Feel The Fear – And?

We carry fear around with us. It is something we are born with




It is said that people engage more readily with social media posts if they come with an image. I am not sure if this is a comment on a collective diminishment of intellect, attention span, or possibly a renewed penchant for the visual – because it is also said that our appreciation of the visual arts is actually waning. I don’t know if any of this is true, as these assertions are hard to prove statistically. But there must, all the same, be a reason for the fact that for most of us, it is the image which grabs our attention, although it will seldom retain it. So the image alone leaves the viewer with one of two options; the first, to switch off (in every sense of the word) and the second, to read a line or two of whatever is being offered on the rest of the page or screen.

This is not to suggest that we need to engage more deeply, and with greater discernment, on images and visual representations, although we probably do, but to ask ourselves what we are really looking for in the short intervening moment between looking at the image which comes with this post and deciding to read what is said about it. Is it curiosity? Or anxiety? Or a combination of both? The image has a context, but it is not the context that drew me back to it when I started to write. It is the haunting expression on the face of that particular man. I think it is the face of fear, of a man who is afraid of losing everything. To lose, in regard to his position, is to fail and to fail is, in some measure at least, to cease to exist. We have all known what it feels like to fail, or to be afraid of failing.

We carry this fear around with us. It is something we are born with. As very young children, fear is mixed into the imagination, but the imagination is also fed by experience. These primal experiences often have to do with immediate circumstances, such as war or violence closer to home. All too soon the very young child learns that violence does not happen of its own accord (apart from certain natural events like storms) but is perpetrated by other human beings, often those most close to us. It is also impossible to rationalise the fear which comes from experiencing violence, whether physical or emotional, and that remains true, to a greater or lesser extent, for most of our lives. So we are caught in a vicious circle. What we do not understand or cannot explain to ourselves makes us afraid and the fear which derives from not understanding makes us still more afraid – afraid of some indefinable state of isolation or non-being.

To return to the image posted above, could it be that the threat which this person poses to us stems from deep within his own fears, and touches us all in that dark part of our inner being in which we feel most alone, and most afraid?

If this is the case, it must require that we develop some kind of coping mechanism, some way of managing, but not denying, the kinds of fear which this person evokes in others and which may well be a variant on the fears he carries around in himself and of which he is in denial, as we all are when it comes down to what we most secretly fear.

We learn in the Christian tradition, and in other religious language frameworks, that love casts out, or resolves, fear. I have always found this quite hard to understand. I find it difficult to reconcile the way I feel when I love a person with the way I feel when I am afraid of someone. Some people know fear in the same context as love. They fear the person they love – or love the person they fear. So love itself does not seem to be casting out fear. Some other kind of love is needed.

It is love’s source that we need to draw on when we are most afraid.

With the season of Advent approaching comes the opportunity, for those who can spare the time or the mental space, to contemplate love’s source in the face of a tiny and vulnerable child. This child is, of course, all children and all vulnerable people. It is also the child in all of us. But somehow this particular child, this Jesus, brings unfathomable peace to all who will accept Him and are willing to be transformed by Him in the moment of doing so. No one is beyond His reach, including the frightened man in the picture I have posted. So perhaps the best thing we can do in regard to this particular individual is to hold him and his unnameable fears in the presence of this Christ Child and in the radiance of His smile.



A Book Whose Time Has Come


We all carry our fears around with us.   They are part of our emotional DNA.

The two questions which drive us, ‘Am I loved?’ and ‘Am I safe?’ are lodged deep in the subconscious and in the memories which have helped shape our lives. Our private fears feed into the collective – into how we respond to the politics of the time both national and global.

Fear also supplies us with a necessary energy, so it is useless to tell ourselves that we have no reason to feel afraid, especially in the times we are living in. Instead, we need to learn how to manage fear.  It is a spiritual task.

My latest book looks at how we can learn to pray into our fears, both private and collective, and so confront them through wise and compassionate action.

IST Cover plus Back




Being There


The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous,
and he shall bear their iniquities. (Is. 53:11)

There could not have been a more fitting reading for the day after the People’s Vote March. Perhaps it was the feeling that the march itself was making many righteous, in the way the Suffering Servant of the book of Isaiah can be understood as a collective, as a redeemed people.

Since I was due to preach the following day, I found myself mulling over the meaning of collective righteousness as we waited for 2 hours for the march to begin. We were told that the numbers of people there had so exceeded expectations that the police were having to close more streets to traffic, which made it possible for those familiar with London to take a few short cuts and get to the bit of the march that was actually moving.

Nevertheless, we did stand still for two hours on Park Lane, outside the Dorchester hotel. Expensive looking cars with darkened windows were occasionally escorted to its doors. I couldn’t help noticing the occupant of one of these as she emerged. She was dressed in the most stunning African traditional dress and head covering. That, too, must have been expensive, along with the car and the stay at the Dorchester. I tried to imagine who she might be. A powerful person, perhaps in government. Whatever the source of her obvious wealth I did find myself wondering how she thought about the poor in her country, whether she had any sense of responsibility for them, how she justified the wealth differential, Would she need protection in her own country, if 700,000 protesters were to pass by her front door?

Most of us on that march, as far as I could see, were neither conspicuously poor nor conspicuously wealthy. We were, for the most part, ordinary people privileged to live in a country where peaceful protest against the government of the day is not only permitted but protected. The police were amazing. They were there in steely vigilance, quietly taking responsibility for our safety, at some risk to themselves. Who knows what would have happened if violence had broken out? I was grateful for their professionalism and the confidence which it gave us. I suspect that even in the West and among the most powerful nations people taking part in marches and demos rarely feel as safe and confident as we did with the police around.

But to return to Isaiah; there was a sense of solidarity, not only because all 700,000 of us were there for the same reason, but because we seemed to be taking responsibility, quietly bearing together, the sum total of the iniquities which had brought us there from up and down the country, and from abroad, to demand that the government ‘repent’, that it turn itself around (which is the real meaning of repentance) in regard to Brexit and, most importantly, that it take responsibility for the people – all the people.

Isaiah’s suffering servant is thought by some biblical scholars to be a collective, a people. He suffers with them and he bears the responsibility for their suffering. He makes himself ‘part of’ the iniquity, and its healer. This suggests that what ought to come out of the People’s Vote march is a willingness to be responsible together, both government and people, for the iniquity of the first referendum on Brexit, a short sighted, irresponsible and entirely self-interested course of action. Irresponsible and self-interested on the part of the leadership of the time who were banking on a comfortable ‘remain’ majority that would also get them back in power; short-sighted on the part of a public that had failed to ask itself, or the government, some important questions pertaining to the wider picture and to longer term consequences. Two of these are especially significant in regard to Isaiah’s imagery of collective responsibility. They pertain to what happens to Ireland and, possibly the most important, what might be the long-term consequences of the fragmentation of Europe.

When a dish cracks it will be sundered by the next impact or excessive heat rise. The UK leaving the EU will likely create fissures and fractures in the political and economic fabric of Europe, opening the way to power for the far right which is already becoming entrenched in certain corners of the continent. We have been there before. Our parents and grandparents bore this particular iniquity in and through two world wars. By the time Jacob Rees Mogg’s prediction that it will take 50 years for the benefits of Brexit to be felt it will be far too late.


Compassionate Leadership for the Church



‘Brexit. Is it worth it?’ is one of the placard slogans displayed by ‘remain’ protesters. But short questions beg short answers, and short answers often only serve to exacerbate the anxiety and confusion which give rise to the question in the first place.

If we were to apply the same question to the life of the Church of England, and of its sister provinces in Scotland, Wales and Ireland, a short answer would also beg a great many further questions relating to its spiritual, moral and financial viability: So, the institutional Church: Is it worth it? Is it truly viable – or is it too late to think about this question? Many would say that it is.

To ask this question of the institutional Church is to ask whether it conveys life, the kind of life which connects with people, whether or not they are church-goers, and which gives and sustains hope. Many of those who have little to do with the Church are asking themselves if the Church is worth it, if there is any point to it. They will be looking first to its leaders to furnish an answer, if an answer is what is really required. I would be willing to hazard a guess that the reason for Pope Francis’s popularity, among Catholics and non-Catholics alike, is that he does not furnish answers or issue imperatives. Instead, he enters into the pain and fear of those he serves and, by doing so, speaks hope.

Drawing on the example set by Pope Francis, we could say that deeply compassionate leadership defines the viability of the Church. The question which needs to be asked of the Church of England, therefore, and of its sister provinces in the UK, pertains to how its leaders are to be equipped to speak compassionate hope, first to their own clergy and people, and through these to society, but leaders will not be able to speak compassionate hope into the life of the Church without having first known it themselves. They will know it as we all do, as something which binds us to God and to other people when friends are there for us in our humanity. Leaders need to be cared for in their humanity so that they can care for those they serve in the same way.

It seems that the hierarchical structures which exist to maintain the current system of governance and leadership, and which define the Church, no longer act as conduits of compassionate hope, the kind of hope which ought to sustain the Church’s life, or viability. As a result, the institutional Church is perceived by many to be largely irrelevant and to pertain to another age. Its power structure conveys constraint and introversion mediated through an arcane authority code which has something of the imperial about it, purple being traditionally the colour of emperors, rather than of repentance.

Revelations of clerical abuse suggests that at present, the way of leadership needs to speak first of repentance, as Pope Francis demonstrated on his recent visit to Ireland. Leaders demonstrate repentance in such a way as to allow the whole Church to take responsibility for the past, including our collective responsibility for the world and for our own society. But the Church cannot take responsibility for the suffering of others until it has known what it is to be forgiven, to be held and embraced by those it has wronged, irrespective of who they are and of the nature of the offence committed. In terms of the functional life of the Church, this embracing might begin with a complete re-ordering of the structures which make forgiveness and embrace impossible. While this may involve a purely functional re-ordering, it is more likely that it will call for the kind of breaking down of hierarchical barriers which would return us all to our full humanity, allowing us to perceive one another as fellow persons with different gifts and callings, but equal in the eyes of God.

Episcopal authority is derived in some measure from a monastic tradition of obedience but in the life of the institutional Church, it often seems to lack the genuine affection on which monastic authority depends for its credibility. For those on the outside, the structures which are propping up an ageing Church, and which sustain a culture of deference and clericalism, appear to be maintained by pragmatism worked out through a managerial mindset which distances leaders from those they are there to serve.  As a result, financial viability, rather than the preaching of the good news of compassion and hope, becomes an end in itself.

Notwithstanding the importance given to mission, what, and where, is the vision? Good management is necessary for any organisation to thrive and grow but it needs to have a vision to support it and to this end, it needs to care for its own people, including those at the top.

The constraints imposed by a still patriarchal and hierarchical system of governance have created an all-pervading atmosphere of distrust and constraint which dehumanises the Church and makes forgiveness and compassionate leadership difficult. The system demands too much of its leaders and of those it is supposed to serve and support, with the result that power games, status envy and the politics of exclusion increasingly dominate the Church’s life.

It is the leaders who pay the first and perhaps the greatest price. Fear and distrust lead to isolation and loneliness and can also lead to serious mental health problems. Similarly, the administrative and organisational demands placed on those in positions of leadership in the context of the diocese or parish leave little time or mental space for deep prayer, the kind of centered stillness which requires hours rather than minutes. Out of this centered stillness comes clarity of vision, as prayerful leaders in the past have demonstrated. It also builds the inner strength which makes deep compassion not only possible but lifegiving, both for the leaders who pray and for those they serve.



Have A Nice Day



Summer colds are the worst. So is depression on a clear blue late September day. There is some consolation in knowing that you are not the only sufferer, but only very little. This is because the worst thing about colds, ‘flu and depression is that they claim you. You may try, if you are a praying sort of person, to think of all those who are suffering from far greater physical or mental conditions than your own, but this seldom takes you to a different place. On the other hand, you might also try being fully present to the moment through owning it fully. This helps but it requires focus, and depression makes focus almost impossible. You are constantly returned to whatever trigger set this particular downward spiral in motion.

Having read few books on the subject of depression (they tend to make me more depressed, so I read them later when the depression has passed) I have evolved my own coping mechanisms. One of these, the most important perhaps, draws on Jon Kabat-Zinn’s helpful thesis; ‘you are not your depression’[1]. Your depression does not own you, so there is no reason to allow yourself to be consumed by it. But trying to suppress it doesn’t work either. It’s better, if possible, to step outside the depression and view it objectively. Ask yourself what it is, rather than what it is about or what has caused it. You find that just like a cold or ‘flu, it is simply depression, a condition that chiefly affects our state of mind, although it can have serious physical side effects, some of them even life threatening.

In looking at depression objectively, hard as that may be at the time, two further things emerge; the first, an objective take on the underlying depression that to a greater or lesser extent most of us carry around for much of our lives and, the second, the will to make something positive and good happen out of it for someone else. This is not self sacrifice. It is self preservation.

It is also the nearest I can get to a definition of depression as prayer. In times of depression prayer has to do with the determination to convert negative energy into something positive and re-creative for another person, or another situation. This conversion of energy is not something we do through our own efforts, but something we want to have happen. Depression adds acuity to the wanting, even if the wanting is not consciously directed to God, but comes from a determination that our depression at least serve some good purpose. The determined wanting is the prayer.

The wanting is important, first because the will to re-create, or to bring life from something that is essentially about death, takes us to a different place of understanding in regard to ourselves and to the purpose of our own lives. The worst thing about depression, and about the lingering viruses that feed depression, is that they weaken us both physically and emotionally to the point that it is hard to believe we have a purpose at all and it is equally hard to believe that there is anyone or anything worth the effort needed to make our experience of depression something that could be life transforming for someone else. I think this is what Christ himself experienced as he walked to the place of his execution – the seeming purposelessness of it all.

But in wanting life to come from our current experience of death, which is what depression amounts to much of the time, we become agents of re-creation for the persons or situations we most care about. Here is where truth comes in. When we hit rock bottom in depression, we also hit truth, if we allow ourselves to. Truth reveals to us, sometimes surprisingly, who these people or situations really are. Depression focuses the mind on the things and the people that really matter to us. It is a great refiner.

In times of depression, we do not have the means for holding on to the delusions which help to cushion us from long hidden pain or from the memory of destructive relationships. Work, alcohol, general activism, or any other addictive pursuit will simply not do it for us once depression takes hold, so it is as well to face this from the beginning.

When it comes to looking at how past pain and the things which trigger it are feeding this particular depression, it helps, once again, to step back, to allow objectivity. In order to do this, I have found it necessary to first let go of all the past circumstances that trigger the pain of the present so that I can come to terms with the fact that I cannot change them. Letting go does not mean burying them by trying to ‘forget’. Letting go is a willingness to allow a transfiguring of the way we experience the pain of today. This helps to re-direct our wanting from a desire to be vindicated for the past, as well as from whatever has contributed to the current depression, into a forceful wanting that life should come out of the darkness and death which threatens to overwhelm us. Sooner or later that determined wanting, that urgent need to be heard by God, will win through.

[1] Jon Kabat-Zinn Full Catastrophe Living: How to cope with stress, pain and illness using mindfulness meditation, Platkus Books Ltd., London (2004)

Disposable Time

‘Happiness is a right, but you have to catch it yourself’ said Benjamin Franklin of the American Constitution. It was a very English thing for an 18th century American to say. We English have traditionally held that pulling yourself up by your own boot strings is a moral imperative. This is why Pelagius, writing in the 5th century, was a very English heretic. Pelagius argued that human beings did not need divine grace in order to fulfil God’s purpose for them because they could perfectly well fulfil it through their own efforts and character. Part of his argument entailed the denial of original sin, as it was then understood. Original sin was seen as a stain on a person’s soul that could only be eradicated by the grace imparted through baptism.

In his book The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins argues that original sin would be better termed original selfishness; our natural propensity for the furthering of self interest at the expense of anyone or anything that gets in its way. Original selfishness, Dawkins argues, has its origins in the instinct for survival which we have inherited from our earliest humanoid ancestors. He has a point. But it also creates complications, or at least invites a redefinition of the notion of inherited sin. However, one thing seems obvious; in modern society unredeemed original selfishness leads to a state of personal and collective loneliness.

In terms of the individual, those who have led selfish lives often find themselves alone and unvisited in their final years, a situation exacerbated, perhaps, by the selfishness they have passed on to others.

Added to this, what is becoming increasingly obvious is that the tendency to individual selfishness, along with collective greed, will lead to the demise of our species within the next couple of centuries.  But this increasingly obvious fact does not seem to be making us less selfish, either in terms of how we think about the planet we are bequeathing to the next three or four generations, or how we conceive of our own happiness at this moment.

Perhaps the difficulty lies in the significance of the moment itself, the moment in time which is now. Time has become a kind of currency. We are used to thinking about disposable assets, but isn’t time itself a disposable asset? We never seem to have enough of it. Disposable time, and how it is used, is central to the question of happiness and to that of loneliness. Too little disposable time forces us to compress our lives into a rapidly shrinking time framework, usually at the expense of our relationships and of our mental and physical health. Later in life, the sacrificing of relationships will lead to us having too much disposable time, too many hours to fill and too few people left with whom to share them.

Do we simply dismiss this future scenario as the inevitable price we pay for living in the times we live? Or can we change it? or, better still, is there a way for re-connecting with the source of true happiness in the disposable time that is given to us? This brings us to the core question; If we want happiness, can we find ways of being present to stillness, and the peace it brings, from within any one transient moment in daily life? Only in allowing stillness will we be able to re-order our happiness priorities.

There are two stories from the Gospels which hint at how we might re-think our happiness priorities. The first is that of the encounter between Jesus and the rich young man who wants to know what he must do to inherit the kingdom of God. (Matt. 19:16-22) He has led a good life but he is afraid of parting with his possessions. This is understandable. Material assets impart a feeling of safety, so to let go of them willingly is frightening. This was the young man’s problem. He found it hard to come to terms with the fact that his assets were truly disposable. Like many of us today he also felt that he was defined by what he owned, or by what he had achieved, and that his happiness depended on these things.

The other story concerns two sisters, Martha and Mary. (Luke 10:38-42) Jesus is having supper at their house and Martha complains to him for allowing her sister to sit listening to what he is saying instead of helping her with the meal. (Why is her brother not being asked to help, one can’t help wondering?) But Jesus replies that Mary has ‘the better part’. The story concerns the proper deployment of disposable time when it comes to what makes for real happiness.

This is not to say that spirituality (whatever that word signifies) is more important than practical action or rational thought, but that there are deep human needs which take precedence over everything else. Denying these needs leads to unhappiness. The deepest of these is our need for God, and meeting our need for God requires time, rather than money.

Do We Still Need Shops?


Image result for hand held self checkout device

A few years have now passed since the first self-checkout gizmos (those little machines you hold in your hand and bleep at things before you put them in your trolley) made their appearance in my favourite supermarket.  The same supermarket also offers online shopping, which we were once told would be the future of retail, the implication being that we had all better get used to it. The gizmos are no doubt cost effective for the retailer, because they make it possible for shops to hire fewer people to run their checkouts. But fewer people running checkouts means more people in my community without jobs.

Added to this, is the sense of panic and the feeling of exposure to looking stupid which these gizmos induce in some of us. The gizmo seems to be waiting in its neat little rack for the anxious customer to do all the wrong things with it and finally have to turn to another human being for assistance, all of which takes twice as long as it would have done had the person opted for queuing at the checkout in the first place.

For many people who live in the country, as well as many who live in cities, shops supply more than food and the basics of life. They underpin community. For some, such as the elderly, the housebound, or the lone parent, the visit to the local supermarket will be the only chance they have to speak to another adult, or even to another human being, all day.

The best shops have made it their business to be interested in the human beings who buy their products. The people who work there and who staff their checkouts get to know their customers. They are not just being friendly for the sake of appearances. The result is that the shops feel more like markets than supermarkets. This should be encouraged, not only for social reasons, but also for the environmental knock-on effect of shopping carefully in one place. For one thing, it is easier to hold one big shop to account for where and how it sources its goods than to visit several in the hope of doing the same, even if that saves money.

Similarly, if we grow our own veg (assuming that is possible) the environmental damage caused by frequent car journeys to the nearest supermarket is reduced proportionately. We do not need to visit a supermarket every time we run out of lettuce. You tend to get used to making do with whatever is to hand, so avoiding the kind of additional impulse buying which makes going into town for the sake of one lettuce worth the time and the trouble. In other words, the home grower doesn’t just save money on veg. She saves it on all the things she didn’t buy had she gone there for the lettuce. She also diminishes her carbon footprint.

To some extent, the same could be said to be true of online delivery services. You pick what you want from what’s on offer. But these services presumably come with their own problems, like how to return sub-standard food ordered online or that has been delivered to you by mistake. I have never shopped for food online, so am unfamiliar with such a process.

All of this is about getting the balance right between being human and being a consumer. Going to the shops is not just about shopping. It is, in a deeper sense, about communion. Shopping provides an opportunity to be together with other human beings, to hear their voices and know companionship, even if you don’t bump into someone you know personally, although in small towns like ours, you generally do. These chance meetings, along with a sense of being part of the wider community, reflect the hospitality of God. They also invite joy and gratitude in experiencing, be it ever so slightly, his invitation to us to enjoy the fruits of the earth and benefit from the kind of marketing which brings people together rather than turning them into atomised consumers.

Without gratitude we become increasingly isolated from one another and hence from the giver of all good things. Gratitude is the basis for all human happiness. It is given and received in all sorts of ways. In the context of shopping, most of us experience it in a shared word or two with another person about the most trivial things, or the tiny moments of ordinary courtesy that are known while standing in a queue, and which may lead to remarks about the weather and to whatever is currently of interest to any one community; bits of news, thoughts and concerns about others or about what is going on in the world. For many people, such moments only happen while queueing at the check out.  A quick ‘thank you’ to the delivery person does not quite do it. Neither does the cost effective self-checkout gizmo, for all its promise of speed and efficiency.


Liberal Values In An Illiberal Age


Liberals have something very valuable at the heart of their political conviction for which they often pay a price. The word ‘liberal’ embodies both freedom and generosity so that, theologically, it is bound up with the very nature of God, with God’s love and mercy. I am a liberal in the context of both Church and society because I believe that the liberal vision for a just society and a just Church is closely bound to these two essentially divine attributes.

This liberal conviction is also part of the conviction of faith. The conviction of faith depends not on certainties, but on the humility that comes with an implicit trust in the deeper truth which makes the love of God a reality in people’s lives, a truth which embodies kindness. Kindness is what liberal Christians ought to be holding to as they try to help others reflect on the increasingly complex moral questions that face our high tech, money orientated world and society. It is also why some view them with suspicion. People like certainty in politics and they like it in religion, so those who suggest that less certainty is conducive to moral and religious health are perceived as a threat.

In the Church, as in society, liberals have been accused of being neutral, of ‘wishy washiness’, of having no real theology, of sacrificing integrity for the sake of a spurious unity, and even of cowardice. Many, if not all of these accusations are the result of the over-politicised, issue-driven and somewhat lazy mindset which drives the individual politically and which also drives the politics of the Church. Particular mindsets, or to put it more bluntly, prejudices, give a person a political identity, also affording them with (providing it can be squared with other prejudices) a party identity. For those liberals who see truth as bound up with God’s love and mercy, and therefore inherently dynamic and of the Spirit, the difficulty lies in defining the truths which make us fully human, rather than trying to pin them down so that we can identify with them and identify with like-minded people, or with a political party.

But truth is not to be confined in this way. Rather, it must allow for the freedom and generosity which speaks of true liberality. For liberals, the search for truth is an ongoing struggle for a deeper understanding of what is truly good. Christians engage in this struggle in the knowledge that God wrestles with us as we seek solutions to the questions which will inevitably accompany such a search. God wrestles, as we all do, with righteousness and truth as it pertains to the world today – or, put more simply, as it pertains to the question ‘What is the right thing to do in this situation?’ What is most conducive to the common good, to God’s overarching love being worked into the life of any one person in any one context – abortion, for example? or with the way we are as a nation among other nations – Brexit, for the UK, and the politics of immigration both in the UK and the US?

All of these questions, and their contexts, point to the variegated nature of truth, and hence to the near impossibility of providing a single answer to those which pertain to morality and to how a nation sees itself as one among many. At the same time, Donald Trump’s spurious policies are an all too painful reminder of what can happen when we do not pay serious attention to what those in power are doing with the power handed to them in regard to what is righteous and truthful and in the interest of the common good.

In the UK we are also being taught some salutary lessons in taking responsibility for the common good as we watch the disintegration of the Conservative party where the common good, along with truth and righteousness, are easily traded for the gratification of personal political ambition. And while Rome burns the party in opposition watches and waits – silently. This is the worst form of pragmatism. Why is the party of the opposition not opposing? Possibly because its leader wants to keep his options open for later, should he find himself running the country in the near future. But he is doing himself a great disservice politically. Many of those who might have voted for him feel disillusioned by his lack of what the poet Yeats would have called ‘conviction’ at a time when the country so badly needs to hear his voice. Although I would not bracket the leader of the Labour party with Donald Trump when it comes to integrity and righteous thinking, both, to a greater or lesser extent, remind us that weak men in positions of power are dangerous in the longer term.

Liberal theology, and all liberal thinking, needs to be true to itself by not shirking the questions which are asked of it and by seeking to address those questions in new and challenging ways, ways which will enable others to connect with the love of God. This is something Modern Church tries to do each year as we reflect theologically at our conferences. Our annual conferences remind us of the privilege and responsibilities which come with being a liberal voice for the Church and for the Christian faith. Liberalism, as we see it being worked out in the context of Modern Church, involves a kind of quiet passion for a religion which is capable of bringing hope where it is most needed – in the realm of ideas which are capable of shaping the policies of both Church and world into something that speaks of the kindness of God.

In both these areas, liberalism is neither heterodox or ‘fuzzy’, but it does threaten to disturb. It dislodges us from familiar habits of mind, because there is something deep and alive driving its life.



With Unaffected Love


When a nine-year-old girl, whom you’ve never met before, gives you one of those fierce hugs that only children give, you know it as a life-defining moment (one that you’ll probably remember as you’re dying), and even more so when the hug comes with the words ‘You’re such a nice lady’.

I wonder if this is the form of greeting given by angels to heaven’s new arrivals. I like to think of angels as beings we do not see, except on very rare occasions and usually while we are still very young. Even so, they are, I suspect, very much around in moments of unaffected love, such as the one I have described.  I was privileged to receive this hug as the child in question was leaving a party which had been full of love and laughter. There had been a ceilidh, and ceilidhs always make for love and laughter and for wonderful parties.

Again, I suspect something like a ceilidh goes on in the great party of heaven, possibly with the occasional ‘rest’ period for everyone to catch their breath, as well as welcome newcomers who may or may not be natural dancers. From the ceilidh, which probably gave rise to the hug (I think we’d been partners at some point), we learn community. Not the kind of community which comes to mind when that word is invoked as some kind of proto-social ideal, but a reckless ‘not minding’ of what impression we are making or failing to make, as we join in the dance. The same is true of the reciprocal hug I received from the nine-year-old. There was no impression needed.

What really prompts such hugs? I think it is a kind of graced and holy obedience. By that I mean an obedience that comes as unconsciously as breathing, because it is the natural response to unaffected love. A ceilidh requires this kind of natural response to the general measure, or rhythm, which is being played by the band, and to the words of the caller. Without their music and the caller’s words there can be no response, no unaffected love between the dancers. There can be no dance.

The kingdom of heaven begins in the moment when we get the ‘measure’ of the dance, when we sense the rhythm and music in ourselves which prompts a kind of carefree obedience. For the dance to work, we must be obedient to its measure spelled out to us in the instructions and encouragement of the caller. Together, the music, the rhythm and the voice of the caller, combine to make us aware of the pull of love we feel towards our many partners. As a result, this kind of dance always involves a general sense of belonging to each other, no matter who you begin with as a partner at the start of the dance. My husband is not an enthusiastic dancer and I’m ashamed to admit that I borrowed someone else’s (with her agreement) for the final ‘strip the willow’.

The morning after the ceilidh we attended an ordination service in one of the nation’s iconic cathedrals. The ordination service was a dance in its own right – at least up to a point. Orchestration, fine timing, attention to detail and many beautiful and impressive words, both said and sung, reminded me of a kind of extended ‘pavane’ or ‘gavotte’. There was great beauty in the form, and in much of the dress. These are the things that many of the people sitting in the pews will remember. There was also a formal gesture of community, a stylised rendering of communion, in the exchange of the peace between strangers. But for all its choreography and carefully chosen words and actions, and despite the joyfulness of the occasion, the service lacked something of the deep and reckless love of a ceilidh.

Perhaps this is why the institutional church is losing touch with people. There is something solemn and unjoyful at work beneath its surface which jars with what is said and done on occasions such as this ordination. Some of us are uncomfortably aware of the internal politics and the machinations of power which are at work in the Church’s higher echelons, and within its very heart.

In ceremonies of ordination these higher echelons of power are both affirmed and celebrated through dress, liturgy and ritual. But as with all theatre, it is often a very different story in the green room downstairs. There, once the robes have been discarded, the private face of the Church will quietly re-assert itself. There will be a general sense of ‘bonhomie’, with old friends and political allies acknowledging each other. There will be a seeking out, with a passing joke or greeting, of people who might be useful to other people. There will be a degree of suspicion, even of fear, when eyes meet and silent confrontation of one kind or another bitterly reasserts itself.

But there will also be hugs, and many of them will be unaffected and full of the joy one experiences in an uncomplicated and trusting friendship, although these will mostly take place between ‘junior’ members of the power structure. Those at the higher end, with heavy robes and the valuable accoutrements which go with them to think of before they can start hugging, will usually be unrobing in a separate room or perhaps, in the case of an ordination, making their way to the steps outside to be photographed with the newly ordained.

This year, some of them have been made to jump up and down for these photographs. This, on the whole, they will not have enjoyed. It is never good to be forced to look silly and I suspect that, in the long term, making bishops look silly in public undermines their true worth (which is often hidden beneath the robes and mitres) and does nothing to further trust and unaffected love between bishops and their clergy. But to give the media the benefit of the doubt, in regard to these contrived photographs, perhaps they are suggesting that if the deep joy that is of Christ cannot be visible in the unaffected love that ought to exist between the members of his Church, photographers must do what they can to manufacture something that looks like it.

Church Plants – Are They ‘Relevant’?

The furore surrounding Angela Tilby’s Church Times article ‘Deliver us from the Evangelical Takeover’ (Church Times 27th April, 2018) has given rise to what many people probably see as a very large storm occurring, once again, in a very small teacup. They are right insofar as it can be felt as a more compact, and therefore more intense, re-working of the murderous Church differences that prevailed in this country and on the continent in the sixteenth century, and thereafter in other guises. But they would be wrong to see them as another reason for dismissing the Church, and the Christian faith to which it witnesses, as ‘irrelevant’.

Irrelevance is what Christianity is often accused of when there is nothing else left to blame for suffering and injustice, including the injustices perpetrated by the Church. But blame, merited or not, has never brought renewed life or hope, and the Church, with all its internecine conflicts, is badly in need of both new life and hope. It could even be said that the Church of England, in its more traditional form, has dropped below the critical mass needed for its very survival. It is for this reason that the idea of a takeover – Evangelical or otherwise, is frightening.

‘Takeover’ is really another word for conquest, and conquerors usually succeed in obliterating whoever they have conquered. ‘Takeover’ also resonates with the crude competitiveness of the market place, that whoever can occupy a coveted commercial space most quickly and efficiently is entitled to it. The church plant is legitimized in being quick and efficient. It appears to produce almost instantaneous results, so it is apparently worth a small amount of collateral damage in the shape of the people it displaces. By virtue of its success, the relevance, or irrelevance, of the plant takeover is no longer up for discussion.

But these two words are also deeply misleading. The idea of irrelevance is not an accurate description of the ways in which the Church can be found wanting. If the Church is seen to be irrelevant it is likely to be because the way that it goes about doing evangelism fails to connect with what matters to people, what we are all really yearning for, and which many people find it hard to give voice to. In other words, some way of naming, or giving meaning to, the concept of God.

The response to a perceived ‘takeover’ of the Church by Evangelicals is really an objection to the way one group appears to be taking it upon itself to name the unnameable for everyone else. Here, it has to be said that not all Evangelicals are sympathetic to church plants. There is also a sense of pressure and competitive hype driving certain kinds of worship and teaching which leaves some people feeling patronized, often to the point of exclusion. If you cannot join in the hymn or song, with its music, or with the theology it is expressing, you experience a sense of disconnect and exclusion and you are further disempowered in your desire to name and know the God whom you so deeply need.

This sense of disconnection and exclusion contributes to what Angela Tilby calls “existential distress.” Existential distress is the result of religious alienation. In the context of public worship, alienation is experienced as an inability to identify with those around you. The words being said or sung by a particular church do not express or connect with the fears and loneliness of the individual who may come from a different church background, or no church at all. They may even exacerbate them. This suggests that what is needed in all worshipping contexts is space in which to name our fears and own our loneliness, together and before God. At the more Catholic end of Anglican life, this is done implicitly through liturgy which draws the worshippers together into God. In Evangelical contexts a less formally defined and open way of praying does the same work, but more explicitly, so it requires greater self discipline in regard to how it affects others.

To this end, those who lead church worship must facilitate an encounter. They must enable those they serve to give shape to their need for God, as Jesus does with all those who ask the questions that really matter to them. A theologian visits him at night because he wants to know the real meaning of new life in the spirit. A woman is honoured in her genuine quest for truth as it is to be known in worship. Others, like Peter and Mary Magdalen, have few if any words for what is being revealed to them in a moment of profound understanding and relatedness with God. They simply “worship him”, as Peter did, or utter the name by which they know him best, as Mary Magdalene did in the garden of the Resurrection.

This is the relevance of connection with God that the Church of England, in both its Protestant and Catholic manifestations, so badly needs to have for the times we live in.

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