). My agenda will continue to be: “Exploring priesthood, prophecy and faith in the context of a culture in crisis.” It’s still the best way of summing up what I do.

So.

This is Planet Sam.

I hope you enjoy the ride.

Are we smarter than yeast?

One result of the coronavirus crisis is that many more people now understand the nature of exponential growth, and the way in which it can cause overwhelming problems. There is much finger-pointing focussing on whether our various national leaders did the right thing or not, given information available at the time.

At some point – in a few months or a few years – we will be on the other side of the coronavirus crisis. We will have adapted to it, either through finding a vaccine or through social adjustments. That particular problem will be fixed, more or less successfully.

However, coronavirus is only one problem. Just as epidemiologists were sounding the alarm back in January, so too have students of the Limits to Growth been sounding an alarm for many decades. The timescale is different, yet the underlying issue is the same.

With coronavirus there has been much talk of ‘flattening the curve’, principally so as not to overwhelm the available health-care resources. We can apply the exact same reasoning to the growth of human population and resource consumption on planet earth.

If we do nothing, and the exponential growth of the economy continues, then there will come a point when we overwhelm the resources available to us. That will be catastrophic.

So are we smarter than yeast? Yeast in a petri dish will grow exponentially until all the resources are exhausted, and will then die off. Can we do better than that?

It’s possible that we can. To do better, however, needs us to behave in a wise fashion – and our culture is radically unwise. I call it asophic, blind to wisdom – it is so unwise that it no longer even understands what wisdom is.

Wisdom would have meant acting differently in January when it became clear that there was an extremely contagious virus now on the loose in the world.

Wisdom means cultivating humility before the truth. This is a spiritual task. The Western world is unprepared to meet the crisis of our times because it has become a spiritual desert. We need to repent.

The church is not innocent of blame in this. It has colluded in the privatisation of faith and the academicisation of theology. We no longer teach people how to pray, or cultivate the fear of God. With you is my contention O priest.

I see our present situation as a dress rehearsal for what is to come – and what is coming soon. We are about to experience a great economic unravelling, as the house of cards of our economic system, based on debt, suffers a seizure.

For those that believe in God, this can be received as a gift. There is still a little time left to get our house in order, before the multiple, overlapping and mutually reinforcing crises of our time come together and collapse our culture.

I started teaching about this fifteen years ago, and wrote a book about how the church should understand and respond to it ten years ago. I couldn’t find a publisher for it then. I’m hoping to find one now. People might be more willing to listen.

The Lentiest Lent

I came across this comment from a clergy colleague on Facebook – “This is the Lentiest Lent that I have ever Lented”. It struck a chord.

The themes of Lent are certainly magnified for us today. Lent begins with Ash Wednesday when we are marked with ash to signify our mortality, ‘from dust you come and to dust you shall return’. We are enjoined to spend the forty days of Lent in fasting, self-denial and acts of charity, and these disciplines are to help us to return to God. For much of the year, in good times, it is more possible to forget God, for life is comfortable. In Lent we are to instead adopt a more austere discipline, letting go of pleasures and pastimes in order to remind ourselves of what is truly important.

Which is where a great deal of meaning is now to be found. As a society and nation – indeed, as a community of nations – much of our normal pattern of behaviour is on hold. We are being required to assess what is really important, and what is merely optional; what gives life, and what takes life away.

We are, in short, being invited to return to the Lord.

In this, the Long Lent that we are journeying through, and for which we cannot confidently predict an end, we are in fact entering into a Sabbath. There is much important theology about the Sabbath, and the importance of observing it. At its heart is a sense that the Sabbath is a gift. For one day of the week the people of God are to put to one side their normal burdens of existence, their ‘work’. They are instead simply to be, to exist. They are not to do, to achieve, to strive. All the doings must stop, must come to a complete halt, in order that the people of God might remember who they are in the sight of God. Then, on that basis, they are to re-engage with their normal patterns of life and labours, and slowly work towards the redemption of the world.

If we are to follow God’s will through this time of coronavirus I think we would do well to think of it, so far as possible, as a time of Sabbath, when we can pause in our strivings and spend time listening to God, seeking to understand what God is telling us at this moment in time. I think it rather unlikely that God wishes us to return to the status quo ante. Instead I think we are to exercise discernment, and to sift all our previous habits, as with Lenten disciplines, and ask what gives life, and what takes life away.

There is a related theme in the Old Testament, which is summed up in the word Jubilee. The people of Israel were required to keep a Sabbath year as well as a Sabbath day, during which time they were not to farm their land. In that year they were simply to consume what the land naturally produced. They were also to renounce efficiency in doing so, leaving the gleanings for the poor and the animals. By doing this, the land would be blessed. After seven cycles of this (49 years) there would then be a Jubilee year, during which time all debts would be forgiven and each family would be returned to its ancestral home.

However, this instruction was often ignored. The people of Israel lacked faith that there would be enough to go around, and so kept farming no matter what happened. When the Babylonian army destroyed Jerusalem and took the Israelite leadership into Exile this teaching was remembered, and we read in 2 Chronicles that as a result “The Land enjoyed its Sabbath rests; all the time of its desolation it rested, until the seventy years were complete…” (2 Chron 36.21)

I hear the stories being shared now, of the way in which the dolphins have returned to the canals in Venice, and the blue sky can be seen in previously polluted cities, and I wonder if this is a sign to us. That we have gone too far with our doings and our strivings and achievings, and that we need to spend time resting in God, simply being human. We have been forced to become more local, more simple, calmer and quieter. This seems to be of God to me.

Let’s ensure that when this remarkable time of confinement has come to an end, we return to a busier life with a clearer sense of what is important, of what gives life and what takes life away. If we do, I believe that God will richly bless us.

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” (Jeremiah 29.11)

Shared worship when we are physically apart

This is the text of an email that I sent to members of the congregation when the closing of churches was announced.

Dear friends,

Even when we cannot be together physically, we can still be together in spirit. My aim is to provide resources so that we can worship together at certain times, and this email sets out how that will happen, the Lord being our helper.

It’s important to remember that this is not a new experience in the Judeo-Christian tradition, even if it might be novel for the Church of England. In 586 BC the army of Babylon destroyed the temple in Jerusalem and removed all the upper tiers of Jewish society into Exile. The Jews weren’t simply prohibited from entering into their place of worship – their place of worship was razed to the ground and the Jews were moved some 500 miles to the East! This is the context in which the book of Daniel is set. Consider this from chapter 9: “While I was speaking and praying, confessing my sin and the sin of my people Israel and making my request to the Lord my God for his holy hill— while I was still in prayer, Gabriel, the man I had seen in the earlier vision, came to me in swift flight about the time of the evening sacrifice. He instructed me… ”

Even though Daniel is a long way away from Jerusalem he remembers it and, crucially, is praying at the time of the evening sacrifice. In other words, his rhythm of prayer was matched to that which had operated before the Exile, and that which would operate again after the Exile was over. It is this sense of a shared pattern of worship, often at the same times of day, that has united faith communities that are physically separated.

For us, I think the natural place to begin a shared pattern of worship and prayer is Sunday morning at 10am. We also regularly have a communion service on Wednesdays at 10am and so I intend to support a shared time of worship at those two times in the week until we are able to gather once more in our churches.

I have prepared a liturgy which can be downloaded via the link in this email, and this is how I plan to use it:
– it is intended to be printed out on a single piece of A4 and then folded,
– it can be used by a person on their own or, if there are more people, then different people can do different elements, but I suggest that the Prayer of Preparation, the Apostles Creed and the Lord’s Prayer are all said in unison;
– having a regular place within the home to say the liturgy would be helpful (ideally one with access to the internet available);
– having a candle that can be lit at the beginning of the service, and extinguished at the end, supports a prayerful atmosphere;
– there are four elements that I shall provide for each Sunday (and Wednesday) – these are the Collect, a reading, a homily from me accessible on youtube, and a suggested hymn, also hopefully with a link to a youtube recording of it being sung. These will be shared by email in advance – probably Saturday and Tuesday afternoons;
– I plan to share further prayer resources in the coming days that can be used at other times during the day.

My hope and prayer is that even if we are not meeting physically we shall still share this journey together spiritually. We can look forward to an intensely joyful celebration when we eventually join in worship again.

Grace to you and peace,

Rev Sam

We shall not evangelise England with an emaciated incarnation

I have been reflecting much on my experiences of last year. I shall not reach any conclusions until after a retreat next month at the earliest, but one thing that is coming to the fore is my sense of a gulf between the 53% of England that voted for Leave (higher amongst self-identified Anglicans) and what I think of as the ‘institutional mind’ of the Church of England.

By ‘institutional mind’ I am principally thinking of what is expressed by those in positions of authority, so the House of Bishops first and foremost, but extending more widely to include General Synod and also the para-church organisations like the Church Times. An example of what I have in mind is the letter from 25 Bishops that triggered my article in response. This is not about hostility to the Leave position; rather, what troubles me is my sense that there is a theological lacuna in the insitutional mind, a gap where an understanding of the nation – and therefore of England – needs to sit.

Here is my sketch of what I am thinking about.

In Scripture there is consistent reference to the nation and the nations, Israel being a paradigmatic example. I need to do more work and reading on this, but nations are clearly a part of the created order – fallen and redeemable. This is a point of conflict with the prevailing liberal mindset (which I see as also culturally dominant in the church, part of the institutional mind) which does not give a nation any existence that is separate to the viewpoints and habits of those individuals which aggregate together into a ‘nation’ (or a ‘family’ or a ‘corporation’ or a ‘government’). In contrast I see such entities as part of the principalities and powers – and I see the Biblical treatment of such things as an essential aspect in our understandings. We cannot understand the cross, or the teachings of St Paul, without understanding the principalities and powers. The Biblical understanding of nation does not map neatly onto modern understandings of the nation, let alone the nation-state, and let alone the rich complexity of a ‘United Kingdom’ but there is something here which is essential for the Church of England to grasp if it is to fulfil its vocation.

For historical reasons, principally rooted in the experience of WW2 but not restricted solely to that, our dominant culture sees the expression of national identity as immoral, inherently risky and liable to cause disaster. This can be seen in so many ways – the whole Brexit debate itself is rife with examples – but for me, a paradigmatic instance was Emily Thornberry’s scorn towards the display of an England flag. This distance between the somewheres and the anywheres is now becoming an accepted short-hand, so I can say that my concern with the institutional mind of the Church of England is that it is a resolutely ‘anywhere’ mentality. This is ironic, as the whole tradition and theological standpoint of the Church of England is ‘somewhere’ – rooted in each local parish, and bound up with an emphasis upon the incarnation as a leading theological doctrine in our self-understanding.

Which is why this phrase isn’t leaving my mind: we shall not evangelise England with an emaciated incarnation. One of the texts used to justify the disdain for national identity within our church conversation is the wonderful passage from Galatians – in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek etc. I believe that this passage is being misused. I do not for one second doubt that our identity in Christ trumps our various national identities. We are called to a Christian identity that is more foundational than any national identity. Yet what I wish to insist upon is that this Christian identity does not evacuate the national identity of meaning or continued application. On the contrary, it is only through being set within that larger Christian identity that the national identity truly finds itself and is able to flourish and shine.

Jesus, after all, was a particular man born in a particular time and place within a particular culture. His universality is not something imposed ‘top-down’ from Heaven, as if he came down from the sky fully-formed, rather it is built up out of that identity – they are the building blocks. Jesus never stops being a Jewish man from first century Palestine. This is what I mean by ’emaciated incarnation’ – the anywhere ideology seeks to downplay all the particularities and distinctives that makes us different from each other, as they are perceived as problematic. In contrast I want to insist that these distinctives cannot be taken away from us, for they make us who we are. We are not called to be national eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven.

The great beast of global capitalism generates an immense social and cultural pressure pushing a ‘smoothing’ of individuality. Capitalism wants us to become efficient ball-bearings that do not hinder the accumulation of profit. My concern about the institutional mind of the Church of England is that this ideology – this Royal Consciousness – has surreptitiously crept in and taken over. Of course it is wrong to value a distinctive national identity! Don’t you know that it inevitably leads to bigotry and racism and fascism and all the other terrible things that the twentieth century taught us?

I see this, not simply as an acquiescence to worldly thinking but as an abandonment of our own, distinctive, Anglican charism. The Church of England needs to be a Church for England. We shall not evangelise England with an emaciated incarnation. Telling that story simply aligns the church with those economic forces that depersonalise and dispossess the people in this land. We are seen as hostile and alien, court chaplains whose ultimate service is to Mammon not to the living and incarnate Lord.

I have much work to do to flesh this out. It links with understandings I’ve gained from Tom Wright about apocalyptic language, and Stringfellow and Wink and Richard Beck and many others. But I think this is what God is calling me to say. Abraham is much on my mind – and has been ever since May of last year – and he, after all, becomes the father of many nations. I need to learn what that means – and apply it to our situation today.

I’ll keep you posted.

Echoes

LECTER’S VOICE
I thought, to begin, you might tell me
how you’re feeling.

STARLING
About what?

LECTER’S VOICE
The masters you serve and how they’ve
treated you. Your career, such as it is.
Your life, Clarice.

STARLING’S VOICE
I thought we might talk about yours.

LECTER
Mine? What is there to say about mine?
I’m happy. Healthy. A little nomadic at
the moment but that’ll soon change. You,
though. You, I’m worried about.

STARLING
I’m fine.

LECTER’S VOICE
No, you’re not. You fell in love with
the Bureau – with The Institution – only
to discover, after giving it everything –
that it doesn’t love you back. That it
resents you, more than the husband and
children you gave up to it ever would.

LECTER
Why is that, do you think? Why are you
so resented?

STARLING’S VOICE
Tell me.

LECTER
Tell you? Isn’t it clear? You serve
the idea of order, Clarice – they don’t.
You believe in the oath you took – they
don’t. You feel it’s your duty to
protect the sheep – they don’t. They
don’t like you because they’re not like
you. They’re weak and unruly and
believe in nothing.