Easter Day

At this third mass of Easter –to the latecomers to the party – you’re welcome, forgive us if the ‘hard core Christians’ are a bit jaded – we continue to rejoice that Christ has risen from the dead.

But what does that mean?

Well, as I say, each year,  I’m sure its not about eggs, or bunnies, or even any contrived media stories about people using or not using the word “Easter” to flog their secular activities, products or services.

What it is, what it means, is about us: who we are, what being a Christian is about, and what we can become. In short it is about worship, mission and service.

Jesus’ resurrection: his physical rising from the dead and emergence from the tomb is central to all of this. This is our enfleshed God in majesty amongst us. This is the God who shares our lot, gives his life and brings the fullness of his glory into the world. Our response – the only fitting response to that seismic event which has shaped so much of history, is to worship him. That’s after all what this place is for. Not for when we feel like it, not just for the big days, not just for when its convenient or in the style we like. No, for every day.

That’s what being a Christian is, that’s what Easter reminds us of. That’s what we renewed last night. That’s what we continue to celebrate today: that Jesus’ rising from the dead empowers us every single day – for our vocation is to be lived out every single day. The brilliance of the light of Easter casts away the darkness of the excuses we proffer as to why that shouldn’t be the case. And we need to wake up to that reality. It’s time to re-prioritise what we do.

Easter is about radical transformation. A dead man walks. And if a dead man lives again then with God, truly nothing is impossible. We can, if we want, become absolutely the people God knows we can be. And the joy of the Easter celebration give us that kick in the backside we often need to start to realise that potential when we walk with Jesus.

That’s not though a gift given to us for our personal collection for display in our own corner cabinet of faith. The resurrection life – lived out through the witness and ministry of the Church (yes – that’s you as well as me) is a gift to be shared – the original gift that keeps on giving.

The Christian, Catholic and apostolic faith we witness to isn’t like a fragile egg to be protected and cosseted, conserved and mummified. It is a living organic vehicle for the transformation of the world. We just need to start with our own patch, first.

The news spreads. The first witnesses rush to tell others – there is an urgency to the message, the Good News of the resurrection. That is as true for us today – as it was for them then. As witnesses and heralds of the resurrection today – as those who, through baptism are conjoined in apostolic life and mission, it’s our job to tell others about Jesus – not anyone elses, and we cannot, dear friends, slink away into the past belief that someone else is responsible for that! The evangelisation of the world, this country, this town, this parish, this church is our job – yours and mine, and we are not proper Christians if we refuse to engage with that work – or hope we can delegate it, or buy someone else to do it all for us.

We have to show up, roll up our sleeves and get on with it. Not because it helps the numbers, puts bums on seats, pays the quota, or makes me look good (though all of those things are incidentally true – particularly the last point). We do this because it’s our way of saying thank you to God for what he offers us: life and life in its fullness.

But we can’t just tell people. Words are not enough. We have to show people in acts of loving service that Jesus resurrection from the dead makes a difference, in world which needs to hear and see and experience that as much today as ever it has.

And yes, that costs. It costs us time and effort, it costs us physically and mentally, it costs us personally and financially, it costs us because good things don’t come cheap – our sacrifice is but a pale reflection of the sacrifice God has made, his Son died. What did we give back?

The world we inhabit does not enjoy many of the securities we enjoy here. Yet if we, who are rich in every way shut ourselves away, parochialise our faith, and diminish our witness it is as though we are yet to emerge from the tomb, unable to learn how to actually live because we are still spiritually dead.

Yes, we live in fast changing and uncertain times. The tectonic plates of society, politics, justice, security and faith change: but they always have. If we cry out: the world is changing, then the answer is: it always has. We cannot stop that change: it always has been so.

That is driven by the resurrection, the constant though, is Jesus, his revelation is Hope.

One of our Church Wardens lent me earlier this year a copy of a book of speeches Barak Obama made in his journey from local politician to president. Some of the oratory is simply magnificent – and I hope my American friends here wouldn’t mind me saying that that’s something from a country where many politicians couldn’t find a complete sentence if they tried, let alone a whole speech that makes sense.

Whatever your political persuasion, there is an awesome phrase, a theme, he uses again and again throughout his public service. It is simply “The audacity of hope”

As the then young Senator Obama put it:

“Hope in the face of difficulty, hope in the face of uncertainty, the audacity of hope: in the end, that is God’s greatest gift to us, a belief in things not seen, a belief that better days lie ahead.”

Hope – so unusual to hear. Fear is usually the friend of politician and terrorist alike: the devil’s finest work. Fear obscures hope, diminishes it and seeks to silence it.

But fear never wins. Fear can be overcome. Fear can be cast out. The might and power and majesty of the resurrection is: hope casts out fear. As I sang last night at the start of our Easter celebration:

“The power of this holy night dispels all evil, washes guilt away, restores lost innocence, brings mourners joy; it casts out hatred, brings us peace, and humbles earthly pride. Night truly blessed when heaven is wedded to earth and man is reconciled with God!”

We can, in our worship, our mission, our service give in to fear that drives us into the yesterday of our own imagination fondly half remembered; we can listen to the voice of fear that paralyses us from achieving anything; we can give in to fear and die.

Or we can walk in hope of that yet unseen, listen in hope for that yet unknown, live in hope for that yet to come – confident that our God is with us, for he has risen from the dead.

Let us, dear friends in the light of the resurrection live up to the responsibilities of our baptism and have the the audacity to worship, the audacity to witness, and the audacity to serve. As we continue our Easter celebrations let us rejoice in the superabundant audacity of hope that God has blessed us with in the resurrection of his Son Jesus Christ.

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

 

 

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Easter Vigil

Paschal triumph, paschal joy! Only sin can this destroy.

Thank goodness. We’ve made it. In one piece, just about. Nothing’s been tripped over either, which let’s face it, is a miracle in itself. The befogged, blurry land has lived has become ‘as clear as the day’. I’m saving myself from bursting out in a wild chorus of “I once was blind – but now I see!” Alleluia!

I am of course, not talking about me at all – or my new varifocal spectacles – I am really talking about the resurrection. In the light that rises in the darkness, in the dawn of new life, in the breaking forth of hope, it all makes sense. Death is defeated, life is restored.

What joy!

That’s what we’re doing – a joyful thing. In a moment we go to the font to make concrete the journey we’ve made this week: publically declaring, under the watchful patronage of the saints that we reject sin, that Jesus is our Lord, that we are his and that we will do his work in the world today.

For that’s what being a Christian is. Our worship empowers us to serve, to know forgiveness, to bring forgiveness, to live in freedom and joy, to exist in loving obedience to the Father, walking, joyfully with the Son in the power of the Holy Spirit.

The great sweeping story of salvation that we have listened to in our vigil reminds us that the only threat to this – the only thing that can screw it all up – is our temptation to fall into sin. And here’s the thing. We don’t have to.

We can choose. We can do the right thing. We can follow Jesus. We can pray. We can worship. We can serve. We can tell others about this wonderful gift we’re given and bring them to know the joy of the resurrection.

We don’t need to trip, fall, to be spiritually blind any more. The light of Christ rises in our hearts and minds. Celebrate! rejoice! Throw of the shackles of the past. Don’t be a miserable Christian any more! Don’t let sin destroy this Paschal triumph, paschal joy!

Alleluia! Christ has risen!

Good Friday

A few weeks ago I was asked what ‘sin against us’ might actually mean. It was a fabulous – and important question that arose from an introduction to the Lord’s Prayer: “Let us ask our Father to forgive us, as we forgive those who sin against us.” For the nub of the question was: isn’t a sin just something we do wrong in the sight of God?

Many of you, will of course know that it’s a simple transliteration of the dependant sub-clause of the Lord’s prayer itself: Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us”. And for those who worry I’m about to embark on a pedant’s English lesson the point here is that we have to forgive others in order to be in a place where God can forgive us.

We often can regard sin – the disruption of good relationship – as being just a “me and God’ kind of thing. I guess that’s why people say “I don’t need to go to confession – God can forgive me directly” If our relationship with God, our exercise of religious faith is, ultimately only about my individualistic relationship with God to the exclusion of everyone else, then I can follow that line of reasoning. It is bourne out of protestant conception of salvation simply being sola fide by faith alone – when “me” and “God” are the only fundamentals. Hence the evangelical’s questions of faith are all posited in individual terms: when did you accept Jesus as Lord; do you accept Jesus as your personal Saviour; “I came to faith when I accepted Jesus into my life”.

The problem with that is that its wrong in so far as it is incomplete. It’s only half the story.

For you do not come here today as a individuals, each ‘doing your own thing’ albeit in the presence of other people each ‘doing their own thing’. We come together to become something greater than the sum of the individual parts. To be God’s people binds us in relationship not only with God: but with each other, and with those who went before as with those who will follow after us.

Thus, to use a phrase, we become aware in our corporate life, in our Catholic faith that we are the Church militant here on earth, conjoined in our worship with the Church expectant (the souls of the faithful departed) and the Church Triumphant (the saints in glory).

And this day, this celebration, the Passion of Jesus is the connecting point – it is the epicenter and crossroad for all Christian people in every time and place.

For what Jesus does in his self offering on the Cross for the sins of the world forever changes our relationship with the Father, through him; and forever changes our relationship with each other.

The death of Jesus, the price of our sin, and the demonstration of the depths of God’s love changes our individual relationship with the Father and – and – with each other.

When I sin, it is not just my relationship with God which is distanced (for that is what sin does) – my relationship with those who I hurt in word, deed or through omission are distanced too from me.

And today is above all other days, when Jesus rescues us from the oblivion of sin, restores us to the Father and restores us to each other.

So when I sin, I affect not only my relationship with God I affect my relationship with each of you.

What Jesus accomplishes is my ability to seek forgiveness and reconciliation – with God and with those I have hurt – those I have sinned against.

That means I have to take responsibility for what I have done.

Its far easier to opine “but that’s between me and God alone”. That allows us to hide in our own relationship with God – real or imagined. We can convince ourselves that everything’s ok – when it might be far from ok. To hear someone’s confession is always a profound experience – because that act of speaking of our innermost, deepest, darkest failings to another makes the reality of our sin present. Once said, once out in the open, we can’t any more pretend it was anyone else who did it – I did it.

In doing so, the first step to reconciliation is taken – we take responsibility for what we have done and what we have failed to do.

The wood of the cross that we venerate links us – for it is in the wood of the tree of the garden of Eden that innocence is lost, sin disfigures us in the action of Adam and Eve. It is in the wood of a tree, fashioned into a cross that Jesus is disfigured so we can be freed from sin and made whole again. This second Adam, our Lord, does what we cannot do. He pays the price for our wrongs. And what a price he pays – Jesus gives his life for you.

When we come to the Cross, as all of us must – either now, or in the hour of our death and day of our judgement – we are offered forgiveness, we can experience the power of forgiveness – we understand that we too can forgive. That is, if we want that gift. We learn that broken relationships can be restored, that our brokenness can be repaired. We simply need to want it – to be penitent – to say sorry – to open our hearts.

For how many lives here, today are silently broken by the casual or callous ways we wound each other? How many families, couples, individuals today are scarred with the pains of relationships gone wrong? How many festering wounds that cry out for healing have our sins caused? How many lives here, behind the veneer of projected respectability are twisted by the burdens of the sins we carry? Bitter, empty, cold, afraid, alone.

Sin pulls us away from God and from each other, straining, cracking, breaking the bonds of peace. The Cross, in the triumph of Christ Crucified, pulls us back together, holds us, loves us, forgives us, restores us.

I am my brother’s keeper – when I sin against him, I sin against God too. When I hurt him, I hurt myself, I hurt my God. Your sin affects your relationship with God every bit as it hurts the person sat next to you.

We’re offered, now, the chance to know in penitence and faith the gift of reconciliation this day: as we come face to face with the real and heavy cost of our disobedience and sin. His death was caused by us, by me, by you. And yet he loves us still.

Jesus dies for you, for me, for us: for what we did, for what we do. His cross says boldly for those with the courage to face it, for those who won’t run away from it: it’s time, time to stop blaming others, it’s time, here, now, to take responsibility for your sins.

Maundy Thursday

History records various “famous last Words” but the most powerful are from people we have known and loved ourselves. Their last words and actions often have a profound effect on their hearers. They become their last will and testament.

Walking with those who know their life is coming to an end is always a privilege… That’s even more powerful with those who have a terminal, life limiting illness. Aware that they’re going to die, there’s very often, a release of life.

Some of you will have listened last year and earlier this year on Radio 4’s PM, the journalist Steve Hewlett recount his last months having been diagnosed with what became incurable cancer.

It was an extraordinarily honest sense in which, in the face of death, he discovered life in an even richer sense – and was able to have all those conversations with family and friends which, otherwise, might have felt awkward given the usual English reserve. It never ceases to amaze me what those who know they will die soon are able to accomplish. Steve died just before the start of Lent.

Another friend of mine, aged 33 knew he was going to die. The means of his end wasn’t clear, but in his conversations with his friends he was clear: he knew there wasn’t much time left. He invited them for dinner, and told them what they needed to know. He shared a meal with them. He told them to look after not only each other, but also their extended family. You know him too: his name is Jesus. The upper room is our glimpse of his Last Will and Testament in twofold action: bread and wine; and washing feet.

Now that might not sound like much of a ‘bucket list’ – but his is profound act not only self giving, but an exacting example – a condemned man’s command to his friends. From these actions, we can learn much.

Its easy to see them as either/or actions. I’m asked if you can be a Christian without going to Church. The answer is ‘no’ I don’t think you can – for being a Christian is to be part of a community of prayer and worship – it is not a solitary exclusive exercise.

Can you be a Christian without serving the poor, those in need, the community in which one finds oneself? Well, the answer to that is no too – that can all too often warp the Christian life to a reductable false piety.

Sacrament and Praxis (action) live not in separate domains, but together. We use the term mass because it denotes action: the Eucharist isn’t a sacrificial memorial meal that’s there to simply comfort us: it is to drive us out into the world, to watch, to pray, to serve in sacrificial lives.

This is the genius of what Jesus does in the upper room, in subverting the Passover symbolism and by that subversion giving us something ever new.

Jesus’ command to serve isn’t an optional add on for the religiously inclined. It is a new commandment: we must love one another – no matter how hard at times that can be.

Equally, we must take bread and wine – a command to ‘do this in memory of me’. Jesus tells us that this sharing is an essential, non optional element of his testament – and through it the priesthood is born.

For every priest, this is a powerful day. It reminds us of what Jesus has called and commanded us to do – and through our frailties and failings, what we so often fail to do as we should.

Yet the power of the priestly life exists not in doing for as is so wrongly adduced – but in the example of that all are called to follow. The washing of feet is no pious exercise for clergy whilst others looked on with wrapt attention – if that’s all it is, it fails. It is an example for you all to copy.

Ubi caritas et amour, deus ibi est. Where love and charity are found, God is there, we shall sing later in response to our intercessions. But that has to be real. Real love, real charity. That is embodied by Jesus in the command to all of us to service.

The sacrament we receive isn’t for our own satisfaction. It is food for the journey of loving service to others. Our task is to strengthen that outreach, that service – Jesus doesn’t call us to an indulgent life of anglo-catholic flim flam. More of that on Easter Day.

Tonight we see before us what we are called to do, to be, to become. Christ’s example is to each and every one of us: to serve him, to serve our neighbour. And our service, like his, calls us to a life of sacrifice: to make time for him, each day; to look for the opportunities to show his love, each day; to serve our neighbour, each day.

His words are the greatest words ever uttered. They have transformed the world. Love one another as I have loved you. Do this in memory of me. But they can only continue to do so if we all give effect to them in our lives. What greater last words could there be? What better example could anyone be left to follow?

May Jesus our Lord and God continually show us his servant heart and make our hearts beat with his.

Amen.

Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi

Geoff Bayliss’ article in the Church Times on the readability of liturgical texts in the Church of England has elicited a variety of reaction and comments I’ve seen on social media (which may say as much about those who’ve commented, as about the original article).

To hyper-paraphrase Bayliss’ article (derived from his PhD thesis on the subject) he explores how the ‘reading ability’ required to work through liturgical texts matches up (or doesn’t) against national studies of adult literacy.

The simple answer is that they don’t. Which shouldn’t come as a surprise.

Liturgical texts require a much higher literacy skill set than a good proportion of the general population have acquired. Bayliss uses figures from two government studies (Skills for life (2003) and a follow up report in 2011). These showed 15% of the general adult population as functionally illiterate (5.5 million adults between 16 and 65) and another 29% (10.5 million adults) had literacy skills that limited their access to a significant amount of written material.

Bayliss argues that the Church, and inter alia for this purpose, liturgists should be cognizant of such literacy levels – and make prudent liturgical linguistic choices where such language might be in a register which is a barrier to mission, participation or understanding.

Needless to say, there have been some interesting responses:

“Do we just continue patronising people until the last pew is empty?”

“The purpose of liturgy is not to understand it but to undergo it.”

That last one is my favourite – simply because in so many ways I had subliminally misread it as “the purpose of liturgy is not to understand it, but to endure it” which might say quite a lot in and of itself…(sorry Fr, I loved your tweet, even if I didn’t agree with it).

In part, some heat is caused by the box in the original article reproduced as the picture at the top of this post: the sub-title given is just plain wrong. These are not words to be avoided, but rather “complex words that are hard to avoid”. Bayliss isn’t arguing that we should abandon difficult words (from a literacy point of view – and certainly not from a theological point of view). He argues that we should be attentive to when and how these words are used and what they mean in the context in which they are used. Madeleine Davies, Deputy News Editor at the Church Times has acknowledged (via Twitter) that it’s not quite right (well done!). But the sub may have contributed a touch of grist…

There are here, important points (amongst many more) worth thinking about, and a recurring hobby horse argument which comes up again and again:

  • Do liturgical texts need to be intelligible (and if so, by whom)?
  • How much of our faith do we learn in a liturgical church?
  • Is the reductive argument (‘high brow’ v ‘dumbed down’) a sign of a typically middle class CofE perennial self-obsession?

These are issues I’ve grappled with through much of my priestly ministry, as those who know me will understand. For those who have read a previous post I serve in a UPA (a uniquely privileged area) and have served in a UPA (an Urban Priority Area). I also was a member of the Church of England’s Liturgical Commission for ten years (when I took a vow of silence on public utterances about liturgical questions that were contentious).

So I’m battle hardened in the “God, you liturgists do write prolix guff that no one can use” and “God, you liturgists to write simplistic tosh that’s dull and insulting” argument. It’s being going on for a long time. If the popular adage is that the difference between liturgists and terrorists is that you can negotiate with terrorists, then the motto for liturgists should be sive feceris sive minus, damnaberis aeque (better latinists than me will no doubt have a better translation of my intent). It’s nearly as good as the “I love the BCP/ASB/CW/Roman/Celtic/made-up, free-me-up and tie-me-down anything goes (as long as its allowed, or banned, by Canon) argument. This is playground stuff “my rite is better than your rite”. So there. *Blows raspberry*

So much for that, then. Now, hands up, who’s feeling their blood pressure rising?

Do we need to understand texts?

I think that depends on context. We encounter technical language in different setting each day. When I have my car serviced, I’m in a world where I admit I don’t fully understand the language. I don’t need to understand everything – I don’t need to understand how spark plugs or cam belts or carburettors function – I’m not a mechanic –  but I do need some basic grasp of what’s going on if I am to make any sense of what a real mechanic is trying to tell me. If I go to the Doctor, it’s fine to say I have tingling pain in my thigh – I don’t have to say I have signs of paraparesis of the anterior femoral muscles. If I ever watch cricket, I have no idea what ‘silly mid off’ means, and I spent years wondering exactly what a ‘maiden over’ meant (believe me, I got quite inventive). I can still watch the match, and sip my pimms.

So I don’t need to necessarily understand every word or every nuance of what I read (or what I hear – more of that in a moment) but – and its a big but – if I don’t, then the less I comprehend, the greater the risk that I will misinterpret or assimilate a phrase because it sounds good (and clever) and then display my ignorance by inappropriately deploying the phase I’ve heard, but not understood.

Doug Chaplin sets out in his post that rightly, much of our texts are Presidential (I loathe that word, but there we are) as opposed to congregational. That’s spot on. He also makes the dig (well founded) that readability scores for the multi-clausal transliteration of the Sacramentary must be off the chart by comparison to Common Worship.

There is a truth here that is important. Part of the reaction to Bayliss is also to be found in the shift in Liturgiam Authenticam away from dynamic equivalence (translating the Latin into colloquial language, rather than a ‘formal equivalence’ which mirrors translation and syntax as closely as is possible). Which is preferable – an ‘as is spoken’ or a ‘technical’ translation will float different boats…

Hearing, in that sense and reading aren’t different categories. Doug is right I think to say that we obsess about books – but we obsess about screens too. We obsess about how people read, how names are pronounced, how to construct intercessions – because a lot of what we say is read, and if it is read, it is first written – and the words we write and the words we say aren’t different categories.

For if we don’t need to understand our liturgy, and just need to do it, why do we spend so long debating what it means?

Perhaps my greatest sin as a priest is believing that because I understand it, so does everyone else. And here is where I would want to take Doug’s proposition further. Sure, the congregation don’t read the texts I do (though they often have some if not all of them – because they may ‘cue’ their responses). But they comprehend something from what I say (and indeed how clearly or not I say it; the register I use; the emphasis I lend etc). Bayliss is, I think pointing out (from the original literacy researches) that ‘readability’ is also analogous to ‘comprehensibility’. Just because I comprehend it, doesn’t mean anyone else gets it – an error I make at my peril.

Yes there are times when the congregation ‘gets it’ far more than I think they do. But, lived experience over twenty years also tells me that the reverse is also very true – there are plenty of times they don’t. (A church warden was once very surprised to discover after decades of attendance that Jesus was the Son of God – when I’d spelt it out exceptionally clearly). That’s where a parish priest needs to know the congregation. In doing so we know when to ‘shift gear’ and learn there are gears between “incomprehensible” and “patronising git” and proper times to use all the gears available to us, rather than stick to one.

Yes – liturgical language is primarily addressed to God – but, liturgy also speaks to people. The words we use are formative, missional and educative. Liturgical language helps to form a theologically enabled people consciously and sub-consciously. The grammar we use in speaking to people has, at some level to be intelligible to those we’re addressing. I’m sure that (if someone helped) a sermon in latin would be great for some of my present congregation. I’m just pretty convinced that the other 98% would think me mad. In the same way, if I used an excessively limited vocabulary it would be extremely dull for either my present or my former congregation – that would be patronising to both – but might well be effective when I have to talk to a class of six year olds.

If I want to teach the faith (and part of that happens through the use of liturgical texts) then I have to use words which work, impart meaning, are clear, stretch people and engage a spread of people across the literacy and comprehensibility range. Lex orandi, lex credendi is a tenant of liturgical formation and theological orthodoxy – but only if we understand at least something of that which we are doing – with all the theological tensions and complexities that entails in a broad church. That’s different to my own personal tastes or otherwise.

And that’s the elephant in the room.

The priestly “I like”.

Now, this is where I think there’s a load of terrible pompous middle-class hand wringing nonsense going on (and oh boy, does this argument not sound like the typically self obsessed middle class church par excellence?). The belief that liturgical language isn’t proper if it isn’t booker standard prose (clickbait phrases are “dumbed down” “I can’t say that” “I refuse to say…” “reform of the reform” etc).

I don’t care if you don’t like this phrase or that phrase (there are phrases from the BCP to the latest Sacramentary and all stages in between that I think are good, bad and indifferent – hey, I’m an intolerant liturgist after all), what I care about is whatever the register and tone, is it theologically licit? Does it work? Does it feed God’s people? Does it praise God? I’m sure God can cope with the linguistic diversity.

It is quite right to say that The liturgy isn’t my personal play thing, even if that’s how I might treat it. But it is what the Church gives me to use – not what the Church gives me to completely re-write until it meets my own personal set of prejudices and preferences. If I don’t like it – then I have to work for the Church to change it and present good arguments for that change. And if the Church changes it so that more people can access it, rather than be baffled by it, then is that really the worst thing in the world? Article XXIV anyone?

Yes mystery and transcendence are important aspects of this – but if the complaint is that too much liturgy is facile chummyness, then the equal and opposite approach can be just as valid a ground for axe grinding.

“Ah, but we love memorable phrases, and the elegance of the prose of…” Oh, give me a rest. If liturgy is performative (it is), then there are times I have to remember I’m not Olivier in Hamlet. Believe me, I don’t think sloppy liturgy is good – but I get more cases of terrible giggles in church from clergy ‘doing’ liturgy as though they’ve finally clinched the sixth form drama group lead role…

Bayliss’ article repays careful reading. I think he has important things to say – that we need to hear. Not every place or context, parish or priest is the ‘target’. But some places would do well to carefully consider how intelligible or not our language has become – and why. Language shifts. We evolve. We may like that, we may resist that. Forsooth, I verily say unto thee, dear dear one, of the writing of books there shall be no end.

Words matter. Meaning matters. Liturgy matters – because we speak about God. Or to use the motto of the RSCM, “I will sing with the spirit and with the understanding also”. As Christians is it too much to think we might pray with the spirit, and with a bit of understanding too? However and whatever the language we need to make that happen? It’s not a competition.

Happy new year!

PS. If we spent as much time arguing about the need to improve adult literacy as we do about nuanced liturgical points, would the world be a better place?

Sermon for Christmas Day 2016

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory… full of grace and truth.

You shouldn’t, so the saying goes, believe everything that you read in the newspapers. Nor, it would seem, can you believe everything you read on the internet. Which of course, is a bit of a problem if that’s the only way you get your news.

That’s not, of course a modern phenomena. However, today we’ve moved further and faster into the realm of “well, a friend of a friend of a friend said that they heard…”

SO, what is true? That’s one of the biggest and most critical questions that faces us today. We live in a world where now we struggle to differentiate between objective truth and subjective opinion. And that is a problem. In theology, we call that the problem of relativism – put simply: the philosophical position that all points of view are equally valid, and that all truth is relative to the individual.  So all moral positions, all religious systems, all art forms, all political movements, etc., are truths that are relative only to the individual. Hurrah! I can always be right!

Since it’s Christmas morning, and this all sounds a little heavy – lets put it this way. You buy a pair of socks for your partner. You believe they are the most beautiful socks ever. They even say so on the label. However, when your other half unwraps them, they wear that Christmas morning look of “oh, how lovely, just what I wanted!”

You tackle them the next day: they’re the most beautiful socks – but you looked disappointed. “That’s because they’re horrid!” And so the usual familial boxing day row begins. Just because you think they’re beautiful and want them to be beautiful doesn’t make them so. And the reverse is true too – just in case you have bought the most beautiful socks…

The great American president Abraham Lincoln confounded his advisors when they presented a decision based on supposition and emotion rather than logic and truth. “How many legs does a sheep have?” he asked. “Four” they replied. “And if I said the sheep’s tail was a leg, how many legs would it have then?” “Five” they replied. “No!” he retorted. “It would still have four legs – just calling a tail a leg, doesn’t make it one.”

Some of you have heard me say that Christianity is dangerous. That’s because it constantly asks us about truth rather than “how would you like truth to be for you”. It challenges our perceptions, prejudices and pride. Indeed the danger of today is that rather than become child like in the face of the Christ child, we become childish is reducing the power of the incarnation to little more than soppy sentimentality. We discover here Truth does not bend to our convenience. We meet today the Jesus who is, not the Jesus of our fantasies.

We beheld his glory… full of grace and truth.

The prologue to John’s Gospel that we heard perfectly balances the beginning and end of Jesus’ life with this single word: truth. The word made flesh, whose glory, grace and truth we see in the Christ child is the same person who, is mocked and tried before a roman governor who asks the relativist’s question “what is truth”?

The Christian celebration of the incarnation: this Christmas season challenges to ask not the relativists question, but to question the relativist with the answer: here is truth, here is God made man, here is glory and grace.

In doing so we are called to delve ever deeper in our discipleship and to call the world to the same task: so search for truth, to search for answers, to search for real meaning. That’s hard work. For the relativist’s greatest trick is to tell us the answers are easy, that a slogan is all you need, that his or her “truth” is all that matters. Yet those lies quickly fall apart. It’s not experts we shouldn’t trust – those whose business is to re-orientate us to the truth – it is those who spin their mere opinions as truth – they are the ones we shouldn’t trust – the modern day Pilates who see truth, but truth does not fit their answers. By the way, can I have my £350 million back now?

It is the Christ child who teaches us from the manger that such hubris is our downfall. The child of a single mother, born in homeless poverty, dependent on the kindness of strangers, who will become a political refugee fleeing occupied territory in an oppressive regime – doesn’t exactly look like the King, the Messiah who was expected.
We know this in our own lives when we’re drawn like moths to a light entranced and enraptured by sylph like words of pseudo-experts: those who promise everything, and yet deliver nothing; those who speak of service, but only serve themselves. They revel in the deceit of relativism – and are adored by the gullible. The reality is, we eventually discover they are frauds – little more than what my mother would have called “con-men” They promise to lead us to the promised land, but they have no idea how to get there.

Truth is the antidote to these false prophets of hyperbole. Jesus is the way, the life, the truth.

Perhaps that’s why Christmas, however me might dress it up, still fires something in our hearts – because it reminds us that truth matters. We know it, when we see it. And in the Christ child, in Jesus we see it, we behold it, we know and are known, possessed, blessed and called to action by it.

We might not be able to believe everything we read in the newspapers – but here, now, we meet truth head on, full of grace, full of glory. For truth is love – made flesh, dwelling among us. All we need to do is to recognize it and in doing so, know that we are loved. In doing so, we teach the world what truth is, challenge falsehood and bring hope where there is despair.

What is truth? Today we find the answer as they say, staring us in the face: truth: Jesus Christ.

Sermon for Midnight Mass 2016

Midnight Mass 2016

O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie.

Has 2016 been a good year for you? A year you’re sad to see end, or one which you can’t wait to see the back of?

The celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ also marks the start of the last week of the year. Newspapers and TV programmes have already begun their ‘review of the year’ and the inevitable end of the year award shows have already taken place.

Whether this has been a good or bad year – and whether or not you’re looking forward to 2017, this period marks one of great transition.

Earlier in the year, I had remarked that, having just come back to the parish after three months of sabbatical, the world seemed a very different place to how it was when I went away. We started the year with a different Prime Minister, a different Chancellor – in fact almost every minister was different. The US election process was winding itself up – even if it wasn’t clear then, who at least the Republican nominee would be. There was an impending referendum on our membership of the EU.

Between then and now a lot has changed, clearly. And so I wonder, as we celebrate midnight mass: are you filled with hope or fear?

O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie!
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by.

Every year someone says to me: I can’t believe its Christmas already! Where does the time go? I think that’s true – or at least age means the world seems to speed up.

I suspect that for Mary and Joseph the time flew. Sure, there must have been moments when the days dragged: the first weeks of pregnancy after the angel had told Mary she would have a baby. Her visit to her cousin Elizabeth must have been hard work in the summer’s heat. And that journey to Bethlehem from Nazareth for a census. Damn politicians!

And then time must have seemed to move far more quickly, desperately searching for someone to take them in, the panic that there was no room, and the final frantic preparations clearing a safe, warm space amongst the animals in a stable.

And then a baby arrived.

And like the arrival of all babies, for Mary, for Jospeh, for those who visited them, time would have seemed to stand absolutely, perfectly still as though heaven and earth just paused. All the normalities of life, the fripperies and irrelevancies, stopped having any meaning at all. For something far more intense was happening – love. And with that love, life changed irrevocably for everyone.

O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie!
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by.
Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting Light;

Here in Mary’s arms is the Christ, the longed for Messiah, the King of the Jews, the Saviour. Here in Mary’s arms is the one to set prisoners free, to inaugurate a reign of God’s peace. Here in Mary’s arms is God made man – just as the angel had foretold: wonder counsellor, prince of peace. Here in Mary’s arms is a tiny, helpless, dependent baby.

Perhaps that’s a feeling you and I both know. We are all children after all. We have those who look to us for all the answers, they depend on us. And we look to those we depend on for strength, courage and support.

Perhaps that’s why the time flies as we get older, perhaps why we find the authentic inquisitiveness of childhood and optimistic expectancy of youth gives way to the anguish and fears of adulthood. As we age, as those around us age and become frail; as children grow; as the world moves inexorably onward – whether we want it to or not; as we face both the joys of celebrations and the pains of human existence, we realise the fragility of life as we journey on.

The constant is Jesus. The light of the world is that point in space and time to which we are, by the grace and mercy of God eternally bound (whether we want to be or not). The birth of this child, more than any other, marks out time, connects time, transcends time.

That’s after all what we here, day by day, week by week year by year celebrating in bread and wine placed on an altar become our Bethlehem – our house of bread; and become too our calvary, our place of sacrifice with Jesus.

This is where all hopes and fears collide, now, as then. The parents of Jesus look on with bliss and love even as terrified shepherds hurtle towards them to ask: what on earth is going on, what does this all mean? For here it is safe to ask.

We, contented or confused, secure or insecure, hopeful, fearful: we too hurry to look on: to see the light of the world break forth in inextinguishable joy and radiance.

Even if we are weighed down with fear, uncertain in a changing world, this, this we do on this day for it brings hope. We see it keenly in the face of every child who gazes at the face of Jesus in the manger. It is the look and knowledge of wonder, joy and the dawning awe-filled reality of the inescapable connection we have to Jesus – and through him, to each other. His people. His world.

Good or bad year past or yet to come, that’s the hope we must hold on to however dark the world may feel. That, dear friends is the gift this child is. That is his gift, God’s gift to us. Let us hold on to hope, to love, to joy.

O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie!
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by.
Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting Light;
The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.