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

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)