Growing and Learning in Community

Now that the first year of formal teaching is over, it seems like a good time to reflect on my first year at Trinity Bristol, and my first year building a Christian community.

One of the main reasons I chosen to go to Trinity was because of its emphasis on community and “Living like the Kingdom is Near.” Now it’s possible to laugh at that phrase from time to time and boy have we – Dance Like the Kingdom is Near being a particular favourite – it has also been something I believe we have all taken to heart.

For the past year I have had this statement of community values pinned to my desk.

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Based on the Beatitudes these themes, designed to help us grow closer to God as well as to each other, have been shot through every day of the last year at Trinity. We haven’t always succeeded, we can still be cliquey at times, perhaps we haven’t always recognised the validity of others worship style, and I know there are times I have fallen short of the ideal. But when I have I have had it bought to my attention by others with both love and respect.

What I have found most impressive is how much this community formation has happened just through day to day interactions. Whether it is the everyday things like spending time in Pastoral groups, praying down at the prayer hut in Quiet Hour, or the one off things like spending a day on a coach trip to York, or watching the forty minute long pool tournament final, these normal life moments, have helped form and cement relationships with people, who will hopefully be part of my Christian journey for the rest of my life.

This community has also been a key part of my intellectual and spiritual formation. Listening to other people’s questions and then chewing it over, questioning whether I agree or not, has contributed as much I think to my education as the actual teaching has done. This year I have worshipped with people, prayed with people and from time to time got down in the dust and lamented with people about the state of our world. I have learnt the joy of a structured pattern of prayer and worship. All of this has helped me grow closer to God and to grow in Christ-likeness.

One of the realisations that I have come to over this past year is that while academic study is a vital part of my ordination training – because how else can I ensure I can teach others properly – there is something more important. That is that I grow more fully both in Christ-likeness and in myself. Being content in my existent as a child of God, who is dearly beloved and wonderfully made, accepting that God has called me with the skills I possess is a vital part of being an effective Minister in God’s church. Being a part of the Trinity Community over the past year has helped set me on that path, and I am immensely grateful for it.

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Being an Anglican – What does it Mean?

I would like to thank the Reverend Simon Leighton, Father Endre Kormos and Mr Andrew Sabisky for their help in clarifying the thoughts behind this post.

Apologies in advance. This is going to be a long one.

One of the most interesting side effects of my first year at theological college, has been that I have found myself having to re-evaluate my own theological and liturgical position within the Church of England.

It rapidly became obvious that if I’m not the most Anglican person in my year I’m almost certainly the most Anglican person in my pastoral group (though I wouldn’t be surprised if I was the most Anglican Anglican in my year). By this I mean that I am really the only person in my pastoral group who gets excited whenever BCP week rolls around, values a well-structured liturgy, and is not so sure about how much commonality Common Worship really inspires. It turns out I value ceremony, good liturgy and a moderate degree of awe and mystery more than I thought I did (though I’m still not sure about incense and bells).

But this shouldn’t come as a surprise to me. Being an Anglican is a central part of my Christian identity. The only two things that are more important are 1: My identity as a child of God and 2: My membership of the Ecclesia Anglicana, that English Church that can trace its origins all the way back to an Italian monk named Augustine coming ashore at Thanet (and further if the house church at Lullingstone Roman villa is any evidence).  For me, the BCP, the Thirty-Nine Articles and our strange position being both Catholic and Reformed, Protestant yet episcopaly led is central to my worship and understanding of tradition.

But for many others it seems that Anglicanism isn’t really a think. A lot of people I have met over this past year would say they are members of the Church of England, (or at least I would hope so as many of them are planning to get ordained into it) but wouldn’t describe themselves as Anglican. And why would they? There has been no real discussion this past year about what sets Anglicanism apart from any other denomination. Even Anglican Story, the weekly discussion about Church of England practice only engaged in a two-week surface exploration of Anglicanism and its heritage.

But I don’t think this is problem specific to my theological college. I think large parts of the Church of England itself are unaware of their Anglican heritage or what that means, preferring to define themselves and their theology by their positions either as Evangelicals or Anglo-Catholics (or in some cases Broad Church or just plain Charismatics). There are I think three reasons for this (and my thanks to various folks on Twitter for discussing this with me this past week and helping me to clarify my thinking).

1: Loss of a Common Liturgy

Now I understand the arguments against the Book of Common Prayer. Nobody talks like that anymore, it’s inaccessible and outdated. I understand the need for modern updated liturgy. But I think a side effect of moving away from the BCP to Common Worship has been a loss of a common heritage. It used to be that every church sang from the same hymn sheet (or prayed from the same prayer book as it were) and wherever you went you knew what to expect. Now thanks to the variety of prayers on offer under Common Worship (I often like to play “guess the Eucharistic prayer” in my head during Communion services) every Church I have been too has felt different and that sense of common worship and a common shared heritage has been lost.

2: Loss of variety in Churchmanship

While I am aware that labels are considered increasingly outdated it is true that most people in the Church of England (at least those seeking to get ordained) would class themselves as either Evangelical or Anglo-Catholic whether they would call themselves that or not. Obviously, there are groupings within those groups (Charismatic Evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics for instance) but they are the main liturgical and theological wings with Broad Church sitting somewhere in the middle. Discussions with others have suggested that the cementing of these two wings within the Church of England was hastened by the closure since the 1970’s of theological colleges like Wells and Lincoln that held to the Central Churchmanship school of thought, with the remaining theological colleges becoming for the most part either distinctly Evangelical or distinctly Anglo-Catholic (though the new non-residential training institutions may change that).

The loss of the Central and Prayer Book Catholic position (held by the likes of Austin Farrer, Robert Stopford and William Temple) which tried to steer a via media position between Evangelical and Anglo-Catholic, valuing liturgy and ceremony, while also appreciating  the creeds, the Church Fathers and the Anglican divines, creating in essence a distinctly Anglican style of worship, has meant that the Church of England is now essentially home to two separate and competing systems trying to live in the same house. This leads nicely into my third point.

3: Outside theological influence.

The loss of influence of a specifically Anglican theology has meant that the various factions within the Church of England are having to look to other groups to provide them with intellectual ballast.

For traditionalist Anglo-Catholics it will be to Rome, particularly Roman Catholic social theory. For conservative Evangelicals it’s the great Protestant theologians of the 20th century, Barth and Bonhoeffer (and depending on how reformed you are Lloyd-Jones and J.I. Packer).  Charismatics meanwhile are looking to the big American megachurches like Bethel, which is heavily influencing both their theology and their worshipping outlook, (lots of praise and worship music, a heavy emphasis on spiritual gifts and a low sacramental theology). This last is particularly interesting as current evidence suggests that those self-same mega churches are starting to embrace sacramental traditions once again as suggested here: https://www.americamagazine.org/faith/2019/05/02/why-evangelical-megachurches-are-embracing-some-catholic-traditions

The other result of this has been that when the Church has been presented with major theological issues, we no longer have a specifically Anglican theology to fall back on. Instead we have to take these various strands that now make up Anglican thought and try to cobble them together into a cohesive whole.

The final result of this move away from our own heritage is I think that we no longer know what we are for. Or rather we do (we are for people knowing Christ) but we no longer know how best to present this to the world. We have come to believe that we must reinvent ourselves for the modern era and modern need, and that will make people come to Church. Ironically it seems that what at least some people want (especially young people) is that which we have tried our best over the last thirty years to jettison, traditionally Church of England services: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/religion/12176998/Looking-for-Britains-future-leaders-Try-evensong.html

I don’t really know where the Church of England should go from here, or what our next step should be. But perhaps a start would be to take Richard Hooker and Lancelot Andrewes off the shelves and see what they have to say to us today.

As for me – for my own views were how this started – I’m not sure I can call myself a Low Church Evangelical any longer (though as my three of my Anglican heroes are William Temple, Michael Ramsey and Rowan Williams perhaps I never was). I would still say I am an Evangelical in my sensibilities, but a High one.

Or perhaps I should try and restart the Prayer Book Catholic movement? What do you think?

Thoughts found amongst the Silence

This is a repost of something I wrote for Hannah Barr’s https://ablazeoflight.com/ back in December, saved here for posterity. 

If you had told me a few months ago, that my favourite part of my ministerial training wouldn’t be the lectures, or the jokes about transubstantiation and the salad bar, but sitting outside of a small wooden hut, in silence for an hour every week I would have told you, you were nuts. But that has turned out to be the case.

To set the context, every Wednesday morning at Trinity we have Spirituality and Quiet Hour. Spirituality is an hour-long discussion on some aspect of as you would expect spirituality, be it prayer, lament, or worship. This is then followed by Quiet Hour. The whole college falls silent, and we are encouraged to go off and think and prayer about what we’ve just been discussing. I usually make my way down to the prayer hut.

When I started at Trinity, I wasn’t too keen on the idea of either Spirituality or Quiet Hour. I knew I needed to get at developing a pattern of prayer, because my BAP papers said so, but it still struck me as an hour that I would just have to get through, before I could get on with the real work. This uncertainty and discomfort regarding spirituality I blame partially on my Evangelical background, but mainly on myself. I have always been a very logical, thought emotional person, and the more spiritual and prayerful side of Christianity has never been something I have been comfortable with.

But week by week and hour by hour, my time outside the prayer hut has been helping me see the benefits of time spent simply waiting in the presence of God. It provides the fuel for the rest of the week and has shown me that I don’t need to be afraid of what God might say, because it’s usually helpful, if sometimes uncomfortable. It has helped me realise that there are more important things in ministry than having all the right answers to questions about Marcionism and the genre of Daniel.

Christians in general can tend to put too much emphasis on either Scripture or Spirit and for certain types of non-Charismatic Evangelical (and I speak as one) understanding Scripture, and God and the nature of Him can become the priority, forcing Spirituality to reside on the back burner until we decide we have need of it. Now I’m not saying there is anything wrong with academic study, but if it becomes the be all and end all of our relationship with God that’s when problems begin to occur.

My quiet time outside the Prayer Hut is as I have said a much-valued part of my week, and I hope to be able to take the lessons I have learnt, – about waiting on God and making space for him in my daily journey – into my future ministry. But at the moment, I’m going to enjoy the opportunities I have. And if you ever happen to be visiting Trinity, try and visit the Prayer Hut. You won’t regret it.

Sermon – John 21, 5/05/19

This sermon was preached at the 10:00 am service on May 5th 2019. The text was John 21, v 1 – 14

Alleluia. Christ is risen. He is risen indeed, alleluia.

These words, repeated regularly for nearly 2000 years are familiar to us, though no less important for all their familiarity.

What do these words mean to you?

We’ll be looking at what the disciples thought, what they were preparing for and how we can use the gifts we have been given to build up Gods kingdom

The eleven disciples in that first post Easter week, would have been filled with fear, wonder and awe. In the span of  about a week they had seen their Lord and master arrested, executed and then rise from the dead. They were I imagined, feeling a little discombobulated, a little perturbed. So, a number of them did exactly what came naturally to them. They went out fishing. They still had to eat after all. Yet that night, they caught nothing. Then Jesus turns up, and in a scene reminiscent of the miraculous catch of fish from Luke 5, they catch so many they cannot haul the prize in.

Perhaps it was the memory of something like this happening before, that prompted John to realise who the figure on the beach was. There is certainly a nice symmetry between the two miracles, one as the Disciples begin their journey with Jesus and this one as they prepare to go out alone, spreading the news of his resurrection.

Back then Jesus told them that if they followed him, he would make them fish for people. Now the time has come for them to go out, leave their nets behind for good and begin that work. Perhaps there really were a hundred and fifty-three fish in the nets. Perhaps it’s just a symbolic way of demonstrating the great number of people that the Disciples would bring to God. But either way, it is clear that a new work is about to begin, the work of preaching the salvation to be found in Jesus Christ.  But and most importantly, it is going to be a work, done for and through God.

When I was growing up, I was never very good at maths – still aren’t come to that – and I suspect there were times when my teachers just wanted to take over and show me how to solve questions, so that we could move on. Instead, they took the time to help me understand so I could solve them myself. I think that was partly because they knew that it was better for me if I could do it myself, partly because I would feel a sense of achievement, and partly because they got joy out of seeing students do things for themselves.

I think something similar is going on in this passage. God is more than capable of bringing the good news of salvation to all people by himself. But he chooses to involve us in his plans, both out of love for us and respect for our own free will. I think this can be seen in the passage. We know from verse nine that Jesus already had some fish by the time the Disciples arrived on shore with their catch. Quite possibly he already had it before he spoke to them. Yet he allowed them to participate in the act of provision. The disciples still had to trust Jesus and cast their nets. They still had to do some work, rather than just sitting back and allowing God to do everything for them. This is an important lesson for the Church as well. God has decided to work with us, to bring about his kingdom. This means we still have to take action. We still have to step out in faith. We can’t assume that God will do everything for us.

Now this message is obviously important, but I think there is more to be learned from the existence of the passage itself. The end of chapter 20 seems to wrap up John’s gospel quite nicely, so this chapter seems like a bit of an addendum. Yet it must have meaning, or John would not have included it.

I think the purpose of this passage, is to gives us a little insight into the beginning of the Church, and the people who founded it, so that we can reflect on ourselves and our own skills now in 2019.

I don’t know how many important meetings or decisions have been taken over breakfast. But I am confident in saying that the breakfast depicted in this passage, was one of the most important meals in the history of the world.  This is when the Church of Christ on earth, really begins to take shape, as the Disciples move from being followers of a wandering teachers, to teachers and prophets in their own right. When we see the people who were there at it’s beginning, we should no longer worry about if we are good enough, or if we need certain degrees or qualifications in order to serve it.

As the first Bishop of Liverpool J.C. Ryle put it, “These very men who toiled all night in a boat dragging about a cold net and taking nothing, – these very men who found it necessary to work hard in order that they might eat – these very men were some of the first founders of the mighty Church of Christ…These were they who went forth from an obscure corner of the earth and turned the world upside down.”

There have been a fair few times since I moved to Bristol last August, when I have wondered if I have what it takes to do the role I am training for. There are people who are smarter, more prayerful or just more experienced than me, so I have sometimes wondered what it is I have to offer. I think we all feel like that sometimes. But this passage helps me, helps us remember that God has called us, into his service because he loves us, and wants to work with us, to further his kingdom.

Similarly, it can sometimes seem as if we do not have a role to play in Church. Everyone else seems to be doing just fine, and we cannot see how we can contribute. But we all have skills and gifts from God we can contribute, talents we can bring to the Church family

In 1 Corinthians 12, we are told “If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body was hearing where would the sense of smell be? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is there are many members, yet one body.”

What Paul is saying is that the body of Christ needs many different parts in order to operate, and each one brings its own skills and talents, all of which are vital. We see this in today’s passage, in the responses of Peter and John. John was the first to recognise Jesus on the beach, but Peter was the first to act. John discerned; Peter moved. Both brought different talents to the Church, but both were equally vital to its success. And the same is true to us today.

So, what does that mean for us today? What can we, who are the heirs of those Galilean fisherman, do to help build the church that they started? Well funny you should ask. There is one very simple thing you can do. Something you all probably already do, probably already have done today.

Pray.

In a little over five weeks, we will gather as a Church to celebrate Pentecost, the Church’s birthday, the day the Spirit came down and the story of the Church as a global movement can be said to have begun. But for the eleven days before that, from Ascension to Pentecost, we will, hopefully all be taking part in the Thy Kingdom Come event, a global call to prayer organised by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York. During Thy Kingdom Come we are all encouraged to pray for five people that we know. We can pray that they will come to know Christ, or we can simply pray for them, as well as for our world and for our church. Prayer is something we can all do, and it is probably the most powerful weapon in our arsenal.

But I also think that we need to take the time to rest and rejoice in the joy of Easter for a while. Jesus Christ is risen today, and that is the best news that anyone has ever heard. We are not Easter Worshipers, a new term invented over the Easter weekend. But we are Easter people. That means we are Resurrection people, those who share in the inheritance of faith and hope, poured out at Calvary.

What’s more Jesus wants us to play a part in his plan for the world. He who made all the earth, has given us the opportunity to save it. I can think of no better job offer than that. We have access to the same power that those seven fisherman did all those years ago, and through them God built a church that still stands today. A Church that people all across the world today are still willing to do die for, as we saw in Sri Lanka. I am confident that God can use us to help it grow, if we are only willing to make ourselves available. So like Peter, let us jump out of the boats of our every day lives and go meet with Jesus.

Alleluia Christ is risen. He is risen indeed alleluia.

Sermon – Acts 13, 24/02/19

This sermon was preached at the 6:00pm service on February 24th 2019. The text was Acts 13 v 1 – 5 and 44 – 52

I have been a member of many churches in my time, and all of them have supported people doing mission work overseas. Some have been in China, others have been in Madagascar. I know that Redland also supports several missionaries and I think these are great. I also know that for a lot people, missionary work feels like a very specific calling, restricted to overseas work. Some people would use this passage and others in Acts to support that view. I think however that it has something different to say. We’ll be looking at different ways of doing evangelism and looking at the following three points.

  1. We have a great gospel to proclaim
  2. We need to be willing to talk about the great news of Jesus Christ
  3. We need to do evangelism through the family of God

Before we get into the passages, we have had read to us, I feel it is important that we talk about the bits that we have missed. In verses 16 to 42 we have what I think of as one of Paul’s big missionary sermons. In it he takes those listening in the synagogue all the way from the Israelite’s walking in the wilderness, in Exodus, through to the reign of the Kings of Israel, both Saul and David, finishing with both John the Baptist and Jesus. This is a pattern that Paul repeats several times throughout Acts, especially when he’s preaching in the Synagogues.

He does this, because he wants the Jews to understand how Jesus fits into the great cultural narrative that the Jewish people inhabit. They view themselves as God’s chosen ones, who are waiting for the coming Messiah who will bring about God’s kingdom on Earth. Paul wants them to understand that this has already happened, and that they have in fact rejected the Messiah. Their continued rejection of this truth, is why in verse 46, Paul talks about how they are “now turning to the Gentiles.” This is the great gospel that we have been given and we have received.

Moving on to the passages we have read. Now when you read the first part of this passage, it is quite easy to assume that the work of an Evangelist or a Missionary is restricted to a specific group of people. We are told in the passage, that after a message from the Holy Spirit, and some praying and fasting, the Church at Antioch, “laid their hands on them and sent them off.” When the new Vicar of Redland, arrives, we will have something similar, a special service, to commission them for their new work. It is also something we do before people go off on missionary journeys.

In this day and age, it could be easy to assume that the work of an Evangelist is not only restricted to a special group of people, but also individuals with specific talents. When you hear stories of people like Michael Green, who died about a fortnight ago, and think about the number of Mission events he headlined and look at the number of books he wrote, it is easy to say, “I could never do that.”  But just because you can’t do that, doesn’t mean you can’t talk about Jesus.

A friend of mine, who I used to lead Scripture Union camps with, died just over a week ago and he was one of the most successful evangelists I have ever known, not because he had a massive platform, where he could convert thousands, and not because he wrote hundreds upon hundreds of books, but because he lived a Christ like life, and by his faith and his actions, led people to Jesus.

Just because some people have been called to a specific mission field, or called to a specific role, as with Paul and Barnabas, does not mean the rest of us, are freed from the responsibility of preaching the good news of Jesus. Once Paul and Barnabas left Antioch, I don’t assume that Simeon, or Lucius stopped performing the roles that they had been appointed too. When we read in verse forty-nine that the “word of the LORD spread throughout the region,” I doubt it was solely down to Paul and Barnabas. To ensure the spread of this amazing gospel message, we need to be doing it too

This last week the Church of England’s general synod has been meeting in London, and the main focus of the week has been Evangelism. Not only are fewer and fewer people coming to Church, but those that do are less and less willing to talk about it to their non-Christian friends. So, Evangelism needs to become a priority, but as I have been saying this is not just a job for clergy or those going abroad.

One of the quotes relating to Evangelism that I have seen a lot in advance of Synod is by the former Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple, “We are convinced that England will never be converted until the laity use the opportunity for Evangelism daily afforded to them by their various professions, crafts and occupations.”

What Temple means by the laity is us, you and me and all our Christian friends. Those who have not been ordained or set apart for any office – at least not yet – and who continue to go out into the world being in community, in schools and hospitals, social clubs and shops. Temple was convinced, as am I that Evangelism, speaking the good news is everybody’s duty, whether we are ordained or not.

It is vital that we all take an active part in pushing forward the great commission to make disciples of all nations. Where the Church is concerned it is not only the job of those that have been set aside to do this work, but the job of everyone. Some people – myself included at times – have tended to view the Church as simply a spiritual filling station, where we come to get a top up of theology/spirituality and godliness, before we go back into our very separate secular world. But a Church isn’t a filling station, a Church is a school, where we are taught what it means to be Christians so that we can go out into the big wide world and tell other people about God and the good news that caused the Gentiles to praise the word of the LORD.

That teaching is not just something that happens on Sundays either. Small groups are a vital part of this plan as are other church events and bible studies. In short, the whole purpose of the Church is to build up mature and knowledgeable Christians who can spread the word to those who have not heard it. This includes not just the people in our parish, but all people.

But it is also not a solitary task. We are called to do this within the family of God. Paul didn’t go on mission journeys on his own, he took Barnabas and John Mark with him. We too need to work with people and other groups, all of which will bring different skills to bear. Groups like the Redland Education Centre which has links that we as a Church do not have. We need to continue to work with other Churches, and not just Church of England ones. The job of Evangelism is a truly ecumenical activity, one that crosses all denominational barriers, and if we aren’t taking every opportunity, or seeking to create opportunities to work with our Roman Catholic, Methodist, Baptist and free church brethren, and harness their experience and their skills, then we are missing out.

But it’s also about working together as a Church and supporting each other in our various mission fields. Note what happens at the start of this passage. The other members of the Antiochian Church, lay hands on Paul and Barnabas – less an ordination and more a blessing – and then send them off, with their full support. When we baptise children in Church we are asked if we will help the child and uphold them in their new life in Christ, and we say that “With the help of God we will.” It is the same with any new endeavour. Any new mission field, or mission attempt needs to be under-girded by prayerful support. Because while not everyone can go out to Madagascar, or help run a Winter Night Shelter, we can all and do all pray, and prayer is just as important an aspect of mission as standing up and leading an Alpha Course.

However, there is another aspect of the early part of the passage I want to consider before I close. Between hearing the voice of the Holy Spirit and sending out Paul and Barnabas we are told that the church in Antioch “fasted and prayed” It is healthy for Churches to balance practical decision making with leading by the Spirit. This is why I am so grateful for whole church prayer meetings when we come together to try and asses what it is God is telling us. When it comes to our own lives, we should also follow this method, Talking to other Christians, (but not necessarily clergy. They don’t have all the answers after all), and getting their advice as we seek to move forward.

So, what do I want us to take us from this passage? Well here are my three points again. One that we have a great and glorious gospel to proclaim. This is a message that has and will continue to change the world but will only do so if we are willing to talk about it. So secondly, we need to be willing to step out, in our workplaces and communities, in our leisure time, with our friends and our family and talk about the great news of Jesus Christ. Finally we need to prepare for and do evangelism as Gods family, working as one unit, supporting and upholding each other, and working together to discern what God is telling us. As the Churchill poster opposite my desk says, “Let us go forward together.”

Amen.

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.

Amen.

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.