Ash Wedneday

Roses are red, violets are blue. Lent starts today: no chocolates for you.

That the start of Lent (for almost all of western Christianity), should fall on the day when the secular world has it’s most intentional focus on a specific saint – Valentine – is unusual. The last time Ash Wednesday fell on the 14th February was in 1945. Yet perhaps this combination is serendipitous.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I suspect that the romantically inclined amongst you might have got or get a less than enthusiastic reaction if you were to have given someone a box of ashes, or a cross today instead of flowers of chocolates.

Perhaps that’s because the world, thinks that love can only be quantified commercially. So if you don’t get a card, flowers, chocolates, stuffed toys, surprise trips away, engaged or whatever it might be, then either a) your other half clearly isn’t properly “invested” in you (he or she is a cheap skate) – or b) if no one sends you a valentine card (like me) you’re clearly either on the shelf, unloved, sad, lonely, bitter and twisted, ugly or damned…

And just hold on to that for a moment. Isn’t that ‘valuing’ or ‘devaluing’ of human beings one of, if not the central sins we commit in our lives? That we value – that we judge according to a whole set of shifting and arbitrary criteria – money, power, status, looks…

The truth is all human beings want to be loved. Yet we confuse that with either soppy sentimentality, or other false equivalencies: acceptance, affirmation, assurance? You need to love me how I am – you need to learn what my needs are – you need to give me more… Can you hear it?

At the heart of this solemn liturgy are two things to focus on: the reception of an ash cross and the gift of the body and blood of Jesus Christ. These are more than ephemeral symbols or practices of flash high church people. They are imbued with deep significance for us. And they are inseparably linked. They invite us to deeper faith.

The ash cross reminds us of our mortality. We’re all going to die. A cheery thought I know. But one as Christians if we’re to deepen our faith, we really have to get to grips with… For the realisation that we are finite mortal creatures can mean we either wrap ourselves in cotton wool – shrink into an ever safer, invariable pattern of existence, protect ourselves with the mantle of selfishness or we can choose something else, something far more powerful, something far more exciting. We can choose to live.

But the cross reminds us that real living isn’t selfish it’s sacrificial. It is about turning away from sin, so that we might live not for ourselves but for God, for each other and for the world. In becoming those who understand the value of sacrificial living – of literally giving something of ourselves away – we imitate the greatest sacrifice – that of Jesus on the Cross.

For he did not die for his own sake, for glory, power or majesty. He died to set us free to live. He died to set us free from sin. He died that we might not be finite creatures but those to whom is promised eternal life. And that promise is never more clearly made that in the heart of the Eucharistic Prayer when we are conjoined with Christ’s own offering of himself on the cross, and fed with his very self in forms of bread and wine. Daily. Try it this Lent.

For Christ’s oblation of himself once offered which in the mystery of the mass we are privileged to share at each celebration is the supreme gift of love. This is the antithesis of the vanity of our human condition. For isn’t that so often our greatest sin – that we are vain?

We are vain about our appearance in a world which prizes youth and beauty. How much do you spend on pills and potions, on hair and make up on clothes and shoes compared to bringing real beauty in the faces of the hungry when they are fed and the thirsty when they receive clean water?

We are vain about our status, our abilities, our achievements. How much time and effort do we put into maintaining our ‘image’ our ‘brand’ and reinforcing it by spending ever more to keep up with our neighbours compared to what we could achieve in lifting the most vulnerable out of poverty?

We are vain about ourselves in boasting, showing off, courting others. You see it so often in churches: the shiny badge people who love status, the cloth moths who’ll cut you up if you get between them and a bishop, the ones who promise the earth, but never deliver. They’re outstanding at telling everyone else to do that which they’d never dream of doing. They want a church which is the ecclesial butler to their vanity: giving them what they want or they’re off! Where are these vain people when it comes to feeding the homeless, visiting the sick, doing not the “important” jobs, but the lowliest? In Lent, they’ll be found telling anyone who listens that they’ve given up chocolate…to lose a few pounds…

‘Vanity of vanity, all is vanity’ says the old testament preacher in Ecclesiastes. The vain do not search for God because they believe they are more important than God. They insist that all they are and do are trumpeted – they are the hypocrites Jesus condemns in tonight’s gospel.

That Lent falls on Valentine’s day is good, for lent is at the heart of this feast of love. Va-LENT-ine. Write it down when you get home. Take Lent out of Valentine you’re left with vaine (fem sing of ‘vain’ for the lexicographically pedantic).

Lent is the antidote to being vaine. It’s disciplines puncture vanity. Lent is the call to fasting and abstinence, to penitence and repentance, to service and sacrifice. Lent is the call to turn again and discover God our first love. Lent is the time to ask: what have we to give him, what is our response to his love for us? Lent is THE time to journey with Jesus and discover real love.

Roses are red, violets are blue: Stop being vain, live lent, God loves you.


The Eucharist makes the Church

The Church of England is part of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church, worshipping the one true God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It professes the faith uniquely revealed in the Holy Scriptures and set forth in the catholic creeds, which faith the Church is called upon to proclaim afresh in each generation. Led by the Holy Spirit, it has borne witness to Christian truth in its historic formularies, the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion, The Book of Common Prayer and the Ordering of Bishops, Priests and Deacons.

How we choose [Diocesan] Bishops and a report on Anglican-Methodist unity seem to have engaged a number of people on social media. Perhaps its just serendipitous that they are on the agenda for General Synod next week, or perhaps there is a divine hand at work.

There are items on Safeguarding, legislative business, food waste and an important debate on how society sees the place of people born with chromosomal conditions which can, sometimes, be detected in utero.

But the choosing of Diocesan Bishops and the proposals that might lead to the interchangeability of ‘ministers’ seem to be creating some heat.

So what follows is some initial thinking. (In full disclosure I’m on a few days break, away from home, and except for some online resources I’m not in my study to look things up – and this is very much ‘off the top of my head stuff’ But then my qualification is at least an MA in contemporary catholic theology with a particular focus on ecclesiology).

That the Church of England preserved the ordering of Bishops, Priests and Deacons in apostolic succession is, I’d suggest not a lightweight or second order issue (no pun intended). It is one of the ‘touchstones’ in the preface to the “Declaration of Assent” which are assented to at ordinations and licensings without exception.


At the heart of the life of the church are the sacraments. Now, as an Anglo-Catholic and a former member of the liturgical commission, I would say that, wouldn’t I? But this is a vital understanding. The great French theologian Henri de Lubac put it succinctly in saying that “the Eucharist makes the Church” or more rightly (and literally from the original french) that the church composed in its basic unit of people and clergy gathered around a bishop is most visible in its life, worship and order when the Eucharist is celebrated. [For de Lubac, this was the established metier of the Church for the first thousand years, and its palindrome, that “The Church makes the Eucharist” for the second thousand. We might call this, as shorthand the patristic and scholastic understanding of eucharistic ecclesiology].

That’s important because the Catholicity of the Church – how the local and universal inter-relate is profoundly eucharistic. The Second Vatican Council’s first Constitution – Sacrosanctum Concillium – the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy makes clear that (SC2):

For the liturgy, “through which the work of our redemption is accomplished,” [1] most of all in the divine sacrifice of the Eucharist, is the outstanding means whereby the faithful may express in their lives, and manifest to others, the mystery of Christ and the real nature of the true Church.

and that (SC10):

The liturgy is the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed; at the same time it is the font from which all her power flows. For the aim and object of apostolic works is that all who are made sons of God by faith and baptism should come together to praise God in the midst of His Church, to take part in the sacrifice, and to eat the Lord’s supper.

Whether we have a patristic or scholastic leaning in our eucharistic ecclesiology, the celebration of the Eucharist is and must always be more than a bit of religious flim-flam – it must be deeply inhabited for from it, and because of it, we engage then in the world in mission and witness, in charity and love, in service as both Church and individual Christians. [See, I agree with +Pete – and I’m pretty sure that he agrees on this with me, however he may have been reported].

The retention of the ordering of the Three-Fold Ministry (Bishop, priest and deacon) speaks to the preservation of apostolic order and guarantees it. That’s to say, the Church makes clear that within this paradigm, the Eucharist is celebrated ‘validly and regularly’ by those who have been episcopally ordained as Bishop and Priest.

That order is, of course, shared by those churches (denominations) which have preserved that three fold order – and the declaration of assent makes explicitly clear that the Church of England utterly believes itself to be part of that “one, holy, catholic and apostolic’ Church which so orders its liturgical sacramental life: and sets that out first in the only place where we so succinctly set out what the Church of England is – the declaration of assent.

This catholicity, shared with the wider church which preserves these marks of catholicity, is vital because it is the historic guarantee of ‘Sacramental Assurance’. Or in other words, in the historically ordered church, when a validly episcopally ordained priest celebrates, according to the rites of the Church, using appropriate bread and wine, the Eucharist –  such a celebration is valid and “regular” and that those receiving the eucharistic gifts receive Jesus Christ in the Blessed Sacrament. That may or may not be what individuals think happens, believe, or want to happen – but it is the Church as a whole (and in this case, the Church of England) that says “yes – this IS what happens” The “how” is a debate of the last 500 years…

Without rehearsing again decades of argument, this is of course for “traditionalists” in the Church of England the heart of the theological disagreement about the ordination of women as priests and bishops. But it is also equally the argument for those who accept the ordination of women and priests and bishops. What differs is a question about where the authority to make changes to that ordering lie. But the argument is the same – for the sacraments to be valid, to be ‘real’ there must be a ‘real’ priest or bishop celebrating them – doing so as the Church has always done in continuity.

So a huge question about the selection of bishops, and diocesan bishops in particular must be about remembering this ontological, sacramental function and the relationship of Bishop to Universal Church and to the local Church. The Bishops act, collegially, as ‘guarantor’ of sacramental efficacy for the whole Church – and they act on behalf of the whole Church in their office by licensing validly ordained priests who the Church collectively believes validly celebrate valid sacraments (whatever individual bishops may or may not believe theologically about their priests and vice versa).

That feeds the debate about the discernment of Bishops and the operation of the CNC in nominating Diocesan Bishops. Their function is not primarily managerial, it is theological and that theological leadership is most visibly exercised, Eucharistically.

And its the big ding-dong about unity schemes.

The report on Anglican and Methodist ‘Unity’ makes the suggestion that (and I grossly paraphrase) episcopally ordained priests in the Church of England and non-episcopally ordained presbyters who minister in Methodist churches are both *really* valid ministers of the Eucharist and whilst anomalous to have “non episcopally ordained” ministers of the Eucharist in a church where Canon law dictates you must be an “episcopally ordained” priest to celebrate, we should kind of live with the anomaly until the “non epicopally ordained” either are “episcopally ordained” or die, or the Methodists have bishops in which case, everyone will, eventually be episcopally ordained…

Which strikes me as more than a simply a fudge.

Firstly, because this seems to take the legs out of the whole to-and-fro about episocpacy of the last forty or so years. It is, to give it a more loaded term, the authorisation, albeit for a limited time (30 or 40 years) of (specified) lay presidency at the Eucharist. Either someone is an episcopally ordained priest or they aren’t. And if they aren’t then the Church of England’s understanding is that they cannot validly celebrate the Eucharist. Bishops exist to order to defend the faith and guarantee its apostolicity and continuity in catholic order. We can want to wish the theology away – but it always comes back to bite us.

That’s why, at present if a minister from another denomination which does not have an episcopally ordered three-fold ministry (Methodists, Baptists, other free or independent churches) then seeks to minister in the Church of England they must first be ordained (and may, on the Bishop’s direction have to undergo selection and training. If there is any doubt about whether their previous ordination is valid, that ordination in the Church of England may then be conditional ordination – but ordination is the route (just as it is for clergy from the Church of England who seek full communion with Rome or the Orthodox Churches).

That distinction is not the same of course as regards Eucharistic Hospitality whereby the longstanding position is that any communicant from a trinitarian Christian Church ‘in good standing’ can receive in the Church of England. But that is a matter of discipline. And it doesn’t necessarily work the other way around. I should not (normally, there are exceptions) receive in a Roman Catholic Church in England. Nor would a Roman Catholic following the discipline of their own church receive from me – or any priest in the Church of England.

For fundamentally, the reception of the Eucharist isn’t a popular vote on whether we like (or agree) or not with the celebrant – it is about what the Church guarantees about the validity of the sacraments they celebrate which is important. [Equally it is the Church of England as a whole who makes the guarantee about my orders – they do not change dependent on who the Bishop is, or what the Bishop thinks…].

So the question for me is, how can any Bishop or the college or Bishops declare to be valid and lawful celebrations of the Eucharist, within the terms of Canon Law, which clearly are not? For if this were to be possible – what then the question arises: what is the point of episcopal ordination? Why not delegate it to area deans and archdeacons? Or for that matter why not simply have a local course and then licence churchwardens to celebrate mass?

In which case, why preserve the episcopcy? If an essential reason for having bishops is to provide an apostolic and catholic continuity of priests to celebrate valid and regular sacraments, if we can ‘live with the anomaly’ of ‘not episcopally ordainined’ eucharistic presidents, then we’d save an awful lot of money on theological training which has, functionally its essence in providing those who are to be so ordained….?

To agree to this does not, at first sight cut the legs off the present episopacy of the Church of England – but it undermines it. Because the college of Bishops would openly endorse a position where the plene benne esse – the historic episcope of the Church of England  cannot guarantee the sacraments celebrated on its behalf as it has sought to heretofore.

I’d be disingenuous if at this point I didn’t hold my hand up and say, yes, I know, some of you are thinking “but you’re a traditionalist and isn’t this what you think we do now?” And I would say yes, that’s a problem – but where we have arrived is a mixed economy in the Church of England of how different Bishops and Priests are received – but one where, in the 5 guiding principles, there is explicit acknowledgement that what guarantees clear sacramental assurance is the principles built on a bedrock of episcopal ordination (and the provision of episcope to guarantee the continuity of that). That tension is held in the House of Bishops as in each college of clergy.

But this is, I would suggest a step beyond – to ask that the Church recognises the validity of a eucharistic celebration at which the person who presides has not been episcopally ordained. What the nature of the elements in such a celebration is or becomes is unclear without the episcopal ordination which guarentees it. It may well, in whatever way be efficacious – and we pray it may be.

But to assent to it. To say Amen. That’s a difficulty.

For some, part of this has been a (if I can be so bold) sloppy “they’re all the same, honest” approach to ecumenism – which devalues both us and the other. Unity is not a game in which we can simply sweep away significant differences in theology and praxis in a lazy appeal of ut umun sint. The work of Christian unity – of Ecumanism is hard becuase the questions are as hard as the answers we might find. For others in the Church of England, it may come as a shock that it clearly isn’t all the same.

Michael Ramsey, the oft reveared former Archbishop of Canterbury described the failure of the Anglican-Methodist unity scheme he fought for as the saddest day of his life. It foundered on this very question of eucharistic ecclesiology. It seems to me a very great pity that the same iceberg may potentially sink the ship again.





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!




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.



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?