Monday, 31 October 2011

a sermon for All Saints Day

I used to own a shirt that once belonged to Elvis Presley. Or to be exact, I owned a square inch of a shirt that belonged to Elvis. It was on sale in the gift shop attached to his birthplace in Tupelo, Mississippi. It had purple and white stripes, printed on some seriously nasty nylon. But it was amazing to think that here was something that had once been on the back of the man they called the King.

That was, until a sceptical friend pointed out that I had no real way of knowing whether this was actually Elvis' shirt. "Maybe they just cut up any old bits of fabric and flogged them off to gullible tourists," he said, eyeing me pointedly. After that my souvenir never felt quite so satisfying.

I was reminded of Elvis' shirt when I visited the recent Treasures of Heaven exhibition at the British Museum. Here they had gathered together a stunning collection of medieval reliquaries - jewelled caskets and beautifully painted cabinets, each containing the relic of a saint or of Christ himself. A lock of hair, a bone, a fragment of the true cross. Like Elvis Presley's shirt there was no way of knowing how authentic the relics were (although I'll stick my neck out and say I'm pretty sure the vial containing the breast milk of the Virgin Mary was a fraud. In any case, it was by now evaporated milk).

The utterly corrupt trade in relics was one of the catalysts for the Reformation. Churches yearned to possess their own relic for pilgrims to visit and venerate. Such high demand coupled with a lack of any effective means of authentication led inevitably to the circulation of bogus relics. As well as telling us something about the human capacity to cash in on a good thing, the veneration of saints and their remaindered body parts points to how compelling and inspirational the lives of saints were to faithful Christians in the middle ages.

A book by an Italian monk written in the 13th century did much to fuel the appetite for tales of saints. The Golden Legend by Jacobus De Voragine sold like wildfire across Europe in various translations. It became a source of inspiration for poets, painters and church artisans. Here were collected stories of miraculous deeds, grisly martyrdoms and virgins protecting their virtue. St Valerie who, on being beheaded, picked up her head and took it to present to her bishop. St Giles, whose coat miraculously healed those who wore it. St Clements who was martyred at sea, after which the waters parted to reveal a marble mausoleum that God had built to house his corpse.

Picking through these fantastic fables, one theme stands out - a saintly devotion to God and steadfastness in living faithfully to his word. Reading of the lengths gone to, and the fortitude shown, in the face of adversity inspired medieval Christians to redouble their efforts to live a godly life.

This is the same impetus that continues to draw Christians to the stories of saints. Their capacity to inspire us to become better people, or strive for those qualities that elude us when we are under pressure, offers us hope and possibility in our journey towards wholeness. There may be modern day saints who better serve to inspire us. The decades of care and nursing shown by Mother Teresa in the face of grim poverty. The magnanimous forgiveness of Nelson Mandela towards his captors. The courage in speaking truth to power of Martin Luther King or Dorothy Day. Or perhaps simply a friend or family member who has encountered hardship with cheerfulness or an absence of self-pity.

Inspirational stories urge us on to be our best selves. And while the veneration of saints is not so popular, the appetite for role models remains. Think of TV shows which honour heroes or acts of bravery. Or newspaper stories of celebrities who have battled their demons to achieve success. Or sports personalities who triumph through hard work and discipline. We seek out the success of others to remind us of what is possible in our own lives.

The question arises of how we discern fact from fiction, or determine which qualities to cultivate. It is certainly easy to mock the credulity of medieval Christians reading The Golden Legend. But the strive for perfection was at the heart of their devotion. The worship of celebrity in our own age - which still has the potential to inspire good, and is perhaps our nearest equivalent to the adoration of saints - is increasingly losing its own way. Rather than emulating positive qualities, increasingly it is the lifestyle of the rich and famous that is most eagerly sought after.

For Christians the challenge is to remain true to the gospel of Christ. Like our medieval forebears it is too easy for us to become distracted by the trends or culture of our day, or to embroider our faith with made-up doctrine or quasi-religious practices that divert us from the model of life taught by Jesus. It couldn't be more fitting that the gospel reading for All Saints Day (Matthew 5.1-12) is from the sermon on the mount, that pivotal passage which distils Christ's teaching and sets out the upside-down values of the kingdom of God - where the poor, the pure and the peacemakers are blessed.

The church continues to struggle in clearing away the clutter and rubbish of our times to reach the heart of this vision, just as much as Christians in the past did. But if the choices we make and the priorities we set are guided above all by Christ we'll do better than we've been seen to do of late. The lesson we can learn from saints of the past is the example of their determination and single-mindedness in trying.

Friday, 28 October 2011

on standing down from the Pastoral Team at St Paul's Cathedral

Since the summer I've been a chaplain at St Paul's Cathedral, one of many London clergy who give half a day a month to being the priest available to the cathedral's visitors, and to leading prayers on the hour. It is has been immensely enjoyable and interesting to do. Given my relationship with the cathedral I've been closely following the events arising from the Occupy London protest which pitched camp in the cathedral precinct a fortnight ago. There seemed to be a great deal that was positive and constructive about the dialogue between the protestors and the cathedral. I was therefore very disappointed to learn of today's announcement that St Paul's is taking legal action to have the protestors removed. Consequently I have decided to stand down from the pastoral team, and explained my reasons to Michael Colclough, Canon Pastor of St Paul's Cathedral, in an email earlier today (below).

I can't stress how tiny a gnat I am in the scheme of things, so my decision is not even a blip on the radar compared to Giles Fraser's principled and courageous resignation. But given the negative PR that has been, and will continue to be, generated from the cathedral's action I wanted to join my voice with other clergy colleagues and church members who are expressing disquiet with the stance being taken by St Paul's. I don't for a minute think they have been put in an easy situation, and I wish them well as they continue to work out the best way forward. More than anything I am sorry that the story has become one about the Church and not about the City, which is really where the attention must be focussed.

Dear Bishop Michael, 
I appreciate what a difficult couple of weeks the Dean and Chapter have had following the occupation of the cathedral precinct by protestors campaigning against corporate greed. You have been much in my thoughts and prayers as you have navigated the complex issues with which you have been presented, and the negative press which arose from the decision to close the cathedral. I am delighted that a way was found to reopen the building today which satisfied the cathedral's duty of care towards its worshippers and visitors, and have been impressed by the degree of cooperation that Occupy London offered to enable this to happen. 
It has therefore been disappointing to learn of today's announcement that St Paul's will instigate legal proceedings seeking the removal of the protestors. It is particularly poignant that this announcement comes on the day that IDS report an increase in top directors' pay of almost 50% over the last year. I appreciate that St Paul's has its own means of speaking to the issue of corporate and financial conduct in the City, but am sorry that a way could not be found of - at the very least - continuing to thole the occupation of the precinct by those with a genuine and prophetic complaint that has much in keeping with the values of the gospel. 
I only recently joined the cathedral's pastoral team and it has been a privilege to minister to the building's many visitors. I was looking forward to more opportunities to do so. Today, however, I am left feeling embarrassed by the position the Dean and Chapter have taken. I do not relish the prospect of having to defend the cathedral's position in the face of the inevitable questions that visitors to St Paul's will pose in the coming weeks and months, particularly if we are to see protestors forcibly removed by police at the Dean and Chapter's behest. It is therefore with regret that I write to inform you of my decision to stand down from the pastoral team with immediate effect. 
I continue to wish you well, and a strengthening of discernment, as the situation continues to play out. All of the staff and volunteers at St Paul's remain much in my prayers at this difficult time. 
With warmest good wishes,