Heat

Heat is the prevailing circumstance right now. Everything else will evaporate under its impact.

I wonder if all writers experience the purgatory of titles, by which I mean being presented with an endless string of widely differing subjects but having absolutely nothing to say about any of them. Perhaps it is the natural hubris that comes with the work we do that persuades us that we should always have an opinion to hand, no matter what the circumstances.

Take ‘heat’, for example. Heat is the prevailing circumstance right now, as I see it. Everything else, even the most serious and demanding issues facing us, will evaporate under its impact. Heat lends urgency to the moment, so the necessities of life take precedence over any thoughts or ideas that we writers, in our hubristic way, think will benefit the reader out there. It’s more important to get those two bits of ironing done before 8.30am, so that you can break the monotony of only having two garments to wear that are remotely suited to these unprecedented temperatures. Ironing takes precedence over thinking about anything, let alone writing about it. The same goes for walking the dog and unloading the dishwasher, even though the dog would probably be happy to remain cross legged until 10pm, but my conscience qualms at the thought of letting this happen to him.

And now that I have finally sat down, the moist heat is building, like a kind of tsunami. I will tell myself, for another hour or so, that it’s not that hot, that I should be thankful I don’t live in a city and should just brace up and get on with it, but I know I will run out of stamina and focus quite soon, an excuse to call up to my husband for one of his iced coffee frappés.

The whole creative process seems subject to the weight of the heat. The struggle to think is not a struggle with nothing. It is a struggle with the overwhelming nature of everything right now. It might be easier to put off trying. But if a writer stops trying in the belief, perhaps, that there is nothing to say or, if there is, that someone else has already said it better, then fear very soon takes over.  The writer fears that the ‘gift’, or whatever it is that magically allows us to string together a few ideas in a coherent fashion, will be withdrawn, perhaps as a kind of punishment for not trying hard enough, for not sticking at it. Perhaps, when the heat subsides, there will be payback time for all those mornings we’ve skipped, telling ourselves to get the ironing done, the dog walked, the shopping done, before it gets too hot. Writers live in fear of retribution, even ones who, like me, pray quite a lot.

When it comes to prayer and creativity, we are always swimming underwater. We are in our element, but also desperately coming up for air. We wait in the deep blue world, but there are no fish and no mesmeric changes of light, just blueness pressing us down, as the psalmist puts it; ‘You press upon me behind and before. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it.’ (Ps. 139:5)

And yet we are invited to reach for this knowledge, if ‘reaching’ is what we do. We are being invited to reach deep for the wisdom that is beyond human grasping. So we reach and we wait, along with the millions of creative people who are reaching for an idea, too often making the mistake of thinking we will find it within the narrow confines of our own acquired skills or learned knowledge. And, as with the creative process, we often try too hard. Things happen when we stop trying and wanting. That is when the light breeze makes itself felt.

To live prayerfully is to live creatively, to go with the rhythm of the day itself, especially the ponderous rhythm of unending heat. To live prayerfully is to go with the rhythm of God, to be always ready, to wait but also to reach deep, to do nothing, but to be ready. By this I don’t mean brace yourself for an experience of some kind. We do not experience God when we pray. We simply allow ourselves to be known by God and that requires patience on God’s part, as well as ours, and a certain courage. You never know what might happen next.

A Response to the ‘Myriad’ Plan

‘Preach the Gospel. Use words if you must’ writes a wandering friar, in the 13th century. What would happen to the Church’s vision and strategy for generating 10,000 new churches, along with the million young Christians it dreams of catechising, and growing exponentially, if these words were to underpin all of its outreach activities?

            From conversations I have with my non-churchgoing friends, the institutional Church is of marginal relevance, not because it is failing to evangelise, but because Christianity, as it is currently marketed, has lost its hold on people’s imagination. Many of them would also add that given the way the Church treats its own people, it has also lost touch with ordinary human decency. The people I talk to are, for the most part, neither agnostic or atheist. They usually have a faith, but it is a private matter.

            When the subject of faith and church does come up, it’s fairly clear that they are also not sure if the Church has much to say to them about life in general. They see going to church as a niche activity for a certain kind of special interest group. If they do have a faith, it is not something that they necessarily want to talk about, still less do they want to join alot of other people as part of a captive audience that manifests its religious feelings through public worship, whatever the style or provenance. Added to this, the sermons they hear rarely hit the spot for those in search of a theology fit for the times we live in.

            If they do connect with what has been said, it will be because the emphasis has been on the abiding presence of Christ in their lives and of his particular love for them, and on the manifest evidence of it in the person preaching. Good preaching requires training and experience in prayer, theology and human empathy. We dismiss such training as ‘too costly’ at our peril and at the expense of those we seek to attract to Christ. 

            The scenarios I have described suggest a need for a re-thinking of the nature of mission and evangelism and of the Myriad vision itself. How a church comes across to people is not simply a matter of friendliness, or of attracting the theologically like-minded. It is about the extent to which those who may be coming to church for the first time recognise the living fire of God’s love at work in that place and in the people around them. They will be unlikely to recognise it if there is too much noise, anxiety and general activity going on, especially when these give rise to a loss of focus in prayer and in the receiving of the grace which ought to be made available through good preaching and through the sacrament of the Eucharist.

            This begs a further question, ‘does coming to a particular building and conforming to specific norms and expectations (liturgical or otherwise) constitute being part of the Church in the fullest sense? Does it make the alienated individual who is deeply distrustful of institutional religion feel that they not only belong, but are in a uniquely deep communion with others and, together with them, with God? These are questions that need to be asked before embarking on any more planting, or vision strategies, not because church planting is inherently bad, but because, as any gardener knows, you need to be sure of the suitability of one particular stock before you start grafting it onto another plant. It takes at least two healthy compatible plants to make a new one grow. In terms of the life of the Church, assuming the ‘plant’ is not incompatible with its new host, all parties to the graft, need to surrender what they most cherish in order to leave more space for growth, the kind of growth that comes when the love of God is allowed to travel between them and so make for a perfect match and a richer life.  Trying to graft two wholly incompatible plants will end up killing one or both of them.

            There is another lesson that mission action strategies frequently miss; plants do not worry about growing. The parable of the lilies of the field makes this quite clear. (Matt. 6:28) So the idea of there being no ‘passengers’ in the churches of the future is, at best, misconstrued. It is certainly misleading, and quite off-putting for anyone who might still want to find a sense of the sacred, a place where they can allow God to bear the burden of the things that weary or defeat them, a place of valid and enduring prayer and of clergy and people who are simply available to listen in a church context. Cathedrals are very good at providing these kind of services which is perhaps why they have seen a rise, rather than a fall, in their numbers at least until the onset of the pandemic. Cathedrals, on the whole, do not expect people to get busy doing things from the moment they step through the door. They seem happy to have them as ‘passengers’.

            I think the way Cathedrals model ministry also suggests a better way of doing mission and evangelism. It has something to do with the apophatic, with the not doing and not knowing which may yet allow us to learn more deeply from each other. If Jesus is to be ‘let out of the church’, it would suggest that it is we who need to be evangelised through those he chooses to indwell once he has been let out. The time may have come for learning together with those we believe we are evangelising,[1] so that our mission and theirs become two aspects of a single way of being with them in a koinonia of silence, a common willing of new life, a determination to live in hope.


[1] I owe much of this thinking to a paper given by Bishop John Saxbee and to his book Liberal Evangelism: A Flexible Response To The Decade, London, SPCK (1994)

What is the Church For?

            I feared, when I offered to give this paper, that I had spoken too hastily. Should I have waited, before putting forward the suggestion that we reflect on what the Church is for? Should I have perhaps paused to ask myself, and all of us, whether there is a Church at all, at least one that fits the heading of Church as we have grown used to understanding it? At the same time, I sense that there is little to be gained by going over these questions, which are being rehearsed if not always publicly, then almost certainly in the minds and hearts of believers and non-believers alike. The closure, or partial closure, of so many churches during the pandemic afforded us with plenty of time and opportunities for wondering about these things.  So I am going to begin my own discussion of what the Church is for by inviting us all to reflect on what Sundays have felt like for us during lockdown.

            Those of us who are used to taking an active part in leading worship on Sundays will have experienced a range of feelings beginning perhaps with a sense of unexpected ‘recess’, an unanticipated holiday from the habitual round of parish duties that fall to us on Sundays. But in time this feeling of relief, if that is what it was, will have become something else. Once the pleasure of not having to get up in time for the eight o’clock had begun to wear off, some of us will have felt a sense of loss, the absence of something unique and irreplaceable. The hours we would have spent taking services, or perhaps going to them, are not so easily replaced by walking the dog or reading the Sunday paper, or even by spending more time in personal prayer. Furthermore, I think it is safe to say that for many of us, the absence of Sunday, as we normally experience it, rendered the week that followed even more monochrome, in the context of lockdown, than it might otherwise have been. What is it then about Sunday, and about church, that we actually missed?

            It would be easy to say that we missed the community, even if on a normal Sunday we spend little time engaging with it after the service is over. We could also say that we missed the habit and rhythm of either taking services or attending them, of filling that particular slot in a day which may otherwise feel just like any other day, as it came to do for many of us during the long months of lockdown. But I think there is something unique about church, and thus about the idea of the Church as the wider body, as ekklesia, as the worshipping community, that we missed without perhaps realising how uniquely it pertains to the experience of church on a Sunday.

            I would hazard a guess that what we were missing was the pull of God, the pull of the Holy Spirit drawing us to a certain familiar place. The Holy Spirit acts on us, I believe, in a way that is not dissimilar to the moon’s pull on the oceans. From what I sense in conversations with parishioners where I live, there is something irresistible in the tidal pull of God on a person who is in the habit of going to church on a regular basis, even if that person rarely mentions the word God at any other time of the week. Where there is an interruption to the particular ‘pull’ that the Holy Spirit exercises on us through our local parish church it would suggest that the Church (with a capital c) has ceased to be what it is essentially meant to be.

            The Church, at every level of its life, is meant to be a tent of meeting, to put it in scriptural language, a place where all those present will in some way know the presence of God, experience that tidal pull, even if they never speak of it or even, perhaps, acknowledge it to themselves. Their local church may be a vital place of encounter for them with the living God, even if they appear to prefer a protective kind of anonymity in regard to their faith and their particular faith journey.

            A person’s faith is ultimately secret, something which the Church with its enthusiasm for mission and building its own Sunday attendance numbers often fails to take into account. But it is, nevertheless, the Church’s job to nurture this tentative response to the pull of God that people, clergy included, associate with being in a church, whatever other reasons they may have for being there.

            Furthermore, I do not think there is any real distinction to be made between what a person who attends church on Sunday may be experiencing of God, and the kind of transcendence experienced by the casual visitor who visits a church or cathedral, ostensibly to admire its architectural lines and stained glass windows. A church is a sacred space which exercises a certain ‘pull’ on people. If this is so, we cannot get away from the fact that the idea of Church (with a capital c), is associated in the minds of many people with this Godward pull, even if it is an unconscious association, a sort of instinct.  This would suggest that there is a powerful connection to be made between a church building, and the often small gathering of people who turn up there on a Sunday morning, and the idea of what has come to be known, somewhat pejoratively, as the institutional Church.

            The institutional Church is that facet of the universal Church (the Church that spans the centuries) that is made visible in such a way as to allow God to connect more deeply with people. Those who are called to serve in this visible capacity are therefore called to be the interface that makes this connection definable and real. For this to be possible, they need to be what Kay Northcutt in her book Kindling Desire for God describes as sacramental, ‘an embodied image through whom God attracts’.[2] They need to be a certain kind of person, rather than an individual who has acquired certain skills.

            It is the embodiment that makes the sacramental meaningful. And here is where the confusion lies when it comes to what the institutional Church signifies for many people, whether or not they attend their local church on a Sunday. The institutional Church does not, on the whole, appear to embody anything that attracts people to God. The reason for this does not lie in lack of skills among those who work for it, still less in any particular defect of character. It lies, rather, in a general fearfulness about what the Church is called to be and how its representatives do, or do not, fit its purpose – to facilitate a tidal pull towards God.    Two areas of concern emerge from these considerations: The first pertains to that greatly over-used word ‘mission’. The idea of mission is now all but subsumed under managerial goals and objectives all of which return us, ultimately, to the question of how to keep existing structures of governance in place without closing too many churches. It is not hard to see where the institutional Church, which now thinks of itself increasingly in organisational terms, feels its priorities lie. Skills have now replaced gift in the Church’s increasingly secular mindset when it comes to selecting and deploying clergy.

            Ever since the Harries Report was produced in 2012 the emphasis has been on ‘streamlining’ and centralisation. The Harries Report saw the dismantling of the parish system and the centralisation of ministry and finance as the only way forward for the Church of the future. It also, incidentally, emphasised the need for a complete overhauling of the existing hierarchical system of governance and with it, presumably, its arcane line of authority.

            The move to streamline and centralise has, inevitably, met with a great deal of resistance from people living in the countryside, especially among those who have given years of time and effort to support their local church which they see as a focus for the community. It also, at the time of writing, could not have anticipated the radical changes that may yet take place in rural areas as a result of an increasing number of people working from home on a permanent, or semi-permanent, basis in the aftermath of the Covid pandemic. The local church, serving the community in diverse ways, and not only as the place for Sunday worship and life-transitional events, could become a vital cohesive element in the life of changing rural communities. But all of this is made difficult when decisions must be approved by a remote body of managers who rarely visit the churches they control or take the trouble to get to know the communities who serve them.

             In short, the effect of such an increasingly managerial mindset lies in the creation of the worst form of idol. An idol is a lifeless thing that enslaves people by persuading them that they cannot survive without it but which, in the process, also kills off whatever motivated or inspired them to buy into it, or into the organisation it purports to serve, in the first place. This, as Lauren Berlant argues in her book Cruel Optimism can happen in almost any context.[3] The idol can be food, money, success or, she might have added, the managing of people into controllable entities that will deliver what is asked of them, including money, on time and without question. The Church is becoming one such entity.  Hence, the apathy created by bureaucracy and the dead hand of managerialism is death to the spreading of the gospel.  It also distances the organisation from the people it exists to serve, and on whom it relies for its own continuing existence. What we have then is a situation which runs counter to the idea of a Church founded on the principle of love which runs on the unpredictable but life-giving dynamic of the Holy Spirit. So how might this situation be reversed?

            This brings me to the second area of concern in regard to mission. Management requires certain skills. Mission and the building up of a Church which embodies the Spirit of Christ requires the deployment of gift. The two are not incompatible, but they must work together, with gift taking precedence over skill. Skills can be acquired with training. Gift is what it says it is. It is a given. By gift I mean those aspects of a person that make him or her transparent to Christ and so enable them to be a theotokos, a Christ bearer, to God’s people. Gift is not limited to age, gender, sexual orientation or churchmanship. It is something which informs and defines what a person is and thereby works itself into, and possibly through, any skills they may have. The Church is much in need of gifted persons at every level of its life. But where will such persons be found? What gifts does the Church need in order to become something more than an organisation, to breathe life and hope into a troubled and angry world? Where are the people of vision? Where are the holy leaders?

            One of the main impediments to the discernment of potentially holy leaders, or of gifted people to the service of the Church, lies in the selection process itself and the structure and culture of deference on which it depends. The latter is an area of particular concern. A hierarchical system based on outdated understandings of obedience, rather than on collegiality and shared responsibility, is an impediment to growth, as it would be if such methods were still being adopted in secular organisations. Furthermore, one could be forgiven for thinking that the selection of people to the ordained ministry is predicated on secular objectives. We seem to be looking for competence at the expense of holiness. This is not to say that the ordained clergy do not try to fulfil the traditional role of pastor to the people of God, but the growing amount of administration, not to mention the legalities that surround issues of health, safety and pastoral relationships place huge demands on them personally. This is not to deny the need for safeguarding measures, but it is important to understand the level of stress that clergy endure in an effort to comply with the regulations, or even to avoid inadvertently falling foul of them. As a result of this, anxiety now drives much of the Church’s life. Ministry has become a job which, like any other job, a person is in danger of losing if they make mistakes or fail to fall in line with whatever is required of them by the higher authorities.

            Much of this anxiety would be dispelled if the idea of the episcopate and of the priesthood itself could be uncoupled from that of power and status. Power and status belong together in the Church and are as strongly associated with the role of the ordained as they ever were. It is just that the magic and the mystery of yesteryears has simply been replaced with the goals and objectives of modern marketing speak, ostensibly linked to mission but worked out in centralising agendas that defeat that very purpose.

            So it is at this point that we need to re-address the question of what the Church is for.  If its primary purpose is to bring the Good News of the abiding presence of Christ in the world of today, as I believe it is, then some re-ordering of priorities, and even structures, needs to take place. Perhaps we could begin by filtering out all those notions that we associate with success from our language and thinking.

            Managerialism is geared to success, although this is usually referred to as ‘growth’. Churches that do not grow are therefore deemed to be failed churches and will either be closed or subjected to some form of cloning, usually the colonising of one church by another more successful and ‘vibrant’ one. But if we are serious about making known Christ’s presence among us, then we need to look to the places or situations where he has always been present, where love has been genuine. These were seldom ones we would associate with vibrancy and success, with the need to ‘get on’ at any expense. They were often quiet one-on-one encounters with individuals in desperate, sometimes embarrassing, circumstances. They ended in the ultimate place of failure and rejection, although that was not, of course, the end of the story.

            In other words, Christ is to be discerned and known in places and situations where love is genuine, where people make time and space for one another, in churches which are not driven by the need to survive but by the need to present holiness of life as something to be desired in the world of today. Those who serve in such churches will know how to preach and minister to the world in ways that enable wisdom, which is the deepest level of discernment attainable, at all levels of life.[4]

            You may wonder how this could be possible, how such great things could be dreamed of, given the steady decline in church attendance and the financial pressures churches are under.

            Here, I am reminded of a visit I made to Taizé many years ago. On arrival, there appeared to be a central altar in the middle of the large tent that we were gathered in but half-way through the worship, the entire congregation turned 180 degrees so that those who had been at a distance from the altar were now near the front. This happened three times during the course of the service until we were all back to facing the original altar. To me, this summarises what the Church should be. Nobody should be at the back. All should be close to the heart of the Church’s life. At Taizé, they do not dismantle one altar in order to focus on another. They introduce another altar alongside it, and then another, and another. This in no way compromises the worship. It strengthens it, because every single person in that space can identify with the central altar, in one place and in every other place, as it were, simultaneously. The key to understanding what makes this work as a model for being Church lies in the small child who, when I visited, was led by Brother Roger, then the Abbot of Taizé, to the centre of the space. This was more than a liturgical statement. It was a model of leadership for the Church today.

            The crucial factor in regard to how this example of truly common worship might serve as a model for the Church lies in the fact that were it not for the thousand or so people who were there that morning, there would be no worship. There would be no church. Altars and clergy, no matter how splendidly gilded the altar or church, or good at their job the incumbent cleric or bishop, do not make the Church. The people make it. Clergy and bishops exist to love and serve God’s people and to model the love of God in their own distinctive personhood, one that is transparent to the person of Christ. The child being led into the centre of the tent by Brother Roger served as a model for this kind of transparency.

            This suggests that if the Church is to endure in the dangerous and hard-edged world and society we now live in, its structures and methods of governance must enable, rather than constrict, the free movement of love between those who have power in the Church and those who do not. A top-down hierarchical system, remote from the people it is called to serve, will not do this, but wise, broad, consensual decision-making, and the actions that stem from it, might.


[1] A paper given for Modern Church Forum 31st May, 2021

[2] Kay L. Northcutt Kindling Desire for God – Preaching as Spiritual Direction, Fortress Press (2009) p.29

[3] Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism, Duke University Press (2011) Introduction p.1

[4] Maggie Ross, Pillars of Flame: Power, Priesthood and Spiritual Maturity, Seabury Books (2007) p.107 ff.

Is QAnon the New Religion?

‘The ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people, but the silence over that by the good people’ memorable, but by no means new words spoken by Martin Luther King Jr.

I want to reflect a little on those words against a backdrop of St. Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians (2 Cor. 6: 1-10) in the context of the rise of the ultra-right group QAnon in America and of our own sleep walking into neo-fascism here in the UK.

 You may think that I am implying that all the people who do not align themselves with extreme conservatism of one kind or another, whichever side of the Atlantic you live on, are automatically the ‘good people’ who are remaining silent. I would not want to make such a hasty and all encompassing judgment, but I would want to say that we, the people in between, the much disparaged ‘wokes’, the fair minded thinkers, the powerless and the voiceless (powerless because we don’t know how to use the democratic powers we still have and voiceless because we don’t know what to say) are still in bed and asleep long after the alarm has gone off. Also, because I am generally thought to be a ‘religious’ person, I’m particularly struck by the way QAnon in the US is being compared in size and impact to a mainstream religion.

It needs to be said here, that neither of these tendencies, the American or the much vaguer UK one, bear any likeness to good religion. Religion, as the word suggests (from the Latin ligare) is what binds people together in a common love for God, worked out in and through a love for all people and for God’s world. Love is the operative and the definitive word when it comes to good religion. This being said, I still want to try to look at bits of the letter to the Corinthians from the kind of religious standpoint that these misguided movements and political tendencies are either openly espousing or privately harbouring.

‘On a day of salvation I have helped you’, Paul writes, quoting Isaiah 49:8. They see themselves as agents of salvation. This is their religion. But, unlike Paul, who was appealing for reconciliation with God and confidence in his love and mercy, theirs is simply a way of capitalising on two of humanity’s most primal fears, the fear of loss and the fear of abandonment. They do this by openly or covertly advocating violence and by promulgating a deep distrust of others, especially leaders and democratically elected political parties who they oppose.

Paul, in his letter, lists the kind of tribulations he and other Christians have experienced in their ministry, but he is not making spurious capital out of being seen as a victim. Much of the violence that we see coming from QAnon is the result of perceived victimhood, notwithstanding the fact that many genuine victims of poverty (although the majority are white, it should be noted) are caught up in that movement. Right wing extremism appeals to the poorest. Its proponents are therefore seen as agents of salvation and the parties or leaders they oppose as responsible for abandoning the poor and the vulnerable.

In contrast to QAnon, Paul goes on to remind his readers of the real strengths that come with what we call grace. These include patience, kindness and genuine love, to name only three, but they are words that carry little weight if you are trying to make your mark as a revolutionary movement. They only begin to carry weight when you ‘slant’ them slightly so as to allow you to introduce them into the elements that make people truly afraid. These are the elements of loss and abandonment.

Material loss speaks for itself. We all fear the day we might wake up with no means to pay the bills. We also fear abandonment, that we are being governed by incompetent liars who, as is being revealed in the UK, may have disastrously lost control of a now rudderless ship and that there is no one in sight to take over – except the extreme right. I would hazard a guess that the former fear is especially strong in the US where one in seven Americans live below the poverty line[1] and the latter prevails just beneath the public consciousness here in the UK. The US is blessed with its new President, although it will take nothing short of a miracle for him to fully realise his fiscal ambitions. We, in the UK, are not so blessed. We lack both visionary leadership and the competence to run a country which is fast becoming one of Europe’s worst casualties, in every sense of the word, of the current pandemic.

            This leads me back to the second great fear that pseudo-religious movements can pander to, the fear of being abandoned, the primal fear of loneliness. Extreme right movements use this fear to give their followers a spurious sense of belonging which comes with ideas that will shore up their leaders’ equally false sense of purpose. What we then have is tribalism. Tribalism can very easily replace good religion and, in doing so, can supply a kind of religious alternative which far from confronting and seeking to change what is wrong with society (what we call sin) uses that to further strengthen its hold on whole nations by appealing not only to the poor, but by taking full advantage of the inertia of the good people who Dr King was referring to in the words I quoted at the beginning of this post.

We saw something like this happening in the run-up to the Second World War. Are we seeing it again?  


[1] https://www.urban.org/sites/default/files/publication/103656/2021-poverty-projections.pdf   

The Resurrection of Christ

One of the things I like best about my husband is his way of prefacing the neutral, or the plain disappointing, with the words ‘but the good news is…’ There is always good news to be discovered if you look hard enough, for him at least, and that is something I love about him. But make no mistake about it, he is not an incurable optimist. He is a realist, not given to constantly affirming the positive in the best of all possible worlds.

I have always felt that optimism, when I encounter it in others, and when I resort to it myself, is fundamentally dishonest. To be merely optimistic about life is to start from a place that we have to invent for ourselves before we can begin to actually live from it. And when we do try to live from it we very often find that it rests on rather shaky foundations.

The season that we have now entered, the season of Eastertide, is not a reward for optimistic persistence in the face of troubles and difficulties, or even of death itself.

If we consider the great Easter moment, it does not promise very much. The empty tomb which has presumably been robbed, is, if anything, an emphatic signal that death is indeed final and that endings are often far from happy. The grief of the woman who discovers it is profound and raw. It does not take much imagination to empathise with it.

But what is extraordinary, I find, about this story, is that it does not take any imagination at all to understand and experience what happens next, when she hears her name called by a man who she presumes to be the gardener. There is something so ordinary about this moment and, in the light of what follows, it is probably one of the only moments in the bible when we can actually laugh, if we engage with it fully. We can laugh at the ordinary almost colliding with the extraordinary. It is a truly funny moment, when you think about it.

Like all really funny moments in life, they are best when there is more than one person laughing at them. Humour is a collective thing. It is prompted by a shared experience, or perhaps a shared memory. There is something of the absurd in them, although this is often too subtle to record accurately. The juxtaposition of impossibles is usually what makes for the absurd; a woman and her friends come to anoint a dead man. They wonder how they’ll get in to the tomb (had they not asked themselves this before?), but find it empty, with two outlandish looking strangers crouched inside (they are exceptionally tall) telling them the obvious, that the man is not here, and then a conversation with the gardener who turns out to be .. well, we know who he is.

But what does the woman who has stayed behind to grieve actually experience in the moment of this encounter? A mixture of incredulity and fear would be an understatement – or perhaps an overstatement. It would be to say too much about something that defies description. Perhaps we can only do justice to the moment by laughing with the two of them. Because the moment of recognition would have been marked with laughter and, not surprisingly, with a desire to hug, but that is forbidden, as it is in these hugless times. It is forbidden because, the woman is told, he has not yet gone to his father, who is now her father too.

So hugging is forbidden in this particular moment because there needs to be another encounter, one which encompasses and consummates every kind of love that will ever be known, on earth or in heaven itself. It is the loving embrace of the Father with the Son.

In a sense, that is to look ahead to the end of all things, the end of the Salvation Story, as we understand the word to mean, and we are not there yet. We remain, for the foreseeable future in this now moment of joyful encounter. We remain with the laughter. And that leaves us with yet more of a mystery, that somehow with all the mess and pain that we might be enduring in the moment of reading this, there is underneath it all a deep laughter, something that refuses to be defeated by cynicism, hatred or despair. Some will dismiss it as pious whimsy, others will call it mere optimism. I would call it faith.

What To Do About Lent

People are too tired, discouraged and generally fed up to be able to take on Lent. But the season is upon us, so what are we to do with it?

            I admire those who can claim that Lent is a time of renewal and refreshment. Right now, I doubt many of us can think of it in that way, if we’re honest about it. We have had almost a year of Lenten privation, but without the sense of joyful anticipation and purpose that should normally accompany this season. People are too tired, discouraged and generally fed up to be able to take on Lent. But the season is upon us, so what are we to do with it?

            Here I’m not just writing what I imagine a lot of Christians are feeling. I also sense that many people look forward, if those are the right words, to a period of abstinence in the calendar year. We all need to get a grip on ourselves from time to time and Lent provides us with an ideal opportunity to do this. But right now many of us simply don’t have the emotional reserves to do it.

            This being said, I think there is more than one way to think of Lent and to set about making the best of it. The first consists in braving out the inevitable feelings of guilt and worthlessness that accompany this season, however we choose to think of it. If I give something up and after a couple of weeks give up on giving up, I feel bad. If I banish Lent altogether and pretend to ignore it, after a couple of weeks I feel just as bad and, added to that, I also feel I’m missing out on something positive and good. This year, the last thing we need to be feeling is guilt but we don’t need self-induced ‘feel good’ techniques either, as these seldom work even at the best of times.

            In these times of deprivation there are three things that we really do need: companionship, a sense of purpose for our lives and the experience of hope. Given the present circumstances, I don’t think giving things up, aiming at spiritual goals that are way beyond our capabilities, even when we are at our best, and generally trying to become someone that we’re not, are going to deliver on any of these fronts. So why not try something more modest, and more humble this year?

            Christians reading this post will remember that Jesus tells us to take upon himself his ‘yoke’ which, he says, ‘is easy’ and in doing so to pattern our lives on his gentleness and humility of heart. You may think that this is a soft option, but it is in fact quite hard. For one thing, it will not give you anything much to feel pleased about in regard to having achieved anything, because the point of the exercise has nothing to do with achievement. The ‘yoke’ is the Cross which, at face value, is the opposite of achievement. It is the sum total of failure, all of our failures, both real and imagined.

            So we could spend some time this Lent unpacking our ‘failures’, sorting the real from the imagined. I think we’ll find that most of these failures will prove to have been imagined and should be binned. The space they leave could then be filled with gratitude for the realisation that we are not failures. This will be quite a difficult exercise for some of us to do. If we can stay with it for long enough, we might also take the opportunity to thank God for the fact that we are talented, marvellous, beautiful and in every way loved. Again, quite a difficult exercise.

            Another thing we could be owning this Lent is our sense of loss. We are experiencing loss on any number of fronts, but what we are most experiencing is the loss of companionship. We are all lonely. Even people who have family or partners with them are experiencing loneliness and loss. Being cooped up with the same person or people for months on end can be a lonely thing to experience. So during Lent, we could practice being in solidarity with other lonely people. We might even begin with those closest to us. How often in a single day do we ask our partner what they have been doing, how their work is going and engage with it intelligently? Do we notice if they look particularly down? Do we lovingly encourage them with a joke or a gentle reminder of how valuable they are to us? All of this has to do with being in solidarity with the lonely.

            I wrote about solidarity last week in the context of prisons. We are all, up to a point, prisoners of the Covid pandemic. We are prisoners in our own homes, but also prisoners of uncertainty about the future and all the anxieties and stresses which that places on us. Being in solidarity with the lonely means being present to the anxieties and stresses that pertain to the particular kind of loneliness that others may be experiencing. We get out of our feelings about our own situation in order to enter into what others may be going through and keep company with them in it for a few minutes every day. Having done this with those close to us, we can also do it for people we will never meet. We can hold them (thinking of them as individuals rather than as a broad category) and their experience of loss and loneliness, even as we are held in our own loneliness, in the love of God.

            The sense of purpose and hope that I spoke of are, I think, bound up with what comes out of the Lenten exercises involving gratitude and solidarity with others. To start with gratitude: It is only when you thank someone for something that, in a sense, you truly receive what it is you are thanking them for. The gift becomes a reality in the word or gesture of gratitude. If we are never grateful for anything, we never fully receive the blessings and gifts bestowed on us – which returns me to the discussion about failure. If we can’t bring ourselves to own our strengths, as well as our weaknesses, and be thankful for them, we will never learn how to deploy them in a way that becomes a blessing for others and which also honours God.

            This takes us back to solidarity. Being a blessing for others involves giving. Lenten giving can also be a source of guilt and a general sense of failure, but if we learn to be a blessing to others in gratitude for what we are and for what we have, it will very quickly be made clear to us who are the people or situations most in need of our material giving, be it money or any other kind of material asset.

            Having followed this meandering Lenten thread to its conclusion, we arrive first at the Cross, which is God’s absorbing of all that we hate about ourselves, and then at the empty tomb where we are met by the Risen Christ who is the embodiment of Hope. We don’t have to wait until Easter Day to experience this Hope, because it is not an event that we look forward to as a reward for having done Lent properly. It is with us now, in the moment of hearing our name called from within the silent space that these Lenten exercises has created in our own hearts.

Solidarity

In times of loneliness, boredom, loss and separation, we can be in solidarity with prisoners. Solidarity means being present to those going through a worse version of what we are experiencing as a result of lockdown..mindful that were it not for circumstances and the grace of God, we might be prisoners ourselves.

            I have only once ever visited a prison. The thing which most struck me about this visit was how familiar the prisoners’ faces seemed. I did not know any of them personally but I felt I could have known them all. They could easily be my friends or my family. In fact, they could be me had my life been other than it was, had my circumstances been different and as a result faced me with a more difficult set of challenges.

            Prisoners are spending up to 90% of their day in their cells.[1] These ordinary people whose lives have gone terribly wrong, and who may well have done terrible things, are experiencing the effects of Covid-19 with even greater intensity than many of us. Sometimes the effects are exacerbated by the company of another person, because some prisoners are also enduring ‘doubling up’ arrangements whereby they not only share a space, but eat often with an uncovered toilet within feet of where they are sitting. On the other hand, if they are alone in their cell, most of their day will be spent deciding when to sit on the bed and when to sit on the chair. Family visits have been stopped, physical exercise severely curtailed and the usual mental health services available for those soon to be released have all but ceased, the latter often resulting in re-offence and a speedy return to prison by ex-offenders.

            There is probably very little that the prison authorities can do about all of this, given the need to keep prisoners safe from Covid. Here it is worth noting that up to 2000 prisoners in England and Wales could have died by now if these additional strictures had not been put in place. So this unhappy situation seems pretty unavoidable.

But there is something the rest of us can do, as we experience a very minor version of the kind of confinement prisoners are enduring right now.

            In times of loneliness, boredom, loss and separation from those we love, we can be in solidarity with prisoners. Solidarity, as the word suggests, means being solidly present to those who are going through a worse version of what we are currently experiencing as a result of lockdown restrictions. In the case of prisoners, this also requires something more of us. It requires that we engage in this solidarity without judging or pre-judging the people we are thinking about, always mindful of the fact that were it not for circumstances, temperament and the grace of God, we might be there ourselves.

            If we can get ourselves into this mindset in regard to prisoners it will take us to a different and quite surprising place in regard to how we think of ourselves, especially those aspects of ourselves, or memories, of which we are perhaps secretly ashamed. If we can be in solidarity with prisoners and make even the smallest allowance for them and for what they have done with their lives, we may find, to our amazement, that something within us, some inner voice or presence, is giving us permission to let go of whatever secret it is that we are ashamed of.

            It’s tempting, of course, to refuse to let go. It’s often easier to continue to beat ourselves up privately about whatever it is we’re ashamed of as a way of perhaps ‘purging’ the moment itself in the hope that this will somehow lead to our forgetting it altogether. We are wasting our time. The idea that forgiveness and forgetting go together, especially regarding something that has caused real damage to another human being, is a myth and most of us know that. So how does being in solidarity with prisoners help us in dealing with our own need to forgive and be forgiven, while still remembering what happened?

            It helps because being in solidarity with someone who is suffering has nothing to do with sympathy, or even with vaguely religious talk of compassion. It has to do with a sense of belonging with them in it. We belong with prisoners because we share in their humanity and thus could quite easily be in the position they are in. So we can be grateful for that. I am not talking about the gratitude of the Pharisee (the man in the gospel [Luke 18:9-14] who thanked God that he was not like the miserable tax collector who didn’t know how to pray properly or keep God’s holy Law, as he did) but the humble gratitude that these prisoners afford us in allowing us the chance to love them and ourselves in sincerity and truth.

            To love in sincerity and truth is to strip away all pretence and self-delusion. It is also the source of immense freedom. The Pharisee in the story I have just referred to was anything but free. He was bound by laws, protocols and prescribed ways of speaking to God. There was nothing wrong with these laws and customs. It was just that he believed himself to be in a good place in all of this, thanks to his own upright character and hard work. But he did not know freedom.

            The prisoners in any number of gaols here and elsewhere have been deprived of their personal and physical freedom. They cannot relate easily to those they love and they are not free to leave their cells for 90% of the day. But they might begin to experience real freedom if they know that we are standing with them in mind and spirit, if not in body, if we are praying with them, and not just for them. This is not an easy thing to do because many of the people who are in prison have committed terrible crimes and it is hard to feel sorry for them, or even to pray for them. But we are not called to feel sorry for them. We are called to be in solidarity with them, remembering that at one time or another in our lives we have known the kind of feelings they may still know, and which may have led them to do the things they did.

            As Christians, we know that we cannot do this work of prayerful solidarity on our own, so we look to the One who is already in solidarity with us and claim the grace that is offered to us to do it. Sometimes we use words to help us to do the claiming, and to claim the freedom of spirit we want prisoners to know. But it’s even better if we can dispense with words altogether, especially when they inhibit our own freedom to love and to surrender the wrongs done to us, while still remembering the pain.  Sometimes words literally fail us, but it’s when words fail us that the work of prayer and solidarity truly begins.


[1] BBC News https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-55957048 downloaded 11th February, 2021

Candlemas – A reflection on Luke 2: 22-40

     Candlemas is one of those feasts that we would like to have go on almost indefinitely, so I think it is fine to treat it as a ‘movable feast’. Though tinged with just a tiny bit of regret, because it marks the end of the Christmas season, it embodies peace and hope for the future. It sits in the Church’s year like a ship leaving harbour, still just connected to Christmas and rather tremulously looking out to sea to the months that lie ahead – what is left of winter, and then early Spring and the beginning of Lent.

Candlemas is a time of transition from darkness to light, coinciding more or less with the Spring equinox when the days are just beginning to draw out and the night is beginning to recede. Only a couple of weeks ago, in the UK, it was dark by 4.30, now the darkness is held back until just after 5.

     The picture that returns to me every year in connection with this feast day is one of moving from darkness to light, or rather of light emerging out of darkness. It’s not difficult to see why this is so. Just picture what it might have felt like to be Simeon or Anna. Both have waited a life-time to see God’s Messiah, as they were promised, but they may not have expected the moment to occur quite in the way it does. They have probably been looking for a descent of the Almighty from clouds ‘riven with angels’ wings’, as the Christmas carol describes them, rather than a young quite inconspicuous couple walking towards them through the darkened temple in the very early morning with their young baby. It is so early, in fact, that they may be wondering what they are doing there at that hour.

     At what point, then, do Simeon and Anna realise that something quite out of the ordinary is going on, something they are not at all prepared for? This is, after all, an ordinary morning. Simeon and Anna are just two faithful people on the temple rota, going about their business in the way they have always done, just as so many church people do in our own churches and parishes and just as we have all been doing in our ordinary lives, until the covid pandemic brought our lives to a standstill.

     This is why Candlemas is so special for us right now. It invites us to encounter Christ in the ordinariness of the present moment. The encounter that takes place between Simeon, Anna and the young couple is an intensely ‘now’ moment. In other words, what we are witnessing to as we think about this faithful couple and the fulfilment of God’s promise to them, is God’s faithfulness to us now and how, like Simeon and Anna, we are called to respond to God’s faithfulness from within the times we are living in. We are called to be present to Christ in times when everything seems to have stopped and there is still no clear sign of what the future will look like and whether we will be able to pick up our lives where we left off once the pandemic is over, assuming it is eventually defeated.

     Here I am not advocating optimism, but rather inviting us to be fully present to the now moment and to stay with it, to be faithful to it, knowing that God does not abandon us and that he keeps his promises, especially his promise to always be with us. In this respect, God is most fully present to us in the seeming banality of things as they are right now. Depression and boredom render things and activities that were once interesting and worthwhile banal and pointless, a situation that gets worse the more tired of the restrictions imposed on us by Covid we become and the more uncertain we become about what the future holds for our country and for our Church in so many areas of its life.

     This is a very good time to be thinking about the Church and its life in the future, since it is in this present moment that God chooses to manifest himself to two faithful church people in the temple building, as he might have chosen to do to one of us in one of our churches in a way that is perfectly ordinary and normal. I think the Covid experience, especially in regard to the restrictions it imposes on church worship, invites us to reflect on what it really means to be church now, during this covid pandemic, and, in doing so, to realise that Mary, Joseph and the Christ Child are walking towards us to meet us in every moment of it – in moments of boredom, of loneliness, when life seems to be slipping by with no change in sight, when we imagine what we might be doing or becoming were it not for this virus. But the feast of Candlemas also reminds us of what it is we are called to be, and to continually become, as Church. We are called to be people who rejoice together in God’s faithfulness to his promise to us in Jesus.

     Remembering that we are doing this together is what matters. You might think that I am inviting some sort of exercise in collective positive thinking, that somehow we must get ourselves into a frame of mind where we believe all this when right now we are finding it very hard to do so. Simeon might have been in a similar frame of mind when he saw Jesus for the first time and then found himself holding him in his arms.

     One of the things we miss most at the moment is being able to touch or hold another person. It is a situation which has been proven to be very bad for people’s mental health. But as people of prayer, there are things we can do to make this sensory and emotional deprivation a little bit easier. The Candlemas story, as it is told in Luke’s gospel, invites us to literally get into it in a sensory and emotional way. It is not hard to imagine, or remember, what it feels like to hold a small baby, to feel the warmth of her skin, the softness of her hair and to look into her eyes, eyes that are so often wide open in expectation of something surprising and good and that are full of trust. Imagine doing the same thing alongside Simeon and Anna. Feel the weight of the Christ child, look into his eyes and allow him to look into yours. Do not flinch from his gaze. Allow yourself to return his smile. You are not alone. God is faithful and all will be well.

Silent Witness

        

Live updates: Pelosi says House will resume validating Biden's win at  Capitol after riots | News 4 Buffalo

 

   The difficulty lies in knowing what to think, despite all that has been said about how so many of us feel in regard to the events that took place on Capitol Hill earlier this week. They were unprecedented events, shocking, existentially disturbing.

            The attempted destruction of democracy; was it the end of civilisation as we know it, or the beginning of the end of the world, as some Christians will be thinking. “Bring it on” the millenarians among them will be saying. Or has Yeats’s ‘blood dimmed tide’, briefly ‘loosed’ on Wednesday, having built tsunami-like over the past four years whilst most of us were in denial, been stemmed? If so, by whom?

            Because the question all this obliges us to face is; are there in fact checks and balances at work that somehow re-calibrate the off-the-cuff decisions of a megalomaniac in such a way as to avoid the catastrophic? In time, no doubt, we shall learn the answer. Meanwhile, or at least until this week, many of us have continued to believe that the democracies we take for granted are indestructible, that there are always checks and balances, or discreet individuals, civil servants of sorts, quietly managing the day to day affairs of the country, so that World War III is avoided simply by removing a crucial communiqué from the desk of Donald Trump before he has the chance to see it and fire off a tweet that would bring us to the brink of destruction. Or, then again, perhaps there are not.

            But Wednesday’s coup makes even these simplistic questions more opaque and therefore more worrying. Were there discreet individuals oiling the works on Trump’s side too? Why did the National Guard take so long to get there? Why the shaming discrepancy between the way his mob was dealt with by the police in comparison to the military operation that was called in to brutally suppress the Black Lives Matter demonstration? Were the police, understaffed and seemingly badly trained, set up by other discreet individuals from within a now sophisticated and well co-ordinated conspiracy theory movement, manipulated like puppets by their top man, who was safely out of harm’s way, watching all that was going on from his TV screen in White House?

            All of this is to say that small people working behind the scenes, if there were such people and I think it is not unreasonable to suppose that there were, along with a parallel phalanx of clever social media operatives, can turn the blood dimm’d tide. How then, is it to be turned back?

            Joe Biden will do everything he can, as will his vice-president, advisors and supporters. But they can only work within the constraints of their professional limits and there are only so many hours in the day, and there is so much to do. But it is the turning of the blood dimm’d tide that must take absolute precedence over anything else, or at least before anything else can begin to be effected, including putting in place a national disciplined plan of action for halting the exponential growth of Covid 19. So who will be the ‘little people’, the undercover ‘civil servants’ who will work now for a righteous leader, with the same discretion and determination of those who perhaps worked for his predecessor?

             They will not be people in his immediate surroundings, although some may be. The vast majority of them will be completely anonymous. They will be you and me.

            There will be no visible road map for us to follow, no plan of action, no call to take to the streets or launch social media petitions. What there will be is an imperative to first return in silence to the memory of these past days and ‘stand’ in it, stand in it silently. By that I mean hold steady in it. Remember it in its shocking and brutal reality. Refuse to deny or forget it. Refuse to hate the participants. Regret deeply what it has done, especially if you were a participant yourself and then, especially if you are an American, remember that America calls itself ‘one nation under God’, so do this standing and remembering under God.

            God’s time is not linear. Moments in the past, even the very recent past, are redeemed and thereby opened up to new redemptive possibilities by the way we choose to remember them and then think of them in the present and by the way we all take responsibility for them. This is about acknowledging wrong from deep within ourselves, whether or not we were party to that wrong or complicit in it, whether we tacitly condoned it or went along with, or were perhaps indifferent to it. Indifference has played as big a part in the loosing of the ‘blood dimm’d tide’ as any amount of conspiracy theory rhetoric. Indifference is the wrong kind of silence when it comes to crises of the kind we have just witnessed.

            But, ironically, it is now silence that we most need, a different kind of silence. The silence of a call to collective prayer and repentance for which we must all take responsibility. First, we need to find repentance in ourselves, a place where we can be silent before God, bringing to mind the events of the past few days in the way I have described and then, for churches and people who pray, asking through the appropriate authorities, to be allowed to physically stand on Capitol Hill, silently holding candles signifying hope, light coming out of darkness, signifying repentance before God. The world will be standing with you in that hope and in the spirit of repentance that it requires.