Sunday, December 24, 2017

The Flame of the Incarnation

Fr George Congreve SSJE was a great spiritual writer. I hope my study of his thought and writings will appear next year. This is from an essay written in South Africa on The Incarnation of Our Lord.

By a Divine act God has raised creation up to a new relation to Himself for ever
It is not that the Christian poets have struck a new vein of joy in a higher and more hopeful way of looking upon nature and man's destiny, which is expressed in the story of Bethlehem: but that by a Divine act God has raised creation up to a new relation to Himself for ever. Fallen man had always an obscure fellowship with nature in sorrow and desire; but by the Incarnation their fellowship is advanced to the joy of an immeasurable hope, and of praise which cannot be expressed. For on a certain day the Eternal Son of God took His place in creation and became the Head over all things, in order to sum up the created universe in Himself, and present it to the Father, raised to the height of the Divine purpose, filled with seeds of the glory of God, and of all that lies hidden in his will: so that nothing in the universe is left so common as to be without some link to Christ on the throne of heaven: is not, "every bush aflame with God?" (1)

"Nothing in the universe is left so common as to be without some link to Christ on the throne of heaven"
Christ in Glory S Saviour in Chora, Istanbul

The flame of God's Presence
This flame is one which no poet or theologian can kindle; it is the Presence and operation of God Himself in the material world; the faculty of the Christian is to find it where others are unconscious of it. The Christian is the Seer, who has the evidence of things not seen, who discovers a relation to God in nature everywhere. The man of prayer tracks it furthest into the desolate places of everyday life, and manifests its power in spheres where it was not known before, or where everything seems to deny it. Moses saw the flame of the burning bush in the solitude of the desert, and worshipped; there are some today who seek for it and find it in the wilderness of the people, among the refuse of humanity in city slums. Have we not seen the spiritual light in the lepers' Chapel in faces that looked up to welcome Christ in their communion, or in the confirmation class, or in the Preachers' class in South Africa?

George Congreve, The Spiritual Order 1905:8, the Incarnation of Our Lord

(1) A slight misquote from Elisabeth Barrett Browining Aurora Leigh 

Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes,
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries,
And daub their natural faces unaware       65
More and more from the first similitude.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Advent Contrasts

As Advent draws to a close my Twitter feed is full of contrasts. From Elanor Parker there is this beautiful reflection on Our Lady in Advent, full of biblical and Anglo Saxon text and imagery.

Then there is the Christingle Selfie Station at Christ Church Southgate.

This surely is the thing about incarnation. It is for all cultures, high and low, and for all people rich and poor. 

Meanwhile there are also tweets about people getting engaged in all sorts of care for others on the one hand, and participating in glorious acts of worship on the other. Sublime liturgy and social action are all part of the same thing. God with us touches every part of our human lives and is Good News for all. 

Friday, December 22, 2017

Multi Faith Carols

Carol services are an extraordinary mission opportunity. In the course of any given December the churches of the City of London will see at least 500 Carol services. Some of the churches are doing 23 services in the course of 18 days. The same pattern is true across the West End. One of the larger parish churches has 25,000 go through the doors, and the five churches in Trafalgar Square and along the Strand will see 100,000 visits during the course of the month.

We have an Anchor: Old RN College Chapel

As I have written elsewhere, there are two sorts of time in this season. Internally the church waits with hopeful expectation in the subdued light of Advent. Externally we anticipate the celebration of  the feast,taking the opportunity to share with the world the joy that God is with us.

In amongst all of these many services I had a hand in the organisation of the London Area Sea Cadet Carol Service. In the magnificent setting of the Chapel at the Old Royal Naval College Greenwich over 300 young people and adults joined in a liturgy deliberately designed to include people of all faiths and none.

The Captain with the Sea Cadets
Old RN College Chapel

Preparing such a service was an interesting experience. Last year I rewrote the Christmas story in a form which allowed cadets of different faiths to tell it in words which were deliberately drawn from no one’s Scriptures. I shall post those texts separately. This time we invited cadets to prepare reflections in the light of the Christmas story on the Corps Values of Commitment, Honesty and Integrity, Loyalty, and Self-Discipline. The thoughtfulness of their reflections and the quality of the delivery was extraordinary.

A carol service remains, whatever else it is, irreducibly an act of Christian worship. The carols, the prayers and the continued reference to the incarnation of the saviour leading us back to Christ. But it is also a liturgy which gives space to but in a way which allows anyone and everyone, whatever they do or don't think of our commitment to Jesus Christ, to participate.

We have seen a similar exercise in welcoming Christian multi faith worship at the Grenfell Tower service earlier this month. Last week I was privileged to robe at Southwark Cathedral while the Mayor of London read from the Old Testament. No one would think that the clergy were trying to convert him by that means. Of course carol services do not replace for Christians to engage in deep devotion to Jesus Christ exclusively, for there is indeed no other Name under heaven or under by which we might be saved. Nor do such services replace the need for us in season and out of season to be explicit with the Advent challenge to 'repent, believe the Gospel.' But they do give the opportunity for us to join together with others who don't share our faith and to invite them to join in simple fellowship. There is and can be no proselytising in this context. But, beyond being a good in itself, the fellowship provides the possibility of a deeper communion to those who are stirred to it.

Monday, December 18, 2017

London Welcomes a New Bishop

Today in the Diocese of London we welcome Bishop Sarah Mullally as our new Bishop, though of course she won’t start for a while yet. We all have the framework given both by the London Plan and by the Five Guiding Principles Five Guiding Principles which will allow us to continue to work together under the Grace of God for the growth of the church in faith, love and numbers of those believing.

I have always served as far as possible in the mainstream; my wife is a deacon (she has no problem with the ordination of women to all three Orders), so I can hardly avoid the issues. Archdeacon Rosemary and I have worked together these last two years, and our article in the forthcoming edition of New Directions offers a report of a public reflection we made at the City Deanery Chapter earlier in the year. The experience has changed us both. There are only four traditionalist archdeacons in the country. In fact Bishop Sarah has this all too uncommon experience in the diocese of Exeter.

It will be different, and there will be many things to work out. There will be sticking points in unanticipated places, and trust will be needed to work through them. The Bishop of London is both Diocesan and our local Area Bishop. The Archdeaconry of London is a microcosm of the Church of England and has facets which are unlike any other Archdeaconry. Bishop Sarah and I will need to tease things out in action just as Archdeacon Rosemary and I have. Time and prayer and patience and clarity of thought will be needed as well as mutual sympathy, loyalty, love and respect. This will need to be founded in mutual intercession and a genuine desire for mutual flourishing.

The question is, can there be a place for traditionalists (and conservative evangelicals) in the mainstream life of the Church of England, or is it in fact the case that the structures set up and agreed by the church for us all to flourish are actually not workable? I think and believe the honoured place in the mainstream which has been our hope to establish is possible to maintain, and that the appointment of Bishop Sarah to London gives a further opportunity to show that it can be done. If it can, the way can be open to more appointments of people of all views and an effective challenge offered to those who would attempt to create ‘no go’ areas on either side of the debate.
At the press conference
I am confident from what Bishop Sarah said this morning, has said directly to me and from what she has written that she too thinks like this.  Please pray for her and for us all. For me I simply say that I shall be giving it the best go. I will serve with and for Bishop Sarah who will have my canonical obedience in all things lawful and honest, and loyal service in the continuing mission of the church in London. 

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Rejoice in the Lord Always - Advent 3

Once a month I go to Mass with my family and am just on the ordinary rota in the parish. This was today's sermon.

God has called you and he will not fail you.1 Thess 5:24

Last week I went to a meeting in the Bank of England about how to build trust in the financial services sector. The things I end up doing for the Kingdom! Whenever you make an investment there is the warning: ‘past performance is not a guarantee of future results.’ Now that may be true in the world of finance, but in our consideration of God and His care for us, past performance is precisely the guarantee of future results. The idea that God is faithful, that ‘He will do this,’ and that He acts consistently with His past actions and with His word, is central to our hope and to the way we live as Christians. God has called you and he will not fail you.

In advent we are preparing to celebrate the birth of the Saviour in Bethlehem 2,000 years ago. That moment is the centre of History: He was hoped for, the desire of the nations. The excitement and hope of those who look forward to the celebration of Christmas, the children wide eyed looking for presents, the shop keepers hoping that their profits will come in, the workers, looking forward to their holidays, the tired, hoping for a rest, those who are depressed by the dark nights and he cold looking forward to the turn of the year, the lonely hoping for a visit or a card in the post. All these in their different ways hope for Christmas. Even the scrooges who hope it would all be over soon. Even from our material and human centred desires the hope which lies at the centre of this season comes through.
The (arch) Deacon is much smaller than the Sub Deacon!
The people of Israel waited in hope for the coming of the Messiah. John seemed to be the fulfilment of that hope. Was he the messiah? Or was he the prophet like Moses who would lead the people? Or Elijah, who, it was said, would be the harbinger of the Messiah? His answer to all this was ‘no’. But who are you then? And the answer was amazing and more than all those other things. “A voice that cries in the wilderness, make straight the way of the Lord.” Who is this John? He testified of himself that he was the fulfilment of prophesy. What had been spoken of was now happening. As Jesus would say later in the synagogue at Cana in Galilee, ‘now, in your hearing, this prophesy is being fulfilled’

When you come to the carols and to the Christmas masses you will hear in the gospel accounts of the birth of the Messiah, again and again, that this or that happened to fulfil the Word of the Lord through the prophet. God did what He said He would, and that past performance is precisely the guarantee of future results. Advent asks us to look forward. Because the Lord has done this in the past, therefore the future consummation of the world is assured.

The pink vestments are 18cent
Close up of the fabric - made about 1760

This assurance starts to address another question: who are you? They asked John. But who am I? Who are you? What is my purpose and vocation? So much that happens to us knocks us about. Our lives are full of change. The young people who work in the financial services industry which so many of our City Churches seek to serve will change their jobs two or three times a year; they move from one rented room to another a couple of times a year; relationships ebb and flow. And this is true of all of us in different ways, when the Council moves your flat or you get poorly and can’t do something any more or you lose your job. Who am I? If we define ourselves by a place or a role or even by our human relationships we are building on sand.

God has called you and he will not fail you. At the heart of the identity of the Christian is God’s covenant promise, that He has called us by name and made us His own; that He is sanctifying us by His grace and that when He comes to judge the Living and the Dead he will, because of the gift of the Holy Spirit, count us as righteous and give us a place in glory. Who am I – I am nothing, and have nothing on which to rely except the call that I have had. And you may say ‘I have not been called’. But you have; and the evidence is simply this. You are here now to hear the scripture: God has called you and he will not fail you. and you are not here simply to hear the scripture but to participate in the Word made Flesh.

The Mass is the pledge of the life which we are to receive. Jesus said, ‘do this in memory of me.’ Just like the advent memory of what is past, the anamnesis, the memory of the Eucharist points us to the future, to what will be. But the Eucharistic memorial is like the memory of a computer: it makes present here what is remembered, and is a foretaste as well as a pledge, the actual living presence of Jesus with us: This is my Body; this Is my blood. Bethlehem means ‘House of Bread,’ and the altar is our Bethlehem, the church the stable in which we meet the Lord Emmanuel, God with us.

And so as we remember what once He did, we know Him with us now. And because past performance is the guarantee of future results, we look forward from the possession we have to the consummation which is to be given to us. Who am I? who are you? We are the ones called to Himself by the One whose promise dose not fail, whatever the world may bring to us.

And so we have confidence, the confidence of John, to be the voice crying in the wilderness: like John to tell the world that the pledge has been fulfilled and to call others to rejoice with us in the hope which is set before us. Christmas is a massive opportunity in this. Don’t come alone this Christmas: bring your friends and neighbours: tell your acquaintances, stand up for the faith, make sure that others hear is call and find themselves. Salvation is at hand: the Lord is coming. The One who calls you is faithful and He will do this

A Radical Christmas

Sermon for the Bishopsgate Institute Carol Service

I am a Trustee of the Bishopsgate Institute in my capacity as Priest in Charge of S Botolphs Bishopsgate. The Institure describes its vision on its webiste:
 'Bishopsgate Institute's vision: Dedicated to opening minds, challenging perceptions and enriching lives.
Since 1895 we have been a home for ideas and debate, learning and enquiry; a place where culture, heritage and learning meet, and where independent thought is cherished. '

It was to Shepherds that the Angels gave the good news of the birth at Bethlehem. Shepherds were thought of as being pretty disreputable people. No one wanted to do the job of a Shepherd, because it was dangerous, cold, wet, and very badly paid. Shepherds were proverbially rough types. Forget Little Bo Peep, and think about slightly violent, slightly drunk rough sleepers and you have the picture.

Yet it was to these people, living on the edge of society, to whom the Angels gave the good news: Glory to God in the highest and peace to people with whom he is pleased. Unto you a Son is Born, unto you a child is given.

The birth of Jesus Christ was announced to those who were on the edge of things, and the child himself was pretty much on the edge. We all know the pretty story of the stable means that there was not even any room in the cheap two star inn in which they attempted to stay. He may have been of the house and lineage of David, but his good family did not mean very much, and there was a bit of a scandal hovering about old Joseph and his young wife who seemed to have become pregnant without Joseph having anything to do with it.

There is a word for being on the edge, liminal, and Jesus was on the edge.
Why should this be? Srely if we are celebrating the birth into the world of Almighty God, which, let us be clear, is what Christians do in this season, we should not be talking about about things that are at the edge but about things that are at the centre. Why the liminality?

Austin Farrar, a great Oxford theologian and teacher pointed out that it is weakness which is attractive. Everybody will go to a pram and who cluck over the baby, and the whole world will come to the crib who would not attend throne. Liminality has a power, a power which comes from weakness, and that power God incarnate shows. Even had He come as the greatest monarch who has ever walked the earth He would have been infinitely less powerful than He is in himself; but in his incarnation Christ comes amongst the poor, marginalised, and those who stand at the edges of society.

Both our church and our Institute stand on the edge. S  Botolph’s is famously named for a saint of the gateways. The churches around the edges of the city of London were named for him, Aldgate, Aldersgate, Bishopsgate. He was the patron saint of travellers, of gateways, and possibly of tax collectors, for his parishes, being long and thin around the edge of the city walls were under the control of the King as opposed to the City Fathers and therefore were the places where the Royal taxation was gathered as people went in and out through the city walls. Today we still have a ministry to travellers as we are hard by Liverpool Street.

Physically on the edge, and on the edge of jurisdictions, the churches were and are places where people came to pray as they moved from one place to another, marking the fact that we are all on the journey moving from this world to the next, and, thanks to the fact that God came into this world to be with us, we journey in hope that we shall be with Him.

We know of course that the Bishopsgate Institute stands on the edge, having at its heart the concern and interest of those who stand at the edges of what is acceptable and in the liminal place of society’s outward behaviour and intellectual interest.

Right out on the far edge is Jesus Christ and his church. Love of God with self-sacrifice and a refusal to depend on the power and authority of this world; love of neighbour which calls us to turn away from our own will and what we want and look towards God what he wants for us; the assertion that the greatest love that we can show from neighbour is to proclaim to him the gospel of the God who came into the world to save sinners: these things challenge modern society. Some of the things which appeared to be mainstream when society took them up for a time are now liminal again as the church continues to teach the law of the Kingdom as society moves to different places. It is perhaps easier to see the edginess of the church now than it has done for 15 centuries.

And yet the weakness of the Christ child, his very edginess, His liminality, is precisely what causes so many to come to him in this season, to sing songs about rough shepherds and virgins great with child, to listen to the proclamation again of the truth that we live best when we sacrifice our lives love of God and love of neighbour and do not seek our own will but the will of God, but our own righteousness and our own ideas about right and wrong, but what he has taught us, that for the best results of the world we truly should follow the Maker’s Instructions.

Christmas spirit is a dangerous thing, because it stands on the edge, and in the church in the gateway and in the Institute which is at the edge of acceptable thinking we challenge the political correctness of the age, even as it shifts from one age to another, and steadfastly refuse to be mainstream, but stand out in the fields with the shepherds and in the stable with the child.

And all this of course is good news, for in it and through it we rejoice in the true Christmas inclusivity by which God includes us in the infinite life of the glory of heaven into which he calls all those whom he has created. Thus being on the edge is truly to be drawn into the infinite centre.
Glory to God in the highest and peace to his people on earth, for unto you is born this day the saviour, and you will find Him swaddled and in a manger.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

An interfaith service for the bereaved

S Bartholomew's Hospital & S Joseph's Hospice Annual Memorial Service 2017
Rev 21:1 I saw a new heaven and a new earth

When I was a parish priest I took the funeral of a lady I had come to know quite well in the last few years of her life. In old age she had had bad feet, and she always wore trainers. It was our practice to invite the family to place objects on the coffin in the church to help them to remember their loved ones. This lady’s grandson brought her trainers, and put them on the coffin. “Me and my gran were the only ones who wore trainers,” he said. And with his black suit he wore his trainers to her funeral mass.

Things like that help: but they can also be so painful. The mementos mix, as a poet once said, memory and desire, and the mix can stir grief most terribly. Recently, at the funeral of a friend of mine, many of us who had met on our first day at college spontaneously brought photos, though no one had organized that we should. There we all were with big 80s hair partying and enjoying ourselves, and it was laughter mixed with tears as our middle aged selves looked back and gulped hard to think that our contemporaries have begun to pass, though we are surely too young yet to be gathering like this. And many here will be of far older generations, and far younger than mine, and you will know in your own way what it is to mix memory and desire, and the sting of grief which mars even the happy memories.

We are taught that there are stages to grief. That denial passes to anger; that we then fall into bargaining before the stage of depression and at last acceptance. We are rightly taught to move on through these stages, and there is much help from so many to help us to do so, and for that we are rightly grateful and pay tribute to those who serve us like this. And if you are stuck, do know that there is help and seek support to access it from your priest or your doctor.

What of the memories? Nostalgia clings to the past and the grief which we know at its passing. It can beguile us with some sort of happiness for a moment, as the years roll back and we think that for a moment we have conquered time, but it swiftly betrays, and we are plunged into sorrow and sadness. I recently preached at the funeral of a teacher of mine. Some of his other pupils were there; we all laughed together at the funny stories we shared. But as much as we were remembering our teacher, in a way what we were really doing was mourning our thirteen year old selves. Nostalgia is fundamentally selfish – it is about what I feel, what I want, my grief for the past which is lost, my fear of the future which is breaking upon me.

This is not to say we should not remember, and there is another kind of remembering which is altogether more healthy.  Remembering with thanksgiving. Looking back, not to mope at what was, but to give thanks for what it all meant and means and continues to mean to us. A remembering which turns towards the future not in despair at what has been lost, but with joy and thanks for what is and will be because of our dear ones who have died. This way of remembering looks outwards to God and neighbour and helps me serve them better because of the love I have received and what I have learned from those whom we mourn.

For Christians memory with thanksgiving is directed to God who is the source of all life. We believe He has conquered death and opened the way to everlasting life through the life death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Those whose faith in God is in other forms will give thanks to God as they understand God to be, but for everyone of whatever faith this remembering with thanksgiving is the antithesis of nostalgia, and is healing and fulfilling. It is inspiring not of renewed grief, but of growing and deepening happiness as in and through God what has been lost is restored and our remembering ceases to be a reminder of what is now gone, and becomes the enjoyment and expansion of the love we still possess.

Christian theologians call this kind of memory anamnesis, and point to the moment on the night before He died that Jesus took bread and wine, and said, “do this in memory of me.” In that remembering the past blesses and transfigures the present and offers hope for the future. It is sadly not true that we can keep people alive by remembering them, and a harsh fact that over time memory fades. Memory is also mortal. But God is present with us when with thanksgiving we remember Him and with Him we stand at the threshold of heaven where memory and desire are emptied into loving possession. As a great novelist wrote: behold, we are not bound together to the circles of the world, and beyond them is more than memory.

And so I saw a new heaven and a new earth. The aged apostle remembered a vision, a fleeting experience of the past, which eluded his memory even as he watched such that he was commanded to write it down. But the memory was not to him a terrible grief-filled nostalgia for an ephemeral gift now snatched from his sight. No, his thanksgiving and orientation to God led to a confident rejoicing in what his lost vision meant not only for now, but for the future: See, I am making all things new; neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away. 

Thursday, December 14, 2017

A New Blog

A commonplace book is a place to note all sorts of things. This is where I note some of them. It's a new thing - in the last few years I have done most things on Twitter @ArchdeaconLuke but there is some longer material it is good to find a place for. This is where I shall put it.