The Minster has been a holy place for 1300 years. It inspires awe and wonder in everyone who approaches the magnificent twin towers of the west front; even more when they enter inside.
It is a place rich in history and with a lively story to tell.
It is more than a heritage site; today’s community continues the tradition of the first monks: of prayer and welcome, mission and service, love and care for all.
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How big is your Christmas?
You might think that’s an odd question; but by the time I have written my next Blog, the Beverley Minster Christmas Tree Festival will be nearly over, and we shall be in the thick of a continuous round of carol concerts and services almost every day. Christmas will have descended upon us like a suffocating blanket of snow; the whole month becomes a kind of inverted Narnia, always Christmas but never the 25th December.
Don’t get me wrong; I love Christmas, and the Festival itself always seems fresh to me; but there is something that seems to me both draining and constraining about the round of carols and celebrations for weeks beforehand.
It has been normal practice for clergy for years to bemoan the commercialization of Christmas and its forward creep into the autumn and even August, when the first Christmas catalogues land on the doormat; but actually I don’t think that’s the main problem.
My difficulty with the Christmas sprawl is simply that it lacks imagination. In order to celebrate Christmas we are expected to:
- Eat loads
- Drink loads more
- Spend loads of money on gifts, often without any sense of whether they are wanted
- Decorate our houses with loads of trees, lights, and anything sparkly
- Spend time with family
- Attend the office Christmas party
- Listen to the same music, whether it’s Slade (yes, this year is the 50th anniversary since ‘Merry Christmas Everyone’ first made No.1) or Silent Night
- Make sure no one tells the children that Santa is really Dad
- Take time off work even if you don’t have any holiday plans
- Spend unaccustomed hours in the kitchen assembling pigs in blankets, making bread sauce and peeling 15 varieties of vegetable in order to fulfil 1. above
It has become the most predictable time of year. But expressing weariness with any of the above will attract cries of ‘Scrooge’, ‘spoilsport’, ‘don’t be such a Grinch’ and so on. My own problem with the above list is not with any individual items as such, but with the way this seems to constitute everything that matters. The world somehow becomes smaller in December. It is all part of a nostalgic retreat back into childhood, with familiar routines and rituals which never offer anything new. Our concept of celebration becomes two-dimensional, relying more on quantity than quality – eat more, drink more, spend more.
The unreality of this is felt keenly by anyone who is struggling. Our first Christmas card this year was from a friend whose husband has dementia and who herself has just had a mastectomy with chemotherapy to follow. She signs off saying “No Christmas for us, but we hope you have a good one with family”. Christmas can seem incompatible with any kind of hardship. In the minds of many it involves an element of denial, and looks like a kind of anaesthetic numbing us from too much reality. Is it any wonder that more people are opting out?
At the end of CS Lewis’ ‘The Last Battle’, there is a stable. It has been used by Shift the ape to hide the false Aslan, Puzzle the donkey, and from the outside it is mean and dingy. But it becomes the entry to a renewed and much bigger Narnia. What seems to be small, dark and finite opens out into something bigger than the world it was part of. Like Dr Who’s Tardis, it is bigger on the inside than it seems from the outside. The character Lucy comments, “In our world too, a Stable once had something inside it that was bigger than our whole world”.
Surely this is what has gone wrong with our Christmas. We have nearly forgotten that it is supposed to enlarge our sense of what is real. We have almost forgotten that in celebrating the incarnation of the Son of God, the Word made flesh, we are opening ourselves to a bigger reality, and the story of Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus is a portal widening out into eternity itself. It is meant to remind us that we, too, are sons and daughters of God. We, too, can be bearers of God’s Word. We, too, can reflect the light of heavenly love into a dark and weary world.
And yet somehow beneath the turkey and tinsel, we haven’t quite forgotten. The muzak versions of King’s College choir and Roy Wood and Wizzard can’t quite quell the instinct for something strange and wonderful. It’s just that we have mistaken more for bigger, consumption for transcendence, and entertainment for wonder.
The big difficulty for the churches is that we collude with the world’s need to keep Christmas distant from anything new or transformative. Whatever we serve up, most people will want it to be safe and predictable. But inside the stable it all gets turned upside down; the virgin becomes a mother; God is denied a bed; the little town at the edge of the known world becomes the centre; one newly-born turns out to be the Creator; and the animals’ feeding trough holds the source of the world’s joy – and all this without a trace of tinsel.
Ah yes, I remember it well
I wonder what kind of relationship you have with the past? As I get older I become increasingly aware of how selective my memory can be, and of how other people may have very different recollections from me of the same events we have both witnessed. The old Maurice Chevalier and Hermione Gingold song sums it up nicely:
“We met at nine…
We met at eight.
I was on time…
No, you were late.
Ah yes, I remember it well.”
As LP Hartley said, “The past is another country. They do things differently there”, which means we often oversimplify the past – not only because we don’t remember clearly but also because we don’t understand it very well. When we lived next to Peterborough Cathedral there used to be a Heritage Weekend every year when the Cathedral Precinct was filled with historical re-enactors, and just venturing out for a pint of milk we would encounter Roman legionaries, medieval archers, Civil War pikemen, and RAF Spitfire pilots, all accompanied by suitably dressed up women and children living under canvas and cooking on open fires for the weekend. There was great emphasis on the historic authenticity of the clothing, artefacts, foodstuffs and general appearance of the past.
But no one was interested in coming into the Cathedral to take part in a 16th century Book of Common Prayer service which was part of an unbroken living tradition! The interest in the past was selective; dressing up in historical fancy dress was a fun leisure activity, but the Christian worldview of people who lived in past ages remained alien; and so the mindset of most participants was of course thoroughly modern, and the historical re-enactment was to that extent inauthentic.
The National Trust has in recent years been criticized for trying to encourage a more diverse range of visitors to their properties. This has meant drawing attention to previously overlooked elements of their history, such as the connection between the building of many of these magnificent country houses and the profits from slavery. Such interpretation can result in better history being told, in the sense that the story is less selective and more complete; but it can also be controversial because it has an eye on modern audiences, and so may become distorted. And of course some people object because they want their history to be comforting and reassuring, and do not want to be confronted with narratives which may be less flattering to our national self-image. History always serves the needs of the present.
Positively, the value of Remembrance Sunday is that it sustains a sense of gratitude, both for the individuals who sacrificed their lives, and for the peace we enjoy. Remembering the human cost of conflict ensures that we do not take peace for granted. Over 30 years after the Berlin Wall came down, no one expected eastern Europe to be engulfed in another major war; and in the Middle East even the decades of hostility between Palestinian and Israeli had not prepared us for the scale of conflict we are currently seeing in Gaza. Observing Remembrance Sunday today should make us aware of how every generation must work to maintain peace and cannot assume it is permanent. It should make us more ready to challenge those who use Remembrance Sunday to promote division and suspicion of others by falsely claiming ownership of it in support of their own selective version of history.
It is a happy accident that Remembrance Sunday falls in the Church’s season of All Saints tide. I say this because the focus of All Saints is on looking forwards rather than backwards. If historical narratives tend to be selective and self-serving according to the various agendas of the present, perhaps our narrative should be shaped less according to where we think we have come from and more according to where we think we are going.
In the season of All Saints we look forward to the renewal of both heaven and earth; to the final ceasing of those many voices crying out for justice, peace and for an abundance sufficient to satisfy every longing; and we look to God himself wiping away every tear from the eyes of those who suffer. Part of this vision includes the possibility of forgiveness and healing for the wrongs we have inflicted on each other.
With this perspective Remembrance Sunday becomes an opportunity to reflect upon our past history of conflict in a way that opens up the possibility for future peace and reconciliation. Our memories, individual and national, are always selective; so let’s not fight over whose version of the past is best; let’s look at where we are going, and then consider how we can use the past to inspire and prepare us for that greater reality. Let’s remember in such a way that we are ready to enter God’s kingdom of peace.
Anyone for Hallowe’en?
Horror films have never held any great appeal for me; I have enough nasty surprises as Vicar of Beverley Minster (Yes, I know the clock has stopped again, even though it has only just been serviced), without wanting to spend my leisure time perched on the edge of my seat waiting for something unpleasant to happen to the innocent newly-weds as they unwittingly disturb the graveyard on which their dilapidated New England farmhouse has been built…
At the same time there is no denying the attraction for many people of being scared in a controlled environment. From the thrill of a small child waiting to be found in a game of hide and seek, through the vertigo of a theme park big dipper, to the heart-thumping post-apocalyptic zombie film where no shopping centre is safe, there is a spectrum of terror which many of us experience as weirdly life-giving.
Hallowe’en sits somewhere on this spectrum, or maybe beyond it, and it’s not always clear what to make of it. Most people probably see it being on the child-friendly level of scary. Supermarkets at this time of year seem wholly given over to pumpkins, plastic skeletons and Dracula masks for children, and nobody seems to raise any Safeguarding concerns.
On the other hand there are plenty of Christians who find the idea of witchcraft and the occult no laughing matter, and do their best to prevent their children from engaging with Hallowe’en at all. I know parents who wont allow their children to read the Harry Potter books because they regard any stories about magic as an entry-level form of the occult.
Hallowe’en, of course, is a corruption of ‘All Hallows Eve’, as 1st November is All Saints Day, when the Church celebrates the victory of the saints in heaven. Hallowe’en therefore tends to be understood in the Church as the last fling of the forces of sin and death before they are vanquished on All Saints Day.
What is fascinating about the modern Hallowe’en is how it has been secularized so that there is no longer any concept of a real conflict between good and evil, or light and dark. Instead it is just a celebration of spookiness for its own sake. It is this which allows people to view it as essentially harmless. If there is any fear involved, it is not related to any sense of a life and death struggle, of a real existential threat from which we need to be rescued. It’s just entertainment.
We have made Hallowe’en child-friendly at the cost of trivializing the realities behind it. If you think about it objectively, it does seem a bit odd that we encourage children to celebrate forces of darkness and evil, and themes of death and disfigurement, and the malicious use of supernatural powers, especially if there is no reference to Christ’s resurrection and victory in response.
Some Christians try to replace Hallowe’en with more wholesome alternative celebrations, such as Light parties or similar. Personally, I can see why these don’t have the same appeal; they lack the sense of threat which is provided by darkness and ghouls and magic, and the sense of transgression afforded by trick or treating.
There is no point in wishing that things were other than they are, and Hallowe’en isn’t going to disappear any time soon. Perhaps our problem is that we don’t consider how it relates to the real world; we don’t believe in magic, but we are all held in the grip of impersonal forces we cannot control and which shape our lives. We may not find ourselves being chased by zombies, but many people are only half alive, existing without truly living. We may not routinely see ghosts, but we often dogged by memories of the past we cannot shake off and which dominate us; we may not be seduced by vampires, but at some level we all fear death whilst knowing we must one day face it.
It might be good to acknowledge that the ghouls and ghosties express real truths about ourselves and the world, and that they are not wholly fanciful. It would be even better if that acknowledgement were accompanied by a confidence in the gospel; the sense that dark powers are not ultimate, but exist in a world made by a good God; the belief that God is faithful even in the face of death, that Jesus’ resurrection overcomes the power of our fear of death, and also sets us free from the ghosts of the past when we re-orientate ourselves towards his future.
In other words, let’s do Hallowe’en properly: let’s acknowledge the dark realities that Hallowe’en expresses, fully and imaginatively; but let’s also remember that it is the eve of the Feast of All Hallows; and that after the darkness comes everlasting day.
Times and Places
For this Blog I thought it might be helpful to reprint the summary of the PCC discussion about the timing and location of the Sunday mid-morning services which was circulated in the Minster Notice sheet recently but which hasn’t been more widely available.
Many thanks are due to all those who responded to the Times and Places consultation which ran over the summer months. Over 50 responses were received, and provided helpful data for the PCC discussion on 18th September.
The context is one in which the 11am service moved into the Quire last January in response to the lack of heating. Having made the move, we realised that there were some other benefits, such as the greater intimacy of facing each other in the collegiate seating, and having the choir in the midst of the congregation. The question therefore arose as to whether the 11am congregation should stay in the Quire or move back into the nave.
The PCC agreed that the 11am service should move back into its former location in the nave. Despite the newly discovered advantages of worshipping in the Quire, it was felt that the service feels too exclusive and is off putting for visitors to join. There is also little scope to accommodate children and families in the Quire. The 11am congregation has therefore moved back into the nave and will stay there.
The other main reason for the consultation was that the current arrangement of services restricts the building of relationships and community, as well as creating certain practical problems for those leading and preparing worship. Arrangements for coffee between services in the Hall are unsatisfactory, partly for reasons of timing and partly because fellowship and worship each takes place in different buildings. Reversing the order of services would greatly alleviate these problems, allowing the choir to practice undisturbed before a Communion service starting at say 9.30 or 10am; it would mean the Choral Communion congregation could have coffee together after worship; and it would allow the informal service to start at say 11 or 11.30am and so be less constrained by the clock, so that congregation would no longer need to leave the Minster after worship to continue conversations. Worship and fellowship before and after services could all be accommodated in the Minster without anyone having to go into the Hall.
The PCC agreed by an overwhelming majority that in principle a reversal of the order of the two main services is desirable.
However, it was also clear that such a move is not presently sustainable because of its impact on some of the key musicians at the informal service.
It was therefore agreed that for the moment the present service times will remain unchanged while efforts are made to expand the resources available for the worship band. The situation will be reviewed in 12 months unless additional musicians are forthcoming in the meantime.
The consultation also revealed a sense of fragmentation of the Minster community because of the number of congregations we now have, and a number of people asked unprompted for an increase in the number of joint services bringing the two congregations together. This has to be balanced with the aim in the Vision Strategy of offering a diverse range of worship styles. It was therefore agreed to increase the number of joint services each year from 4 to 9.
An earlier consultation last year on the content of the services revealed a strong desire for the congregation to be able to sing the Gloria at the Choral Communion service. For various practical reasons this has not yet been implemented, but will now be accommodated as soon as new Orders of Service can be produced, allowing the congregation to participate in more singing without losing the significant contribution made by the choir.
Thank you for all who have taken part in this process which has come at the end of a protracted period of change. The position now agreed is a compromise which still leaves us for the moment with impaired opportunities for fellowship. This may be offset if a new team can be found to serve coffee after the 11am service.
And finally… The lack of heating last winter was primarily due to anxiety about rising fuel costs and uncertainty about our cashflow. Both of these issues are now much clearer, which means we can reassure everyone that the heating will once again go on at the usual time this autumn, and that there will be no need to retreat into the Quire any time soon. But even with the heating on at full blast, you might still want to bring a blanket when winter sets in!
Ordained to the Office?
Beverley Minster used to be part of something called the Greater Churches Network. This was an informal, self-selected self help group for clergy in big churches, and at the time of its demise about 30 churches were members.
The Greater Churches Network has in recent years been replaced by the Major Churches Network (MCN), which is now recognised by the National Church, English Heritage and by Government. To qualify as a Major Church one must have characteristics such as a large building, a staff team, a substantial civic ministry, and a significant ministry to visitors. Churches with at least some of these features number around 300, and so bringing them together presents more of a challenge than with the old Greater Churches.
I have just returned from the first conference of the Major Churches Network in Oxford which was a great success. The theme was ‘Faith in the Public Square’ and there was some good input. The first talk was a thoughtful reflection on the role of the churches in the pandemic, and invited us to consider how we might address future crises, such as unemployment following the rise of artificial intelligence, global warming, or the spread of the war in Ukraine.
Other talks addressed the place of our church buildings in the cultural landscape, contested heritage in churches, and the subject of leadership in the church. This last one was realistic in suggesting habits based on actual data rather than the latest management theory.
As is often the case with these gatherings, some of the most useful material emerged in conversations with colleagues around the edges of the formal programme.
In particular, I found myself picking the brains of colleagues from churches similar to Beverley Minster about the role of a Director of Operations.
Cathedrals are required by statute to have an Administrator: someone who has oversight of the day to day running of the organization, recognizing that this is a specialized role requiring financial, strategic and organizational skills separate from the usual skills and responsibilities of the clergy.
Major Churches have no such requirement, although many of them (such as Beverley Minster) exercise a Cathedral-style ministry and have to deal with similar complexities without any resourcing from the central church. When I was appointed six years ago there was a recognition that despite the committed work of Church Wardens, Treasurer and other PCC officers and staff, the Minster was in need of an Administrator if it was not to end up in organizational gridlock. My experience has indeed been that my ability to look ahead, plan, and offer spiritual counsel and leadership, has often been constrained by day to day questions about boilers and Wi-Fi, auctions and signage, car parking and contactless giving points.
The PCC has now grasped this nettle and agreed to create such a role here, even though our finances are tight and resources are limited. I was therefore interested to talk to colleagues this week about their experience of such posts. What was striking was that we at the Minster are almost alone as one of the biggest Major Churches in not yet having a Director of Operations. Most comparable churches have one, because these are complicated organizations with many needs.
One of the reasons for our complexity is that the world has changed. The Minster is no longer (if it ever was) a largely unaccountable community of amateurs doing things as best we can to suit ourselves. It has to comply with increasingly demanding legislation and insurance and safeguarding requirements; and it has to welcome members of the public who have growing expectations that we be professional in our customer service and processes. As resources come under more pressure so we have to become as efficient as we can, not least when we are entering contracts and procuring expensive new equipment. We also owe it to our hardworking staff team that they be managed and supported properly.
For these and other reasons we shall soon be advertising for a Director of Operations. Such an appointment will shake us all up because it will inevitably mean that we have to learn how to do things differently, with different lines of authority and decision-making. Old habits (not least those of the Vicar) will have to be unlearned, and new patterns of communication and accountability established.
I’m looking forward to it eagerly, not least because it should allow me more room to play to my own strengths in ministry. It should also clarify and simplify some of our decision-making; and above all because such a role holds out the possibility of us growing more fully into our calling to be the body of Christ made up of many members with different gifts. Please pray for the process and for a good appointment.
Going for ‘Gaia’
This week NASA published its independent report on ‘Unidentified Anomalous Phenomena’ – that’s UFOs to you and me. The conclusions were predictably ambiguous; there is no conclusive evidence that aliens exist, but the report doesn’t rule out the possibility that they might.
Our fascination with alien life goes back a long way. In ancient Greece, Metrodorus of Chios wrote: “It seems absurd, that in a large field only one stalk should grow, and that in an infinite space only one world exists.” Such ideas were not popular, either at the time or with the advent of Christianity, but the question never went away; and when HG Wells published ‘The War of the Worlds’ in 1898 he ignited the public imagination about the possibility and nature of other worlds and their inhabitants, a fascination which has only increased since.
Beverley Minster is currently hosting the ‘Gaia’ installation by Luke Jerram which gives us an extra-terrestrial’s eye-view of Planet Earth. It consists of an enormous, inflated representation of the Earth suspended over the nave of the Minster, based on detailed NASA imagery. It fills the space between the pillars and gently rotates. Viewed from the floor of the Minster the familiar northern hemisphere can hardly be seen; Europe is almost invisible, let alone Beverley! Instead, I am struck by how much sea covers the world, and by the land masses of Africa, South America and Australia surrounded by oceans.
A soundscape plays through the speakers including recordings of the conversation of the first astronauts seeing Earth from space, children and environmentalists commenting on the importance of caring for our habitat, babbling voices, and beautiful music. Thousands of people have been coming to see it over just the first few days. If you haven’t yet managed to see it, I can thoroughly recommend making the effort: see the Minster website for opening times and details.
Although the image of the Earth suspended in space has been a familiar one ever since the astronauts on the Apollo 8 spacecraft took photographs while orbiting the Earth, many visitors to Gaia are responding as if seeing the Earth for the first time. People stop in their tracks, mouths fall open, and many of those with whom I have spoken describe how emotional it has made them feel.
‘Gaia’ was the name of the Greek goddess of the Earth, and so was a personification of the planet in the same way that we might talk of ‘Mother Earth’. In the 1970s scientist James Lovelock proposed the ‘Gaia hypothesis’, the idea that the Earth is a self-regulating system, with the ability to heal itself and adapt to changes in climate. More recently he warned that the human contribution to global warming has pushed the Earth beyond the limits of its ability to adapt.
To me, ‘Gaia’ in Beverley Minster speaks of something beautiful and living. The combination of blues and greens, of browns and the swirling white of cloud cover, and the continual slow movement, create the sense of an organism which is alive.
Gaia also speaks of the fragility of the Earth. Suspended in the Minster, it looks big but also vulnerable; something we are especially aware of when the west doors open for weddings and Gaia blows about! Seeing the world in this way brings home to me how this planet is home for all of us; and that consequently the conflicts, wars and divisions which we take for granted are incredibly self-destructive and foolish. It also makes me see how our habits of over-consumption not only degrade and pollute our own corner of the planet, but everyone else’s as well. Climate change doesn’t respect sovereign states and their frontiers.
Perhaps the most striking thing about Gaia is its context. Many visitors have commented on the suprising but effective juxtaposition of Gaia between the Gothic arcades of the Minster. There is a mysterious synergy between these two quite different kinds of beauty so that we appreciate them more together than we would apart.
That brings me back to my original point. Medieval churches like Beverley Minster were designed to represent the whole created universe, known and unknown. Locating Gaia in the Minster therefore encourages us to see it not in isolation, as a solitary lump of rock floating about in space; but as part of something bigger, dependent upon a creative source of life which sustains all of us. As they used to say in the X Files, ‘The truth is out there’; only it may not be alien life we are looking for, but something much closer to home.
I’m not religious, but…
As a grumpy old vicar I have had to reconcile myself to the fact that not only is Christianity not cool, but for many people it is toxic. I often hear people bending over backwards to distance themselves from anything that might identify them too closely with the church or Christian belief.
The result is that many folk have cut themselves off from a spiritual, emotional and psychological vocabulary that might help them to reflect on their experience.
Consider the following quotes: “I’m not religious, but I’m very spiritual”, (Paul McCartney). “I’m not religious but I have a sensibility for transcendent things” (Annie Lennox). “I’m not religious but I feel so moved, makes me want to pray” (Madonna). “I’m not religious, but I prayed for this one” (Elon Musk). “I’m not religious, but right or wrong, that’s me” (Eazy-E, rapper).
Each of these statements would still make perfect sense, and sound a lot less apologetic, if they didn’t include the first phrase, “I’m not religious”. There seems to be a reluctant acknowledgement that prayer, spirituality, morality and transcendence are the proper business of religion, but the speaker can’t quite bring themselves to admit it.
The other day we saw some dear old family friends, one of whom said, “I don’t have a faith, but could I look around the Minster?”. I suspect that was driven by a fear of hypocrisy, as if entering a church building might undermine the credentials of any self-respecting atheist. But it saddens me to think that faith is so generally seen as remote from normal human experience.
Modern culture has created deep divisions in the way we think about our lives; we separate the public from the private, fact from opinion, science from faith, and sacred from secular. This reinforces in many minds a sense that religion is either about visible buildings and institutions of no spiritual value, or that it is about personal spiritual opinions which contain no universal truth. Either way it is, at best, irrelevant.
Some of this of course is understandable; religion has so often been used to justify the abuse of power that it is not surprising if many people are suspicious of its representatives and their agendas. But religion is such a universal part of human experience that it cannot easily be roped off with barrier tape like a crime scene. Saying “I’m not religious, but I am spiritual” is a bit like saying “I’m not political, but I always vote”.
At a deep level, part of me wants to agree with those who distance themselves from religion. There is a legitimate version of this line which says, “I’m not religious, but I am a Christian”. If you are looking for a critique of religion, one of the best places to start is the Old Testament, with the prophets of Israel offering a sustained denunciation of religious ceremonies and institutions which were used as a cloak for corrupt and oppressive practices. Too often people forget that Jesus was crucified in part because he attacked the Jerusalem Temple, and it was the religious leaders who took the lead in having him done away with.
Insofar as religion is narrow, exclusive, and provides an excuse for hierarchies of power, we are surely right to be wary of it. But God is rather bigger than the Church; Christians affirm that ‘The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it’; and normal human experience includes awareness of transcendence, the instinct to pray, experiences of grace and forgiveness, of awe, wonder and beauty, and convictions that certain actions are right or wrong.
There are many people who willingly agree to the statement ‘Love is the most important thing’ but who shy away from saying ‘God is love’. Yet both are statements of faith which cannot be proved, and both are given meaningful content by the life of Christ, who demonstrates what a life underpinned by love might look like.
At its heart, the Christian Church provides a community, which doesn’t depend upon ties of blood, race or class. This community shares and interprets a rich range of resources, including the Bible and sacraments, which help us to understand and negotiate the whole range of life’s experiences, and to reflect on what a good life might look like and why it so often eludes us.
My plea in the end is for a more generous understanding of religion, that sees it less as a niche activity for those who just happen to like that sort of thing; and more as a distilled essence of human experience, where fundamental questions about who we are and what we are here for have been debated for centuries, and where the fruits of those reflections are available to be applied afresh in our own day. There may still be quite a bit in ‘religion’ that I don’t like, but it still helps me to frame the questions we all face, and it saves me from having to reinvent some of the possible answers.
In a Barbie world…
There are many stories in which the main character goes on a quest or discovers a parallel world, and as a result embarks unexpectedly on an inner journey of growth and self-discovery. From The Pilgrim’s Progress to The Wizard of Oz, from the Narnia stories to The Lord of the Rings, from The Prince and the Pauper to Back to the Future, from The Truman Show to The Matrix to Jumanji, these stories celebrate what we can learn from being a fish out of water.
The latest contribution to this rich cultural tradition is “Barbie”, the summer blockbuster which since its release in July has already grossed over $1 billion.
If you haven’t seen it, I recommend it. We saw it on holiday as a family and had a noisy discussion for hours afterwards about the issues it raises. It’s very funny, visually stunning (if somewhat pink), sets off clouds of ideas like a confetti cannon, and juggles questions around feminism and gender stereotypes, the relationship between a 20th century icon and corporate capitalism, and what it means to be human.
The first section of the film is set in Barbieland, a magenta-pink realm where “thanks to Barbie, all problems of feminism and equal rights have been solved”. It is populated by Barbies who can be anything they want to be – Doctor Barbie, Supreme Court Barbie, Physicist Barbie, President Barbie – and where we meet Stereotypical Barbie and her useless blond acolyte Ken, whose only occupation is ‘beach’ and who adores Barbie with unrequited feelings. Barbie knows she is a toy and believes that by her example “We fixed everything so all women in the real world are happy and powerful!”.
Barbie’s vacuous smile and complete lack of an inner life changes when she suddenly experiences thoughts of death, and finds she has cellulite and flat feet that no longer fit her high heels. The real world is identified as the source of these unwelcome developments, so Barbie sets off to put things right, with Ken in tow. Unfortunately, she discovers that the real world isn’t quite how she imagined, while Ken’s eyes are opened to the delights of The Patriarchy, which in due course he tries to take back to Barbieland.
In the real world Barbie learns things about herself. She meets an angry teenager who accuses her of “making women feel bad about themselves since you were invented”. Far from saving the world, Barbie seems to have helped create a dystopia in which “men look at me like an object”, which of course she is, being only a doll. For the first time she experiences self-doubt, and she learns to weep. In the words of a song on the soundtrack by Billie Eilish, “I used to float, now I just fall down, I used to know, but I’m not sure now what I was made for”.
By the end of the film, Barbie has discovered the attraction of being a real human person, despite the flaws and pains of human nature. But this redemption is achieved by her own choices and efforts; there is no other saviour, and the process is entirely individual. Ken also discovers that he is his own person and doesn’t need to be defined as an appendage of Barbie.
I found myself pondering the question of how far our identity is shaped by others, and how easily we treat one another as objects, either to exploit or to fear. When Barbie asks her creator/inventor for permission to become human, the reason she gives is that “I want to do the imagining, I don’t want to be the idea”. I wonder how far we turn one another into ideas of our own making, at odds with the reality of other people’s distinctive otherness.
If there is an overlap with the gospel, it is in the idea of self-discovery by means of entering another world. For Barbie, the experience of travelling from Barbieland to the real world opens her eyes. Ironically it is a kind of reverse salvation, moving from perfection and immortality to imperfection and death, but it is at least a journey into greater truthfulness.
Jesus announces that the kingdom of God is near, and that his kingdom is not of this world; while St Paul assures the Christians in Philippi that “our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body”. Like Barbie, cellulite and thoughts of mortality may mean a journey is required if we are to enter a different kingdom, to discover a better truth about the humanity which God surely desires for each of us. Then perhaps we can “do the imagining” with a creativity which is genuinely life-giving.
None other than the gate of heaven
Sue and I once lived in a Victorian Vicarage where the front door was a hefty beast reinforced with Yale lock, deadlock, security chain and bolts. We had different views as to how many lines of defence were necessary at night. Sue believed we were at risk from all kinds of footpads and ruffians who might venture up the driveway and force an entry, and she therefore favoured a maximal approach, and would check all the bolts and locks. I was more concerned that we should be able to make a swift exit in the event of my copious sermon notes going up in a conflagration, and I was therefore happy to rely on the Yale alone.
Doors both mark a boundary and a way through the boundary, whether it’s a gate in the hedge around a field, a driveway to a private house or a door in a wall. They serve both to keep out and to permit entry or exit.
Although I’m not a great social media participant, I do belong to one or two eccentric Facebook groups. I recently joined the Gate Appreciation Society’s Facebook group. It offers a constant succession of wonderful gates, from rustic garden wickets to gilt wrought iron jobs adorning stately homes. Many are examples of understated everyday beauty which you might walk past without noticing unless someone pointed them out.
Gates and doors are often considered worthy of special design. Medieval churches usually have doors with columns, richly decorated arches and mouldings, not to mention sculptures and statuary. Otherwise plain and understated Georgian houses often have front doors with fanlights, panelling and fluted columns. Even the most architecturally modest flat today will have a splash of colour on the front door to draw attention to itself.
The importance we attach to entrances perhaps reflects the place of boundaries in our lives and how we navigate them. These boundaries are metaphorical as well as literal; one way or another, much of our lives are spent working out how to gain entrance, how to join in, how to cross the invisible frontiers that separate us from each other; or else how to prevent others from crashing our party, disturbing our gathering of the likeminded, or dissolving the exclusivity of our club.
The church has literal doors opening into its buildings, and a spiritual door which is the sacrament of baptism. It is no accident that in most churches the font where baptism is administered is located close to the door. Such is the case at the Minster (where the font is close to the south door) and at all of the associated churches. Baptism provides the way in, and it is open to all.
Perhaps this is why in so many churches the font is older than the building itself. In Beverley Minster the font is 12th century, and must have been saved from the previous building. At both St Paul’s, Tickton, and St Peter’s Woodmansey, the Victorian buildings contain medieval fonts. The other day, on holiday on the North Yorkshire Moors, we visited the little church at Gillamoor. There too a Norman font predates the church building by several hundred years. It’s like that parlour game where you have to say what single item you would choose to rescue from your burning house. In the case of many churches, what the community chose to save after fire, collapse or rebuilding, was the font.
My guess is that this is because the font, and more particularly the sacrament it represents, provides access into God’s grace. It provides an opening into a broader, more spacious way of being which too often seems closed off and separate. It is the way onto the Way. Baptism is also when we open the gates of our own hearts and make room for God to take up residence. The traffic through the door has to be two way.
This autumn we have a good number of baptisms planned when families will celebrate the gift of new life. We shall also be running a series of discussions for those adults wishing to be baptised or to reaffirm the baptismal promises made on their behalf as children. This is the point of Confirmation, and we are looking forward to the Bishop of Hull conducting a Confirmation service at the Minster on October 26th. If you, or anyone you know, might be interested in thinking more about finding doorways into the presence of God, or in opening up to the mystery of God’s presence, then this might be a good opportunity to take that step – so do let me know.
Lift up your heads, O you gates, and be lifted up, you ancient doors: and the King of Glory shall come in (Psalm 24:7).
Welcome to Wrexham
We are surrounded by redemption stories. In one sense, the new dawn every morning marks the redemption of the previous day. But the contours of some of these stories stand out more clearly.
One such is the TV documentary series ‘Welcome to Wrexham’, which charts the unlikely but genuine story of how two Hollywood actors bought a struggling Welsh football club and turned it around.
I’ve never been much interested in football. But often a football club acts as a powerful symbol of the community it represents, and the loyalties and passions projected on to the club can extend far beyond the pitch. In the case of Wrexham, the fortunes of the club reflect those of the town.
Wrexham AFC is the oldest professional club in Wales, and the third oldest in the world. Its stadium, the Racecourse Ground, is the oldest international stadium still in use in the world. This is a club with a proud history, but it’s down on its luck, having been relegated from the English Football League 15 years ago.
In the same way the city of Wrexham is a former mining town suffering from high unemployment, public service cuts, limited job opportunities and low aspiration. Like the club, it has felt as though its glory days were all in the past, and the club’s inability to succeed on the pitch has reinforced the town’s low self-image.
Then two Hollywood actors, Rob McElhenney and Ryan Reynolds, got together and decided they wanted to buy a football club. But unlike some club owners, this was neither a simple business investment, nor an act of whimsy. They settled on Wrexham not just because the club was available, but because they understood how sport can be good for the town.
The success of the documentary lies partly in the fish-out-of-water appeal of two likeable American stars who clearly know nothing about football, finding out the hard way the realities of turning around a failing Welsh football club. But it is also the result of seeing how the changing fortunes of the club affect the lives of local people.
As the new owners inject much-needed cash into new facilities, management and players, hope is renewed. Expectations rise. People start to believe that the club might get back into the League, and that has a knock-on effect on the local economy. Ticket sales increase, and the mood of optimism leads to better returns not just for the pub next to the ground, but for all kinds of local businesses, from florists to the butchers. Different episodes touch on how individuals are affected, such as the painter decorator fan whose marriage has broken down and for whom the club is all he has; and the disability inclusion manager who has always filled the role as a volunteer, and whose life is transformed when she is at last paid to do it.
All of this comes at some cost. Most obviously, a price is paid by the underperforming players and management who have to be dismissed before new blood can be brought in. But it is also paid by the owners, who are conscious of the risks they are running not just with a football club, but with a whole city. Early on, McElhenney warns Reynolds that “There is a version of this story where we are the villains, it doesn’t work and then we go ‘what do we do? we have to sell it,’ and then we are the bad guys”.
The extent of what they have let themselves in for is acknowledged by Ryan Reynolds as he gradually gets bitten by the football bug and says, “I have only been owner of a football club for a short time, but so far I have found it to be very time consuming, emotionally exhausting, financially idiotic and utterly addictive.”
It’s a classic redemption arc. A community is taken from dead-end hopelessness to renewal, as a result of a salvation offered from outside; a salvation initially met with mistrust and scepticism, and a salvation involving costly personal commitment from the ones offering it.
Beverley doesn’t have a football club in need of quite such a turnaround. But we are surrounded by redemption stories, in which a helping hand, or a risky personal involvement, can open up a new beginning for someone else. None of these human stories is simple, and things can go backwards as well as forwards, since we are human, complicated and imperfect.
But what all of these stories reflect is a sense that redemption is woven into the deep fabric of the universe, for it is a quality to be found in the Creator himself. The gospel of the death and resurrection of the Son of God is the archetypal story, and we catch reflections of it in our own lives every day. So if the sermon doesn’t grab you, try a dose of ‘Welcome to Wrexham’ instead.
There are, perhaps, two kinds of person. There are those who believe that in the end we are on our own. That we are only the insignificant products of vast impersonal forces, and that the rest of the universe is majestically indifferent. Such value as we have we either generate ourselves, or is provisionally bestowed by those around us; a value which is impermanent, shifting, and reliable only for so long as it suits those others.
The other view is that we are not alone, but that life is a gift and is therefore inherently precious. That it has been entrusted to us by a Source that is not under our control. A Source that is not indifferent but desires our response. The meaning of our lives consequently lies in working out the nature of that response: what does it mean to say Yes to life?
Dag Hammarskjöld, the former Secretary-General of the United Nations in the 1950s, once wrote “I don’t know Who – or what – put the question, I don’t know when it was put. I don’t even remember answering. But at some moment I did answer Yes to Someone – or Something – and from that hour I was certain that existence is meaningful and that, therefore, my life, in self-surrender, had a goal.”
I mention this because this weekend sees the Ordination of Deacons in York Minster; a very visible moment when ten men and women take a deep breath and publicly say Yes to God; offering themselves unconditionally to whatever God might have in store for them in the service of his Church.
The traditional, institutional nature of ordination with all those dog collars, Bishops and Cathedrals, may serve to distance it from the rest of us. Perhaps it all looks too churchy, too religious, too removed from real life, to make much impact. This is a pity, because an ordination service provides a high-profile focus for each of us to consider the nature of our own calling. In other words, we are all called by God to become the people he intends us to be; so what might your Yes look like?
The Bible begins not with an ordination, but with the commissioning of human beings to share in the work of caring for the world and making it fruitful. In a sense, that is a priestly role; Adam and Eve are called to mediate like priests between this world, of which they are part, and God, in whose image they are made.
So having a calling is an essential part of being human and of living in God’s world. It isn’t just about what we do in or for the Church. In fact what we do in church may be the least important aspect of our calling, which includes our work, our family life, our friendships, interests and pursuits, all the ways in which we spend our time and money.
Amongst the ten deacons at York Minster on Saturday will be Charlie Shefford, who will be working out what his Yes to God looks like amongst us here at Beverley Minster and Associated Churches. The ministry of a deacon is meant to be a ministry of practical service, sometimes challenging, often humdrum. But in the run up to ordination it feels terrifying. I remember at my own ordination the sense of self-offering being completely open-ended. It might not have looked like a big deal to anyone else, but spiritually it involved placing oneself into God’s hands without any guarantee of what he might ask of you.
In practice God does not demand, only invite; and he desires us to grow, not to be crushed. And so most deacons discover that they are stepping not into an existence of endless and burdensome self-sacrifice, but into a joyful and richer experience of their own humanity.
The same will have been true of those first disciples such as Peter and Andrew, James, John and Matthew, to whom Jesus said ‘Follow me’; it was true of those who were called by name, such as the boy Samuel, Mary in the garden, Saul on the Damascus Road. They heard their names called, and in responding they became more truly Samuel, Mary and Paul. Sacrifice may be involved, but it is embraced willingly and positively as the means of growth. In Baptism and Confirmation it is the same for every Christian believer. Ordination is just a variation of the same thing.
Please pray for Charlie as he begins his ministry amongst us. Do ask him about his calling. And consider what it might mean to offer a deeper, fuller, and more complete Yes of your own.
When will we get an Artificial Intelligence Vicar?
In the latest issue of Prospect magazine there is a hilarious ‘interview’ with Chat GPT, the artificial intelligence programme.
In answer to the question “What do you look like?”, Chat GPT says ‘I would describe myself as an average-looking person with a friendly demeanour. I have brown hair and hazel eyes, and I prefer to dress in casual and comfortable clothing…Overall, I believe that my personality and character are more important than my physical appearance, and I strive to be kind, empathetic and helpful to others”. It claims to have learned recently ‘the importance of self-care and taking time for myself, as I have come to realise that this is crucial for maintaining overall wellbeing and happiness’.
On the one hand the answers given by Chat GPT are uncannily realistic and plausible; on the other hand the idea that an AI programme can be concerned with wellbeing and happiness is absurd, and provokes reflection on how you tell the difference between intelligence that is artificial and the real thing.
It’s an old question, and one which triggers old fears about any technology which might be misused or get out of control.
CEOs of AI companies such as Google DeepMind and Open AI (the creators of Chat GPT) seem to be as anxious as anybody, and have recently warned of ‘the risk of extinction’ from AI. Certainly, because AI works on averages, the technology suits authoritarian regimes such as China and Russia which wish to impose conformity; and certainly, the algorithms it generates reflects bias on grounds of race and income. In that sense it isn’t a neutral tool, but has the power to shape our attitudes.
When a powerful creation threatens to overwhelm its creators, comparisons are always made with Frankenstein’s monster; at first innocent and trusting, the monster desires only to be loved; but the experience of rejection, fear and alienation teaches it to hate and destroy; and because it is bigger and stronger than any human being it poses a threat. It’s a morality tale about the importance of taking responsibility for our own creations. Just as the monster learns to hate from its experience of humanity, so the distinctive feature of AI is that it learns from its own experience. So what will we teach it?
But a closer parallel with AI might be the Book of Genesis, where God makes Adam and Eve only to have them turn against him. When our own creation threatens to work against us, it touches a sensitive point for a humanity which has rejected its own Creator, and perhaps makes us more anxious.
We have an exaggerated fear that technology will make us redundant or will be better at being human that we are. But this is the result of an inadequate understanding of what makes us human. Our humanity lies not in purely rational intelligence, such as can process large quantities of data. Some of us aren’t very clever, don’t have good memories, and can’t add up, but we are not less human for that. AI has no consciousness, no capacity for feeling, for empathy or creativity, which are the things which are more central to human experience than pure intelligence.
AI can imitate the outward appearance of these things, which is why I find the Chat GPT interview with which I started amusing, when it talks about being kind and empathetic. But it’s generated not from actual feelings or insights, but only from the harvesting of what real people have put on the internet. It is generated from within a closed system, and curates pre-existing information.
Human experience not only learns from what is already there, but is open to intuition and flashes of insight and imagination which come from who knows where? AI might be able to build on existing insights, but it isn’t capable of producing anything radically new. It is literally unable to think outside the box. In contrast human beings, made in the image of God, are open to a source of ideas and inspiration which is infinite and constantly surprising.
Fears that jobs are at risk are probably well founded because AI will be able to perform certain tasks far better than we can. But any role requiring the chemistry of relationship, intuition, imagination or empathy (however imperfectly) is unlikely to be made redundant any time soon – which is my answer to the question posed in the title to this piece!
God himself has taken responsibility for his creation, and on the cross suffered the consequences of taking the risk of creating us in the first place. Rather than being mesmerised by new technology we must ourselves take responsibility for it, and be ready to work out how to redeem it when it goes wrong or when it is misused. And for that we shall need those inimitable human qualities of faithfulness, justice, integrity, and love.
In the living room at the Vicarage there is a picture of three hares. It’s a modern painting, but it depicts an ancient optical illusion; because although there are three hares, chasing each other in a circle, they only have three ears between them; yet each hare seems to have a full complement of ears!
The image can be found across Europe and the Far East, in Christian, Buddhist and Islamic buildings. In every culture the hare speaks of Spring, of new life, abundance, and fertility. It can represent speed, agility, quick-wittedness and intelligence. In some cultures hares also have a reputation as shape-shifters, and can be symbols of transformation and metamorphosis, perhaps because of their ability to disappear into their surroundings and to adapt to their environment.
In Christian contexts at least, this image suggests the Trinity. The triangle formed by the three ears forms a unity at the centre of the composition, the three sides both equal and eternal. The hares are each of them distinct and have their own form, yet each one is incomplete without the others and is bound to them. Together they form a circle, again hinting at an eternity with no beginning or ending.
Yet this is no abstract and static symbol, because the hares are fluid and in constant motion. Each seems to be chasing the others, giving the picture a sense of speed and liveliness. There is a remarkable combination of individuality and interconnectedness, stability and motion. And it isn’t an abstract image. We recognise these hares, even though we wouldn’t find them in any book of natural history.
The unity of the three figures is further highlighted by the fact that the picture is a collage; the hares have been painted onto paper, which has then been cut out as a single piece and stuck onto a gold-painted canvas. In religious art gold is, of course, the colour of transcendence and glory.
Whilst it is possible for discussion of the Trinity to sound highly technical and academic, for me it is a very practical doctrine, and the image of the three hares presents this visually.
On the one hand the unity of God means that in him all things hold together. There is a foundation for believing that reality is not governed by blind chance, but that there are meaningful patterns of order and rhythm. The unity of God makes science possible, and means that human reason can give genuine insight into how things are. That’s a question too few people consider; if the universe is ultimately random and meaningless, how come human reason can unlock so many of its secrets, if we are just an isolated part of the chaos?
On the other hand, God’s unity doesn’t mean that everyone has to be the same, because within God’s own nature there is variety. Belief in one God can become oppressive and a recipe for conformity, but not if distinctions can be made within the Godhead between Father, Son and Spirit. The Trinity allows us to make space for those who are different.
The Trinity makes possible the idea that God is both beyond the physical universe, ‘out there’, summoning us to transcend ourselves, to change and grow; and also that God is active within the world he has made, meeting us in Christ where we are and as we are. God is within us as Holy Spirit, and sustains his creation moment by moment. As the song puts it,
‘You are older than the world can be,
You are younger than the life in me.
Ever old and ever new,
Keep me travelling along with you.’
The diversity within God also speaks of relationship. Jesus speaks frequently of his relationship with the Father; and while Jesus clearly does not claim to be the Father, he does claim unity with the Father (‘I and the Father are one’). It is this which permits us to say that ‘God is love’, because love is not possible unless there are different persons to give and receive it. This suggests that if we are made in God’s image, our humanity is to be found as persons-in communion rather than as isolated individuals.
Many people instinctively understand that if life has a purpose it has something to do with love. The Trinity provides a grounding for that faith, and a set of stories to give it substance. The life of Christ shows love in action, not as something sentimental or idealised, but taking the form of compassion, mercy, forgiveness, self-giving, and truth-telling. Such love is redemptive, and capable of endless renewal.
4 June is Trinity Sunday. Three hares chasing each other in a circle may not be an adequate picture of God, but it might provide a start. For me the image has two big weaknesses. One is that it says nothing directly about the Cross and our need for redemption – although could that be a tear in the eye of the hare on the right?
The other weakness is that this picture provides no point of entry for the viewer. How do I join the eternal dance? For centuries the Christian response to that question has been that you do not come to God by power of reason or strength of will; you come in worship, on your knees, with an open heart ready to be enlarged. It has rightly been said that the Trinity is not a problem to be solved, but a mystery to be entered.
Space: The Final Frontier?
If you have a spare billion pounds or so, it seems the thing to do is to explore space.
Elon Musk, former Chair and CEO of Tesla electric cars, of PayPal, and now owner of Twitter, has for years been investing in space exploration and has several companies developing spacecraft for interplanetary travel; he hopes one day to colonise Mars.
Musk’s big rival in this area is Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, who this week won a contract from NASA worth over £3 billion to develop a lunar lander to take astronauts to the Moon on a regular basis – again as a first step towards Mars.
Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic is busy promoting space tourism and is pioneering suborbital commercial flights.
Perhaps less well-known are Paul Allen, one of the co-founders of Microsoft, whose company developed an air-launch system for satellites, and Yuri Milner, a Russian-Israeli investor, who is interested in searching for extra-terrestrial intelligence and is one of the backers of the James Webb Space Telescope.
Those of us who grew up with Star Trek or who watched Neil Armstrong in 1969 take that first small step for a man, and a giant leap for mankind, can perhaps understand the appeal of space exploration.
But with our complacencies shattered by the 2008 financial crash, a global pandemic, the destabilising of peace in Europe by the war in Ukraine, and increasingly alarming predictions about climate change, the choice by the world’s wealthiest men to spend their fortunes on space travel seems questionable. Are they just little boys who have never grown up?
One would have thought that there are sufficient challenges facing humanity here on earth to absorb any amount of wealth. The contrast with the other Microsoft founder Bill Gates is striking, who has put his philanthropic efforts into tackling poverty, disease and climate change, leading directly to the near eradication of polio in Africa.
The Church is now in the season of Ascensiontide, remembering the end of Jesus’ physical ministry on earth and his return to heaven. Maybe that is just an earlier version of the same fascination with an otherworldly reality ‘out there’. One sometimes sees almost comic stained-glass windows of the Ascension, with Jesus’ feet disappearing off the top of the window like the bottom of a space rocket.
Despite that superficial similarity, Jesus’ Ascension has nothing to do with escaping from earth to look for a fresh challenge or deciding that Earth is too small for his talents, or its problems too unexciting.
Instead, Jesus ascends into heaven taking our humanity with him. He goes as our representative, affirming that his physical body, still showing the scars of his wounds, is at home in heaven.
In other words, the Ascension affirms that heaven and earth are not separate and unrelated realms; but that they belong together, and Jesus’ work was to reconcile them. He came ‘down’ from heaven to lift us ‘up’ to heaven, so that where God is we may also be.
In practice that means staying where we are, and living as though we believe we belong. Knowing that God accepts, forgives, welcomes and shows mercy to everyone lays the foundation for us to show the same qualities to one another. If we could do that, none of the world’s great problems would look insoluble.
The two great commandments to love God and to love neighbour stand or fall together; it is impossible to fulfil one without the other. Ascension Day is the natural bookend of Christmas Day; the Son of God becomes the son of Mary so that the children of men and women can become the children of God. Heaven and earth open up and receive each other.
The writers of science fiction recognised long ago that tales of other worlds in faraway galaxies are never really about trying to escape from the human condition. Instead, they are ways of re-casting the age-old questions of what it means to be human. For us today, rising to great challenges, fulfilling our calling to transcend ourselves and be more than we are, and using our gifts wisely, does not require us to leave Planet Earth. The final frontier is within; and to break through it we need the help of one who has gone before us.
On Thursday I went into the Polling Station in the Peter Harrison Room to cast my vote – only to discover that I had forgotten to bring my ID. The Vicarage being only 100 yards away, that wasn’t a big problem, but it reminded me of how controversial this new law is requiring us to present ID when we vote.
In principle it shouldn’t be a problem; providing photo ID when you turn up to vote is a requirement in plenty of other modern democracies. Most people will produce a Driving Licence or Passport. But what if you don’t drive or travel overseas – which will tend to rule out lower income (and therefore more Labour-supporting) groups?
The alternatives don’t seem to be very consistent, as there are many more photo ID options for older people than for younger. For example, a Bus Pass is acceptable ID, but not a Student Card. A 60+ Oyster Card is acceptable, but not an 18+ or Apprentice Oyster Card. A Blue Badge is acceptable, but not a Young Person’s Railcard. It seems to be much easier for older (and therefore more likely to be Conservative-supporting) voters than for younger people to produce ID.
This might just be an oversight, but when the House of Lords tried to amend the legislation to correct these inequalities, the Government rejected the amendments. It is estimated that up to 3.5 million registered voters may not have existing photo ID, most of them young or in marginalised communities. This leaves the unfortunate impression that this new law is an undemocratic attempt to exclude certain kinds of people from voting – especially when the instances of voter fraud which the law is intended to prevent are vanishingly small.
This is in the same week as the Coronation of a new King. There has been much comment about how the monarchy is undemocratic and elitist; about the cost of a piece of pageantry which isn’t strictly necessary; and about whether we like King Charles as a person or not.
But when the Coronation is juxtaposed with the local elections, I find myself grateful for a constitutional monarchy which can offer some modest counterbalance to our elected leaders, who seem not just careless but willing actively to undermine the democratic rights and freedoms of their people.
What was striking about the Coronation liturgy was its emphasis on how the King’s authority is derived from God, and is to be exercised like God’s in serving his people, administering justice, and preserving freedom and peace. The tone was beautifully set at the beginning of the service, when a very cool headed child stood before the King and said: ‘Your Majesty, as children of the Kingdom of God we welcome you in the name of the King of Kings’; to which the King replied: ‘In his name, and after his example, I come not to be served but to serve’. This was a helpful corrective to most political discourse, where authority is more often understood as something to be seized and imposed, and so comes to be a source of division and exclusion (such as using democratic power to pass undemocratic laws!).
The other deep impression the Coronation made upon me was that of the representative role of the King. The Anointing symbolised the monarch’s role as the representative of God (The Lord’s Anointed). It was followed by his being dressed in a stole and a gold tunic; priestly vestments, underlining the role of the King in representing the people before God. Both evoke the idea of the monarch being modelled on Jesus, the God-man whose authority is expressed in self-giving service of his people.
Understated, but nevertheless there in the theological background, there is also the idea that the King represents both Christ and Adam. In other words, as the King is crowned, so we are reminded that to be human is a royal calling, and that in heaven we shall all be crowned. That was the great insight in CS Lewis’ Narnia books, that to be a son or daughter of Adam was to be a king or queen, serving one another. As we see Charles enthroned in all his splendour, wearing royal robes and the Crown of St Edward, we see something of ourselves and our own calling.
In our celebrity and choice-obsessed age, it is easy to focus on Charles as a person and whether we think he is fit to rule, and on our individual choice, and whether we want to give homage to someone we haven’t chosen. These miss the real point, which is that the monarch embodies the nation, and symbolically mirrors back to us the values that matter in public life, those Christ-like values of merciful justice, service and peace.
The homage we owe is not to Charles as a man, but to all that he represents; and through him, to God who is the source of those values and whose Son embodied them most fully. In his presence we shall know, even as we are fully known. And we won’t need photo ID to prove it. Long live the King!
Imagining the next Wendy
It was a great pleasure for some of us from the Minster parish to travel down to Bar Hill last week for the licensing of our former Associate Vicar, Wendy Wale, as their new part-time minister. The church building there is quite a contrast to the Minster, being modern, informal, and warm (!), and the service led by the Bishop of Huntingdon reflected that. It was good to see Wendy safely launched and to see where she will be ministering, and she is clearly excited about this new phase of ministry.
Now we must think about our next Associate Vicar! It has been a useful exercise drafting the new Job Description and thinking about where the Minster and its associated churches need additional clergy leadership currently.
Reflecting on the impact of our Vision Strategy over the last two years there has been a lot of progress. New congregations, new lay teams, and new outreach initiatives have taken shape and it will be exciting to review all the changes at our forthcoming Annual Parochial Church Meeting on 23rd May when there will be an opportunity to take stock and look ahead.
However, there are still areas where we haven’t made so much progress. Perhaps the most obvious is that if the aim of the Vision Strategy is to grow the churches, we are not yet seeing noticeable numbers of people coming to faith for the first time. In the end this will determine the ability of the church to continue its work into the future. As Archbishop William Temple is supposed to have said, ‘The church is only ever one generation away from extinction’.
We therefore have to focus on making new disciples, and there are a number of initiatives in the Vision Strategy designed to make this possible. But they need someone to oversee them and drive them forward. This will include thinking about how we engage with our new neighbours in the housing estates being built in the parish. It will involve reflecting further on how we help new choristers and other young people to take the first steps of faith. It will also include encouraging our existing congregations so that we can grow in confidence to share our faith and invite others to join in with the life of the church community.
People normally come to faith through other people. This is something we can all share in, but a prime requirement of the new person we are seeking to recruit is that he or she should be a people person, able to model how we befriend others, win trust, and journey alongside those who are seeking and questioning.
It goes without saying that the new person won’t be exactly like Wendy – who could be! – but they will need to have a similar love of people and a confidence in commending the life of faith. The role won’t assume the same level of attending to the pastoral needs of the existing church community, not least because there is now a bigger team of lay people responding to that challenge.
One implication of this is the need to re-think the job title. The word ‘Associate’ risks sounding too junior. In the past, Associate Vicars were often seen as senior curates extending their training. It’s not a title that encourages anyone with experience and an appetite for responsibility to apply, yet that is what we need.
This will be a position of senior responsibility within the Minster team. It needs to be held by someone capable of leading and managing others, and making decisions about priorities and resources. He or she will have oversight of the new congregations and be responsible for implementing our mission and discipleship programmes. It is revealing that within the Church of England there isn’t much terminology for such a post! After much head-scratching and consultation the title we have come up with is that of ‘Mission Priest’.
I hope that by designating the role as ‘Mission Priest’ we are signalling our seriousness about facing outwards into the world and our confidence that we have something worthwhile to share. It doesn’t mean that responsibility for mission falls entirely on the shoulders of one person. But this is a role which can be a catalyst for the whole church community as we think about how we share the good news of God’s love in Jesus Christ, and how we build the relationships which will allow that good news to be heard.
This post will require someone with significant gifts and a strong sense of God’s calling if the thinking behind it is to be realised. Please pray for the process of advertising and discernment as we seek the right person to help us move forward in our own calling as a church family.
All or Nothing
At the heart of the Easter story is an empty tomb. The question is, what does that mean? If Jesus is risen, then the world is not closed and subject to death in the way that we thought; on the other hand the tomb may be just… well, empty.
The Christian faith offers no halfway house. It makes us choose: either there is a God who is the source of life and who is bigger than death; or we are on our own, the accidental products of a meaningless universe, with no anchor, no map, no purpose beyond what we make up for ourselves.
Which way do you jump? Towards God or no-god? Beloved child or product of blind chance? Crown of reason or bundle of instincts, prodigy or animal, twist or stick? The life we live is a life of faith, whether we like it or not. We choose whether to live as if there is a God or not, and from then onwards we live with the possibility of being wrong.
Most of us find it exhausting to live with that degree of radical uncertainly. So unconsciously we close the questions down, adopting our preferred point of view and regarding the matter as settled. Anything to avoid having to live on the knife edge of uncertainty: Is there a God? Am I really free? What am I here for? Do I matter? What is true? These are questions without final answers, and it’s too much to be grappling with them before breakfast every day; so we quietly put them to one side and then carry on living as if the tomb is still sealed.
For me one of the benefits of Easter as a festival is that, chocolate aside, it gives us permission to ponder again the basic assumptions we all make. If Christ is risen, then all bets are off. Every fact we thought was settled, every decision we thought was made, and every cause whose effect we thought we understood, turns out to be up for grabs. All possibilities are renewed, because if Christ is risen then the universe is not closed; life is not fixed and bounded by impermeable frontiers; but is porous, open and multi-layered.
If the tomb is empty because Christ has been raised, then the world is a much more mysterious and therefore interesting place than we thought. If the universe is made and sustained by an eternal God then we can expect it to be literally fathomless, and the more we discover about it the more we shall realise we don’t know. This of course is exactly the experience of physicists who in unlocking some of the secrets of the cosmos discover yet more wonderful and puzzling mysteries.
On the other hand, if the tomb is just empty and no more, it is strange that human beings live as if life is much more meaningful than it really is. If life is only the result of Darwinian evolution, why do we value the vulnerable, the very old, the very weak and the very sick just as much as those who are strong and productive? What is the point of art, music and all things beautiful if the tomb is empty? And why should we ever expect to be happy?
If the tomb is only empty, we can perhaps be reconciled to the grey, dirty cruelties and injustices of the world. Failure and frustration would be the norm and we should not expect them to be redeemed. But how would we account for joy?
When we live out a vocation to serve others, when we experience those special moments when love overwhelms us, when we suddenly feel connected to everything that is, and when the heart sings unbidden at some perfectly ordinary moment when it appears to us as if for the first time, how can we make any sense of such moments of transcendence if the tomb is only an empty absence and nothing more?
At the end of her poem, ‘The Angel of Rheims’, Olga Sedakova puts the question in the mouth of the smiling angel on the west front of the ancient royal Cathedral of Rheims:
Are you ready?
Ready for plague, famine, earthquake, fire,
foreign invasions, surges of aggression?
Well, yes; all that’s important, obviously, but it’s
not what I’m asking about, not what I’m under orders
to remind you of, not what they sent me for.
What I’m saying is:
for more joy than you’d believe?
As Rowan Williams reminds us, Easter holds ‘the revolutionary promise of a grounded, lasting, transfiguring joy, the promise of Mary’s Son’. But only if the empty tomb is empty with resurrection. Happy Easter!
What is the highest good we seek? Many people would say ‘happiness’. “I only want my children to be happy” is the way many parents put it. The US Constitution famously speaks of the right to pursue happiness as an inalienable right, alongside life and liberty. And we now hear of surveys and tables of Gross National Happiness in which happiness is apparently measured and compared between nations.
But what is happiness? And in a nation where around 6.5 million of us are on anti-depressants (up by a million over the last five years) why is happiness so elusive, even though in 2019 we were spending nearly £10 billion per year on the self-help industry, a clear sign that we seek help to be happy?
At risk of sounding like an old man out of step with the modern world (guilty as charged), I do see a connection between our greater expectations of happiness and our build-up of frustration at being unable to achieve it. The connection is provided by our loss of faith in God. Or, more accurately, our loss of a Christian world view.
If this world is all there is, then here and now is the only time and place we can find happiness. There is no second chance in heaven, no compensation for earthly misery in the afterlife. So, to put it bluntly, if we’re not happy now, we’ve blown it. This may give us an exaggerated sense of the importance of pursuing happiness.
At the same time, in a godless world there is not only no one else to blame for our unhappiness, but there is no one to rescue us; no grace, no forgiveness, no promise of redemption. We are stuck with our unhappiness, trapped in a state we can do little to change, the £10 billion self-help industry notwithstanding. It seems all that many can do is take medication.
On the other hand, if there is a God and this world is his creation, then our individual happiness may not be the highest good after all. In which case happiness is likely to be a by-product, a spin off from something else. Such as, for instance, discovering that despite everything we are loved; or that we are not alone; or that we can contribute to the happiness of others. In other words, our lives can find a meaningful purpose other than the goal of our own happiness.
For me, part of the intellectual appeal of Christianity is that it gives an account of the extremes of human experience. It offers a framework within which we can try to make sense of the bad stuff (fear, cruelty, violence, dishonesty, self-deception and self-hatred, frustration, greed, exploitation, alienation and so on and so on), all of which arise from us trying to manage without God and in effect take his place. It also allows us to talk about love, hope, forgiveness, generosity, beauty, altruism and truth as if these things are meaningful and not just wishful thinking, because the world has been made by a God of self-giving love, whose nature has been revealed by Jesus.
The result is that we embrace the extremes. We are conscious of all the imperfections in our world and in our own lives; but we are also hopeful that this is not the end of the story, and that God will remain faithful to the world he has made even though it does its best to ignore him. Living between the extremes we are unlikely to be always happy; but we may expect to glimpse it now and again.
As we approach Holy Week and Easter, these opposites come together as we look afresh at Jesus on the cross. There we see all the forces of inhumanity united in rejecting the one who displayed a full and true humanity. There we see the Son apparently abandoned by the Father, only to be vindicated and raised on the third day. The cross exposes just how far from God we have fallen. The resurrection reveals just how much awaits us, if we will only receive it.
To help us with these reflections we shall be welcoming Bishop Eleanor Sanderson, the new(-ish) Bishop of Hull, to lead our Good Friday meditation at 2pm on Friday 7th April in the Minster. To prepare ourselves beforehand there will be Choral Matins at 9.30am followed at 10.30am by the Churches Together Good Friday Procession from the Minster to Saturday Market. Do join us for any or all of these special events.
Good Friday and Easter make our talk of happiness sound rather thin and superficial. Happiness is not a word you will find in the Bible. But you will find richer concepts such as promise and hope, faithfulness and fruitfulness, sacrifice and redemption, fellowship and love. So this Easter, may you find yourself captured by a more satisfying happiness you had never thought to pursue.
No Room for Religion?
The uneasy relationship between God and politics has been in the news again recently, in the context of the leadership contest for the Scottish National Party. One of the candidates, Kate Forbes, is a committed member of the Free Church of Scotland, who has said that she would have voted against the 2014 law that legalised gay marriage in Scotland. Although she has demonstrated that she is a capable Finance Minister and has made it clear that she’s “not going to pass laws based on her faith”, many in the SNP seem to be appalled at the possibility of a Christian as First Minister, because of the potential conflict between her personal beliefs and public policy. The other main candidate, Humza Yousaf, has also said that although he is a Muslim who is “proud of my faith…I don’t use it as a basis for legislation”.
Similar concerns a few years ago led to the resignation of Tim Fallon as leader of the Liberal Democrats, who concluded that it was ‘impossible’ to be both a committed Christian and a political leader, even though he himself made it clear he was not opposed to same-sex marriage.
These statements highlight a serious cultural problem in the West. If laws are not going to be passed on the basis of personal conviction and principle, on what basis can they be made? Pure pragmatism? The ability to pay for lobbyists? The self interest of the lawmakers?
There is a deep-rooted fear of religion in our culture, born of many misunderstandings and prejudices, and which drives otherwise intelligent people into the incoherent position of arguing that the only people who can be trusted with making our laws and running our country are people with no explicit personal beliefs. The logical outcome of this is the election of politicians such as Donald Trump and Boris Johnson who may have many political skills but who could never be described as people of principle.
Much of the problem stems from the assumption that people of faith are inherently biased and intolerant of other people’s opinions, as if this is a problem which doesn’t occur with anyone else. Why is someone of faith thought to be more biased than someone who belongs to the Labour Party? Or why should a Christian be deemed more intolerant than someone whose only source of information comes from the Daily Mail? Of course personal beliefs shape people’s political views – how could it be otherwise? Yet somehow the influence of religion is thought to be inherently malign whilst every other source of opinion is regarded as neutral.
There is no such thing as a neutral opinion. No one is objective. There is no spectators’ gallery from which we can view the marketplace of ideas dispassionately and rationally from afar. The only thing that makes religious people different is that they are open about what is influencing their thinking. For far too many other people, the sources of their personal beliefs are unexamined, which makes them potentially much more dangerous because difficult to argue with.
It must be admitted that religious people have not always been the best advocates for the beneficial effects of their beliefs. The stereotype of the religious bigot is not without foundation. But the content of our faith provides an essential basis for any healthy democracy: belief in a God who promises freedom, linked with the injunction to love our neighbour, especially those who are most vulnerable, and a vision for a world of balanced fruitfulness and justice. To see such a worldview as somehow incompatible with modern politics says more about the sorry state of our political system than it does about Christianity.
A key quality for any successful politician is the ability to compromise, and perhaps religion is thought to be too uncompromising for any Christian to hold a senior office. This suggestion ought to be offensive to non-Christian politicians, suggesting as it does that only Christians have principles. In fact, Christians should be better equipped to work for compromise and unity than many others, because our faith stresses the primacy of reconciliation, based on grace rather than the keeping of inflexible rules.
An especially sad aspect of the current SNP leadership contest is the spectacle of people of faith falling over themselves to deny that their faith has any bearing on their politics. Quite apart from the implausibility of such statements, it reinforces the nonsensical idea that personal beliefs and public policy cannot inhabit the same space. We need a more holistic approach if we are to live in a more honest and less schizophrenic world.
Learning from The Father
The other night we watched ‘The Father’, a film starring Anthony Hopkins as a man (also called Anthony) suffering from dementia, and Olivia Colman as his loving but increasingly desperate daughter.
The genius of this film, hailed by all the critics, is that it offers a portrait of dementia from the inside. What starts as a reliable narrative turns into a series of mirages in which we, the audience, share in Anthony’s confusion about who’s who and what is real. In each scene we think we can detect what is really going on, but then something shifts: a familiar character is suddenly played by a different actor, or appears with a different name; the flat in which most of the film is set subtly changes between scenes, whilst remaining familiar; and is it Anthony’s flat or his daughter’s?
The danger with any film about dementia is that as the main character’s personality starts to slip away, so they become more remote from the audience, or at best an object of pity. Not so in this case, where we experience alongside Anthony his determination to keep hold of his perception of what is real together with his rising fear that nothing can be relied upon. As the disintegration accelerates, so we are drawn further into Anthony’s distress. As a performance, it’s a tour-de-force, for which Hopkins won an Oscar.
Having lost my mother-in-law to Alzheimers in 2019 and with my own mother no longer recognising me by name, I am very conscious that this is territory many of us are having to navigate. It is hard to be with someone whose grip on reality is faltering, especially when they are convinced that what they are seeing is as it seems. I was a little taken aback on a visit to my mother a few months back when she calmly informed me that I had been knocked off my bicycle and killed only that Monday, but I judged that we were past the stage of needing to correct such details.
When someone we love has dementia it may be tempting to feel that they are somehow reduced in value. We say things such as, ‘I feel I’m losing him’, or ‘She’s not what she was’, as if the essence of a person is their ability to perceive reality in the same way that the rest of us do. The loss of mental capacity is of course a profoundly limiting thing, but it need not diminish us as persons. The writer and director of ‘The Father’, Florian Zeller, says that “there is a consolation, a very real and beautiful one, in remembering that we are all in the same boat. Art reminds us we are not just individuals. We are part of something larger.”
At the beginning of Lent we are invited to reflect each year on one of the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ temptation by Satan in the wilderness. Modern people might not see anything inherently wicked in Satan’s suggestions of turning stones into bread, jumping off the Temple to prove God’s power, or even worshipping him, but together they constitute an attack on Jesus’ identity and an attempt to fragment his grasp of who he is. Having just been identified at his baptism by a voice from heaven as the Son of God, each temptation begins with an attempt to sow doubt on that core reality: If you really are the Son of God, then why not do this? But then perhaps you’re not really the Son of God at all…
The work of Satan is to cast doubt in Jesus’ mind about what is real; and by implication he does the same to us, suggesting that we don’t need God, or that if God is there at all he doesn’t make any difference. Like Anthony early on in the film, we are tempted to cry out ‘I don’t need you. I don’t need anyone’, as his daughter tries to offer some assistance. In the same way, we are tempted to resist our calling to live as trusting children of our heavenly Father.
In the final scene of ‘The Father’, Anthony’s confusion gets the better of him and he breaks down, crying out for his mother. Having a loving daughter isn’t enough; it’s the security and protection and meaning of a parent’s love that he needs. I was reminded of my mother-in-law, who in the last stages of her illness asked whether she could leave and go back to stay with her parents.
In Lent we journey with Jesus towards the abandonment of the cross, interrogated about what the Father’s love really meant for him; and we are invited to reflect for ourselves upon what it means to call God ‘Father’, and to find a deeper healing for our fragmented selves.
Your word is a lamp
The comic newspaper columnist Beachcomber once wrote about ‘a certain modern poet who, despite torturing the English language, has never yet forced it to reveal his meaning’.
That was back in the 1930s. This problem these days is not so much that people make language too complicated as that they make it too simple.
The latest example is the furore this week over the so-called ‘banning’ by Welsh Rugby Union officials of the Tom Jones song ‘Delilah’ on the grounds that it glorifies violence against women.
The subject is an important one, especially when two women every week are murdered by husbands, partners or boyfriends. But the debate hasn’t been so much about violence against women as about free speech. And that has only happened because of the use of the word ‘banned’, by tabloids, broadsheets and the BBC alike.
In fact, Welsh Rugby Union hasn’t banned anything. The song was dropped from pre-match playlists seven years ago; and more recently guest choirs have been asked not to include it in their performance. No one is stopping the crowds from singing; no resolution has been passed; and no one is suggesting any direct link between the song and specific acts of violence. But across the media it is being presented as a heavy-handed piece of censorship imposed by wokey officials who want to ruin everyone’s fun. What turns the story into news is not the song, but the outrage generated by claiming it has been banned and the ensuing clash of culture warriors; but that story has been created by false reporting.
For decades tabloid newspaper editors have been fine-tuning the art of the sensational headline, in which complex issues are reduced to monosyllables and conflict exaggerated. If someone offers gentle criticism it is reported as so-and so ‘blasts’, ‘raps’ or ‘slams’ someone else. Judges who disagree with the Daily Mail are ‘enemies of the people’. Anyone working for compromise is accused of ‘surrendering’. People in management are always ‘bosses’, high earners are always ‘fat cats’, flakey boyfriends are ‘love rats’, scientists are ‘boffins’ and bishops are always ‘clerics’ – or even ‘senior clerics’, somehow evoking mullahs in Iran. Everything is simplified, rendered into black and white, and positioned to get a strong response.
The news media set the tone for other communications, not least on social media. Not only do we express ourselves in more extreme terms, but we misrepresent other points of view. Sometimes this is deliberate, especially when used by politicians to generate outrage. We are losing the ability to seek understanding through discussion and debate. If another person’s opinion doesn’t validate my own, all too often they are first misrepresented and then simply cancelled.
Words matter. They should matter especially for Christians who believe that the Word became flesh. Words open a window onto a reality beyond the text; in that sense they are sacramental, and they need to be handled reverently and carefully. Words should reveal, not conceal. They should lead to closer communion and understanding instead of fuelling our various delusions. This is difficult at the best of times; as TS Eliot put it,
Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,
Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,
Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,
Will not stay still. Shrieking voices
Scolding, mocking, or merely chattering,
Always assail them.
It is sometimes claimed that the problem is too many words; we are overloaded by a tsunami of information. There may be some truth in that, but for me the greater danger is simply the misuse of language and the failure to take it seriously.
The only way I can know what is going on in someone else’s head is if they tell me, as accurately and honestly as they can. Without words we are cut off and isolated from one another. There is something basic about speech; at the Creation, ‘God spake …and it was so’. The word of God is ‘a lamp to my feet and a light to my path’. The gift of language is a most precious trust. We should use it better.
Can the Church Change its Mind?
This week the House of Bishops published draft prayers and blessings for same-sex couples for approval by the General Synod in February, along with a Pastoral Letter apologising to LGBTQ+ people for the way they have been rejected and excluded by the Church in the past. At the same time a Report has been published: ‘Living in Love and Faith: A response from the Bishops of the Church of England about identity, sexuality, relationships and marriage’. This comes after five years of careful discussion and listening at all levels of the Church.
Many will be disappointed that the Bishops did not go further, and urge General Synod to change the Church’s understanding of marriage to make it possible for same-sex couples to have a wedding in church.
Others will feel that marriage cannot be redefined as anything other than a commitment between ‘a man and a woman for life’, and that the Bishops’ affirmation that same sex Civil Partnerships can be blessed actually goes too far.
The Bishops are clear that all people, whatever their sexuality, are welcome and valued as God’s children, and here there should be more general agreement.
Discussing such matters with my adult children I am often struck by how widely and deeply attitudes have changed over the last 30 years. Human sexuality used to be seen as primarily a moral issue, with a focus on questions of what is right and what is wrong, what God permits and what he doesn’t.
The reasons for diversity in sexuality are still imperfectly understood. But it is clear that most people do not see their sexuality as a matter of conscious choice, and therefore as a moral issue, any more than they choose their place of birth or the colour of their hair. This is a vocational matter, raising the question of ‘what kind of person am I called to be?’, and requires careful examination. It can’t be reduced to a black/white, right/wrong opposition.
Understanding this from a Biblical and theological point of view hasn’t been easy, because the Church’s view of marriage hasn’t changed much for centuries and therefore we have tended to assume we know what the Bible says without always looking closely. In fact, the Bible doesn’t offer a definition of marriage as such. The relevant passages tend to be about how husbands should relate to their parents and their wives (which itself changes between Old and New Testaments), not about what constitutes a marriage in the first place.
Jesus himself is famously ambivalent about marriage and the family. ‘Who are my mother and my brothers?’ he asks on one occasion; ‘Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother’. Faith in Jesus can redefine relationships which otherwise seem fixed. His singleness and refusal to put family first should make us cautious about assuming traditional family values can never change.
It is never comfortable for the Church to change its mind, but it can when it discerns that it is right to do so; cremation, divorce, and the charging of interest are all practices where the Church has changed its teaching after much debate and prayer, and in the process has sometimes reversed what the Bible seems to say.
The characteristic of God which is consistently revealed in the Bible is that of faithfulness. God is a covenant-making, promise-keeping God who desires that his people reflect that quality of faithfulness. The reason why the Bible condemns homosexuality in various place is usually because it used to be associated with cult prostitution in pagan temples. Promiscuity, however it is expressed, is the opposite of faithfulness.
The Book of Common Prayer gives as a reason for Matrimony that ‘It was ordained for a remedy against sin, and to avoid fornication’; which is to say, that it gives a couple the best chance of staying faithful to each other. It seems to me that there is a strong argument that if the Church is concerned to promote faithfulness, and to support frail human beings wanting every help in making their relationship as committed and lasting as possible, then marriage shouldn’t be withheld as an option.
The requirement of faithfulness means that we shouldn’t walk away from those with whom we disagree. This remains a very contentious issue which continues to threaten the unity of the Anglican Communion worldwide; it needs to be understood as a shared search for truth, not as a power game in which there are winners and losers, and the losers must be evicted or silenced. That is too often the way the world conducts its disagreements in the 21st century, and the Church of England can take a small crumb of comfort that it is trying to model a different way of disagreeing.
A World of Wonders
The peregrine falcons which nested on top of the southwest tower of Beverley Minster for the first time in 2022 are members of the fastest species on earth, at least when diving; but in level flight the fastest bird is the more modest common swift, which can reach speeds of up to 170kph. The swift spends ten months of each year in continuous flight, eating, mating and even sleeping on the wing.
The Greenland shark, on the other hand, is the most long-lived vertebrate on the planet; there are probably Greenland sharks in the oceans today who were alive during the time of King Henry VIII, 500 years ago. And are you aware that the American wood frog gets through winter by allowing itself to freeze solid? In the Spring it thaws, and somehow its heart kick starts once more into life. Consider also how the silk of a spider is so consistently fine that it was used in the Second World War to make the cross-hairs in telescopic gunsights.
One of my Christmas presents this year was a book called ‘The Golden Mole and Other Living Treasure’ by Katherine Rundell. It consists of short essays each describing the unimaginable peculiarities of 22 different animals. As the snippets above might suggest, it is the kind of book that makes you want to interrupt whoever else is in the room with Interesting Facts: ‘Did you know that…?’
It isn’t strictly a work of natural history. Each essay explores how the animal in question has been understood in literature, myth and folklore, as well as by modern science. Such an approach brings out how these creatures have often been a source of wonder and speculation since antiquity.
The author’s purpose is to evoke in us a sense of wonder at the animal kingdom’s implausible variety. In this she is unapologetic, for example finishing her piece on the seahorse by saying ‘We should wake in the morning and as we put on our trousers we should remember the seahorse and we should scream with awe and not stop screaming until we fall asleep, and the next day, and the next. Each single seahorse contains enough wonder to knock the whole of humanity off its feet, if we would but pay attention.’
The book is prefaced with a quote from GK Chesterton, who wrote that ‘The world will never starve for want of wonders; but only for want of wonder’. This signals that the intention behind the book is not just to stir up our sense of wonder, but also to highlight how our lack of wonder endangers the animal kingdom, and perhaps ourselves. Each essay mentions some disturbing way in which human activity or indifference is threatening every one of the animals in question, most of which used to be found in great abundance. For example the number of hares has dropped by 80% in the last century; hedgehogs by 97% since the 1950s; wolves have been extinct in Britain since the 17th century.
This is part of a wider context. A separate study of 3,000 experts this year estimates that there has been a 30% loss of global biodiversity across all species since the year 1500; and that twice as many species are currently faced with extinction as was the case as recently as 2006. Our ‘want of wonder’ is having a catastrophic effect.
Wonder is a spiritual quality, and it is no accident that GK Chesterton was a well-known Christian apologist. Christians of course have no monopoly on wonder, but in the Christmas season we are reminded that we worship a Creator who has become part of his creation, thereby endowing the physical world not only with unimaginable dignity and worth, but with a capacity for the eternal. This theology suggests that the natural world will always outstrip our ability to understand it completely. Wonder is an attribute found in those who see the world of creation as a gift and a mystery to be marvelled at, and not as a possession and a commodity to be bought and sold.
I’m not a great one for New Year’s resolutions, but in the light of this I find myself wanting to make 2023 be a year in which, despite the many challenges we currently face, we nevertheless seek to grow in our capacity to wonder at the glories of the world entrusted to us.
Happy New Year!
With the Ever-Circling Years
Watching Simon Schama’s ‘History of Now’ on BBC2 was a sobering experience. In the series, the historian reflects on some of the big events of his lifetime: the collapse of the totalitarian Soviet Union, the growth of the American civil rights movement and women’s equality, the emergence of the welfare state and our sense of social responsibility. All of this was done through the lens of art, literature and music, with Schama arguing that often artists have been more effective than politicians in changing attitudes.
This in itself was interesting, but what makes the series compelling is the way Schama shows present day movements undermining the achievements of the post-war years. Many of the old debates which we thought had been settled have been re-opened, and not always in a good way.
So the first episode recounts how the totalitarian Soviet Union collapsed partly because it could no longer maintain its control of the truth. Yet in recent years authoritarian regimes in China, Russia and populist leaders in the West have learned how to manipulate social media to spread falsehood and make it harder to hear the truth, and even to discredit the possibility of truth – hence the acrimony over the 2020 US Presidential election.
The second episode examines how the successes of the civil rights movement in the 1960s and the feminist movement in the 1970s are now under threat in the US with a very conservative Supreme Court eroding the Voters’ Rights Act which guaranteed the democratic rights of minorities, and seeking to roll back women’s rights.
The final episode focusses on how the US chooses to see itself; as a land of rugged individualists who should be free to achieve whatever they want, and where each person has no obligations to anyone else; or as a society bound together by empathy and compassion in which the strong support the weak, and the idea of being ‘my brother’s keeper’ carries weight.
At the heart of these debates there lies a vision of what it means to be human. Is the successful life one in which the individual rises above his competitors, asserting his will over nature, imposing his own version of the truth, as expressed in the writings and films of Ayn Rand? Or is it a vision of the common good, of each of us discovering ourselves in the lives of others, as Schama showed in some of the films of Charlie Chaplin?
Simon Schama speaks as an historian, and as a Jew who knows all about the evils of prejudice and discrimination. As a liberal intellectual he takes it for granted that democracy, equality and the welfare state are desirable goods, and he is bemused and angered by the way the tide of history seems to have moved against them in recent years. As he observed, ‘The price of freedom is eternal vigilance’. But he didn’t address the basic question of how we can know which vision of humanity is the right one? For they cannot both be right.
So why should we care for the sick, the weak, the aged and infirm? Why should we welcome strangers, provide a home for refugees, or make space for those of different gender, colour, class or culture? Why waste scarce resources on helping those who, for whatever reason, have not been able to help themselves? If life isn’t fair, why should we strive for justice? In the end, is everything just a Darwinian struggle for the survival of the fittest?
At Christmas we celebrate the revelation of God, and of our own true humanity made in God’s image, in the child of Bethlehem.
The reality of God, and therefore of us as his creatures, lies not in our individual strength and independence, but in the vulnerability of trusting love. Not in our measurable achievements, but in our capacity to give of ourselves. Not in the determination of our will, but in the openness of our hearts.
If Christ is our model, then a successful human life will be marked by compassion and mercy, justice and peace, generosity and hope, the qualities revealed in that first Christmas, and every philosophy and political ideology is to be judged in that light.
The implications of Christmas are deeply political. Make no mistake, God entered the world in order to change it, not least in showing us what a successful human life looks like, if only we will pay attention and see. As the carol puts it:
Yet with the woes of sin and strife
The world has suffered long;
Beneath the angel strain have rolled
Two thousand years of wrong;
And man, at war with man, hears not
The love-song which they bring;
Oh, hush the noise, ye men of strife
And hear the angels sing.
May you know the peace of the Christ-child this Christmas. And may you work to share it in 2023.
Two weeks ago I slipped on the wet timbers of the pedestrian level crossing off Long Lane while walking the dogs and cracked a rib. The dogs found this very exciting and immediately began licking and jumping on me as I lay there getting my breath back. Sprawled across the railway tracks, covered in Labradors, wondering whether I was going to be able to get up and hoping that no train was about to come (I had little faith in Maisie and Wilber’s ability to emulate Lassie and tell the train driver to stop), the absurdity of the situation struck me and I began to laugh, which I quickly regretted because of the pain.
The humour is as old as time, but there is something inherently funny about proud man, the crown of all creation, losing his dignity as he falls over and finds himself once more among the animals. At least I felt more dignified than I did the last time I broke a rib some 20 years ago, which was the result of tripping over a rabbit hutch whilst engaged in an over-competitive water fight in the garden with the children of friends.
On this occasion what struck me was not so much the opportunity to reflect on the character-building merits of enforced humiliation, as the sense of everything being connected. Normally a rib feels very unimportant and we don’t seem to rely on it for very much. But when a rib is poorly, you discover very quickly how it is connected to everything else, and for the first few days I couldn’t scratch my nose without feeling a twinge in my side. It’s now starting to heal, but the two things I still dread are a sneeze and a laugh out loud joke.
St Paul makes a similar observation in a famous passage where he compares the church community to a body, stressing the interdependence of every part: “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honoured, all rejoice together with it.” There isn’t a hierarchy of importance, because every part depends on the others, so that “the members of the body that seem weaker are indispensable”.
It is good to keep reminding each other of this. Many of us suffer to some degree from poor self-esteem. It’s easy to feel as though everyone else is more included, more in the know, more valued than we are. I often meet folk whose sense of being misunderstood doesn’t take account of others who feel the same way. Frequently these feelings are linked to a sense that we don’t really belong.
As I grow older, I value more and more the gospel message of reconciliation. It now seems to me that this message isn’t just about the mechanics of putting right a broken relationship but is also an affirmation that everything is connected, and that the love of God is revealed more and more in bringing together things which have been separated and kept apart. Opportunities to bring people together and to affirm that we belong to each other are therefore important, especially as Christmas approaches.
As I write the Christmas Tree Festival is in full swing in the Minster. The organisation is a wonderful team effort by dozens of volunteers working together and supporting one another as part of the Minster community. It also brings together so many charities, businesses, and community groups who wouldn’t otherwise share the same space. It is a real celebration of our town and of so many good things going on which people do for each other. If there is an overarching message, it is that we belong to one another.
A forthcoming addition to the Body of Christ at the Minster will be a new curate next summer. Charlie Shefford is a young man in his 20s currently training at Mirfield; he and his wife Zoë are expecting their first baby next summer so their lives will be full of change! Charlie’s journey to ordination has been full of unexpected twists involving some surprising people, and in due course he will be able to tell us about some of the connections God has made in his life.
In the meantime, enjoy your own place in Christ’s Body. Know that you belong, that you don’t have to assert your own dignity, and that you are sufficiently valued to risk laughing at yourself. And in that discovery, we can affirm one another and give honour to those who seem least.
Game of Thrones?
This Sunday is the Feast of Christ the King, which marks the end of the Christian Year before Advent gets us looking forward again.
Unlike most Christian Festivals, Christ the King is not ancient. It was initiated by Pope Pius XI in 1925 to affirm the Lordship of Christ, partly in response to the rise of Fascism and authoritarian regimes in Europe, and the rising tide of secularism. So if Christ is a king, does that mean that he is just another source of power, another rival claiming our submission amongst the array of human kingdoms and ideologies?
Despite the recent accession of King Charles III, the metaphor of kingship probably does not strike most people as relatable and relevant as an image of God; or if it does, it underlines the argument that God is remote and irrelevant. When King Arthur loftily introduces himself as ‘Arthur, King of the Britons’ in the film Monty Python and the Holy Grail, an irreverent peasant cries out ‘Well I didn’t vote for you’. Many today feel the same about both the monarchy and God.
The idea of God as king is found throughout the Bible but is far from simple. The ancient Israelites did not at first have a king; when they first ask for one, the prophet Samuel warns them that it won’t end well: he lists the ways in which a king will oppress them, seize their wealth and conscript their children, so that ‘you will cry out because of your king’.
We might assume that the Roman Governor, Pontius Pilate, was familiar with the way of power and its use by kings. But he is puzzled by the kingship of Jesus. ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’ he asks when Jesus is arrested and brought before him; and when Jesus replies, ‘My kingdom is not from this world’, Pilate is still quizzical: ‘So you are a king?’ To which Jesus responds by saying, ‘You say that I am a king’. They just about agree on the title, but Pilate still doesn’t understand what it means. When Jesus is crucified, a sign over his head reads, ‘This is the King of the Jews’, but it is meant ironically; real kings, it is implied, don’t end up like this.
Earthly kings, even constitutional monarchs like ours, exercise power, enjoy great wealth, and stand at the head of a hierarchy. They are the face of the regime, distributing patronage and presiding over the government of their nation. Not infrequently they use their power to benefit themselves and their immediate circle. Ultimately that power is expressed by force of arms.
Jesus Christ is king in a way that transcends those earthly characteristics of kingship. That is why he says his kingdom is not of this world; but it is still real. God as creator is of course the ultimate source of life and power and good order, and in that sense is the king of kings; he gives purpose and direction to his creation and prevents it from falling into chaos, which is always life-threatening; he invites loyalty and trust; and Jesus represents God to the world and the world to God. But the expression of power is different.
In a game of chess, the king is in fact the most vulnerable piece. In terms of where it can move, the king’s power is limited. But the other pieces are all deployed in relation to the king, whose presence determines the flow of the game; and when the king is lost, the game is over. Without the king, every other piece loses its power.
God is not like the king in a game of chess. But that combination of vulnerability whilst still being the most significant presence on the board is suggestive. God expresses his power in compassion not compulsion. He guarantees our freedom by not coercing us. His power is the power of love, not the love of power, and is demonstrated most clearly in the life of Christ and in the vulnerability of the cross. And without God, nothing else would exist.
The Feast of Christ the King provides the yardstick by which we measure the actions of earthly kings and rulers. Where they are characterised by violence, coercion and oppression we can say that the kingdom of God is absent. Where there is freedom, compassion, a desire for reconciliation and genuine service we can say that the kingdom of God is not far away.
And whatever the nature of our earthly kings, each of us is free to decide how we shall respond to Christ the King. We can live as though we are citizens of his kingdom whenever we acknowledge him as king and follow his example. When a scribe agreed with Jesus that the greatest commandment is to love God and love one’s neighbour, Jesus commended him and said ‘You are not far from the kingdom of God’.
Memory and Silence
My wife’s grandfather joined the Royal Naval Division in 1914 at the age of 17. He fought at Gallipoli and was wounded in an assault on enemy trenches before crawling back to his own lines; he later found himself on the Western Front where he was wounded again in 1918. In peacetime he got a job at the Bank of England and never spoke of the War again. After his death his family found a diary in which he had recorded dates and places where he had served during the War; but the pages where he had described what happened to him were all torn out.
On Remembrance Sunday the emphasis is, as the name suggests, on remembering those who have suffered in time of war. We hear again Laurence Binyon’s lines: ‘At the going down of the sun, and in the morning, we will remember them.’ Yet for those involved at the sharp end of conflict, there is also a paradoxical need to forget. The reality of such experiences is too painful to recall. Remembering is important, to affirm the value of those who died; but for the survivors it is to relive a terrible trauma. In the 1920s, veterans’ associations were not at first very popular, and the politicians’ promise of ‘a land fit for heroes’ turned out to be false, as returning soldiers found a land that just wanted to forget.
The result has been that our public handing of such events has been mythologised, by which is meant that the shared memory of the nation at war has been reduced to certain standard images, shaped by poets and writers of the officer class during the First World War, and reworked for every conflict since. Speak of the Great War, and what comes to mind are probably images of ‘going over the top’ on the Somme, or the trenches of Paschendale; but maybe not desert warfare in Iraq or the dreadnought battleships of Jutland. This is the language and imagery which shapes our memorialising of the war dead to this day, and it helps us to handle the enormity of what happened by dressing it in ways which keep it impersonal.
Yet the key moment on both Armistice Day and Remembrance Sunday is not provided by carefully crafted words, music or liturgy. It is rather the Two Minutes’ Silence. There is a recognition that what is being recalled is not only intensely personal, and needs to be navigated by each individual in their own way; but that it is beyond words.
Silence is an appropriate response to anything which threatens to overwhelm us. In the face of tragedy we fall silent. Before the prayer of Commendation at a funeral, there is silence. More positively, contemplative prayer is about learning to enter silence, and to find there a presence. Worship will often include silence. At the end of a particularly good performance, in the concert hall or theatre, before the applause breaks out, there is a deeply suggestive silence. Before his accusers, on trial for his life, Jesus was silent. Silence puts us in touch with something bigger than we are.
Silence is also a rebuke to those who want to co-opt the memory of the dead for present day purposes. Those who die in time of war do not die for their own benefit, but as a consequence of ideologies and nationalisms which demand human sacrifice – as we are seeing in Ukraine today. Sometimes the lofty language celebrating ‘the Fallen’ deliberately masks the true nature of the causes for which they were sent to die, in ways which the dead themselves would not have recognised. Silence is a safer way to honour them; as the old Tommys’ song puts it:
“And when they ask us how dangerous it was,
Oh, we’ll never tell them, no, we’ll never tell them…
And when they ask us, and they’re certainly going to ask us,
The reason why we didn’t win the Croix de Guerre,
Oh, we’ll never tell them, no, we’ll never tell them
There was a front, but damned if we knew where.”
Beauty in Brokenness
Martin Scorsese’s 2011 film ‘Hugo’ is about a young boy learning the redemptive power of brokenness. After the death of his father, Hugo tries to repair an old automaton which they had been working on together. At first, Hugo is troubled by its brokenness: “A broken machine always makes me a little sad, because it isn’t able to do what it was meant to do.” After many adventures he gets the automaton working and in the process helps its original creator to believe in himself again. Towards the end of the film Hugo is heartbroken when he accidentally breaks the restored automaton. “I’m sorry, it’s broken”, he confesses to Georges, the original creator. “No, it’s not”, replies Georges, “It worked perfectly.” Georges has recognised that the automaton has brought him and Hugo together as Hugo’s father had intended, in the process transforming both of their lives for ever.
The insight is profoundly human and profoundly Christian. Many of us discover that the road to a deeper humanity and a more mature faith takes us through brokenness, failure and the exposure of our own limitations. I discovered this for myself a number of years ago when prolonged overwork led to symptoms of chronic fatigue for several months. Thankfully I recovered relatively quickly, but it cured me of any tendency to imagine either that I was essential, or that I needed to justify my existence through my work. Sometimes the painful discovery of our own weakness forces us into a deeper dependence on God, a healthier suspicion of the world’s love of strength and success, and a better understanding of the God who reveals himself through the vulnerability of the cross.
The reality is that we can be neither human nor Christian for very long without learning to live with failure. Saint Paul speaks of us being like clay jars containing the treasure of Jesus. No one should be impressed by our appearance, but God’s light is revealed through our weaknesses.
I am very conscious that there is a great deal of brokenness around the Minster Parish at present. Health problems, old age and bereavement are the most obvious signs, but there is also great uncertainty and anxiety surrounding the cost of living and inflation. We live in a time when it is harder than usual to pretend that we are self-sufficient and in control of our lives. Sometimes the problems we face overwhelm us. Yet often when lives crack open, treasure is revealed within, as we grow in our ability to receive, to trust, and to generate compassion in others.
The Japanese practice of Kintsugi involves the mending of a broken pot using gold or silver so that the repaired pot is more beautiful than the original.
Sometimes it is good to be reminded that we are not called to be perfect. We are called to be who we are with all our imperfections, trusting that the gold of God’s love will mend our brokenness into something far more beautiful than it was before.
Gift or Payment?
“Even after all these years, the Sun never says to the Earth, ‘You owe me.’ Look what happens with a love like that – it lights up the sky”.
So said the 14th century Persian poet Hafiz of Shiraz. It speaks of a principle of generosity and grace built into the very nature of things. It’s a view that sits well with the Christian understanding of God as the one who creates the universe freely out of his own abundance, and who sends his Son into the world to die and rise again out of that same sense of unlimited self-giving.
The question is, how does this sit in a world where most of us are conscious of scarcity, and of the essentials of life being in short supply? We are all currently aware of rising living costs, especially with the increase in fuel bills; at the Minster we are having to think about what we can do to make ends meet even before taking account of increased heating costs.
Much more seriously, in some parts of the world there is famine, with disturbing reports from across East Africa of failing harvests, as well as growing numbers closer to home having to rely on food banks and other charitable support.
There seems to be a gulf between the gifts that are free and shared, such as love, friendship, generosity, creativity, the earth itself and its fruits, all of which become more abundant the more they are shared; and the gifts that have been turned into commodities exchanged for a price, which become scarcer the more they are seen as an individual’s possession to keep and own. It has often been noted that famine and poverty are not the result of there being too little to go round, but of too much being accumulated in the hands of too few people. In other words, it’s not a problem of quantity, but of circulation.
These two approaches can clash when the church talks about money. The practical way to raise funds to pay the bills and keep the Minster in good order is to tell people what is needed and ask them to respond. When we do that, folk usually give generously, but with a sense of being consumers who are in some measure obliged to pay. We do our best to give what is needed, but see no need to give more.
This can undermine any sense of giving in response to God’s generosity: freely, abundantly, without strings attached, as an act of thanksgiving and worship. In the first approach, the sense of scarcity remains dominant. Even if the targets are met and the thermometer reaches its goal, we all know there will be another appeal a year or two down the road.
In the second approach, giving flows from a sense of freedom and thankfulness which also liberates others to respond generously. It is neither driven nor limited by targets. In the fairy tale about the Elves and the Shoemaker, the elves make fine shoes for the poor cobbler every night without payment so that he can sell them and survive. But when the cobbler lies in wait and sees the elves’ nakedness, he and his wife respond to their generosity by making them clothes – which apparently they can’t make for themselves. The elves then never return, but the shoemaker from then on always prospers. The principle of gift, rather than payment, liberates both parties.
Later this month we shall be talking about generous giving as part of our worship, thinking also about how we foster that sense of living in the light of the giftedness of the world and its abundance. There will be a booklet, information and resources for study. But what we are seeking above all is a way to live, even in times of scarcity, in response to a love that lights up the sky.
All good gifts around us
In one of my previous parishes I inherited a lovely apple tree at the entrance to the Vicarage drive. I also inherited a story about my predecessor’s attempt to stop the youth of the parish from scrumping the apples every September. Appealing to the culprits’ better natures, one year he put up a board by the tree saying, ‘Please do not take the apples – they are required for Harvest Festival’. The next day the tree was again stripped bare, and the board reversed where someone had scrawled, ‘All is safely gathered in.’
I wonder what Harvest Festival means for you?
Although it is an excellent hymn, when we sing ‘We plough the fields and scatter’, I am sometimes tempted to imagine the congregation in front of me dressed up in smocks and straw hats, having left our pitchforks at the door. Harvest Festival can often have a pre-modern feel to it, requiring most of us to make a special effort to remember where the food on our tables comes from. We no longer have such a direct relationship with the land as our forebears.
Yet in other ways we have become much more aware of the natural environment. Unless we are farmers, we may not have such an acute awareness of the fruitfulness of the acres immediately around us, but we are all more aware of the fragility of the earth caused by climate change, flooding, soil erosion, plastic waste, pollution of rivers and beaches, loss of biodiversity and so on. Concern to look after the earth entrusted to us and to appreciate that its fertility and good health are finite and limited has never been greater.
Unfortunately hymn writers and liturgists have failed to reflect this awareness, so that there is very little in the Anglican liturgical tradition to help us explore and celebrate our relationship with the earth. The emphasis on the redemption of humanity is underlined almost to the exclusion of everything else. This is an important weakness, as it doesn’t do justice to the wealth of material about the non-human aspects of Creation in the Bible, and our relationship with it. The Church may rightly be reluctant to follow the latest fad, but the doctrine of Creation is a fundamental Christian belief which is too often taken for granted and not explored.
Harvest is therefore a much bigger theme than it at first appears. It invites us to reflect upon themes of grace and greed: the free and abundant generosity of the Lord of the harvest; the gift of the world, the natural wealth of the planet and its life forms. Too often our response is one of entitlement and a desire to grasp what is not solely ours, rather than of gratitude and wonder.
Harvest invites us to reflect upon themes of fruitfulness and value, both in creation and in human lives. What makes something ‘good’, as God declares his creation to be in the Genesis story? What makes a life fruitful? What is the human responsibility to make the earth fruitful, and what are the signs of our failing to live up to it?
Harvest also opens up themes of justice and judgment. Some sceptics think that concern for the environment is born of some mystical, semi-pagan sentiment that downplays the human vocation to ‘fill the earth and subdue it’. In fact, failure to value the environment is a failure of justice as well as a failure of stewardship, because when the environment is not treated with respect, the poor and marginalised suffer first. In this sense the distinction between asylum seekers and economic migrants is artificial; pressure on European borders is caused not just by people wanting to escape from war zones and oppressive regimes, but also by people whose communities are no longer sustainable because of a changing climate over which they have no control. In both cases, life has become intolerable.
The Minster has just heard that it has been awarded the Eco-Church Bronze Award. Promoting environmental responsibility is one of the threads in our vision strategy, and this is evidence that we are beginning to take this seriously. This month we are celebrating this progress with sermons and surveys, with resources for house groups and events to take part in, and of course with a special Harvest Festival on Sunday 25, combining the usual congregations at 10.30am. You can find out more at the Eco-Church display in the Minster, by looking at the Eco-Church pages on our website, and you can measure your own carbon footprint using the calculator here: Carbon Calculator – Climate Hero
When we are open to an appreciation that the earth is God’s gift and not our own possession, we may find ourselves motivated to take those little steps that will help us to become better stewards of the Garden.
If you click the link Land Girls take tea with the Queen (telegraph.co.uk) you will see a picture of my mother taking tea with the Queen. At the time they were chatting happily about favourite breeds of cattle. Not because they enjoyed a close relationship – it was the only occasion they ever met – but because my mother had been invited to a special tea at Buckingham Palace in 2009 to acknowledge belatedly the contribution of the Women’s Land Army to the War effort. My mother treasured memories of that day and kept a folder of souvenirs, including the invitation, programme and press cuttings.
The BBC were in Beverley Minster on Friday wanting to interview people who could share their own stories of meeting Her Majesty when she visited Beverley as part of her Golden Jubilee celebrations in 2002. Now that the Queen has died I have been struck by the number of people visiting the Minster who have stories of seeing, meeting, or shaking hands with her. A personal encounter with the monarch is significant and memorable.
The mystique of the monarchy has as much to do with the role as the person. It is really rather wonderful the way a single person can personify a nation. If the role of Head of State was held not by an individual but by a committee, there wouldn’t be anything like the same level of interest in the death of a member of that committee, however gifted they might have been or faithful in the discharge of their duties!
Perhaps this is part of the reason why so many people feel such a strong sense of personal loss at the Queen’s death, even if we have never met her. When the individual whose role is to personify a nation dies, especially after such a long reign, it as if a little piece of each of us has died as well. Such is the power of the Crown as a symbol of something holding us all together. The current state of the nation’s mourning is deep and genuine.
It is not surprising that in many religions and cultures there is a theological understanding of the importance of the King or Queen. If a single human being can represent and symbolise a nation, the same can be true for God. God has a human face, as well as a nation.
In the Old Testament the king was the Lord’s Anointed, the representative of God on earth. To challenge the king was tantamount to blasphemy, and in many ancient empires the role of religion was to strengthen and validate the power of the throne.
Judaism and then Christianity turned this understanding upside down. Israelite kings were accountable to God, and when they broke his covenant they were challenged by the prophets. Jesus was the servant king, the suffering Messiah who rejected the love of power in favour of the power of love. On the cross Jesus represented God to us, and he represented humanity before God. And there is the profound New Testament insight that the True King is revealed not in a genealogy or a committee, nor in an army or a display of power, but above all in a faithful and loving life of service.
This sense of royalty being embodied in costly service was something Her Majesty understood well. In her Christmas broadcasts it became increasingly obvious that the Queen drew inspiration for her role not from secular models of power or status, but from her faith in Jesus Christ. She saw her position not as a job which served her own interests or which could be abdicated, but as a vocation from God which shaped her whole life.
Whether believers or not, the British people have recognised this and are mourning the death of someone whose role as a symbol of her people was deeply spiritual. She reflected back to us much that is best in our nation, and she lifted our eyes by reminding us of the true source and nature of her royalty, which was not from this world.
More recently I showed my mother the picture of her taking tea with the Queen. ‘Do you know who that is?’ I asked. ‘Oh yes’, replied Mum without hesitation. ‘That’s the Chairman of the Women’s Institute’. That was the dementia talking, and it has become something of a family joke. But I also like to think that, had she been aware of it, Her Majesty had the humility to enable her to have found it funny as well.
Reader, I married him…
In these days there is an air of anticipation and excitement around the Vicarage because next week my eldest daughter Lucy is getting married. Sadly, not in Beverley Minster but in Hereford Cathedral (a modest little church, significantly smaller than the Minster) where her fiancé sings in the Cathedral choir.
I shall be leaving my dog collar behind, as my role will be strictly that of Father of the Bride, responsible only for dredging up inappropriate stories about the bride as a little girl. It was felt, probably wisely, that if I was to be allowed a role at the wedding service as well as the reception, the day was at risk of turning into The Jonathan Baker Show. From the bride’s point of view at least, this was clearly unacceptable.
It is true that I do enjoy a good wedding. There are not many occasions in life which are so unashamedly upbeat, and it is one of the privileges of my role to witness close at hand such special moments for so many people.
For a few hours we are given permission to forget about climate change, the cost of living crisis and the war in Ukraine in order to celebrate the ability of two people to make each other happy. Everyone’s daily anxieties fall away as the guests make a determined effort to scrub up well, be on their best behaviour, and have a good time, all done self-sacrificially to honour the bride and groom.
Part of the joy is the sense that however temporary the celebrations, and however fantastic the dresses, the flower arrangements and the fancy table decorations, a wedding provides a glimpse of how life at its best is meant to be: beautiful, well-ordered, suffused with love, and joyful.
It isn’t surprising that in stories from Shakespeare and Jane Austen right through to Mills and Boon, the happy ending takes the form of a wedding. It’s a natural finale, a moment of completion, fulfilment and union. It is no accident that in the Bible, heaven is depicted as a wedding banquet, when everything is reconciled and made new. At the end of the New Testament, St John the Divine’s vision of heaven includes the promise: ‘Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.’
The strange thing is that a wedding is supposed to be not so much an ending as a beginning. We all want to know what happens after the wedding. How do Lizzie and Mr Darcy spend their first Christmas when her relatives are all so embarrassing? Does Maria ever long for the quietness of the convent to escape from all of Captain von Trapp’s children? Does Cinderella find Prince Charming’s celebrity lifestyle all that it’s cracked up to be?
The point is made by WH Auden who said, ‘Like everything which is not the involuntary result of fleeting emotion but the creation of time and will, any marriage, happy or unhappy, is infinitely more interesting than any romance, however passionate.’ At a wedding, the real story is only just beginning.
Is this one of the reasons why weddings are still popular even when for many couples they may not mark a big change in living arrangements? Like the Resurrection, they are a particular moment which reveals something eternal. They mark a new beginning which also looks forward to the ending. They give a relationship an orientation, a goal to head towards, and a foundation to build on and look back upon.
We need these moments, to remind everyone that love is both a destination and a means of travel. And Beverley Minster – and even Hereford Cathedral – can provide the right kind of context for this; not just pretty settings for a ceremony, but places where heaven meets earth, where eternity intersects with the present, and where we enjoy a preview of our better selves.
I sometimes think of Beverley Minster as a powerful magnet; it draws people, mysteriously, sometimes without them quite knowing why.
We see it in the number of visitors who come every day from all over the world. People who gaze in awe at the scale and beauty of the place, often with a sense of discovery, of ‘why wasn’t I told about this before?’, marvelling that such a place should be just an ordinary parish church.
We see it also in the number of volunteers, usually (but not always – one volunteer commutes from London) local people who feel a sense of pride and affinity with the Minster, who enjoy spending time within its environment, who appreciate the opportunities for meeting others, who find that the Minster is a catalyst for individual passions, be it for Gothic architecture, medieval masons, military history, gardening, church music, flower arranging, and who in the process can feel useful.
We see it of course in those who come to the Minster for spiritual reasons; seeking in its great spaciousness room for their own thoughts and reflections to take flight; and amid anxiety and helplessness finding solace in a place where previous generations also found comfort. All of this is in addition to those who deliberately choose to gather in worship of God and to find fellowship with others looking for nourishment and grace.
The Minster attracts all these people perhaps because these different motives are all important and should be honoured. Not all are equally profound, but all touch on important aspects of human need: our need for fellowship, for beauty, for a sense of being connected, for seeking truth.
I find it is important to remind myself of this frequently, because satisfying such deeply human needs isn’t always straightforward. A desire to find peace can be complicated by the demands of rotas, meetings and imperfect communication; a love of history can be compromised when trying to sort out an overbooked guided tour; worship is harder when something familiar is changed; and all the time the need to raise money, stay warm, deal with eccentric colleagues or awkward characters from off the street, and manage countless other irritations and demands, can subvert whatever it was we were looking for by coming to the Minster in the first place.
Recently I came across this poem by Denise Levertov which spoke to me of the importance of remembering to refocus on what the Minster really represents as a symbol of grace; I hope you find it helpful too:
Days pass when I forget the mystery.
Problems insoluble and problems offering
their own ignored solutions
jostle for my attention, they crowd its antechamber
along with a host of diversions, my courtiers, wearing
their colored clothes; cap and bells.
once more the quiet mystery
is present to me, the throng’s clamor
recedes: the mystery
that there is anything, anything at all,
let alone cosmos, joy, memory, everything,
rather than void: and that, O Lord,
Creator, Hallowed One, You still,
hour by hour sustain it.
Are we as good as we think?
I have been reading William’s Hague’s biography of William Wilberforce, the MP from Hull who devoted his life to campaigning for the abolition of the slave trade. It’s a fascinating read, not least for the comparison with present day politics.
Wilberforce ended his career as an internationally lauded statesman, praised for his integrity, humanity, and moral conviction as well as for his tenacity and ability. But he never held office as a Minister of State, and amazingly he was never offered a peerage because he never sought self-advancement and never gave unquestioning support to those in power. His Christian faith was the key driver in helping him to persist in the face of indifference and outright opposition.
Despite the abolitionists enjoying the support of both Whig and Tory leaders, it took 20 years for the slave trade to be abolished in the British Empire in 1807, and many more before the trade was abolished by other European powers. Slavery itself was not abolished in the British Empire until 1833, just before Wilberforce’s death, some 46 years after his campaign in parliament began.
What I hadn’t appreciated before was how quickly the argument for abolition, viewed as a matter of principle, was won. The delay in passing any effective laws was because opponents argued that the cost to the economy would be too high, and that Britain’s competitors would benefit. They said they agreed that the trade was inhumane, but the time was not right, that abolition needed to be done gradually, that the war with France must be won first. People didn’t allow their morality to influence their politics or their pockets, with the result that in the 1790s alone 400,000 more Africans were sold into slavery than would have been the case had the trade been outlawed when Wilberforce first presented a Bill for its abolition in 1792.
In Beverley Minster there is a monument to one ‘Ebenezer Robertson, formerly of Jamaica’, who is lavishly praised as ‘exemplary in all the relations of life’, and who ‘exalted the moral virtues into Christian graces by guiding his conduct on the principles, and by resting his hopes on the promises of the Gospel’. At the foot of the monument is the family crest. And at the base of the crest is the figure of a naked African slave in shackles. It is a remarkable display of the human capacity for self-delusion. No doubt Ebenezer Robertson thought of himself as a good man, and so did his friends. Yet there was a complete blindness to the barbaric reality upon which his prosperity was based.
Just this week we have heard the disclosure of Sir Mo Farah that as a 9-year-old boy he was trafficked from Somaliland and sold into domestic slavery in London. Only the intervention of a PE teacher at school brought about the involvement of social services and rescue. It has brought home the realisation that slavery is not a historic aberration, but is a continuing scandal, even in our own country.
My reflection on this is that we shouldn’t take so-called ‘civilised values’ for granted. There are many people in the world today who do not believe that all people are equal; or that all people should be free; or that no person should be the property of another. What is even more disturbing is that there are many people who do hold such values, yet don’t allow them to influence the way they do business, the things they spend their money on, or the practices they tolerate.
I wonder, what might be the abuses we tolerate or justify today at which future generations will marvel? I can imagine our great grandchildren expressing genuine puzzlement about, for example, the growing inequality between rich and poor, the treatment of the very elderly, child sexual exploitation, the failure to address racism, the indifference to the environment – you can name your own issue. ‘How could they be so complacent? Why didn’t they do more to alleviate such obvious causes of suffering or injustice? Why were they so blind?’
The monument of Ebenezer Robertson stands as a reminder that good people can have serious blind spots. Jesus once said something about people who strain at gnats whilst swallowing camels. It’s part of our human nature, which is hard to change by ourselves. Of all deceptions, self-deception is the hardest to correct. That realisation might make us humbler, less confident in our own rightness, and more aware that each one of us has a need for redemption.
Consider the lilies…
This weekend the Minster is being transformed by the Jubilee Flower Festival. A hundred displays on a royal theme fill the place with an explosion of colours and scents, and an army of volunteers is deploying its creative gifts to surprise, delight and provoke thought for us all.
There is something about these events that is deeply moving. I used to think it was rather presumptuous to imagine that human beings could improve on nature. Flowers by themselves are so beautiful, so striking in their patterns, colours and proportions, that I found it hard to see how arranging them could be anything other than artificial. As Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount, ‘Consider the lilies of the field…even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these’.
Yet in a Flower Festival the flowers are made not just to be themselves, but to tell a story. They point beyond themselves. And this is where the human artistry comes in. Some displays may be quite literal, relying on props and manmade ingredients to make connections with the theme. Others make their references in a more oblique manner, in a series of hints and allusions which touch the imagination and leave the viewer to wonder ‘what does that remind me of?’, or even, ‘how does that make me feel?’. But in each case the flowers are being deployed to be more than just flowers.
So I find a Festival like this moving because it evokes a more general sense of our relationship with the natural world. In theological terms, we are put in the world to become co-creators with God. He provides the raw materials; we develop them and add value to make things of beauty or usefulness. ‘Playing at God’ isn’t actually a bad thing; we are made to live creatively and to take responsibility, mindful of our accountability for the gifts we have been given. This is part of what it means for our human nature to bear the image of God.
Sometimes of course we use those materials to create ugliness and destruction; sometimes we turn them against one another or even the earth itself. But in a Festival such as this there is a sense in which we are reminding ourselves of our true vocation; to work with the gifts of nature to create beauty and harmony.
The glory of all of this lies not just in the visual splendour which is produced; but also in the sense of cooperation and team work which makes it possible. Behind the scenes there have been hours of planning, discussion, false starts, apprehension and excitement. People have come together in a shared project and have formed bonds as a result. Visitors will come from far and wide to enjoy and to meet one another. It has been a great community venture, and that is a big part of its value.
All of this takes place in a great place of worship, reminding us that the created world does not exist in a vacuum. Nature, under human stewardship, is transformed in being given a purpose. It points beyond itself, evoking wonder, delight and praise, all in the silent presence of the Creator who receives and blesses it all. Not so much a sermon in stones as a sermon in stamens, so that those who experience it find ourselves invited to contemplate our own place in the scheme of things, and so have our hearts and minds enlarged.
Details of the Festival opening times are elsewhere in the e-letter and on the website. I hope that you get an opportunity to come and see it for yourself, and to enjoy the wonderful combination of human and natural artistry on display.
Who are you?
The story used to be told of Ronald Reagan (and it must be apocryphal because I’ve also heard it told of Mrs Thatcher and Tony Blair!) of how as President of the United States he was once being shown around a care home specialising in the care of those suffering from dementia. In an unscheduled moment one of the residents managed to slip past the security people and wandered up to the President. Seeing the woman’s confusion, he gently asked, ‘Do you know who I am?’, and got the unexpected reply, “No, but if you ask the nurse over there I’m sure she can tell you’.
Whenever I meet a new acquaintance and am asked, ‘Who are you?’, I never find it an easy question to answer, because there are so many possible responses. I can give my name; or say that I’m the Vicar of Beverley Minster and Routh; or say that I’m the husband of Sue or the father of my children; that I’m a resident of Beverley, a dog owner, a school governor, a graduate of a certain university, a UK citizen, or that I’m a white, straight, middle aged man with too little hair on top and too many inches around the middle – and so on.
The context shapes my reply; if stopped for speeding I might be selective about the details I choose to give; if introduced to Kate Winslett a different set of credentials might be offered again.
The point is that identity is complicated. We all have multiple levels of identity which normally sit together quite comfortably; there is no tension between identifying with Beverley, Yorkshire, England, the UK and Europe all at once, rather like those schoolchildren who write their name in an exercise book followed by their address spiralling out into ‘The World, Planet Earth, the Solar System, Space, the Universe’.
The ability to juggle multiple identities is normal and healthy – we all do it, all the time. What is less healthy is when our identities start to fragment; when the different layers no longer feel compatible; when we think of ourselves as having only one identity, or use that identity to exclude others; when we find ourselves defining who we are in opposition to others, or what may be even worse, imposing an identity on others to differentiate them from us.
It is a curious feature of the modern world that one of the ways in which people try to cope with its increasing complexity is by trying to reduce it to a series of black and white opposites. If social media are anything to go by, Johnny Depp and Amber Heard can be classed only as saint/witch or wife beater/innocent victim. Even though there is plenty of public evidence that this story is about two badly damaged people hurting each other, in the public mind they have become cardboard cut-out ciphers representing good or bad, evil or innocent. Our ability to hold two thoughts in mind at once seems to have been lost, let alone hold an opinion with any degree of nuance.
We see this replicated in one issue after another; Leaver and Remainer can see no redeeming features in one another; across the sea, Democrat and Republican now seem unable to recognise the other as genuinely American; Ukrainian refugees must be welcomed because we fear Russia, but Afghan or Syrian refugees should be treated with suspicion because we fear Islam.
Fear leads us to define ourselves over and against the ‘other’. This tends to happen when we are unsure of our own multi-layered identities. Lack of confidence in our sense of who we are makes us more strident in asserting who we are not. The result is fragmentation, in our own souls and in society at large.
In the Gospel reading for Trinity 1, Jesus asks a man with a serious mental illness (described as a ‘demoniac’) ‘Who are you?’, and gets the reply, ‘I am Legion’. The name speaks of the dissolution of a coherent personality into a chaotic crowd of voices, causing self-harm and fear of one another. The name of course also speaks of enemy occupation, as the Roman legions occupied Judea. This was an identity imposed by others.
As we pray for our disordered world, and for its many expressions of possession by ‘Legion’, perhaps we can be mindful of our responsibility to allow others to have a rich and multi-layered identity, not a superficial mask imposed on them by our own fear. We look to the unconditional love of Christ to set us free from fear of the ‘other’, put us in our right mind, and to set us at peace with the many different sides of our identity. For as St John says, ‘Perfect love casts out fear’.
Lifting our Spirits
The Queen’s Platinum Jubilee celebrations are, not surprisingly, overshadowing the other great Festival which is happening this weekend, namely Pentecost. This is the celebration of the gift of the Holy Spirit, coming upon the apostles to empower them to continue Christ’s work. It used to be such an important Festival that it was made a public holiday – although not many people enjoying the May Bank Holiday nowadays make the connection.
The Holy Spirit in the Bible is described with a bewildering array of metaphors. Sometimes they are dramatic: at Pentecost the Spirit comes with ‘a sound like a mighty rushing wind’; in appearance he is like ‘tongues of fire’ upon the recipient (apparently this is the image evoked by a Bishop’s mitre!).
But sometimes the images are gentle: at Jesus’ baptism the Spirit comes like a dove; he is described as the Comforter, the Counsellor, the Advocate, and as the Breath of Jesus. He is like a spring of water, bubbling up from within. He is the Spirit of adoption who makes believers children of God. He is the Spirit of wisdom present at the creation of the world. The Spirit equips the people of God with gifts to build each other up, and the fruits of the Spirit include peace, kindness, forgiveness, and above all, love.
Clearly, the Holy Spirit does not want to be too tightly defined!
But then the word ‘spirit’ used in non-religious ways is also hard to pin down. Journalists love to talk about the ‘triumph of the human spirit’ when reporting stories of extraordinary endurance. Cultural historians talk about the ‘spirit of the age’ when reflecting on the characteristics of a period. We admire the spirit of the Ukrainians defending their country. Someone unconventional might be described as a ‘free spirit’. Charles Lindbergh flew an airplane called ‘The Spirit of St Louis’. And of course, there are those other distilled spirits which come in bottles…
Perhaps what all these usages have in common is the sense of spirit as a life-giving power, an intangible essence, an energy which may make itself felt through its effect on other things rather than through its visible presence, like the effect of wind upon the leaves of a tree.
This suggests to me that although the concept of ‘spirit’ and ‘spiritual’ may be hard to define, it is nevertheless very important; and because we cannot observe or measure it, we probably don’t pay enough attention to it.
I wonder how we might describe the ‘spirit of Britain’ at the moment? What are the currents and influences shaping how we feel about ourselves and the world? My perception is that the Jubilee is providing much needed relief from the gloom of these times, with the rising cost of living, the shattering of the European peace by the invasion of Ukraine, the increasingly urgent scientific warnings about climate change, the unknown effects of Brexit, the background of the pandemic, and so on. Old certainties have been rejected and we find ourselves unable to predict what kind of a world we shall be living in. I cannot remember ever having lived at a time of such uncertainty.
At such moments it may be especially important to reflect upon the things of the spirit; not only so that we can better understand the great changes going on in the world, but so that we might be clearer about the things that sustain and energise us.
Pentecost celebrates the gift of the Spirit of Jesus; the making present of the self-giving love of Jesus so that human lives are transformed. It’s an energy based on grace and unconditional gift; it’s expressed in terms of forgiveness and mercy; and it invites us to offer ourselves in faithfulness and love. The best answer to the uncertainties brought about by the spirit of our age might perhaps be to harness ourselves to the more reliable uncertainties of the Holy Spirit.
Jubilee or not Jubilee, that is the Question.
The shops are now full of bunting and red-white-and-blue merchandise, the street party organising committees are arranging last minute meetings, and the Minster has its own programme of events to celebrate the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee, culminating in a Civic Service with the Lord Lieutenant, High Sheriff and Chair of the East Riding Council on Sunday 5th at 5.30pm. Yet the question remains: why is it a Jubilee and not an Anniversary?
Like much else in our culture, the terminology is religious, whilst the meaning has been forgotten. The practice of jubilee is described in the Old Testament (Leviticus 25 and Deuteronomy 15) when every 49 years land was to be returned to its original owners who may have lost it through economic hardship. Debts were released, and land given in security for loans was returned. The 50th year was the year of Jubilee, and was signalled by the blowing of ram’s horn trumpets. The word ‘Jubilee’ derives from the Hebrew word for ram.
This is a radical vision, in which the usual economic order was disrupted in favour of a theological vision. The Hebrew understanding of land was that it was God’s gift to his people after rescuing them from slavery in Egypt, and it was apportioned out to the different clans as a tangible sign of God’s blessing. Land ownership was more important theologically than it was financially; therefore the link between the land and the family should not be broken, even if a family fell into hardship and needed to mortgage or even sell off its inheritance. The term ‘Promised Land’ reminded everyone that their land was a physical sign of God’s desire to bless them in the future and give them freedom.
This link between Jubilee, God’s generosity, prosperity and freedom has been completely lost. The most recent attempt to renew the concept came in the run up to the millennium, when the Jubilee 2000 Debt Campaign strove with some success to have the worst international debts carried by developing countries written off. But usually when we use the word Jubilee now, all we mean is that there is some special anniversary to celebrate. There is no longer any sense that something transformative is going on, or that the world’s normal priorities are being overturned.
This isn’t meant to disparage the Queen’s Jubilee. 70 years of sustained public service is an extraordinary achievement, and one we should rightly be celebrating.
But we are inhabiting a culture of debt as never before; a spiralling national debt, boosted by the costs of the pandemic and the war in Ukraine; inflation higher than anyone under 50 can remember; rapidly rising living costs pushing many people’s budgets into deficit; and young graduates starting their working lives with an average £45,000 student debt. If ever there was a time to recover the relevance of jubilee in its original sense, it is now.
The Israelite Jubilee asserted that economics should not have the last word. It spoke of the reality of grace, of second chances and new beginnings. It spoke of the obligation placed on those who benefitted from the hardships of others to show generosity. It spoke of being set free from the past. In short, it demonstrated that showing mercy and forgiveness are more important than standing on our rights or our sense of entitlement. It’s a bold vision, but one which should stir the imagination and the soul whenever we speak of having a jubilee. So however you mark it, have a wonderful Jubilee celebration!
Superhero or Saint?
It seems we can’t get enough of Superheroes. Summer blockbuster movies featuring Thor and Captain Marvel will shortly be upon us – once again – and over the last couple of years we’ve had various new combinations of Batman, Superman, Spiderman, Catwoman, Wonder Woman, and Guardians of the Galaxy, to name just a few. We just love stories about saviour figures, rescuing the world from evil geniuses or imminent destruction, or both. All those overheated superpowers make for a spectacular CGI-fest, and a lot of furniture gets broken in the process. Because that’s what happens in the age old struggle between good and evil, right? In the end it’s just a contest to see who is strongest. Or is it?
7th May is the Feast Day of our very own saint, St John of Beverley. According to his near-contemporary, Bede, John was a Bishop of Hexham and then York, a scholar, pastor and a holy man renowned for the depth of his faith and the sanctity of his life, who exercised a remarkable ministry of healing. Bede emphasises John’s Christ-like qualities, and holds him up as an inspirational example.
You might think that the saints are Christianity’s version of superheroes; men and women set apart by their supernatural power to work miracles in their fight against the powers of darkness.
But looking at it like that probably isn’t helpful. In one of the more obscure later medieval legends we get a less flattering picture of John. In this alternative story, John was a hermit who was tricked by the devil into choosing between 3 sins – drunkenness, unchastity, or murder. Thinking that it was the least serious of the three, John chose drunkenness; but then in his stupor he raped and murdered his sister. Such behaviour is not usually the focus of the hagiographies celebrating the lives of the saints! When he sobered up, according to the legend, John repented of what he had done and went on pilgrimage to Rome as a penance, and after many adventures he found forgiveness. In this version of John’s story there isn’t such a focus on miraculous superpowers.
The legend is farfetched. But it does make one important point. The Christian saint is not a superhero, endowed with special powers to lead a perfect life. He or she instead shows an all too human ability to mess things up. Ironically this is more clear in the saints of the New Testament than it is in later accounts of some of the medieval saints, where there is a clearer agenda to tidy up a saint’s life.
Secular Superheroes bear a heavy responsibility to make sure the story turns out right. The stakes are always incredibly high. If they get it wrong or don’t measure up, the whole universe may be lost. I always think their work must be terribly stressful, because they can’t afford to fail. There is no room for mistakes. With all that pressure, it must cost a fortune removing the sweat stains from their costumes.
Saints, on the other hand, draw their strength from failure. They know they are flakey. What makes them special is that their weakness leaves room for God’s strength. When a saint goes to pieces it just reveals the forgiveness and new possibilities which are the gift of God. As Leonard Cohen put it, ‘There is a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in’.
By all accounts John of Beverley was uncomfortable with his reputation for holiness – perhaps because he realised that he wasn’t the real hero. In every saint’s story the real hero is God; and part of the reason why Christians remember the saints is because through their brokenness they point to the grace of God.
At the annual pilgrimage to St John’s traditional birthplace at Harpham on Thursday 5th, we were reminded that John was a hermit before he was a Bishop, and that he continued to make regular retreats to pray and seek God’s presence during his public ministry. That is a sign of the saint’s consciousness of his weakness; his saintliness depended upon having the humility to ask for God’s help and having the discipline to seek it constantly.
Remembering the saints can remind us that our humanity does not lie in trying to be perfect. We don’t have to envy the Superheroes their superpowers. It’s when we are most honest about our shortcomings and weaknesses that we may be most open to God.
We shall be celebrating the legacy of St John of Beverley again on Sunday 8th, when the Mayor of Beverley will join us for the annual Festival Service at 5.30pm. Do join us if you can.
Living the Resurrection
A popular sport for backbench MPs in search of a soundbite is to accuse Bishops of meddling in politics. Bishops are a soft target because when they intervene it is usually to offer a critique of some aspect of Government policy from a moral perspective, without offering any practical political alternative. This is perfectly proper; it isn’t the role of a Bishop to put policies forward, but to point out when a policy may be unethical. And they do it consistently, whichever Party is in power.
Archbishop Justin Welby has become the latest church leader to find himself in the crosshairs of a Tory MP, this time our very own MP for Beverley and Holderness, Graham Stuart.
The Archbishop in his Easter sermon said that “there are… serious ethical questions about sending asylum seekers overseas (to Rwanda). The details are for politics and politicians. The principle must stand the judgement of God and it cannot.” He went on to give theological reasons for saying this, based on the resurrection: God has reversed the world’s priorities, putting life before death, and the poor and weak before the strong and powerful. What is more, our moral responsibility as a nation for refugees cannot be subcontracted to another country.
Graham Stuart this week in the Daily Express accused the Archbishop of going “with both feet into politics. And as benefits someone who is good at theology but not very good at politics, I think he got it wrong. He was out of touch with the British people.”
Much of what our MP is reported as having said shows either that he had not read the Archbishop’s sermon, or that he chose to misrepresent it. More seriously, it reveals the assumption that theology has nothing serious to say in public life.
It would be alarming if the Archbishop’s Easter sermon had tried only to reflect the views of ‘the British people’, since the message of the resurrection does not derive its authority from a popular vote, but from the power of God. Politicians of course must take account of what the electorate will tolerate. But they must listen also to the voices of faith leaders and others who are speaking from a different perspective, so that political decisions can be based not just on what is popular but what is right.
Politicians should encourage us all to ask about the ethical basis of their policies. And it should never be acceptable for an ethical viewpoint to be dismissed because it does not automatically score well in the opinion polls. What this exchange showed was that some of our politicians are ill-equipped to speak the language of ethics and morality, and do not appear to understand that ethical concerns need to be addressed in ethical terms, and not lazily dismissed on the assumption that nobody needs to listen to an Archbishop.
Church leaders (and indeed preachers) feel entitled sometimes to comment on the social and political issues of the day because of the resurrection of Jesus. If Jesus’ body was raised on the third day, it shows that God has not abandoned the physical world, but remains faithful to it. Any division between body and soul, heaven and earth, secular and religious is therefore false and should be resisted. If Jesus is Lord, he is Lord of everything. This is why the first Christians were persecuted: by claiming that Jesus was Lord, they were implying that the Emperor wasn’t. The resurrection also validates Jesus’ teaching, which he summarised by linking the love of God with the love of neighbour. This immediately has political implications, because the love of neighbour raises issues of justice, equality, and the use of resources.
Perhaps the hostility voiced by some MPs whenever Church leaders speak out reflects the unconscious awareness that there is an integrity which is not derived from the Whips’ office, and there is a loyalty deeper than that owed to the electorate.
Our politicians need our prayers, even though this might be seen as the ultimate form of ‘meddling in politics’! Theirs is not an easy task, and confidence in the integrity of those in public life is at an all time low. The need is not so much for Archbishops to be as good at politics as they are at theology; rather, what we desperately need are politicians who are clearer about the ethical wellsprings of their politics: for as the prophet Micah said, “what does the Lord require of you, but to do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God?”
Disciples, not Dilettantes
At the last of the Lent discussions, we reflected on the film, ‘Of Gods and Men’, and found it to be a powerful preparation for Holy Week.
It is based on the true story of the French Carthusian monastery at Tibherine in Algeria in the mid-1990s at a time of rising Islamic extremism. The film follows the small community of monks in its pattern of prayer, study, and practical labour, including providing medical services to the local Muslim villagers.
In the background, there is an increasing number of terrorist attacks in the country, especially on foreigners. In the film, the monks are faced with a profound choice: do we stay, or should we go?
All of them are scared. Despite the fear, some feel that their calling is to stay in Tibherine. Others feel that it would be wrong to court martyrdom, and that they should seek safety by returning to their Order in France where they can continue their good work. “I became a monk to live, not in order to die”, says one of them.
Because their views are divided, the prior of the community refuses to press for a decision. As the months go by, we see each of the monks struggling with their doubts. When one of the monks asks, “Dying here, now – does it serve any purpose?”, the prior replies, “Remember, you have already given your life. You gave it by following Christ. When you decided to leave everything: your life, your family, your country.”
Eventually the monks reach a place of unanimity and decide to stay, and in a moving late scene share a last supper together. But they have overcome their fear. As one says, “I’m not afraid of death. I’m a free man.” A consequence of that freedom is that they come to see the image of God in everyone, Christian and Muslim, atheist and jihadist. Fear no longer grips them.
The film is a profound meditation on the nature of Christian discipleship, and the related question of how our vocation is to be discerned. How do you know the will of God? What does life in Christ look like?
What struck me was how, in this film which dealt with that most churchy of institutions, a monastery, there was no interest in the Church as such. The human community was taken as given, even when they squabbled. Instead, the focus was on trying to understand what it means to say Yes to God.
The story of the monks showed us men who had discovered real freedom; and their freedom came from their willingness to lay down their lives – not before the jihadists, but before Christ. Having surrendered everything, they had nothing to lose, and were available to one another, to the villagers they served, and to God. In so doing, their humanity became more evident; and despite their eventual inevitable deaths, there was a sense of hope.
It’s a deeply challenging story to meditate on in Holy Week, and one which most of us should find disturbing; not because it invites us to any literal martyrdom, but because it exposes how shallow our discipleship is, most of the time.
In the waters of Baptism, we say that we are dying to sin and rising to new life with Christ. In Holy Communion, we say that we receive the broken body and poured out blood of Christ so that “we may offer you our souls and bodies to be a living sacrifice”.
Watching this film made me realise how easy it is to play at being a Christian without being very serious. Church can so easily become a kind of religious club, a place of comfort rather than a community of transformation. Responding to God is quite different from responding to the Church; the way of discipleship is quite different from church attendance; and the new life of Easter can only be approached through the surrender of Good Friday, the taking up of our own cross, the denial of self, and the faithful following of Christ.
This Holy Week, may you discover not so much the consolation of familiar Easter traditions as the freedom of new life. And may you be encouraged in your own walk with the One who in Gethsemane chose to stay rather than leave us, and who still abides with us, despite everything.
Happy Mothering Sunday?
Mothering Sunday is a very confusing Festival with an unclear history and meaning. Like Harvest, it isn’t really part of the Church’s liturgical year, but seems to have more of a folk origin.
Some people think it refers to the practice of visiting the Cathedral or mother church of a region once a year. If that is correct, the tradition seems to have died out completely and has left no evidence. Others think it reflects the tradition of children in domestic service (especially daughters) being allowed time off to visit their mothers once year. In which case it is strange that the Church has become the guardian of this custom. A minority link it to the Epistle reading in the Book of Common Prayer from the Letter to the Galatians, which contrasts the earthly Jerusalem with the heavenly Jerusalem, ‘which is the mother of us all’.
Whatever the origin, Mothering Sunday turned into a celebration of all aspects of motherhood, probably following the creation in the United States of the quite different Mothers’ Day in the early 20th century.
Mothering Sunday today is full of pitfalls. Although we all have mothers, not everyone has had good experiences of their mother. And although our congregations include many mothers, they also include women for whom motherhood is a sensitive subject; some may have been unable to have children, others may have lost children, whilst yet others may have children whose lives cause them pain. While the perception of Mothering Sunday is that it must be an upbeat celebration, the reality is that many people dread it. I once had a childless colleague who always took the Fourth Sunday in Lent as holiday so that he and his wife didn’t have to face the superficial jollity of Mothering Sunday.
In the Bible, the pre-eminent mother is of course Mary, the mother of Jesus. After much heated wrangling, the early Church eventually agreed that it was acceptable to call Mary, ‘Theotokos’, or ‘God-bearer’. She is no less than the mother of God. It is strange that Mothering Sunday doesn’t make more of this, and maybe reveals that it has more of a folk than a Christian origin.
Today’s mixed mode families sit uncomfortably with traditional notions of the nuclear family. What we often miss is that the New Testament also shows discomfort. Jesus several times has hard things to say about his own family: “Who are my mother and my brothers?” he asks in Mark 3: 34. “Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother”. I sometimes wonder what Mary made of such teaching.
Happily, the New Testament also offers us a way forward. Instead of emphasising the importance of blood relationship in families, it offers the model of adoption. We are children of God not by blood or the will of the flesh, but by adoption. The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of adoption, by whom we cry “Abba, Father’ (Romans 8: 14-17).
Of course, Mothering Sunday is the right moment to give heartfelt thanks for all that our mothers have given us. I’m very much hoping to be able to celebrate my own mother’s 100th birthday coming up in April. But Mothering Sunday also holds out the opportunity to celebrate all that we receive as adoptive brothers and sisters in the family of God; to note that we are part of a family transcending blood and tribe and nation; and to give thanks for the fellowship, encouragement, prayer and support that we can give and receive within the church family. This is determined not by gender or inherited relationship, but by grace.
As a small sign of that grace, the children distribute flowers on Mothering Sunday not just to their own mothers, nor just to the women in the congregation; but to everyone, for we all have a part to play in building one another up in the faith and love of the God whom Jesus invited us to call Father.
May this Mothering Sunday, whatever your gender or experience of parenthood, be for you an opportunity to give thanks for all those who have helped you on the road to growth and wholeness in Christ.
12 March 2022
Have you ever noticed how often major world events are described as ‘unprecedented’?
The attack on the World Trade Centre in 2001 was unprecedented. So was the financial crash in 2008. So was Brexit. The climate emergency is described as unprecedented, and the Covid-19 pandemic. Now there is Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Each time an event is described as unprecedented it conveys the sense that here is something outside our experience, something which has caught us unprepared and for which we have no map.
In fact, most of these events are not quite as unprecedented as at first we feel. There have been terrorist attacks, financial crises and pandemics before, but maybe not in our direct experience. Even climate change is nothing new; the limestone from which Beverley Minster is made was formed millions of years ago out of the accumulated remains of sea creatures from a tropical ocean. What is new is that this is the first time the climate has changed because of human activity.
And we ought to be used to the idea of Russia behaving aggressively towards its neighbours. In 2014 Russia annexed the Crimea. In 2008 it invaded Georgia, 1979 Afghanistan, 1968 Czechoslovakia, 1956 Hungary, 1953 East Germany, 1940 the Baltic States, 1939 Finland and Poland… and so on. There is a depressing sense that this is what Russia does.
I don’t believe that history repeats itself, or that life goes round in circles. But perhaps it does go round in spirals, either up or down. The events confronting each generation may not be the same, but often there will be parallels to be seen in the past.
My sense is that the invasion of Ukraine has shaken us badly not only because it seems so unjustified, but because we have taken peace for granted. The countless little wars going on in faraway places over the last 70 years somehow didn’t seem to register here in Britain. In the same way the pandemic shook us because we took our health for granted. Infectious, life-threatening disease was something developing countries had to worry about, not us with our antibiotics and vaccines.
It is deeply unsettling to be confronted with evidence that the world may not be quite as safe and predictable as we had thought. It is sobering to be reminded that for the more ruthless rulers, war can appear to be more advantageous than peace. As Von Clausewitz observed, ‘war is the continuation of politics by other means’, a doctrine which somehow serves to make war seem not only acceptable, but commonplace.
Finding ourselves in a world where terrible events turn out to have all too frequent precedents, we may want to pay closer attention to what is genuinely unprecedented. In a few weeks’ time we shall celebrate Easter, with its unprecedented claim that the boundary of death has been breached, that a dimension beyond earthly history has been opened up, and that the true meaning of events can be seen only from an eternal perspective which sees each person and each action as uniquely important and worthy of heavenly compassion and mercy.
As we face the uncertainty and unfamiliarity of these times, we shall have the opportunity to find courage and hope in contemplating the uniqueness of the Easter message, with its insistence that all is not what it seems; that the victims may yet be vindicated, that the oppressed may yet be set free, that kindness is stronger than cruelty, that mercy can change both past and future, and that death itself is an imposter.
26 February 2022
The Cost of Calling out the Bullies
The Russian invasion of Ukraine is a deeply disturbing reminder that in many parts of the world, people still believe that what really counts is the hard power of violence. Questions of right and wrong, of peace and freedom, and of human suffering, count for little when a leader believes that they have enough tanks to impose their will. As a previous Russian leader, Joseph Stalin, once contemptuously remarked, “How many divisions has the Pope?”
In the face of such shameless gangster behaviour, it can be hard to know what to do. The Archbishops of Canterbury and York in their recent Pastoral Letter have condemned the invasion as “an act of evil”, which is strong language, but what are we supposed to do? One of the great moral dilemmas thrown up by war is how one can combat evil without merely reflecting it. Can there be a response to violence which does not repeat it and amplify it, and in the process taint the victim with the same evil he or she is trying to overpower?
As Christians the first response is of course prayer, and our Archbishops have invited us to set aside Sunday 27th February and Ash Wednesday (2nd March) as days of prayer for Ukraine and its people. In doing so we shall be showing solidarity with people all over the world, not least in Russia and Ukraine itself.
There is an irony that President Putin’s desire to absorb Ukraine into a new Russian empire is partly fuelled by the fact that Kiev in Ukraine is the spiritual home of the Russian Orthodox Church. It is the city where St Vladimir first converted to Christianity in the late 10th century and introduced the rites and doctrines of Orthodoxy from Byzantium. Culturally and spiritually, it is to Kiev that many Russian Christians look as the cradle of their faith. It is therefore a focus for peace and unity even amid the current conflict.
We can also offer support to those organisations trying to help Ukrainian refugees. UNICEF, the United Nations Refugee Agency, the British Red Cross, the International Rescue Committee and United Help Ukraine are all mobilising to help the millions of people who will be displaced by the conflict. We can contribute ourselves and encourage our government to offer support.
What is also clear from our own understanding of the gospel we profess is that evil cannot be confronted without cost. Much has been said about the likely ineffectiveness of the sanctions being imposed on Russia, and the reasons are clear; we are squeamish about taking steps that will hurt us as well as the Russian economy.
We must accept that we cannot condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine with conviction while still expecting to benefit from Russian money, goods and services. It is no good our leaders telling the world that this invasion is “horrific and barbaric” when according to the Electoral Commission in the last three years the Conservative Party has accepted around 2 million pounds in donations from Russian oligarchs and businesses closely connected to Vladimir Putin. Such links need to be cut, and swiftly. Perhaps we can urge our elected representatives to press for this.
If we feel strongly about the unprovoked invasion of a free democratic state of 44 million people, our own integrity demands that we distance ourselves from those we condemn, even if that is costly. This may hit us in our own pockets and involve us in sharing, to some very mild degree, in the disruption currently being suffered by the people of Ukraine. Unfortunately, confronting evil is never easy. If we are not to respond to the crisis without hypocrisy, we must be ready to make the modest sacrifices that signal effectively to President Putin and others that bullies do not control the playground unchallenged.
12 February 2022
The Natural Theology of the Whodunnit.
The last few days I have been confined to the Vicarage with Covid (thanking the Lord for vaccines – a feverish cold isn’t fun, but so much better than the alternative), and I have found myself picking up a trashy whodunnit. It whiled away the hours when I couldn’t sleep, but despite being a story with local connections it isn’t one I’m going to recommend. So often I find detective fiction just slightly disappointing in its plotting. You get to the big reveal at the end and then find there is nearly always something that doesn’t quite add up. That’s supposed to be the killer’s motive? Really?
That doesn’t stop me coming back for more. And I’m not alone. Whodunnits are an immensely popular genre, not just as downmarket pulp but as works of literature in their own right (in the 19th century Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens were of course early contributors). And Sherlock Holmes, Father Brown, Hercule Poirot & co have all transferred very successfully to the screen, as well as countless others created specially for TV and film.
I find myself wondering whether part of the appeal of a good whodunnit is that it feeds a number of human instincts about the world we live in. For example, we believe that at some level there is a meaningful order to the world. Crime fiction assumes that there is a natural order which has been seriously disrupted by the crime. The task of the detective is to bring the perpetrator to justice and restore order. Put like that it sounds very simplistic and we know that everyday life isn’t like that. Yet deep down we long for it to be so. We are finely attuned to sense injustice – especially when we experience unfairness ourselves – and we expect that somehow it should be put right.
There is a thirst here for judgement. For wrongs to be righted. Whodunnits aren’t prepared to wait for the Final Judgement in the hereafter. They offer it here, in this world, bringing things hidden out into the light. If there is no God, then the only judgement possible is in this world. So in this sense detective fiction provides a secular response to a spiritual need.
The best detectives solve the case through the power of reason. Sherlock Holmes was the arch-rationalist, making at times far-fetched deductions from a few scratches on a walking stick or the traces left by a certain kind of cigar ash. Modern detectives all too often rely on a gut feeling, a hunch which short circuits the tedious hard work of proper procedure. Sometimes there is a tension between the two styles. Inspector Morse was always getting misled by his hunches, which sometimes led him horribly astray, before his more reliable powers of reason got him back on track. Such stories assume that the world we live in will yield its secrets to reason. All is not meaningless chaos, because the universe ultimately reflects some kind of order.
This is probably the reason why some whodunnits don’t quite work. Sometimes the evidence isn’t quite strong enough, the characterisation doesn’t seem convincing, or the weaknesses in the plot are covered by too great a reliance on coincidence or the detective’s intuition. These all seem to break the rule that we are operating in a rational world where such devices feel like cheating.
Against the purity of the detective’s powers of reason are often set his or her human weaknesses. Many fictional detectives struggle with their own inner demons, find it hard to maintain close relationships, and wonder whether there is any point to seeking the truth in the face of apparently meaningless violence.
Other detectives can only come at their work from a place of personal stability. Father Brown, Brother Cadfael and Rev Sidney Chambers in Grantchester all solve murder and mayhem from a standpoint of quiet faith and supportive community. Donna Leon’s Inspector Brunetti is fortified against the corruption of the Venetian justice system by his beautiful wife’s delicious lunches. In each case there is a sense that getting to the truth has implications for the detective’s humanity. Now isn’t that the case for all of us?
Back by popular demand, this Lent we shall be running several discussions based on five different films. The final line up isn’t yet settled, but one of the films will be a whodunnit: Knives Out, starring Daniel Craig, clearly enjoying himself far too much. It’s a delightful homage to the traditional country house murder mystery, with a plot that works, a crackling screenplay and wonderful characterisations. It also contains plenty of material for reflection on the nature of families, good and evil, hypocrisy and, yes, judgement.
The discussions will run for five Wednesdays from 9 March at 19.30 on Zoom. Further details will appear on social media and the Minster website.
30 January 2022
What is truth?
Candlemass on 2 February marks the end of the Epiphany season, celebrating the revealing of God’s glory through Jesus Christ. Epiphany words include ‘glory’, ‘revelation’, and ‘light’, words which suggest our knowledge of the truth is being expanded with the coming of Christ.
Christians have always believed that truth is important, and that the search for God is a search for truth. Yet truth today is under attack as never before.
For many people, established scientific findings are now regarded as at best a matter of opinion and at worst as a conspiracy to control ordinary people and deprive them of their liberty. Anti-vaccination activists, climate change deniers and Republicans who think their man was defrauded of the last US Presidential election all now enjoy mainstream credibility, even though their views are based on as much factual evidence as those of the Flat Earth Society.
We seem to be losing our ability to distinguish fact from fiction. Truth has become a matter of who shouts loudest, or at least who has the most followers on Twitter. Democracies where the electorate is unable to sift the difference between truth and fantasy are at risk, and are vulnerable to new forms of autocracy and tyranny.
Against this background the Culture Secretary’s decision to cut the funding of the BBC by £285 million over 5 years looks like a direct attack on public information. At no other time in our history have we been more in need of an independent, publicly accountable source of news, free from the echo chambers of social media, the vested interests of billionaire media tycoons and the self-serving mendacities of those in power. Oddly enough the strongest accusations of bias at the BBC always come from those who have most to gain from the removal of an independent source of news. It’s not a view shared by Ofcom, the independent regulator.
There has been a carelessness about the truth for many years now. For decades the philosophical movement known as Post-modernism has questioned the legitimacy of any kind of absolute truth. There are no meta-narratives, the academics tell us, only little truths, your truth and my truth. It’s all just a matter of opinion. So our current disillusionment with the possibility of truth has a philosophical foundation. But people who turn their backs on truth become a people walking in darkness, imprisoned in their own subjective bubbles.
It is of course true that none of us has access to the whole truth. We see it in part, and our claims to know the truth must be held modestly, recognising that what we see is incomplete and reflects our own particular standpoint. Yet we cannot afford to surrender our belief in the possibility of truth or our support for those who seek it.
Is it an accident that the abandonment of truth has coincided with the abandonment of belief in God? Science is only possible in a world which we assume is undergirded by order and pattern, that it yields its secrets to reason and has some degree of predictability. Science assumes there are absolute truths to be discovered, and the Judaeo-Christian view of reality provided a guarantee of that, because the universe is the creation of a rational God. If there is no God, ideas of truth slip their moorings and suddenly all is random chaos. Perhaps that is what we are seeing?
Pontius Pilate once put truth on trial. “What is truth?”, he asked of the one who said “I am the truth”. Not receiving any answer, the outcome was a crucifixion of the truth. Christians are those who feel themselves to have been grasped by a truth bigger than we are. We, perhaps more than anyone, have an interest in speaking up for truth. As we turn our faces now towards Holy Week and Easter, we do so with a conviction that truth matters because it brings light into our lives. The light still shines in the midst of all the darkness, and thankfully the darkness has not overcome it.
15 January 2022
On Sunday 16th Bishop Alison White will be joining us at 6.30pm to confirm 5 of our young people. This will be the last time Bishop Alison pays an official visit to Beverley Minster before her retirement in February, so as well as the Confirmation it will be an opportunity to say farewell, to thank her for her care and support for the Minster over the last 7 years, and to wish her well in the next season of her ministry.
The ministry of a Bishop isn’t always obvious to members of parish churches. The Bishop can seem a remote figure, only appearing at Confirmation services or when a new Vicar is licensed. Episcopal ministry is literally one of ‘oversight’ (which is what the Greek word episcope means). So, the Bishop has oversight of the Church in a region, not directing the day-to-day mission and ministry of each congregation but guiding the Church of England family as a whole.
Being an episcopal rather than a congregational church means that the congregation is not the sole focus of church life and is not independent of the wider Church. Your Vicar is accountable not just to Churchwardens or the PCC but to the wider institution, which is very helpful on those occasions when things go wrong within a church and intervention from outside is needed. We are part of a bigger family, of which the Bishop is the visible face.
Many of the New Testament letters end with the apostolic writer passing on greetings from churches in one place to another. This is an aspect of the apostolic ministry which our Bishops still represent today, helping to stitch together the different parts of the Body of Christ. When the diocese or national Church has discerned particular needs or opportunities it can be helpful for the local congregation to know that it is part of a wider movement and mission, and to tap into resources more widely available.
This is why one of the biggest items of expenditure in our annual budget is what is called the ‘freewill offer’ to the diocese. It is our contribution towards the cost of ministry in the diocese of York, and it pays not only the cost of our own clergy but assists the ministry of the diocese as a whole. Critics sometimes caricature this as an expensive and faceless bureaucracy ‘up at York’; in fact, the diocesan administration operates out of an office not much bigger than our own Parish Centre. It enables clergy to be recruited, trained, paid and housed not just in relatively affluent areas like Beverley but in inner city Hull and Teeside, and in the small rural communities of the East Riding as well, where costs cannot be met locally.
The Diocese supports the work of our Church Schools (three in this parish alone), provides advice, expertise and a planning-permission process when repairs or changes are sought for the large number of listed church buildings; it sustains the growing machinery of Safeguarding procedures, provides HR and other legal advice, and a wide range of training opportunities not only for those in licensed ministries but for anyone wishing to explore their faith in greater depth than the local clergy can easily offer. There is training and support for Church Wardens and Treasurers, for Sunday School leaders and those trying to use social media, for those looking for a spiritual director and those wanting to help their church be ‘greener’. The diocese doesn’t run or pay for York Minster, which is self-governing and self-supporting.
The Bishops of the Diocese (three Suffragan, or assistant, Bishops under the leadership of the Archbishop) preside over this organisation, although the Bishops themselves are paid for by the National Church Institutions (ie the Church Commissioners) and are not a burden on the diocese or parishes. They support the parish clergy, make appointments to parishes, direct the mission of the diocese, and represent the church in public life, often using their position to bring others together.
Bishop Alison has been a highly supportive presence as Bishop of Hull, and we shall miss her encouragement and advocacy. As we pray for the youngsters being confirmed this weekend, so we also pray for Alison and give thanks for her ministry among us. We wish her and her husband, Bishop Frank, every blessing as they leave Hullen House to begin their retirement in Northumberland.