Sermon – Acts 3, 13/01/2019

This sermon was preached at the 6:00pm service on January 13th 2019. The text was Acts 3, 1 – 21 

To the consternation of some, 2018’s Christmas number one was won not by a famous pop star, but by a little known Youtuber named LadBaby, performing a cover of “We built this city on Rock and Roll,” called, “We built this city on Sausage Rolls.” What really made this song stand out, is that it was a charity single with one hundred percent of the profits going to the Trussell Trust Foodbanks.

Meanwhile data released in November showed that around 8,000 Church of England Churches run or are involved in the work of a local food bank. At the same time, over this past Christmas season, Churches across the Bristol area will have been and are involved in running the Winter Night Shelter project, helping homeless people find somewhere warm to sleep. My point is that under the glitz and glamour of Christmas, there were thousands of people, some on our own doorsteps who were in desperate need of immediate short- and long-term help.

The lame man in today’s reading, was also in need of help. Being unable to walk, he would have been unable to work, and in Ancient Israel, there was no welfare state equivalent. He would have been reliant upon the support of his family, and what money he could beg from those coming up to the temple to pray.  But when he encountered Peter and John things didn’t go quite as he expected.

The two disciples could have easily walked by on the other side, ignored the man, or rushed home to fetch some coins from the collective “Twelve Apostles Welfare Fund.” Instead this happens,

Then Peter said, “Silver or gold I do not have, but what I do have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.”  Taking him by the right hand, he helped him up, and instantly the man’s feet and ankles became strong.  He jumped to his feet and began to walk.

Peter decides that rather than satisfying the man’s short-term physical needs he will offer him something that will benefit him forever, by restoring to him his own agency, allowing him to live life to the full.

This is not me suggesting that the Church should close down it’s Winter Night Shelters and Foodbanks, and instead pray homelessness away, because in several places in the Bible we as Christians are commanded to support those in need. What I am saying is that we need to look beyond the immediate needs, to the source of the problem, and do our best to solve that too. That might involve lobbying governments to reduce austerity, or it might – and I suspect it does – involve sharing the gospel of Jesus and the promise of a world renewed.

Peter knew that neither he, nor John, nor any of the other disciples had the power to solve this man’s problems. The only person could do that was Jesus, acting through them. He was the one who had been sent to proclaim good news to the poor, bind up the broken-hearted, and release the prisoners from darkness as it says in Isaiah.  Yet he also knew how the people of Israel had responded to the message of Jesus. When confronted by the crowds in Solomon’s Portico he says,

Fellow Israelites, why does this surprise you? Why do you stare at us as if by our own power or godliness we had made this man walk? The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of our fathers, has glorified his servant Jesus. You handed him over to be killed, and you disowned him before Pilate

I think we are equally guilty of disowning Jesus. We acknowledge his existence when it is convenient to us, or at special times like Christmas and the odd baptism, but other than that we prefer not to think about him. And when I say we, I don’t just mean society, I mean you and me here tonight. We are just as guilty of this as anyone.

Instead society and we here have bought into the idea that we can be the masters of our own destiny, that the world is ours to do with as we will, and that happiness can be found through doing exactly what we want, regardless of how it affects others. The world says that we don’t need God, and we don’t need religion – at least not in any real capacity except at Christmas – and that what matters is the individual, not the collective good. Right here right now is all there is, so let’s just have fun.

And hasn’t that worked out just great for everyone?

So, the natural world is balancing on a precipice, nations are fracturing, and individuals are increasingly lonely, desperate. We can’t fix these problems by ourselves, even if we try really really hard.

When Peter met the lame man outside the Beautiful Gate, he recognised that the man’s situation could not be fixed by any earthly power or by the simple giving of charity, but only by the power of Jesus, the man with the power to heal the ills of the whole world. And I think that when we look around at a world gone increasingly mad, when we confront the dangers of Brexit, and the damaging impact we are having upon the environment around us, we too must recognise that we can’t change any of this through our own strength, because the forces at play are far beyond us. Even we in the Church of England with our privileged place in society, can only do so much.

We know that as Peter reminds us in today’s passage there will come a time when God will return to reign over all the earth and restore it to the world that it should be. But until that time, what can we, who are also the heirs of Abraham and the prophets do?

I believe that as we stand at the beginning of the New Year, and move out of the Christmas season, that we can do two main things. Firstly, we can make it clear to people that having stuff is no bad thing so long as it doesn’t become the be all and end all. I like receiving presents as much as the next person and can recognise that there is a lot of joy to be found in the giving and receiving of gifts, – after all Jesus was the greatest gift that we can ever get and he was given to us freely. But we need to remind people that there is more to life than possessing things. That there is joy and happiness to be found in just being, and in our relationships with other people and with God.

Secondly, we need to remove the Baby Jesus from the manger and the cute nativity scene and take him out in to the world. We need to work to remind people that Emmanuel means God with Us. Jesus is not some distant figure out there confined to our history books or to a Spiritual Self-Help guide with only limited relevance to the world around us.  He is the Light of the World, and the Word Made Flesh, and the one who has the power to change all things. He is the one who can provide food for the hungry, a home for the homeless and a voice for those who have been silenced.

Peter’s command is to “Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out.” This will involve admitting that we all have sins that need wiping out. So, people might not like the message. But we need to keep speaking out, we need to keep articulating this message, because it seems like the world is getting more and more broken, is becoming darker and darker by the second and the only one who has the power to fix it is Jesus.

So, to recap. The lame man in today’s reading was healed by Peter, utilising the power of Jesus. This is the same Jesus that both the Ancient Israelites and ourselves have disowned and ignored.  Therefore, our task as Christians is firstly to help the world look beyond material possessions to the glory and wonder of the wider world and secondly, we need to help people see that Jesus despite what the world may tell you is a relevant and necessary figure, with the power to change lives.

The Church should not seek to fix the world, or even proclaim the message of Jesus through our own strength. Peter knew that the lame man could only be healed through the strength and power of Jesus Christ, and we can only hope to reach the world in that same strength. We cannot do it on our own. In the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, this is God’s church. We pray, he builds. God will use us if we ask him, but we should not fall into the trap of thinking we can do things on our own.

So, this is my suggestion for the coming week. If we do one thing differently, lets pray a little more. Ask God to reach into our lives and show us where we are going wrong, ask for forgiveness for the things, we know we have done wrong. Ask him to show us how we can best further his kingdom message, and above all ask him to grant his love and protection to those who can hope for little else.

Pray a little more. Speak out a little more. It might just change the world.



For it is by grace you have been saved

“While he was making this defence, Festus exclaimed, “You are out of your mind, Paul! Too much learning is driving you insane!”

We can laugh about this line, because let’s be honest, it’s funny. But there’s also a real risk involved in what Festus is saying. Too much learning, pursued for the wrong reasons, can risk damaging our relationship with God. And I say this as someone who values learning highly. Especially in Protestant and Evangelical circles, it sometimes seems as if we believe that we can “think” our way towards salvation. If we can just learn a little more about God, get to know him a little more and transmit that knowledge to others, we can earn the title of Good and Faithful Servant.

This has led in turn into a failure to teach others that salvation is not conditioned upon getting everything right. We don’t need to have all the answers, or be experts at prayer, or as holy as the 20,000 saints of Bardsey Island. Rather we are free to come before God as we are, rather than forcing ourselves to become what we think he wants, or what the world tells us he wants.  This is not to say that learning isn’t important of course. As Christians we should want to know more about God, we should long to know him better. It should be at the core of our being. But the pursuit of intimate knowledge should not be based on the assumption that grace can be achieved via good essay results.

Rather we need first to accept that “It is by grace we have been saved through faith…. not by works.”  God has called us, loves us, adores us for the people we are in this moment. If we can accept that and write it on our hearts, then our study and our leisure and our prayers and our worship, however great or feeble we might think they are, can be an act of worship, a gift unto the Lord freely given, in thanks for all he has done. This knowledge frees us up to do things we already do, like learning, without them being tainted by the idea that they are the key to salvation.

“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.” What wonderful words are these.  Hallelujah. Amen.

Thoughts before a BAP

It is now less than a week to my Bishops Advisory Panel, or BAP, a three-day event that will recommend whether or not I will be put forward for ordination training. It’s a strange feeling knowing that after four years of meetings and paperwork, and more meetings and more paperwork, it all comes down to how things go during three days in Shropshire.

Don’t for a minute think I am objecting to the complexity of the Church of England discernment process. I am on record as thinking that it is exactly as complex as it needs to be, in order to make sure that we get only those who are suitable. And of course, I am aware that at the end of the day, the decision is not up to the BAP selectors, or even my Bishop. It is up to God. If he wants me to walk this path, then that is what will happen. If this is what he had planned than this is what will happen.  But that doesn’t mean it isn’t odd to think that at this point, I can’t do anything other than try not to mess up a three-day residential.

But the bigger question I suppose needs to be addressed at this point, is why do I want to pass the BAP? Why do I want to be a priest in the Church of England at all? Why is the ministry of the presbyter – to use the official lingo – attractive, when in this day and age there is so much room for the lay person in the CofE?

The first question I suppose is what does the priesthood mean, specifically the ordained priesthood? What is so important about it that it still needs to be a separate institution. In his book The Christian Priest Today, Archbishop Michael Ramsey describes a priest as being above all things, a “man of theology, man of reconciliation, man of prayer, man of the Eucharist, displaying, enabling, involving the life of the Church.” Graham Tomlin, the Bishop of Kensington meanwhile sees the priesthood as God’s way of blessing the world, saying that “Priests are hear to serve the church, to bless the church and to enable it to glorify Christ’s its true head.” Priests are to serve as an example to the whole Church how we should live as individuals.

But for me it’s all about this description I put out on Twitter last week. I said that “Being ordained is about standing in the place between God and the Congregation acting as a spokesperson for both and interceding for people. Obviously, all Christians can talk to God, but priests take the needs of the whole people to the Cross.” Priests are called to listen to God and take his word to the people as a collective be this through a well-crafted sermon, a bible study or something else. At the same time, he is called to take the prayers of the collective people to God and intercede for them. As I say this is not because the people cannot talk to God directly, – that is what prayer is for – but because the priest is in a unique position to know the needs of the whole community and thus speak for them as a group. In fact I would go so far as to say that every action the priest performs, every occasional office is a form of intercession before the Lord. As Ramsey puts it, the role of a priest is to “be with God with the people on your heart” and I cannot think of any role more awe filled or more filled with responsibility than that.

But if that is what being ordained means, then why do I wish to be ordained? That is a much more complex subject. In the early days of this process I used to worry that I didn’t have stories as amazing I had heard from some people on this journey. I used to worry that I couldn’t point to a Damascus moment when the Voice of God came echoing out of the clouds telling me to get ordained. But over time I have come to accept that my story is my story, and it is no worse or better than anyone else’s. Everyone’s story is personal and is crafted for them.

So why do I wish to get ordained? Because it tugs at my heart in a way that no other job I have considered doing does. When I was thinking about this post, the scene where the Pevensies are pulled back into Narnia in Prince Caspian sprung to my mind, specifically this bit.

“I felt just the same” said Edmund in a breathless voice. “As if I were being dragged along. A most frightful pulling – ugh! it’s beginning again.”

“Me too,” said Lucy. “Oh, I can’t bear it.”

“Look sharp!” shouted Edmund. “All catch hands and keep together. This is magic – I can tell by the feeling.”

That is what thinking about ordination feels like to me. Like my heart, my very being is pulled away by magic to somewhere I know not where, where the greatest challenge I could ever consider, the great task I could ever undertake in this world or in any world is waiting for me. Whenever I have considered any other career I have not even come close to feeling like this.

I can only hope this means that I am doing the right thing. My gut and my heart and everyone I have spoken to seems to think I am and who am I to go against all of that? But that doesn’t do much to quell the nerves I am feeling as I wait for my BAP to begin. I can only hope that all those qualities my friends, and family and my DDO have seen are obvious to the BAP selectors.

However, whatever happens, whether I am recommended or not, I can rest assure that God is with me, and will always be with me in all I do. And that is the greatest comfort a nervous person can ask for.

A Day of Uncertainty, A Day of Waiting

There’s a lot of uncertainty around at the moment, uncertainty about Brexit, about Russia, about North Korea, about Global Warming. In fact, in a society that says anything goes and what you deem to be okay is universally so, it could easily be said that nothing is certain any more.

The first Easter Eve was also a time of uncertainty for Jesus’ Disciples. Unaware of what was going to happen, only knowing that their friend and master had been hauled away and crucified, I imagine they spent the day in hurried conversation, – working out what to do, where to go, and the quickest way to get out of town once the Sabbath was over. I cannot even begin to comprehend what Peter must have been thinking or feeling on that first Holy Saturday. Supreme misery and anger at himself probably just begins to cover it. They had no idea of what awaited them, a day later, or how it would change their lives for ever.

But just because we are aware of what is coming, that does not give us the right to simply rush on towards Easter Sunday and the glory of the resurrection – as we are all too fond of doing sometimes. We need to take the time to sit in Holy Saturday, to sit with the Disciples in the grief, their confusion and their loss. We need to take the time to reflect on all that was accomplished on Good Friday, to remember that Jesus did in fact die and go down to the dead. Good Friday and the Crucifixion were vital events entire and of themselves, not simply preludes to the Resurrection. For without death there can be no return to life. But there is another reason why taking the chance to wait in this day is so important.

If we simply skip from the cross to the empty tomb without taking the time to really consider the fact that Jesus had died, and gone out of the world, then the power of the resurrection is surely lost. If we don’t remember, if we don’t make something of the fact that for a period, Jesus in his humanity was no more then we are missing something. Jesus victory over death came from the fact that he was dead, and then he was risen to life, breaking forever the power of sin and death. But if we ignore this day, and what it means, then Jesus might as well have returned to life as soon as he came off the cross. Jesus spent today, down in death, fighting for our salvation. Surely that is worth remembering?

One final reason why waiting today is important. This period of waiting prior to the joy of the resurrection, serves in a way, as a reflection of the Christian life. We are all now waiting for that glorious day when Jesus will come again, to reign over all the earth. But just as we can’t skip from Good Friday to Easter Sunday, so we can’t skip to the Second Coming. We must wait a while first.

A day of uncertainty and a day of waiting, prior to a day of boundless joy; acting as a reflection of a lifetime of waiting, prior to an eternity of joy. Holy Saturday indeed.

On International Woman’s Day.

In 580 a young woman travelled to England who would help change worldwide Christianity forever. Her name was Bertha, and she was a Frankish Princess on her way to marry Aethelbert, the King of Kent. Travelling with her was her chaplain, Liudhard, because one of the conditions of the marriage was that Bertha – who was a Christian – would be allowed to continue practicing her faith in her new home.

Now as a fan of historical counterfactuals I am forced to ask. Without Bertha clearing the way in Kent, what would the history of English Christianity look like? Where would Augustine have settled? Would the Archbishop of Canterbury still be the head of the Church of England? Would there still be an Anglican Communion which has helped bring tens of thousands of people to God? Without the Church of England, would the Methodist movement still exist? All of these are perfectly good questions, but they aren’t why I have chosen to highlight Bertha today.

Today is International Woman’s Day and I wanted to highlight Bertha, as an example of one of the many Christian women who has shaped the history of the Church universal. From Sarah, Deborah and Jael in the Old Testament, through Mary the Mother of Jesus, Mary Magdalene and Dorcus in the New Testament, to the Desert Mothers, Bertha, St Hilda and St Mildred, Elizabeth Ferard the first Deaconess and Elizabeth Fry the Prison Reformer, and ending with the Bishops of Gloucester, Newcastle and London, women have always played a pivotal role in the life of the Church. The lives of Christian women from throughout history have just as much to teach us, as do the lives of Christian men. The sayings of the Desert Mothers are just as applicable as the sayings of the Desert Fathers.

And while women across the world still fight for equality in the workplace, both equality of treatment and equality of pay, we should remember that – while there have been arguments over what role women should play in the Church – women are just as important to God as men. God’s love does not discriminate by gender.  God has a plan for all of us, male and female that has been worked out since the beginning of the world. God’s message does not change, regardless of whether it comes from a man or a women and the effect of that message does not change either.

So, on this International Woman’s Day I would encourage you all to give thanks for the women in your Christian life who have inspired you. Pray for all the Christian women you know, in whatever context they are in. Ask God to draw close to them and to give them the strength they need to continue the work that he has laid out for them. Above all, if you happen to be reading this and happen to be Church of England, give thanks for Queen Bertha of Kent, without whom, our Church may well never have come into being.

There But for the Grace of God

It began with Oxfam, moved on to Save the Children, and now both Red Cross and Plan International workers have been accused of sexual misconduct. That’s four major charities in a fortnight, revealing their feet of clay.

The revelations of unacceptable behaviour are of course, disappointing. We may even be tempted to withdraw our support of them. But in my opinion, that would be a mistake. Charities, like Oxfam and Save the Children do such important work, and have such good intentions that we naturally assume that those people who work for them, hold themselves to the highest standard of behaviour. But, should we be all that surprised that some people, in large and complex organisations made up of thousands of employees, have fallen short of the ideal? They are, after all human beings, and humans are by their very nature, fallen and fallible.

There is a tendency to put those we admire – be they people or organisations – up on pedestals. Yet some of the greatest men in the world, have also had dark sides from Churchill to Martin Luther King. There are also two key examples in the Bible. In the Old Testament, you have King David, who was to ancient Israel, what Ronald Reagan is to the GOP. He was what every King should be like, a man who had found favour with God.  Yet in 2 Samuel we are told that

“One evening David got up from his bed and walked around on the roof of the palace. From the roof he saw a woman bathing. The woman was very beautiful, and David sent someone to find out about her. The man said, “She is Bathsheba, the daughter of Eliam and the wife of Uriah the Hittite.” Then David sent messengers to get her. She came to him and he slept with her.” (2 Samuel 11 v 2-4)

Not only did King David commit adultery, but later on in the story he organises for Uriah to die so that he can have Bathsheba to himself. While he is punished by God for his sin, God still forgives him.  Meanwhile in the New Testament, we have the story of Peter (also known as Simon), Jesus’ right hand man, who on the night that Jesus needed him the most, pretended not to know him. Yet after Jesus’ resurrection they have this conversation.

“Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” “Yes Lord” he said, “You know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.”

Again, Jesus said, “Simon, Son of John, do you love me?” He answered, “Yes Lord, you know that I love you.”  Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.”

The third time he said to him, “Simon, Son of John, do you love me?” Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord you know all things; you know I love you.” Jesus said, “Feed my sheep.” (John 21 v 15 – 17)

Peter later of course, became the first Bishop of Rome and the rock upon which the Church was built.  The point of this is to say that even when people make mistakes, God can still use them. This doesn’t mean that we should condone the behaviour of those aid workers who have done wrong – of course we shouldn’t – but it also means that we shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bath water. Rather we should pray for the organisations involved, that they will seek God’s forgiveness and amend their ways, and that they will continue to do honourable work in places many of us would prefer never to visit.  It is also a call to remember that we are only ever one mistake from a major foul up ourselves. We should always be prepared to forgive, lest one day we need forgiveness ourselves.

With Christian saints like David and Peter in our past, how can we do any less?

Where Does Our Value Lie?

This week marks 100 years since the Representation of the People Act 1918 which granted women the vote (though technically it only gave some people women the vote, specifically those over 30, who owned property or had been to University. It would take until 1969 to extend the franchise to both men and women aged 18 – 20). While I am as grateful as anyone for the efforts of the Suffragettes and subsequent campaigners to secure increased rights for women, – and would be the first to say that denying women the vote is intrinsically wrong – I am fascinated by how the commemorations have been framed this week.

The comments by female MPs during the debate on women’s suffrage, have all centred around how there is still more work to be done. They have highlighted the fact that fair pay and equitable treatment in the workplace are still out of reach and need to be strived for. What is interesting about this discussion is that suggests that a woman’s value is tied up in very physical material things. The argument has been that until women had the vote they were somehow worth less than men, and that while they are paid less, or subjected to the whims of men like Harvey Weinstein then they are still not equal to men.

While I can understand this argument, I don’t buy it. It seems grounded on a person’s worth being defined by outside factors. It implies that a person only has worth if they receive the same amount of money as someone else. Of course, not having the vote, or not being paid the same as a man for doing the same job, does diminish a woman, does suggest that society thinks less of them. However the concept that worth is only found in things flies in the face of all good Christian anthropology which makes it clear that a person’s value is grounded on the value bestowed by God on all human beings regardless of their sex.

The Genesis story has this to say on the creation of humanity;

“So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God, he created them; male and female he created them…. God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.” (Genesis chapter 1 v 27, 31)

God created humankind in his own image, saw all that he had made and thought that it was very good. In the eyes of God, because we are made in the image of God, we are worthy of all honour and respect. Our value is grounded not in material or external things, but in our relationship with God, as creatures he has made, and creatures that he loves.

When people place priority on validation from external sources they are essentially saying that God’s validation counts for less, has in and of itself less value than say equal pay. It places God the creator in second place, behind the very things that he has himself created. People seeking validation from external sources will never be satisfied, because they will always believe there is more to gain. But validation from God that is centred on you having infinite and intrinsic worth as a person who God has created, nurtured and loved. That should satisfy.

That is not to say that equality in the workplace or equality of treatment are not things that we should fight for. But rather they should not be the things by which we allow ourselves to be defined. If we first embrace our position as people made in the image of God, then we will experience both satisfaction and happiness while we continue the fight.

Looking Beyond the Feet of Clay

I suspect most people in the Church of England, don’t really give much thought to the ongoing saga of the late Bishop of Chichester George Bell and the continuing battle over his legacy, in light of the allegations of sexual abuse. But those who do give it time, are split pretty equally into two camps. There are those who are worried that in the rush to protect Bell’s reputation, the victims have been forgotten, and those who are worried about the victim, but who believe that condemning a man who – being dead – cannot defend himself is beyond the pale. They are also frustrated by the failure of the Church of England’s leadership to admit that they fouled up the initial investigation.

So, feet of clay are revealed, accusations are thrown, divisions widened, and the work of the Church once again gets buried under a mountain of negative press – mostly of our own creation. It’s enough to make a person weep.  Feeling thoroughly depressed about the situation the other day, I did what all good Christians should. I turned to God for answers.

Now I may be wrong, but I think what he may be trying to teach us, is not to put too much faith in human leaders. Human leaders are being human fallible. They will mess up, they will fall short of their full potential. But that’s okay. Because like all humans God’s grace and forgiveness is theirs if they ask for it. It’s also a reminder that human office is transitory and should not be the be all and end all of anything. There have been three Archbishops of Canterbury in my life time, and while I believe I would be a lesser person had I not been introduced to Rowan Williams, the effect on my spiritual development if a different three men had held the office would have been far from catastrophic. We need to remember that the work of the universe Church is not conditioned on who the Archbishop is and goes on regardless.

This is not a specifically Anglican problem. It’s not even a new problem.  In 1 Corinthians Paul tells us that there have been quarrels in the Corinthian church. “One of you says, I follow Paul, another I follow Apollos, another I follow Cephas; still another I follow Christ,” (1 Corinthians 1 v 12) The Corinthians were arguing over who of the various people to bring them to Christ, was more important and were placing importance on who had baptised them. Paul goes on to say, “What after all is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe – as the Lord has assigned to each his task. I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow…. For we are co-workers in God’s service; you are God’s field, God’s building.” (1 Corinthians 3 v 5 – 6, 9)

Paul’s point is that while earthly leadership is important, the leaders have simply been doing God’s work. God is the one who has been putting power to their ideas, God who has decided which ideas are to be blessed or not. In fact, it is God who has known from the beginning which ideas would be pursued and which not. Or as Bonhoeffer once put it, “ It may be that the times which by human standards are times of collapse are for him the great times of construction. It may be that from a human point of view great times for the church are actually times of demolition. It is a great comfort which Christ gives to his church: you confess, preach, bear witness to me, and I alone will build where it pleases me. Do not meddle in what is my province.” No earthly leader can fully kibosh the plans of God, for that is something no human I capable of.

It is right to be sad, when our leaders let us down. But we should not allow that sadness to suck the joy out of everything. We must look past those with feet of clay, and trust in the One Who Was, Who Is, and Who Is to Come, whose word is unbreakable, and whose love is unwavering . Hallelujah.

Thy Kingdom Come

I saw two things last week that got me thinking a little more about prayer. The first was a Rowan William’s quote, “I love that image of prayer as bird watching. You sit very still because something is liable to burst into view.” 

I love that image too. However, it does highlight one of many issues with prayer that I know I need to work on. You see my wife is a wildlife fanatic and I have on more than one occasion found myself in a bird hide, overlooking some reserve. One of the biggest things I have learnt there is that bird watching is not just a matter of sitting still, it is a matter of patience (something that I do not have in great abundance I will admit). It is about taking the time to let the bird come as it will, in its own good time, and there’s nothing you can do to hurry it. Prayer is very much like that.

Far too often we treat prayer the same we treat a hello on a crowded commuter train. We toss it out there and think far too little of it. But that’s not what prayer is supposed to be about. When you want to cultivate a relationship with a new friend, or a future partner, you spend time with them, talk to them, take the opportunity to get to know there likes and dislikes. That’s the only way you get to know them better. That’s just as true with God. If we truly believe that we are in a real relationship with the King of Heaven, then we need to take the time to grant him our full attention, our whole selves. This brings us to my second point.

A survey by Tearfund released this week, revealed that 51% of adults in the UK say that they pray, including 20% who would say they have no faith. According to the report “Among those who pray but are not religious, 55 per cent say they pray in times of personal crisis or tragedy, 32 per cent say they pray on the off chance that something could change and 24 per cent say they pray as a last resort.”

Now while it’s good to hear that people pray, it still seems as if it’s treated as simply asking God for something with the expectation that he will fulfil the request. And to be honest, most of us I think treat prayer the same way. How many of us just fire off prayers without first thanking God for all he has done, and is doing?  How many of us just treat God as a cosmic agony uncle?

We have developed this idea that prayer is about us getting something, because we deserve it. But that’s not how it works in our earthly relationships, so why should it work that way in our Godly relationships? In the Lord’s Prayer, before we even get to “give us this day our daily bread” we say, “your kingdom come, your will be done.” God’s will, God’s plan and God’s priorities, supersede our will, our plans and our priorities. Now fortunately for us, most of the time God’s plans and ours line up, but they don’t always, and true prayer should always be about putting God first.

True prayer, requires a willingness to open ourselves up to God and both his power and his plan. It’s not about setting a checklist before God and expecting him to complete it. True prayer is about leaving space for God to move and work. It’s about saying, “Your will be done God, here I am, please use me.”

Multiple Skills make a Healthy Body

I’ve spent a lot of time over the last week or so thinking about the appointment of the new Bishop of London. There’s a lot I want to say – especially about how this pertains to the 5 guiding principles issue – but instead I’ve chosen to focus on one very specific issue.

A lot of the coverage of Bishop Sarah has focused on how being a priest has been her second vocation, after a successful career as a nurse, which culminated in her becoming the country’s Chief Nursing Officer. The focus has been on how this will enable her to bring a lot of outside experience to the job, especially with regards to safeguarding, all of which sounds very similar to the noises that were made about Archbishop Justin, when he became Archbishop after less than two years as a Bishop.

Now again I could go into my concerns about someone being elevated to the third most senior role in the Church of England, with less than twenty years of ordained ministry under her belt, but perhaps +Sarah has skills of which I am not aware, or my concern that none of the top five sees, are now held by Anglo-Catholics, but I think that’s a job for someone else. What I want to talk about is how this emphasis on the advantages of first careers sits uncomfortably alongside the Church’s desire for young ordinands, and its effect on the mission of the Church as whole.

Over the last few years, the Church of England has been putting a lot of work into recruiting young ordinands (and by young it means those under the age of 32) and the work seems to be paying off with the number of young ordinands rising by 2/5ths according to figures published this year, accounting for 28% of new ordinands. Yet at the same time the Church is still sending mixed messages to its younger members. I know from personal experience that a lot of emphasis is still placed on having “real life experience” in certain Dioceses (the question of how we can get that real-life experience and still get ordained young doesn’t seem to have an answer). Now this new emphasis on the advantages of having a first career is going to be very dispiriting to those young people pursuing ordination.

Obviously, careerism is not something that we should be encouraging and anyone going into ministry with the sole aim of becoming Bishop of London or Archbishop of Canterbury should probably be sat down for a long talk. But the message is still a disconcerting one. If you get ordained young prepare for a life moving from one parish post to another gaining preferment only if you are very lucky. On the other hand, if you first become head of Ofsted and then get ordained, you can become Archbishop of York inside of twenty years. Or as I saw it put on Twitter (in response to a blog post about how the Church is being rightly led by those ordained after another career), the message seems to be that those ordained as a second career have a place in higher leadership, while those ordained young are inherently unsuitable.

1 Corinthians 12 talks about the spiritual gifts given to each one of us;

 Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good. 8 To one there is given through the Spirit a message of wisdom, to another a message of knowledge by means of the same Spirit, 9 to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by that one Spirit, 10 to another miraculous powers, to another prophecy, to another distinguishing between spirits, to another speaking in different kinds of tongues, and to still another the interpretation of tongues.11 All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he distributes them to each one, just as he determines.

12 Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ

The point that St Paul is making is that the Church needs many skills to work properly. That everyone’s gifts are of equal value and necessary. He goes on to say that just as a body that was all made up of feet would not work, so a church made up entirely of prophets would not function to the best of its ability.

Yet despite this scriptural message, right now the Church seems to be promoting only people with very specific skills sets, – namely administration or outside job experience. But promoting people who have been ordained a relatively brief time, to high office because they have outside experience, seems not only to ignore the experience that those with a lifelong ministry have gained, but suggests that the spiritual gifts that young ordinands have and may nurture over the life of their ministry seem to count for less than the proven ability to manage a large organisation.

This ties into my second concern.  Unlike thirty years ago, where the bench of Bishops was a mix of those skilled in administration, those skilled in pastoring and those skilled in theology (even ten years ago we had Rowan Williams, Tom Wright, Michael Nazir-Ali and Richard Chartres, each of whom had the capacity to both think deeply and explain clearly theological issues), nowadays a Bishop seems chiefly to have to be an administrator. Bishops seem to have become little more than top level managers in C of E Ltd.  That is not to say there is something wrong with having administrators. Archbishop Geoffrey Fisher after all was a top notch administrator, and had a very successful tenure at Canterbury. But when you have more than forty administrators the question becomes, who is doing the teaching and thinking?

If the Church is going to be truly successful in its mission to spread the Gospel to all people, if it is committed to remaining relevant in an increasingly secular society, if it’s going to reach out to people where they are, rather than waiting for them to come to us, we need to heed the words of St Paul. We need to make sure we have more than just people who know how to organise a good series of meetings, at the top of the pyramid. We need people who have thought about God, and how his word applies in the modern context as well as people who have the ability to put these thoughts across persuasively and simply. We need a church led by all talents, not just the one currently in vogue.