Saturday, July 26, 2014

success rate

Earlier this week I was having one of those competitive conversations clergy have with each other when I was asked:

"Which are you better at then - weddings or funerals?"

I replied straightaway:
"My success rate for funerals is far higher."

The other cleric looked bemused and said:
"I'm sorry, what?"

"Well," I explained, "I have to confess that not every person I have ever married has remained married. But EVERY person I have buried..."

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

where is the west?

A fourth century monastery in northern Iraq, home to a small community of monks, has become the latest Christian outpost to receive the anger of the forces of ISIS.

These few monks, begging to save some of the monastery's relics from its long and varied history, were told to leave in the clothes they wore and allowed to take nothing else with them according to witnesses.

The monastery of Mar Behnam is a few miles from Mosul, which last week received the ISIS ultimatum for its Christian residents to flee, pay tribute, or die by sundown Saturday. It is reported that this Sunday was the first since Christians first resided in the town, near the start of the Christian story, that there was no Christian congregation in Mosul. Perhaps this is not true yet, perhaps a family was left which dared to pray together. Many times has the passing of Christianity been proclaimed; and yet there is resurrection.

The UN is accusing IS (as ISIS is now being called) of war crimes. Nearly 6,000 Iraqis have been slaughtered by them this year.

And yet - where is the West?

Where is our outrage?

If a Mosque were destroyed, if a Hindu Temple were desecrated, if the holy place of another religion that bore hundreds of years of culture and faith and human and spiritual value, we would look at it in horror and cry for justice.

Entire Christian communities are being destroyed, and their churches, many of them far older than anything we have here in our own country, are being ransacked and desecrated, and where is the West?

I ask not for bullets and bombs and reprisals but for justice and peace and hope and homes and strength to stand up for those who are treated as less than human by bullies who shout faith when they abuse that cry.

We who bear the name of Christian stand shoulder to shoulder with those who today have no home, no belongings, no past, no future. We are family. We will cry with you and cry out for you. We will make our voices heard so that your voices may be heard.

Where is the West?

We are here; we are with you; you are not alone.

Monday, July 21, 2014

a walk in the park

Tom Benyon is at it again.

Every year he puts himself through misery for the sake of his charity ZANE - Zimbabwe, A National Emergency. He walks the length, breadth, depth and whatever other dimension of the country he can think up in order to raise funds for the numberless people he helps through his astonishing work.

This year, it's Ambleside to Oxford. In case you don't know Tom, I should add that he's of an age where most men are well retired and only creep out for the occasional foray onto the golf course. But increasingly well into his eighth decade, he insists on trekking with his wife Jane and their dog for God and for their fellow human beings who need their help.

Today their walk brought them onto my patch. The least I could do was to eat lunch with them, and then walk them through the wild fields of North Aston Parish and the gentler roads of Steeple Aston.

Eventually they arrived at the Deddington Arms (just north of my patch, but still a decent pub), where Richard, their faithful support driver was leafing through the sports pages of the Daily Telegraph and recounting the criminal lack of good pubs open at lunch times "in the north". Jane & Tom were accompanied today by a goodly legion of family members, as this is pretty close to their own home in Bladon. So there were two daughters (Millie and Clare - herself an Anglican cleric and well-known in these pages) and three grandsons (Clare's boys), which perhaps excused the late-running of the morning session.

Many Moules later, we were ready for the off.

Tom has a curious gait. He waddles with the grace of a man who expects to find a horse between his legs. It is a triumph of his determination to serve his Charity that he finishes these walks - by nature I am not convinced he is built for long daily strolls up hill and down dale. He uses two sticks as he walks, and their constant 'clack-clacking' on any footpath or road surface is fair warning of his approach. He retains stealth mode only when crossing fields and in virgin woodland. (Which is a fair part of the daily fare, if what I encountered is anything to go by).

Also - though Jane has a GPS device hanging from her neck, this is only any good if the paths on the maps exist. Which they didn't as we left Deddington. Still, fields are fields, and I knew where North Aston was. Even a herd of marauding cows couldn't put us off. Tom's sticks were very useful there. One of the grandsons took to hiding in a tree for a moment, but all was well. Even the sheep parted to let us through.

Eventually - North Aston. One of the residents of this most blessed of England's villages once said to me, "I don't understand why anyone who lives in North Aston would ever want to visit Italy". Given the culture, the art, the food, the weather, the architecture, the history and the scenery available on a day like today, it is almost possible to agree. If only there were a Vivoli's in North Aston!

The good people of the village greeted us with refreshments, chairs, embraces, and donations to ZANE. It was very moving - all the more so as we swapped grandchildren; some left, others joined, and both Clare & Millie departed for home.

We walked on through the parkland belonging to North Aston Hall, and down the lane to Middle Aston, before reaching Steeple Aston, where Harry the Springer joined the merry band.

I'm not sure how many clergy have walked with Tom on this journey. He & I talked at great depth about perceptions of right and wrong, the mistake of avoiding responsibility for sin and an understanding of freedom as choosing obedience. With a little more time, I think we would have had a five-point plan for Israel and Hamas, but alas, Tom needed a little time to get his thoughts in order for the Woodstock Rotarians.

It was a privilege to escort these remarkable people who burn with passion for others so maltreated by fortune and their fellows that they have nothing and can do nothing in a country so far away. It was a privilege to step on the edge of their journey as it brought them into the heart of my own. It was a joy to see my own patch from their perspective and to see the love and generosity of people here serving our guests. I was proud to be Rector of such kind people.

Tom keeps a blog through his walks. This journey finishes for him and Jane tomorrow, but the blog is always there, as is so much more. Do drop by. They've done hundreds of miles over these last three weeks, and thousands in total; it's not just a walk in the park - it's a life of commitment to changing lives, and I commend ZANE to you.



Tuesday, July 08, 2014

ever rolling stream

Is it the process of ageing that makes us stop and appreciate each passing moment, that allows us the ability to press the pause button of life and remain within the moment in order to enjoy, to cherish, to be grateful and express the gratitude for what is happening here and now?

In youth, time flies. We spend it like the money we don't have. We will always be able to pay back later.

And then...

The currency gains in value. I intend to spend a lot more of it yet - though the years tell me I may already have spent more than remains; and the experience of the years tells me to value the currency, because who knows what lies ahead?

So we gathered to celebrate Mum's 80th Birthday. I drove up from Oxfordshire, Gill & Ben flew in from Florida. We had a party; it was a blast. Lots of friends and family and laughter and Mum loving every minute. I took her to a concert in Manchester - Wynton Marsalis & the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. Excellent. The encore, just Wynton Marsalis & the rhythm section extemporising for ten minutes, will remain in my heart for ever as one of the musical highlights of my life. Mum adored it. She said she felt drunk on the music - which is perfect; as it should be. We were on the second row, and time stood still. I say it was ten minutes - I actually have no idea how long it was. It was an eternity, it was a second, it was glorious.

Gill and Ben then came and stayed with me at my place in the shire. We travelled on what was actually the 20th anniversary of my ordination. How grateful could I be? To be bringing Gill & Ben home, to be welcoming them here, to share a few precious days together.

We live a long way apart; we live very close. Life has lots in store for us yet, and yet we begin to make plans for what the future may hold.

Another musical highlight: years ago I took Gill to see Madama Butterfly at Covent Garden.  This year, on a whim whilst in Manchester with Mum, I rang the box office at the Royal Opera to see what was playing whilst Gill was with me. I took Gill & Ben to see Tosca - Placido Domingo conducting, Bryn Terfel as Scarpia, and the glorious Sondra Radvanovsky as Tosca. I've seen this opera a hundred times; I've never seen it done better. We had a terrific time, made all the better by tea beforehand with cousin Louise & Selihah at Delaunay's.

The weekend came around, and with it a service to mark that 20th anniversary.

At first, I'd wondered whether I would publicly mark this moment. And then I had to. I had to because I am simply so grateful to be here. I wanted to take the moment, to live in it, to say thank you to God and stop time and stand still and be thankful. I am here because of his faithfulness. I am here because of the friends and family who carried me through dark days. I am here because of everything, despite everything, and with great, great joy.

I couldn't say it quietly in a corner.

It was a terrific day - and I was thrilled to see friends from years gone by and friends from places far and wide in church. Welsh connections, Wycliffe people, St Aldate's friends, both couples for whom I have been best man, and in Joe Martin a US friend and the purveyor of the best excuse for being late I ever heard anywhere. Clare Hayns preached beautifully.

A good group stayed for lunch on the Rectory lawn, and it seems that for this week Champagne has replaced Coke Zero as my standard beverage.

In the service we sang an anthem, a piece I wrote for Geoffrey & Jeanette Cotterill's wedding in June 1989. We sang it again in the evening at a service where they gathered former St Aldate's music group members to lead worship in their current church. The photo could be from 1989 or so, with a little ageing added to it. Very bizarre.

And that's the gift. For in the pausing to remember, to enjoy, to be grateful, to thank God and to love people, the ever rolling stream goes back and forward and cuts in and out and stops in its tracks as we take time to enjoy time and refuse to be its prisoners. It is another of the Lord's marvellous gifts. And maybe it is in possessing and having been possessed by so much more of this gift, that the open thankfulness for past and future are what make this moment also feel like such a present.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

holy holy holy

Trinity Sunday. Every preacher's favourite moment. All I need to do is find words to describe the indescribable without lapsing into heresy.

Hmm.

This is a great YouTube clip. I like its sly look at the usual illustrations and it's assessment of their failures, but its final work through what the Trinity is leaves me baffled.

So instead, I'm returning to an idea that dear Gill Tuck in Pontypridd put in my head a few years back. I don't remember whether she said this, or whether her sermon simply gave me the idea, but I'm crediting her with it because her Trinity Sunday sermon remains the best I've ever heard.

This is a time to look at the big picture of God. The whole picture of God.

So often we focus on details, on moments, on ideas, on facets of God through the Scriptures. This Sunday asks us to stand well back and for a moment dare to take in the whole view.

I don't know about you, but when I see a great painting, often I focus on a detail. Annigoni's St Joseph in San Lorenzo, Florence, is one of my favourite paintings. I'm drawn initially to the light embracing Joseph from above, wing-like, radiant. The Spirit empowers the scene, gives it grace and movement, but the light carries through to the wooden plank resting on the table, and hints upward into the sky, and suddenly that embrace is a cross. Light and dark, glory and pain. Spirit and desolation.

Then I see Jesus, the child in the workshop. I've never noticed his face. I've never objected to his fair hair, which I hardly see. All I see are the nails in his hands. He plays with nails on his father's bench. Long, cruel, carpenter's nails. A child, just a child, with no idea what they will mean. Or does he know? Does he feel it? Is his innocence touched with understanding?

And Joseph. The father who is not the father looking at the son who is not his son. His face I see every time. Pain and sadness and love and pride and blessing, and a hand that would stop what the child is doing (nails in the hands) and will not stop, cannot stop. The son will choose. The father will love.

And then, when I'm in San Lorenzo, and sitting in that beautiful building in front of this immense canvas, I forget the detail and let the whole work overwhelm me.

It's too much. I am numb with awe. I have no words anymore. Tears replace them.

I'm reminded of something I wrote on this blog six years ago:

This morning, the Wednesday Congregation asked for Isaiah 40.12-17, 27-31. I know, I know, but that's what the lectionary does - bleeding chunks. So I started with a reference to... looking at the whole of God, which is a big ask. But if all we see is the bigness of God (vv12-17) we haven't seen the whole of God, for in vv 27-31 we find the Creator who touches the weak and gives them strength.

The transcendent God who becomes immanent.

Which are big theological words for the Mothers Union: so I found myself retranslating and, on the hoof, describing the pleasure, the wonder and the paradox of these verses as "the God who is really huge is also the God who is really here". 
And then he was. In the silence, in the awe, in the midst of those dear, dear people with all they face, we waited upon him and felt ourselves soar awhile.  

Holy, holy, holy. Sometimes I think it's more a response to seeing God than a description.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

lifestyle choices

My good friend Tom Fuerst has blogged about the debate in the US about NFL player Michael Sam. Most UK readers won't know the first thing about Michael Sam; it's a sport that most of us know little about, and many of its characters remain a mystery to us.

Michael Sam is the first openly gay player in the NFL. It's as if we had a Premiership footballer come out; it's that story.

If you haven't read Tom's blog, do so now. Tom writes well on any number of issues, and his blog is always worth a visit for his insight and his humour.

After I read the piece, I messaged Tom with a few comments, and he asked me to post my thoughts as a blog so that we could have a public conversation.

This (slightly adapted) was my response to Tom's article...


As you know this is a subject I think & write about, and I’m always interested in what others are saying. We find ourselves in the middle of a debate, and one of my concerns is that whatever position we hold in that debate we do so with generosity and kindness. Tom, you do that really well - thank you. It has to be the way forward for all of us.

I’d like to reflect briefly on one of your points, if I may?

‘Gay Lifestyle’. Thanks for raising this issue. I see this term more in US writings than in UK works, but we get it here too, and I often feel the urge gently to challenge it. A gay friend of mine describes his ‘gay lifestyle’ as: go to work, watch TV, shop at Walmart, catch the occasional ball game & then church on Sundays. That kind of lifestyle is pretty dangerous... he needs to get out more! 

One of the issues at play here is the minorities question. This also speaks to the justice issue, the lifestyle/habit descriptor and the raising of the gay question to such prominence in current evangelical thinking.

Evangelicalism can have a tendency to see itself as a persecuted minority. The few. The narrow gate. When there are too many of us, we fight amongst ourselves so that it’s clear that somewhere there really is a righteous minority. Minorities always end up being defined by their differences. Make up your own list - but (simplistically) people need community and that means finding sameness with their own and that means finding difference from the majority. The majority is very good at enforcing the latter (‘first openly gay footballer; in case you’d forgotten what makes him special’).

‘Gay lifestyle’ doesn’t mean going to work, shopping at Walmart, catching the occasional ball game & then church on Sundays. It means Michael Sam kissing his boyfriend on TV. If it had been a girlfriend there would have been no comment. But difference is a neon sign, a billboard, the amplifier of minority turned up to eleven. 

These words can be a symbol of pride or a source of contempt but either way they are a mark of difference and a schism in the fabric of humanity. Usually difference ends up being harmful; the majority likes to win. Normally everyone loses. Whoever wanted there to be a ‘culture war’? Someone who wanted to beat someone else. 

So what do we do?

I’m working on Galatians as a way into this at the moment, and it’s slow, and I don’t want to go too far into it, but here’s the crazy notion:

We are called to put the things that make us the same in the spotlight, not the things that separate us.

But there are things that separate us! Hmm. I’m just not sure about that. The Judaisers in Galatians felt it, of course. If the Gentiles didn’t become Jews first, they couldn’t be Christians. Why not? Because of food laws? No - because Gentiles were simply sinners. The Bible said so. They were sinners because they were idolaters. It was because they were idolaters that they practised all kinds of dodgy moral stuff - from free love to shocking food, via no concept of holy days and the all-pervading presence of God and his wonderful Law. So make them Jews, and then they could follow Jesus. 

It’s great logic; great, but wrong.

It’s wrong because it clings to a concept of a two-tiered humanity, and St Paul drives a coach and horses through that. In Romans 1 he points out how idolatry pushes Gentiles to lose themselves in sexual (including, but not exclusively homosexual) sin; in Romans 2 he points out how idolatry pushes the Jews to the great sin of the exile - adultery; in Romans 3 he couples these together and declares that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. One humanity. One fallen humanity needing one saviour.

In Galatians he finds the new humanity - one redeemed humanity in Christ. No male or female, slave or free, Gentile or Jew, for we are all one in Christ Jesus. 

The work I am doing at the moment is looking at a comparison of our current debates and Galatians, because though we are looking at the gay question as ‘grieving over sin’, so (I suggest) were Paul’s contemporaries over the position of women, slaves and (vitally) Gentiles. And in the end, Paul argued for differences to be put away (you make a terrific point about how we all have a tendency to talk down our own sins but talk up the sins of others) as the spotlight hit instead the things in common. Jesus. All have sinned; all are justified freely. God showed his love for us in this: it was while we were yet sinners...

For us all. We were all.

We are the same.

One fallen humanity needing a Saviour, one redeemed humanity worshipping Jesus. 

Of course, though my application of a text may be interesting, useful, and even right, it’s not new. The fact is that people are people and as such as varied as the colours of the dawn. Do we begin our theologies with a grace-shaped positivity toward humanity (made in the image of God, loved by God) or with a sin-focussed outlook (aware of the fallen-ness of humanity, broken & sinful)? When we see Michael Sam do we see a human being loved by God or a gay man perverting the natural order of God’s world? As I get older, it’s not that I see both outlooks as ‘Biblical’. I see them as human, and as human, valid outworkings of human-ness in attempting to understand the Scripture. 

The debate isn’t about Michael Sam or really about the gay issue at all; it’s about us. Christians. How we view the world. How we read the Scriptures. Where we start and where we finish, and the fact that for some of us the Bible is a book best read on a long journey with a Friend and not as a ‘technical manual for life’. This helps me be kind when someone says something thoughtless about the minority that strangely I belong to, even without really knowing very many of my fellow travellers. 

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to return to my lifestyle. So far today I have shovelled five tons of gravel, mowed half an acre of grass, planned a funeral and still have a sermon to get right for the morning... I may yet need to reach for the Laphroaig.

Friday, May 02, 2014

When 'Rev' lost the plot...

I have mixed feelings about the third series of Rev, the BBC's clerical comedy. Let me explain.

I mean, I suppose (with others) I worry that faith has very little to do with the whole show; that community is thin; that the comedy value of the weaknesses of people serve to illustrate one man's journey, when that one man's journey ought to be about strengthening his flock, not just watching them flounder. But it's a comedy, right?

And yet...

Sometimes I stare at the screen in disbelief because certain moments hit a little close to home.

People often ask - is it really like that? I was asked this week at the choir in Steeple. I reply: on the whole, I think it's on a par with the Vicar of Dibley. Pretty wide of the mark. It's not about the church, it's about the underdog versus the institution, and that theme is universal. The setting is almost irrelevant - that's why it works. The politics, the failures of others, the surprises and occasional victories are stock-in-trade for this type of tale.

And yet...

The final two episodes of this third series dealt with Adam having a kind of breakdown, making a decision to leave behind being a priest, and then starting to find himself resurrected again.

This is where it gets personal for me. And hard to write about. But let's have a go.

I'm hardly alone in the clerical world in sharing Adam's experiences of breakdown for real. It was strange watching what took eighteen months for me (longer, much longer if we include the whole road back) play out over two half-hour episodes of a comedy. It was doubly strange because although many of the characters and events of my story were here seen in caricature,  yet here they were.

When the archdeacon sat in my kitchen and discussed how employable I would be beyond the church, I'm glad to say that he was a good deal more positive than Adam experienced. But we had that meeting. In that place. And my archdeacon (unlike Robert) was right: a good parish priest doesn't look employable - you have to work hard at the CV, and at getting through the interview door, but the skills we have are enormous. This made me very cross as I watched the TV show's very negative version. If someone was going through that now - if I had been going through that and saw that programme, the damage it might have done me... A vicar is a very skilled person. I've been both sides of the work divide. We have gifts others can only dream of.

When my bishop asked me not to resign, I was not in his home. He was in mine. And I was in the very fortunate position of having the Archbishop of Wales as my diocesan bishop. He was terrific. He couldn't solve my problems, but he supported me at every stage. He supported me as I hit a brick wall; he supported me as I coped with being knocked out; he supported me as I made the decision to stop - though he pleaded with me not to stop; and he supported me through the time away, offering counsel and helping me eventually find my way back into ministry. I wouldn't swap Barry Morgan for Ralph Fiennes.

It was painful watching all of Adam's close congregational friends turn on him. My experience was that it genuinely felt like many people turned on me. That feeling is a terrible part of what happens when you break. The truth was mostly very different, I guess, but even now at this distance I still have some trouble fully understanding everything. I also know I gave myself (even when falling apart) for others, only wanting to do good, and yet truthfully I fear that what I wanted to do and what I did were not always the same. Ah well.

That's what happens: you lose your reality - and I think the TV show put this across well. A small example of how the crash affected me: I never swear. Never. My grandmother washed my mouth out with soap when I was seven (truly). That stopped me. Yet when I was falling, something clicked, and I swore constantly for a while. It wasn't that a veneer of politeness cracked and the reality beneath seeped out; it was that I was broken and I had no idea how unlike me I had become. Afterwards, I didn't think about putting that right when I got better, I didn't consciously check my language. I just healed; I became me again.

Adam loses himself for a while in the penultimate episode. And in the midst of that, he finds God (Liam Neeson), who tells him - I understand.

I never saw Liam Neeson. I did find Jesus; constantly; surprisingly; wonderfully. And those two words - I understand - were stunningly powerful words I heard - felt - in my own journey. That felt very real as I watched. My story.

It hurt to see Adam quivering in bed. I remember those days. No - I remember that there were those days. I don't remember the days themselves with any clarity at all.

Two half hour episodes miss out so much. Concertina so much. Include so much. Make me remember so much.

And then Easter.

Let me be clear: though I had a crisis of me, I never had a crisis of faith. I never lost Jesus. I never doubted God. (I guess I did fall out of love with the church for a while.)

But there was a resurrection, a raising up, a restoring, a renewing, a bringing to a new life afterwards, and for me too it was at Eastertime.

I wondered for a long time if I'd ever be in full-time ministry again. And then I took an Easter service, and as I stood at the altar in front of the congregation I felt myself raised up with Jesus. He'd been with me in the depths, and now he was lifting me up again. I think back to that Easter service; it was extraordinary. For a moment I was a fish back in water - and in the moment I understood I would soon be swimming again for good. I speak in a different way now of the power of resurrection from the hundred little deaths that beset us when life lives us down, because I know it. It changed me. He changed me.

Watching when 'Rev' lost the plot was rather emotional for me, because it was a tremendously moving reminder of how Jesus never stopped writing my story.

Friday, April 25, 2014

the lost art of kindness

I've been reading comments on the musings of two public figures over the last few days.

UK Prime Minister David Cameron has started something by saying that the country should be proud of being Christian, and that he himself has felt the healing power of Christian faith in his own life. The Humanist Society complained about how 'divisive' this was, Alastair Campbell saw it as fakery for purely political ends, and Giles Fraser (in the Daily Mail of all places) critiqued DC for being a bit wooly (pot, kettle, black, anyone?) because to be a really good and fair preacher of the Word would mean he'd lose votes.

And, of course, actually be a clergyman and not be a politician. Sorry - I may just have thought that last bit; I suspect it wasn't in the article.

Meanwhile, in Wales, at the Governing Body of the Church in Wales, the shocking news was that the Most Revd Archbishop Barry Morgan is a theological liberal.

Who knew?

Oh - that's right; all of us.

Barry's opening address at this year's synod in Llandudno has been presented as welcoming same-sex marriage and questioning traditional orthodoxy. It's well-known that he holds those views, and he is patron of certain pro-gay Christian groups. There are Welsh evangelicals who feel that Barry, as archbishop, loses his role as a 'focus of unity' when he heads into this territory.

Well...

I sort of think that there is a lost art of kindness which might help all of us live a bit better.

I've no idea about the depth and reality of David Cameron's faith, but I genuinely welcome politicians who wish to come to my church. I welcome everyone who wishes to come. If they come with mixed motives, they'll fit right in. And if their explanation of Christianity and their living out of Jesus' words is less than perfect, again they'll be in very good company.

Why should a politician/actor/footballer/whoever be expected to be a brilliant theologian and preacher? I'm delighted that Jesus matters to them. If they come, I hope over time Jesus will matter more. I rather think that if (the first time they express interest) I'm a bit snooty about their imperfect grasp of matters that are my professional life, they may not come too often. I wouldn't go to them too often if the tables were reversed. But if I manage a bit of kindness, and a genuine welcome, who knows who might come - and come back.

As for the humanists' hasty retort: I think several of them will look back with regret at that letter. It makes them look ungenerous, and I'm sure that's an unfair reflection on them as people.

Christians, however, should not look at their negative response to a politician with regret but with shame. Love your enemies, says Jesus, not just your friends - don't the pagans manage that much? Bless those who persecute you, adds St Paul. I get the cut-and-thrust of party politics, though I don't participate, but really: when a political badge matters more than the command of Jesus, we Christians need to pause a moment and then repent. We have nothing to say to anyone till we go back to ground zero and ask forgiveness again. People are always more important than badges, and loving people is our business. Loving everyone. Even those we find pretty difficult, for whatever reason.

We get hot under the collar (whichever way around we wear it) and forget to be kind. A little grace, a little patience, a little gentleness. These fruit of the Spirit go a long way, and bless us beyond reckoning.

I do know Barry Morgan, and I do know the truth and vitality of his faith. I've read the news reports about his words and think they seem fair. Barry and I sit in different corners of the church and although I admit in many ways (for differing theological reasons and for similar ones) we may agree on the issue of sexuality, that's not my only reason for wishing there was more kindness flowing here too.

Barry doesn't come out with a conservative line. Well - amazing! He's never going to do that. But actually, he doesn't come out with a desperately liberal one either. He talks about how people approach the debate with different perceptions and experiences and starting points, and frankly that's simply true: there is no theology in a vacuum. On any subject. And then he takes time looking at Biblical approaches (as a liberal, but still - the majority of his speech is about Biblical approaches; he doesn't jettison the Scriptures, he discusses how people might work together to value them) before putting forward future options, and asking liberal campaigners not to get ahead of where the Church's common mind actually is.

I do feel that some remarkably good people forget to be kind to Barry as a leader. It's hard being a leader. When I was young I used to hope I might find preferment one day; the older I get, the happier I am that that wish will never come true. And the more I pray for those above me. They have it rough - mostly from 'friendly' fire.

You know, I worry that as soon as people hear Barry start to speak on some subjects they presume they know what he has said sometimes.

I guess we all feel that way occasionally. Pre-judged.
  
It's a difficult art to actually hear what another person is saying, to pay them full attention and not to presume they mean one thing despite the words they use indicating another. It's a kindness that shows love to listen and take in the truth of another's words because they reveal another's heart, and I suppose the process also reveals our own hearts too.

Kindness: a lost art? Let's hope not.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

six

On Friday I made my Lenten pilgrimage to Canterbury.

I write that as if it's a regular thing. Actually, I've only ever been the the Mother Church of Anglicanism once before in my life, in 1988, the summer after graduation. I remember nothing of the experience except the friends who shared the journey.

Anyway.

This time I was going to see another friend receive an honour from the Archbishop, and it was a joy to drive down from Oxfordshire through the spring sunshine knowing that I would see Tory Baucum and his family at the other end.

Tory has featured on this blog before. We first met back in 1990, when he was curate at the cathedral in little Rock, Arkansas, and I was travelling around the US before I began my ordination training at Wycliffe Hall. We met by chance, and became good friends. Through the years, that friendship has stood the test of time, and I have been privileged to lecture for Tory at Asbury Seminary and to visit him at Truro Church in Virginia where he is now Rector.

Tory is a godly man.

I want that to stand loud and clear as a statement in its own right. In Tory I always see a man who loves the Lord and loves to lead people to the Lord and loves to bless the church. He has found himself on more than one occasion in the midst of difficult circumstances and in that place has always sought to be a man of peace, speaking truth and love with integrity. That's not easy; but his life is a truer witness than my words.

Tory and I don't agree on everything; that hardly matters. I love his heart, and I love him as a dear friend - it is a privilege to know some people, and I count Tory in that category. If I had to agree with someone in order to cherish their friendship, I'd be both far poorer and even more foolish than I am. Tory's wisdom has made me stop, think, re-assess, and wonder many times.

In the mess of US Anglican politics, he takes it in the neck from every side because his church is a member of the conservative ACNA, not the official TEC grouping, but he has taken time to pray with and become friends with the TEC Bishop of Virginia (for whom I also have a deep regard). It is this ability to seek reconciliation without losing integrity that brought Tory to Archbishop Justin's attention.

Justin has appointed Tory as a Canterbury Six Preacher, a company of six preachers that are linked with the foundation of the Cathedral, and who have the honour of being commissioned to share in the work the Archbishop sees as being vital to his own ministry. Justin is keen that we Anglicans re-discover the ability to 'disagree well', and has installed Tory as a Six Preacher to indicate how vital this is, and to demonstrate a very visible model of how it might be done.

Justin has been criticised for the appointment; Tory has been criticised for taking it. Blow the critics.

In the church of God, we will at many times differ on many things, and the way we conduct ourselves at those times matters. Disagreeing well is a great skill, and can reveal deeply Christian character - or its lack. To love my brother or sister  when I really read the Scriptures differently matters. Justin and Tory both get that, and I am grateful for the leadership of the one and the friendship of the other and the example of both. We need more people like this. We need to live this stuff out.


So it was glorious to be at Canterbury; to see a godly man honoured; to stand with a friend and his family; to see this step on his pilgrimage and to feel it mark a part of my own.

Back in Little Rock, a quarter of a century ago, we had no idea what days would come. Who knows what days yet will be. Friday, however, and days like it, are days to treasure indeed.

I thank God for Tory, and pray I might practise what I see lived and preached in his life.


Sunday, March 09, 2014

examples

I had the pleasure today of meeting up with Robert Watson, retired clergyman, sometime chaplain with ICS in Wengen, Switzerland.

It was in that role that I first met Robert. I had agreed to take on my first chaplaincy in 1997 and ICS held a training day for summer chaplains. Robert was there, and as we spoke, he was tremendously encouraging about the work I would encounter, and the opportunities I would find whilst in resort.

Like most of us, Robert can be a bit marmite - some people take to him enormously, others not so much. I particularly took to him on first meeting and have always done so ever since. When I have seen him lead services at Wengen, as he led the communion today, he does so in a very individual style that is impossible to emulate - but which clearly demonstrates his God-ward heart, and his desire that others might share that heart. That's a very precious thing, and for me has a deep integrity.

Today he made me value again another person's ministry, and made me think of others who have blessed me along the way. The list is very long; I am sure it is far from finished.

The person who especially came to mind did so because as I spoke about Robert with someone else in the village here where I am enjoying a few days holiday, she told me of a poor experience earlier in the season. The man who had been chaplain then had been very insistent that she (my friend here) should do something in the church, and had rather bullied her about it. She had not been free to offer the time needed, and felt bad about the whole thing.

This tale put me in mind of John Walker at Calverley, one of my heroes of the faith. When I arrived in Yorkshire after Pontypridd, I was exhausted spiritually. We met, we talked, and John quickly delved a little and found out all sorts of things about me which revealed that I was exactly the kind of person who could help him with various things in the life of the parish. And he never once even asked me. He understood how tired, how empty I was, and simply befriended me and gave me time to be restored. He and Michelle were wonderful. His ministry, there at the end of his many years in that place, with so much to do to organise the parish for the upcoming interregnum, was the perfect model to me of pastoral understanding. John could so easily have pushed me along a bit - he had so much to get done in those final months it would have been very understandable - but instead he understood what I needed and put his own needs, wants, agendas and everything else to one side so I could begin to flourish again. I know for some John could also be a bit marmite - can't we all? - but the time he gave me was pure blessing. When I was ready to begin to offer things, he kindly made space. He encouraged and helped me grow. I thank God for what John did for me.

The newspapers are looking at the anniversary of Pope Francis' election at the moment, and beginning to judge how successful he is being. He is a man. As time goes on, the adulation will vary. He will doubtless end up being a bit more marmitey than has so far been the case - some will really find they can't cope with the taste after all, whilst others continue to love him. He is not perfect (thank God), but the imperfections are not disqualifications nor do they dilute the value of anything he does or says.

God only uses imperfect people; it's all he has.

The examples we have of good men and women who touch our lives with blessings from God are not divine, not perfect, not plaster saints who live on pedestals, but real, flawed, loved people like us.

And here's some good news: if they blessed us, we get to pass it on.

P.S.

I was just in the process of posting this when a quick message came in from a dear friend who was once part of a church where I was involved early in my ordained ministry years. She could have been reading this as I was typing; and as I have been writing about examples that have touched my life, I actually got a note from her saying pretty much the same thing back to me. How genuinely humbling. How wonderful. You see, we really do all get to play.