Friday, 23 November 2012

Lambeth clergy issue joint statement on General Synod's vote against women bishops

You will probably have heard on the news this week that the governing body of the Church of England – the General Synod – has rejected the legislation to enable women to be bishops.

While the church’s bishops and priests voted overwhelmingly in favour of women bishops, the vote was lost when put to representatives of the laity (the non-ordained members of synod). It did not achieve the two-thirds majority required, although it only lost by six votes. This was a shock and surprise as, two years ago, Synod had already agreed that women could become bishops. This week’s legislation was really about how it would be implemented. The failure to pass it has halted the whole process.

There are a disproportionate number of lay representatives in General Synod who are from very conservative and fundamentalist churches and do not accurately reflect the tolerance and diversity cherished by most of us in the Church of England.

The “no” vote casts the Church of England in a very bad light. It makes us appear exclusive, anti-women and completely out of touch with the 21st century.

How then should we respond?

Firstly, be aware that many of us feel dismayed and angry by this result. It does not reflect our views or our understanding of what God wants for the church. Please pray that the wounds and hurt which many people are feeling – particularly women priests - will know God’s healing touch. And we also pray for the small minority who are so fearful of change, that they fight to stand in the way of our collective journey towards wholeness.

Secondly, let us not forget that we are a wounded people. We were wounded before and we are wounded now. This is the gospel, that in spite of our failings and shortcomings we are loved and cherished by God. That in Christ Jesus, as St Paul says, there is no male or female, Jew or Greek, slave or free. Now there may not be many slaves or Greeks in Lambeth these days, but we understand Paul to mean that the church should embrace and represent humanity in all its diversity, regardless of your gender, your colour of skin, your physical or mental abilities, or your sexual orientation.

Each of us is invited to be fully a part of God’s family, and we respond with hope, confident that the grief of Holy Saturday will give way to the resurrection joy of Easter morning. We will continue to campaign for women bishops – and there will be another attempt at legislation in due course. We don’t yet know when.

In the meantime, let us work towards our congregation being the role-model for a generous, diverse and inclusive people of God, not merely learning to live with our differences but celebrating and cherishing them.

Revd Angus Aagaard, Team Rector, North Lambeth Parish
Revd Rosemary Fletcher, Methodist Superintendent Minister, Lambeth Mission St Mary
Revd Alison Kennedy, Team Vicar, St Peter’s Vauxhall
Revd Fraser Dyer, Priest-in-Charge, St Anne and All Saints South Lambeth
Revd Olufunke Ogbede, Honorary Curate, St Anne and All Saints South Lambeth
Revd Robert Stanier, Youth Minister, North Lambeth Parish & South Lambeth, St Anne and All Saints
Revd David Longe, Assistant Curate, St Anselm’s Kennington
Deacon Marilyn Slowe, Lambeth Mission St Mary
Revd Louise Seear, Assistant Curate, St Peter’s Vauxhall
Elizabeth Whyte, Pastoral Assistant, North Lambeth Parish

Sunday, 11 November 2012

on remembrance sunday

What change is loosed from trench, that tomb of war;
a generation loved is sunk in Flanders' gore.
The toll of men dispenses lasting grief,
to Britain altered; hastened unbelief.

At parlour tables join your hands and call
on spirits of the sons you sent to war.
Where now the Prince of Peace you claim to heed?
Dismembered on a field of unbelief.

Christ's call to love is lost in battle cry
and empire-building; these are glorified
more than he who gave his dying breath,
for we who turn our face in unbelief.

Friday, 5 October 2012

on learning to manage our fears

What manner of man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey him?

Supposing we were to stage a theatre production of the entire Bible we would need a number of sets and backdrops against which the great biblical narrative could be told. Like many plays, we would revisit the same scenes from time to time throughout the production - a garden, the wilderness, a city, the temple and so on. One of our sets would have the backdrop of the sea. Here we would watch the stories of Moses parting the waters of the Red Sea, Jonah being thrown overboard, the mythical sea dragon Leviathan, St Paul being shipwrecked, Jesus calling fishermen to be his disciples -- and, of course, our gospel reading this evening (Matthew 8.23-34) where Jesus calms a storm.

The sea is more than just another backdrop to the events of scripture. Rather than simply serving as a geographical setting for some of the Biblical narrative, the sea in the Hebrew scriptures is a place of mysterious forces and dangers. It serves as a code for all the chaos and evil in the world, for forces that one moment might seem harmless and tranquil but then blow up suddenly into something far more tumultuous that can overwhelm us and even destroy us.

Those for whom Matthew wrote his gospel would probably be familiar with this chaos motif in stories about the sea. The sea storm that Jesus and his disciples find themselves caught up in stands, then, for more than just bad weather. This man who can command even the winds and sea, has power over all the forces in life that threaten to overwhelm us. This important theological point once found expression in an old Sunday School song, 'With Jesus in the boat you can smile a the storm.' (I had hoped the choir might sing that tonight as an anthem - with actions - but it was not to be...)

But everything is not alright in the boat. For while Jesus restores calm on the waters, within the vessel he fires off a rollicking rebuke to his disciples for their lack of faith. Even their question, "What manner of man is this...?" reveals just how far the disciples have yet to go in understanding who Christ is.

This passage isn't here to tritely reassure us that with Christ in our hearts we can smile at the storms of life, it challenges us to think about how as Christians we should handle and confront our fears.

Trading in our fears has become one of the commodities of modern life. Politicians play to our fears when they seek our vote and develop manifestos. Horror is a popular genre of both literature and cinema. Sometimes we like to scare ourselves by flirting with the fear that comes from a ride at Alton Towers (or listening to a debate in General Synod...)

The media have learnt that fear - like sex - sells. It is one of the primal instincts in human behaviour, and the sheer volume of scare-mongering headlines is testament to how effective playing to our fears can be in shifting papers off the news stands. One enterprising teenager got so sick of the number scare stories about cancer that he read in his mother's mid-market tabloid that he posted a list of them on the internet. He documented almost 150 supposed causes of cancer reported by that paper over the course of several years. These included such unlikely carcinogens as flip-flops, till receipts, and hugging. It truly is a scary world out there.

Learning to handle our fears is certainly not a new aspect of living but the manipulation of them in modern times has arguably reached unprecedented levels - this, in spite of us living in a safer society than at any time in history. The theologian Prof Scott Bader-Saye has written a book entitled, 'Following Jesus in a culture of fear.' He outlines the way in which our fears are being manipulated by those with a vested interest in doing so. But more importantly, he discusses the impact of this on the Christian imperative to reach out in love to those around us. Because fear causes us to withdraw into ourselves, and becomes an obstacle to offering hospitality, generosity and peace-making.

800 years ago, when Europe was a far bloodier and more precarious place to live, Thomas Aquinas wrote that fear causes a contraction in our appetite so that we extend ourselves to fewer things. We don't have to look far in 21st century London to see that kind of behaviour in public places. Just observe the body language of commuters on a rush hour underground train.

There is plenty of fear around in the second part of our gospel reading. On safe arrival at the other side of the sea of Galilee, Jesus and his disciples encounter a town gripped with fear by two people possessed with demons. So alarmed are the townspeople that they take a different path to avoid encountering them. Whatever these demons are, they have overwhelmed and taken control of these two people. Demons stand for all those things in our lives that can grip us and control the way we behave - obsessions, compulsions, addictions, appetites. Even fear itself can overtake a person in such a way that their behaviour becomes monstrous.

A story is told of a Lutheran pastor in wartime Germany, who took a stand against Adolph Hitler when many Christians in Germany did not. On one occasion he had the opportunity to meet the Fuhrer as part of a delegation of religious leaders. The pastor stood at the back of the room, not participating in the discussion but quietly observing what was going on. On returning home his wife asked him what he had learned from the trip. "I discovered," said the minister, "that Herr Hitler is a very frightened man."

Jesus casts out the demons into a herd of pigs who rush down into the sea and perish. Christ takes the forces of evil and chaos that can overwhelm us and casts them back into the place where such forces belong. This is the gospel writer's answer to the question, "What manner of man is this that even the winds and the sea obey him?" He is the Christ, come to reclaim God's world from all those things that run counter to the will of the Father.

So what then of our fear? Does it simply vanish? Isn't it in fact a useful instinct for self-preservation? Of course, it is, but like many of our instincts and natural impulses we must (and can) learn how to understand and master it appropriately. For the townspeople who hear of Jesus' power over the demons their response is not grateful relief. They are panicked by it, and they ask Jesus to leave. Are there moments where our clinging to the familiar and the comfortable, the status quo, mean that we back away from the work of God in the world? Are there people in our society, on our streets, whom we avoid by choosing a different route - the drunk man with spittle in his beard ranting at the traffic? A traveller woman selling lucky white heather? The Big Issue seller? A group of noisy young people? When do our fears cause us to withdraw, take a different path, or prevent us reaching out and touching the lives of others in love?

The counter to fear is not fearlessness, which can lead to recklessness. The answer lies in a difficult phrase used by Jesus earlier in Matthew's gospel. Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God. Poverty of spirit is not a monetary poverty, but means learning to live with a reliance on God. Being poor in spirit means we don’t try to control everything in our life, to make everything well in our own strength. We cling to nothing within, or outside of, ourselves other than our faith in God. It opens us up to an acceptance of the way things are, not in a passive or que sera sera kind of way. In the same way that humility is not about faking modesty, but being real about ourselves, poverty of spirit is an acceptance that we can't do everything - that there is much that is not in our power to change. When we accept those things that are out of our control we can leave them to God. This is a very joyful freedom that releases us from the despair that comes when you believe you can only rely on your own efforts. Here is the faith that Jesus desires of his disciples in the boat.

Poverty of spirit releases us from the compulsion to manipulate situations that are driven by our fears or to give in to a sense of hopelessness. Instead we accept the reality of our situation, and can then discern not what our fearful instincts tell us to do, but open ourselves to discovering the will of God in that situation. 

One of the great saints who lived this kind of poverty of spirit was Edith Stein. Her story takes us back to the second world war. Edith was a Polish Jew who became a Carmelite nun. She was living in a convent in Holland when the country fell to the Nazis. When the Gestapo arrested all Roman Catholic Jews, Edith - or Sister Benedicta as she became known - was sent to Auschwitz. She was not to live long, but survivors of the camp testify to her incredible composure. According to one account, amidst the indescribable misery of the camp she:

“walked about among the women, comforting, helping, soothing like an angel. Many mothers were almost [out of their minds] and had for days not been looking after their children, but had been sitting brooding in listless despair. Sister Benedicta took care of the little ones, washed and combed them, and saw to it that they got food and attention. As long as she was in the camp she made washing and cleaning one of her principal... activities, so that everyone was amazed.

Another prisoner remembers Edith’s contemplative side showing itself:

“The great difference between Edith Stein and the others lay in her silence. My personal impression is that she was most deeply sorrowful, but without anxiety.”

Here we see what it means to live in faith, to set aside the fears that causes us to retract and instead reach out in love to others, clinging not our own strength but to our confidence in Christ.

What manner of man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey him?

He is the Christ who says to each one of us, why are ye fearful? 

Sermon preached at Choral Evensong, St Peter's Vauxhall, on Sunday 23rd September 2012 at a service of farewell and thanksgiving for The Most Reverend and Right Honourable Dr Rowan Williams, The Lord Archbishop of Canterbury.

Saturday, 21 July 2012

on where to find God

Sister Helen Prejean CSJ, author of Dead Man Walking, writes:
I was forty years old before I realised the connection between the Jesus who said, "I was in prison and you came to me, I was hungry and you gave me to eat," between that and the real-life experience of being in situations where I was actually with people who were hungry and people who were in prison and people who were struggling with racism that permeates this society...

My image of finding God is that our little boats are always on the river. We often are in a stall, and we wait and nothing moves, and everything seems the same in life. But when we get involved in a situation like this -- for me it was to be involved with poor people -- it's like our boat begins to move on this current. The wind starts whistling through our hair, and the energy and life is there...

To me, to find God is to find the whole human family. No one can be disconnected from us. Which is another way of talking about the Body of Christ. That we are all part of this together.

And I feel that everybody needs to be in contact with poor people. That in fact, as Jim Wallis... has said, we need to accept that one of the spiritual disciplines -- just like reading the Scriptures and praying and liturgy -- is physical contact with the poor. It's an essential ingredient. If we are never in their presence, if we never eat with them, if we never hear their stories, if we are always separated from them, then I think something really vital is missing.

from How Can I Find God? edited by James Martin

Friday, 20 July 2012

on wealth and poverty

An Indian parable told by Anthony de Mello (1931-1987):
The sannyasi [wise man] had reached the outskirts of the village and settled down under a tree for the night when a villager came running up to him and said, 'The stone! The stone! Give me the precious stone!'

'What stone?' asked the sannyasi.

'Last night the Lord Shiva appeared to me in a dream,' said the villager, 'and told me that if I went to the outskirts of the village at dusk I should find a sannyasi who would give me a precious stone that would make me rich forever.'

The sannyasi rummaged in his bag and pulled out a stone. 'He probably meant this one,' he said, as he handed the stone over to the villager. 'I found it on a forest path some days ago. You can certainly have it.'

The man gazed at the stone in wonder. It was a diamond, probably the largest diamond in the whole world, for it was as large as a person's head.

He took the diamond and walked away. All night he tossed about in bed, unable to sleep. Next day at the crack of dawn he woke the sannyasi and said, 'Give me the wealth that makes it possible for you to give this diamond away so easily.'

quoted in The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything: a spirituality for real life by James Martin, SJ

Thursday, 19 July 2012

on avoiding rash judgement

Turn your attention upon yourself and beware of judging the deeds of other people, for in judging others a person labours vainly, often makes mistakes, and easily sins; whereas in judging and taking stock of ourselves we do something that is always profitable.

We frequently judge that things are as we wish them to be, for through personal feeling true perspective is easily lost.

If God were the sole object of our desire, we should not be disturbed so easily by opposition to our opinions. But often something lurks within or happens from without to draw us along with it.

Many, unawares, seek themselves in the things they do. They seem even to enjoy peace of mind when things happen according to their wish and liking, but if otherwise than they desire, they are soon disturbed and saddened. Differences of feeling and opinion often divide friends and acquaintances, even those who are religious and devout.

Thomas à Kempis (1380-1471)

on being gentle with ourselves

One form of gentleness that we should all practice is towards ourselves. We should never get irritable with ourselves, fretting at our imperfections. It is entirely reasonable to be displeased and feel sorry when we have done something wrong, but we should refrain from being full of self-recrimination, fretful or spiteful to ourselves.

... We should regard our faults with calm, collected and firm displeasure. Just as a judge, when sentencing a criminal, functions much better when guided by reason, conducting the proceedings with tranquility, rather than allowing himself to have an emotional or violent response to the case; so too we will correct ourselves better by a quiet persevering repentance than by an irritated, hasty and passionate one.

... When your heart has fallen, raise it up softly, gently, humbling yourself before God, acknowledging your fault, but without being surprised at your fall. Human infirmity is infirmity; human weakness is weak; and human frailty is frail. Own your fault before God, and return to the way of virtue which you had forsaken, with great courage and confidence in the mercy of God.

Frances De Sales (1567-1622)

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

on monotheism

I have been reading James Alison’s book Undergoing God: dispatches from the scene of a break-in. Alison has been a favourite theologian of mine for several years and while his work requires concentration it is seldom unrewarding.

In the opening chapter he discusses monotheism, a “terrible idea but a wonderful discovery.” The heart of this subject for Alison is what we define the idea of one God against. God is God - as opposed to… what? Other gods? Or as against nothing?

Citing the prophets in the Hebrew scriptures, particularly Amos and Isaiah, Alison shows how the notion of God in the Hebrew scriptures evolved, and moved from a my-God-over-your-god paradigm to one of God as against nothing.

Why does this matter? It affects how religious people behave. Too often people of faith, not least Christian denominations and schisms, gain their sense of cohesion and unity from a conviction of their rightness about God in comparison to the heresies or wickedness of others. It is in this sense that monotheism is a terrible idea. As Alison puts it, such people believe not so much in God as in conflict - and it can lead to a victim mentality that religious leaders exploit to build a following.

When we notice, however, that God does not play to the language of us-and-them but rather me-and-you it casts monotheism in a different light. The message of the prophets is not about Yahweh as against other gods, but his steadfastness and love against our idolatry and faithlessness. There is God and there is us, whom he loves into being. This is the wonderful discovery of monotheism:
“It is only if our love of Christ and our following of him is part of our discovery of not being ‘right’, or being successful, or being relevant, or able to attract funds, or votes, or bring about democracy, or liberal values, but of being loved into being with all the others whom we might be tempted to think of as our inferiors, being assured that we are liked as we let go of the things we think make us likeable, being assured of a peace which enables us to let go of our addiction to the power of this world and the relevance to which we must cling, it is only these which will enable us, over time, to bear witness to Christ as God. Not the token messenger of a ‘he’ which shores us up, but the quiet depth of the ‘I Am’ who shakes us into life.”