19 June 2021
At this morning’s baptism preparation session we had several parents looking forward to celebrating their child’s arrival by planning the baptism service.
When asked why they felt baptism was important, several parents said something along the lines of ‘It means that when Charlotte/Kayleigh/Jack gets older they’ll have a choice about whether to be a Christian or not.’ Over the years I have heard countless parents express their approach to baptism in similar terms.
It’s understandable, when the freedom to choose for ourselves has become a defining feature of a democratic society. It is quite right that when children are brought for baptism, it is on the understanding that in due course they will decide for themselves what to believe and practise. This is the point of Confirmation.
What has not attracted so much attention is how we equip ourselves to exercise that freedom. In such a complicated world as ours, I find myself frequently paralysed by the bewildering range of choices I am expected to make, from varieties of cheese to different kinds of pension.
Some of these choices are trivial and everyday; some are important and potentially lifechanging. But when did you last have a conversation with someone about how to make the best choice? What principles do you apply to help you choose wisely? In the absence of other guidance, do we just go for the cheapest? That might explain why so many of our habits of consumption have proved so damaging to the planet.
In the baptism context, choices do not make themselves. If a child is not taught how to read the Scriptures, does not have the practice of prayer commended and explained, and does not have the opportunity to consider how Christian faith might be lived out day by day, the likelihood is that he or she will not see the point of continuing churchgoing into adulthood.
Just as a child who takes the scout promise but never goes to meetings will not appreciate what the scouting movement has to offer, or a child who is given a season ticket for Hull City Tigers but is never shown how to play soccer will never learn to love the game, so an infant who is baptised but not encouraged to learn about Jesus is unlikely to see following Jesus as an attractive option.
The same is true of all of us; unless we are clear that certain values are important and sometimes costly – like telling the truth or showing compassion to strangers – we shall find it hard to exercise our freedom of choice in ways that are Christ-like rather than merely consumer-like. Choosing wisely requires training and practice, and an awareness that good decisions do not just happen.
When bewildered by the complexity of choices facing us, and conscious that we do not have all the information we would like to have first, the only way to steer between arrogance and paralysis is by forming a discipline and habit of choosing according to our values.
It has been said that our choices do not shape the world so much as shape ourselves. So, whenever we worry about protecting our freedom, perhaps we should think just as much about whether we have learned how to exercise it.
29 May 2021
Spiritual but not religious?
An article I read recently told the story of an apparently normal man who in 1966 murdered his wife, mother and 12 other people before being shot dead by police. Afterwards a note was found in which he had written, “I am supposed to be an average reasonable and intelligent young man. However, lately I have been a victim of many unusual and irrational thoughts, and it requires a tremendous mental effort to concentrate on useful and progressive tasks… after my death I wish that an autopsy would be performed to see if there is any visible physical disorder.” The autopsy duly revealed a large brain tumour which seemed likely to have influenced his behaviour. So, did he freely choose to do evil, or was he the helpless victim of an illness?
Philosophers debate whether human beings have genuine free will, or whether our actions are entirely pre-determined by our genes and circumstances.
So many issues seem to have this binary quality: Should politics promote the good of the individual or the good of society? Is Reality ‘out there’ or ‘in here’? Do I find greatest satisfaction in choosing my own path or in seeking a higher purpose?
This Sunday is Trinity Sunday, when Christians celebrate that God has revealed himself not simply as One, but as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. So, is God One or Many? Changing or Unchanging? The Creator of a universe which is free or predetermined?
A fascinating element in modern culture is the phenomenon of ‘Godless religion’. This affirms some of the benefits of religion, such as the sense of feeling connected to a bigger reality, the importance of morality, and the instinct that the most important thing is love, but it rejects belief in God. Religion is perceived as at best sterile and at worst oppressive, its institutions hierarchical and patriarchal. But ‘spirituality’ is still important.
Worship of only One God can lead to conformity and oppression. Seeing divinity in all things can mean the individual loses significance. Do away with God altogether and we may become mere consumers, each of us the centre of our own Universe. But what if God is Trinity?
The Christian faith that God is love means not only that God acts lovingly towards the world, creating it and then entering it to redeem it, but that God is himself a community of persons, bound together in a loving unity which respects the freedom of each. This community spills over into human history, both in the coming of Jesus the Son of God and in the sending of the Holy Spirit, who gives life.
The God who is Trinity, is both Unity and Diversity, transcendent and immanent, near and far away, mysterious and revealed, the unchanging source of change. Whilst this may sound abstract, it is only a shorthand way of talking about how people in the Bible experienced God over the centuries. What in other religions and philosophies sound like either/or choices, in Christianity become both/and possibilities; a Creator who has entered his creation; a Father who sets his children free; a conductor who composes as he goes along, taking account of the improvisations – and mistakes – of his orchestra.
If we are made in the image of the God of love, we shall be both free and constrained, as lovers often know. Our choices will matter, but can be woven into a wider purpose. The past will shape us without imprisoning us. We can look forward hopefully without wishing away the present. We shall play our part in human history, whilst having eternity in our hearts. And we shall want to love and to be loved, to connect with a bigger reality without losing ourselves, and to find stability and home whilst still looking for everything to be made new.
Those who have not encountered this may not appreciate its power. This is no dry doctrine, but a living experience to satisfy heart and mind. So, when you meet someone who wants to be spiritual without being religious, why not ask them whether they have ever considered exploring the Trinity…
15 May 2021
Keep calm and carry on
We find ourselves now in Ascensiontide, the ten-day period between Ascension Day and Pentecost. It is a season with its own particular mood, a complex mood mixing victory with defeat, hope with despair, glory with the mundane. Ascensiontide may resonate with us all.
Theologically, there is a note of victory and triumph. We have celebrated Easter and the good news of the resurrection. Death has been defeated, the taproot of sin has been severed, the future need no longer fill us with dread. The Ascension itself sees Jesus exalted in glory to be seated at the right hand of the Father. His work is done, and everything has been accomplished.
For us there may not be such a decisive sense of triumph, but there is still some mood of victory in the air. An effective vaccine has been found, it is being swiftly delivered, restrictions are gradually being eased, and despite an upswing in the UK of the so-called ‘India variant’ of the virus, it feels as though life is opening up again. The pandemic is of course still raging in many parts of the world, but in our little corner the threat seems to be receding.
On the other hand the ascension of Jesus leaves the disciples bereft. Jesus has gone, the Holy Spirit has not yet been given, and there is a real sense of poignancy. Are we on our own now? What are we supposed to do next? Where is the manual?
The disciples are like students leaving home for the first time, left by themselves in their new hall of residence surrounded by suitcases as the parental car disappears down the road. It is supposed to be an exciting new beginning, but it feels like being abandoned.
Perhaps we have also felt something like that over the last year. We know God is still there, we know that the church is still worshipping online, but it has been months since we last met together, we are fed up with being by ourselves, the vicar hasn’t phoned and it’s a bit like being abandoned.
There is a story that Christopher Columbus sailing across the Atlantic for the first time wrote in his journal day after day the same words: ‘No land in sight. Kept sailing.’ Ascensiontide encourages us to embrace the same kind of stubbornness. In the absence of reassuring landmarks you keep doing what you’ve always done. Say your prayers, read your Bible, reach out where you can to those in need, and prepare for things to change.
When the Spirit came at Pentecost, the disciples were empowered to live in the name of Jesus. They were able to take responsibility for their lives in a new way. They no longer needed Jesus there in person to tell them how to live. They had a sense of him living through them.
A new season in the life of the church is coming. It will be full of challenges, but there will also be freedom and new life, as the pandemic recedes and we discover not everything is the same as it was before. As we wait patiently for that season to begin, we keep sailing, trusting that continents will be there for us to discover.
This Friday (7th May) is the 1300th anniversary of the death of St John of Beverley and therefore a kind of birthday for the town of Beverley.
Why? Because the reason Beverley became more than a remote monastery surrounded by woods and marshes was because John’s tomb became a major centre of pilgrimage, around which grew a marketplace, inns and houses. Beverley developed eventually into a port and thriving commercial centre. But it began with the monastery founded by St John, and it grew because of the popularity of his tomb.
Three things were essential for a place to become a destination for pilgrims: there had to be a shrine containing the remains of a holy man or woman, providing a place and a physical focus; there had to be a date, whether of martyrdom, death or re-burial; this provided a connection with the saint’s story, and the historical reality of his or her earthly life; and there had to be an annual commemoration, ensuring that the feast day had a place within the round of worship of the local community, and that people continued to seek the saint’s intercessions with God on their behalf.
It was this last issue that really mattered. A saint was, by definition, someone who had a place in heaven close to God. According to this logic, prayers offered at the shrine of a saint were physically closer to God and therefore more likely to be heard.
If the theology sounds dubious, that may be because many aspects of medieval religion were based not so much on the official teaching of the Church as on popular practice which the authorities then sought to harness. Saints could fall in and out of fashion, or their concerns could change. For example, John of Beverley was originally a simple holy man exercising a gift of healing. But in later centuries he was co-opted by kings, from Athelstan to Henry V, as a national saint who could help English armies to victory on the battlefield.
At the 16th century Reformation this practice was ridiculed as a superstition. Prayer was an expression of faith in a loving God, not as a pre-scientific tool for overcoming everyday problems. Access to God was guaranteed by faith in the crucified and risen Lord Jesus Christ, not by visiting the bones of a saint. The shrines were dismantled, the gold reliquaries were taken by Henry VIII’s Commissioners, and the bones were sent to Thomas Cromwell who ensured that they were burned.
Veneration of saints dropped out of mainstream English religious life, and the saints themselves quietly forgotten; the only saints mentioned in Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer are the apostles mentioned in the Gospels, whose burial places are all unknown (although John the Baptist’s tomb can still be seen in the Umayyad mosque in Damascus). John of Beverley dropped into obscurity, a minor historical figure recorded by Bede.
Beverley Minster is St John’s monument. The size and beauty of the Minster is entirely owing to the prestige of its former occupant. There is a sense in which the Minster is an empty jewel casket; richly adorned but missing the treasure it was designed to contain.
May 7th falls too soon for us to celebrate the anniversary free from Covid 19 restrictions. But we shall get another opportunity on 25th October, which is the anniversary of the translation (or relocation) of John’s relics from his tomb in the nave to a new shrine, probably above the high altar of the Anglo-Saxon church, in 1037.
The cult of St John of Beverley lasted for over 800 years, yet now seems impossibly strange. Even so the Minster stands as testimony to something contemporary. Although religion constantly runs the risk of being distorted to meet all kinds of earthly human needs, the instinct to pray remains constant. It expresses perhaps our human need to know and be known by something bigger than ourselves; it allows us to experience awe and wonder at the miracle of life and the beauty of the universe; and it gives us confidence that we have a meaningful place in an unfolding story.
For these reasons at least we can give thanks for John of Beverley as we remember him on Thursday, and again later this year.
17 April 2021
Bygone era or future hope?
Over the past week I have been struck by the way so many commentators have described Prince Philip’s death as the end of an era, one in which his personal qualities of duty, reticence, service and self-sacrifice now seem hopelessly old fashioned.
In one sense that makes perfect sense. To speak of personal virtues at all these days seems out of step, suggesting as they do something timeless and unchanging in a world driven by fashion and sentiment. When we look at the contemporary public figures who are most admired, too many stand out not for their virtue, but their virtue-signalling, not for their speaking up in the cause of truth, but their saying what is expected to avoid being cancelled, and not for the good they get on with, but their gift of self-promotion.
At the same time, I wonder whether we are not in danger of overstating the case. Our land is still full of people who quietly get on with the job, though it be unglamorous and unrewarding. Over the last year we have become aware of how many ‘unsung heroes’ quietly spend their lives serving others, in the NHS, supermarket cash desks, classrooms and care homes, many of them poorly paid and little recognised, but who get on with the job without fuss but with bags of commitment, dedication and, yes, self-sacrifice.
Perhaps one of the reasons why Prince Philip’s death has touched so many is not because it symbolises the passing of an old and now defunct order, but because he represents for so many their own continuing values, which are too rarely celebrated in public. Maybe it is only the words that have changed; duty and sacrifice sound old fashioned, but someone described as being dedicated and reliable, and who puts herself out to help others, sounds not so much out of date as eminently employable.
One of the ways in which we still see such qualities is in the generosity of those who volunteer – most recently those thousands of volunteers managing long lines of people queuing for vaccinations, spending hours in the cold with people they will never see again, maintaining cheerfulness and humanity in the service of others when they could have been at home doing their own thing.
Here at Beverley Minster we are thinking about our own volunteers, not least as we look ahead with quiet confidence to the possibility of reopening to general visiting in May. We shall need new volunteers if we are to open fully, and we have been giving thought as to ways of providing training and support.
As we look forward to the summer and to escaping the confines of the pandemic, there will be more opportunities for volunteering in all sorts of ways: as Welcomers greeting visitors, Guides showing folk round, gardeners keeping the grounds tidy, people with clerical skills helping in the office or on the counting team.
There will be more about this on social media and elsewhere over the coming weeks, so now is the time to be thinking about ways in which you might be able to help, so that we can get the right provision in place before the Covid restrictions ease up. If volunteering at Beverley Minster might be of interest to you, or to someone you know, and if you would like to know more, do get in touch with the Administration Manager, Lauren Simpson, firstname.lastname@example.org
The late Duke of Edinburgh’s unique style was very much of its day and age; but I am quite sure that the virtues he embodied are far from dead, and I remain confident that at Beverley Minster we shall see evidence of them in the selflessness of our volunteers for years to come.
4 April 2021
A Gardener with Ambition
In the National Gallery hangs Titian’s great painting of the resurrection, ‘Noli me tangere’. Without the Biblical context, it might at first seem a slightly bizarre scene. Why is this woman kneeling publicly in front of an almost naked man holding a garden hoe? And why is he recoiling from her so awkwardly?
The painting shows a powerful moment of recognition, that moment described in John’s Gospel when Mary Magdalene, having at first mistaken the risen Jesus for the gardener, hears him calling her by name. Responding with love and amazement, she tries to reach out to him. He leans away from her, saying, ‘Do not hold on to me (in Latin, ‘Noli me tangere’), because I have not yet ascended to the Father.’
This Jesus has not come back simply to pick up where the old Jesus left off. Something has changed, signified by Mary’s difficulty at first in recognising him, and then by his refusal to let her claim him as her own. This Jesus has not come to share his new life only with his old disciples and friends in one place at one moment in history. He has come to renew the whole created universe, including time itself.
That is why the hoe is important. Not only does it explain why Mary thought Jesus was the gardener, the one charged with looking after the graveyard; it also evokes Adam, the first human being, placed in the garden of Eden ‘to till it and keep it.’ The hoe reminds us of the human vocation to look after the world entrusted to us, to care for all creation – including one another – and make it fruitful. The risen Jesus is a second Adam, fulfilling the first Adam’s destiny to bring God’s good creation to completion.
As Spring erupts once more around us, this is good news for all gardeners and farmers! In tending the earth you are answering a fundamental human calling, and walking in step with God’s intention that human beings should work with him in improving the world. But the gardening metaphor runs far more widely than our bedding plants and daffodils.
The early 17th century Bishop of Winchester, Lancelot Andrewes, puts it beautifully:
A gardener he is. The first, the fairest garden that ever was, paradise, he was the gardener, for it was of his planning. And ever since it is he as God makes all our gardens green, sends all the herbs and flowers we then gather…Christ rising was indeed a gardener, and that a strange one, who made such an herb grow out of the ground this day as the like was never seen before, a dead body to shoot forth alive out of the grave.
Andrewes goes on to speak of the implications of Christ’s rising for us and all creation:
But I ask, was he so this day alone? No, but this profession of his, this day begun, he will follow to the end. For he it is that by virtue of this morning’s act shall garden our bodies, too, turn all our graves into garden plots; yea, shall one day turn land and sea and all into a great garden, and so husband them as they shall in due time bring forth live bodies, even all our bodies alive again.
He ‘shall garden our bodies, too’. It is not surprising that Mary does not at first recognise Jesus, familiar to her though he had once been. This Jesus is not offering some private religious experience, but nothing less than the transformation of all things, turning ‘land and sea and all into one great garden’.
Perhaps this is why we still find it hard to recognise him. The Easter Jesus is just too big to take in; we cannot take hold of him and co-opt him to our own purposes; we can only wait, with Mary, in the graveyard of this mortal world, listening for him to call our own names. Responding to God’s gift of life all around us, we gladly offer ourselves as his under-gardeners, trusting in life, rejoicing in life, and sharing life to bring out the best in all around us, and so anticipate the fullness of the resurrection life that awaits us.