Thursday, 4 September 2014

On Fire without Burning Out

What do the disciples at Pentecost have in common with Moses?  They both encountered flames that set something on fire, but without burning it up. 

Last Sunday I kicked off a sermon series on the book of Acts, and on the concept of Shared Ministry, by looking at Acts chapter 2.  I was struck by the image of the flames, dancing on the disciples head, and the similarity with the image of the burning bush. 

What drew Moses' attention to the burning bush wasn't just that it was on fire, but that it wasn't consumed.

Fire usually consumes the thing that it is burning. It draws energy from the fuel. And it is so easy to feel, working in the church, that our energy is fuel. That I'm here to be used up, to be burnt up to provide metaphorical light or heat for others.

But if we are to be fuel (and I'm pushing the analogy too far here, I know), we need to at least think of ourselves as a renewable resource, not  a fossil fuel. Ministry mustn't be something that consumes us, uses us up. It should be flames of fire dancing on our heads, lighting up that bush, without burning us up and out.

So how do we stay on fire without burning out?

I suppose the first thing to say is, I wish I knew! But having narrowly survived burnout earlier this year, with lots of help from friends, colleagues and wise counsellors, and thinking about these images of undestructive flames, here are some thoughts:

1. Burn out isn't the plan. If the flaming bush doesn't do it for you, try imagine a Christmas pudding set alight. the pudding isn't actually burning, its the alcohol in the brandy you've just poured over it that is aflame. If you're the pudding (bear with me here), you're not meant to burn up. I've spent years feeling guilty that I'm not yet used up - shouldn't I be working harder, giving more? No. Let those flames dance around you: you're not the fuel.

2. Each person can only do a small part of the job. That includes you (me, us). The disciples didn't all speak in all those languages - and when they did all speak, it was chaos and half the crowd thought they were drunk. Peter had to explain: but even Peter couldn't do it all on his own - nobody would have listened to him if the others hadn't done their bit of causing chaos first. After years of listening too well to the voices telling me 'you need to make a success of this' (whether real, external voices, or internalised messages), I'm learning to hold up my hand and say 'No. All I can do is my bit: say what I'm inspired to say, and trust that everyone else will do their bit too and that the result will work itself out. I'm only responsible for doing what I can, not for success or otherwise of the result.'

3. Accept that doing the right thing doesn't mean everyone will agree, listen, or like you. That's not to say everyone will disagree, ignore you or hate you either: the idea that your rightness is proved by 'the world's' rejection is as nuts as the idea that it is proved by universal acclaim. But even when the disciples were speaking in amazing foreign languages, inspired by the Holy Spirit (or speaking whatever, and people miraculously understood them - it doesn't matter which), there were people saying 'good grief, they're pissed as newts'. I've spent years hoping people will like me, and judging myself harshly if I get even the faintest criticism . I'm learning (slowly) to accept that just as I can't control and am not responsible for results, so I also can't control and am not responsible for everyone's response.

And I'll just say number 1 again: Burn out isn't the plan. God doesn't want us to be fuel for his fire: we're the lampstands, if you like, not the oil. I don't know about you, but its going to take me a while to stop feeling guilty about not burning out. But I'm trying.


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The rest of this post is probably mainly for members of the church who want the sermon notes! This is the shape of what I said on Sunday about Acts 2 and Shared Ministry:

 When we first began discussing Shared Ministry, about a year ago, one concern was that it would be 'just another job for already busy people'. But (as expanded on above) the flames of Pentecost are like the burning bush of Moses - they set us on fire without burning us out. Our energy isn't there to provide fuel for the fire: God's energy dances around us. Ministry - mine,yours, shared - isn't about doing more things, its about being lit up by the Spirit and letting that shine.

So Shared Ministry isn't about doing more stuff. It's about being explicit about who we are and what we are here for.

And looking at Acts 2, what we are here for seems to be to: 
- speak; 
- dream; 
- worship.

I went on on Sunday to talk about how these play out in our vision of Shared Ministry.
On that first day of Pentecost, the first thing that happened when the Spirit came was that everyone spoke as they were inspired.It was only after that, in the chaos that caused, that there was any audience for or point in Peter standing up and preaching. Similarly today, there are different tasks in the church - a few of us are bolshy and loud enough to stand up and shout 'Right, listen here everyone!' - but everyone is called to speak about God in the language they are given, in ways that some of the people around us can hear. There's no point me as vicar, or our reader, or any of us doing our jobs, if the people of God aren't all speaking about God: why should anyone listen to me, if they haven't first had their interest piqued by someone they know, saying something in a language they understand? (Even if they think it is nuts!).

Secondly, we need to dream - to imagine what might happen, what life might be like, what could be different, what should be kept from our past and what needs to change for the future. To hear and receive one anothers dreams, unthreatened by the fact that they won't all be the same. To accept and value the dreams and visions of old and young, men and women, girls and boys; to believe that God's Holy Spirit inspires our envisioning, and to be foolish and trusting enough to think God's kingdom might be brought closer through our dreaming. 

Shared Ministry is about development. It is not about simply keeping the show on the road, maintaining the church building, keeping everything as we like it. It is about working together to always develop our ministry, always develop our church, so that it and we grow. That can seem threatening, I know. But we follow a God who does not rest in one place – who won't stay in that tomb – who is always dancing ahead of us, calling us forward in a pillar of fire or cloud, or with glimpses of a star. So our second task is to be prepared to dream, not settle for the status quo.

Thirdly, to worship. To repent, to be baptised, to bring others to baptism, to devote ourselves to teaching and fellowship and the breaking of bread and to prayer. To giving ourselves to this life of faith – giving our time to it, rather than coming only if something else doesn't come up that Sunday. Giving generously of our money, with the aim that nobody is in need while we have something spare. Praising God, eating together, worshipping together - and doing so joyfully.

Now, fair enough, in Acts chapter 2 people are still in the first throes of excitement about their conversion. its probably not fair or realistic to expect that first ecstasy to continue for ever. It's probably a bit like marriage: even the best marriage, with the two people still deeply in love with each other, doesn't maintain the intensity and excitement of those first heady days and weeks of falling in love. But what it develops is even better - a deep content, joy and trust in each other. If we aren't still in the first falling in love stages of being a Christian, are we in the happy old age of a fifty or sixty year marriage? 

Shared Ministry is about believing that God has given all of us gifts and talents with which to serve. We believe that in our baptism (and/or confirmation) we are assured of the presence of God's Holy Spirit in us. So it becomes almost blasphemous to say 'Oh, but I don't really have anything to offer. That's all very well for those gifted people, those young and energetic people, those who aren't working as hard as I am. But its not for me: if you want that, go ahead, but I'll sit back as usual, I don't have any particular gifts and talents'. To say that would be to deny God's power in baptism and in communion.

Saturday, 26 July 2014

Kingdom parables: sermon and images

This is my sermon for Sunday 27th July, on the parables of the kingdom in Matthew 13:31-52.
(Edited to more closely reflect how it was actually preached on 27th July).
There is an accompanying powerpoint presentation of images to be played alongside it at the end.

From the lectionary reading from Matthew 13:

Jesus put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.” ....
"The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.

Here we are given four brief images, in quick succession, of what the kingdom of heaven is like.
A mustard seed that grows into a tree; yeast mixed into flour; treasure hidden in a field; a pearl merchant.

I wonder if Jesus was here now, would he tell a parable that began, 'the kingdom of heaven is like this church...'? The kingdom that Jesus announced was both something that was to come, but also something he announced had already begun, in him and in his followers. So I wonder, is our church anything like these images of the kingdom?

Lets consider them one by one.

Is our church anything like a mustard seed? A seed that is small, but grows to be the greatest of garden plants, so that birds from all around can come and build nests in its branches?

What would a church be like that was like that?

Firstly, it would be in its nature to grow. That is what seeds do. It might either be growing, or it might be fully grown. If it is still growing, it will be getting bigger by the day - maybe imperceptibly day by day, but from week to week and month to month the growth would be unmissable. And as well as growing above ground, it would be putting down deeper and deeper roots.

Or if it isn't still growing, it might be in its second phase, and be fully grown. If it is fully grown, then it would be providing a safe and attractive place for birds to come and nest. It would be somewhere to which people were flocking from miles around because they felt safe there. And if it was fully grown, if it was anything like that mustard plant, it would be setting seed: if it wasn't growing itself any more, it would be growing new seeds, which would themselves be going to grow into new plants to provide shelter for more birds.
And of course, being mustard, some of those seeds probably wont get planted, but will get ground up and used to make other things tastier.

How could our church be more like the kingdom that is like a mustard seed?


Or Is our church anything like yeast, that a woman mixed with flour?

If so, we will only be any use when we are totally intermingled with the world outside these four walls. Without changing the essential nature of the world around us - yeast doesn't turn flour into more yeast - we will transform it. By being mixed through, kneaded into the flour around us, we will lighten it, raise it, transform it into something tasty and wholesome and digestible.

Yeast works by digesting sugar, the empty calories mixed with the flour, and using that energy to raise up the whole to a new, transformed state. If the church is like yeast, we should be able to see how we are eating up, absorbing, digesting whatever sugar might stand for in our society - emptiness, those fleeting pleasures that lead to decay or bloating obesity - and transforming that energy into action that raises up the whole community, the whole world.

How could our church be more like the kingdom that is like yeast?


Or is our church anything like treasure buried in a field, or a merchant in search of fine pearls?

Is what is hidden here, what you would have to dig deep behind these walls to find, so obviously precious and valuable, that anyone who stumbles across it will give up anything they have to possess it? Is that how we see what we have here? How much of our time and our possessions do we think it is worth to us?

And is what is on display in our shop window, what anyone walking past can see, so beautiful, such a perfect example of its kind, that anyone who is looking for fine pearls will instantly recognise it as the best they could ever hope to find? That they would again, give up everything they have to possess this great treasure?

How could our church be more like the kingdom that is like treasure?

I want to end with one further reflection. We often focus, with the parable of the mustard seed, on the issue of size. The small seed grows into the big tree. The kingdom of heaven is like something that grows very big. So it is interesting, I think, to note that in all of these images for the kingdom no actual measurements are given. In each case the image is of something that is just big enough to do its job.

That mustard seed, we are told, grows big enough to shelter, to provide a safe and welcoming space for birds to build their nests, to nurture new life, a place the fledlings can practice flying from.

In the parable of the yeast, we are told how much flour there is, 3 measures, but not how much yeast is needed. Its like ine of those annoying recipes that assumes that you know what you are doing: it simply says 'take enough yeast to leaven three measures of flour'.

So there is something here about the kingdom of heaven being just enough. It isn't measured in feet and inches or pounds or kilograms, it is big enough to do its job - of sheltering, providing safe space in which to grow and from which to explore: of leavening, raising, lightening, feeding.

And the treasure parables are also about something being just enough. The treasure hidden in the field, or the pearl in the shop window, isn't given a specific value  in terms of pounds and pence: but in each case, the person who finds it and wants it is just able to buy it, because what they have, when sold, is just enough.

We often focus in these stories on the preciousness of the treasure, the pricelessness of that pearl. But how tragic these stories would be if in each case, when the person found the treasure, and sold all that they had, they were still hundreds, or thousands, or millions of pounds short. The real miracle in these parables is that when they sold everything, it was enough.

The kingdom of heaven is not any particular specified size. It is big enough. Big enough for us, big enough to do its job. And what are and have, the resources we have available to us, individually and together, if we use all of them, are just enough for it.

So let us pray.
Thank you God, for  welcoming us into your kingdom, and promising that it will always be just big enough for us and for the needs of all the world. Thank you that what we have will always be enough to enter and possess and serve the needs of your kingdom. Give us grace, we pray, to trust you enough to risk everything we have to enter it. And help us, as we seek as your church in this place to order our common life in the likeness of hour kingdom.
Amen.


Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Work (Admin) and Spirituality

Searching through my old computer files this morning, I came across this: the text of a Lent talk that I gave at St.Gabriel's, Heaton in 2004! It develops ideas that I began thinking about after completing my PhD on late medieval monastic administration.

(warning: this is long!)


Your Work and Your Spirituality

Your work and your spirituality. That could cover a whole range of things, so I’ll start by saying what I’m not going to be talking about. I’m not going to be talking about the kind of work that we can easily understand as vocational – about being a teacher or doctor or nurse or priest. Not about specifically paid work. And not about how to pray for or at work, even. I’m talking here about dull, routine, boring, humdrum work, and how we see it. What has it got to do with God? Because if we don’t really think our work has anything to do with God, it can’t fit into our spirituality at all, we can’t pray for it with integrity and we end up feeling that we have two selves, a religious self that goes to church, prays for friends and maybe sits on the PCC, and a secular self that goes to work. This is true even if we aren’t actually working, are unemployed or retired. If collecting a pension, checking the heating bill and dusting behind the cupboards is nothing to do with God, we are only half people of God – or maybe rather less than half. So I want to talk tonight about what work has to do with God. And the test case for a theology of work (to give it its grand title), is what we think about routine administration – paperwork. Even those teachers and nurses whose jobs we think are easily part of God’s plan have a problem here - Hospitals and schools are always complaining about the rise in paperwork. And we all have to do it even if we’re retired with only ourselves to look after – we still have to pay bills, deal with council tax demands and electoral roll forms, etc. So our question tonight is really, where is God in paperwork? Or what has paperwork got to do with God?

There is a tendency in the press and in theological circles too to decry bureaucracy and paperwork as a function of modern life, and to hark back to a fictitious ‘golden age’ in which people undertook ‘real work’. This sort of idea really took hold with the Victorian Gothic revival, and the Arts and Crafts movement, with people like William Morris, was part of an attempt to get back to this pre-industrial golden age of real craftsmanship and proper work.

But this kind of view of the past is unsustainable when the realities of medieval life are examined. It is clear from a close reading of history that a large administrative burden is by no means a new phenomenon. (my phd, etc. parish registers; monastic accounts; household accounts etc. Development of writing in Ancient world, pre-Biblical, seems to have happened as a function of the need to keep accounts!) Since administrative work is so ubiquitious, it is worth devoting some consideration to how it should best be approached and understood theologically, as something all Christians have to do.

In this talk I’m going to firstly look at administration in the bible, and then look briefly at the history of the church and the impact that has had on our understanding of work as part of the Christian life. I’m then going to suggest that there are four main ways of understanding paperwork theologically, and briefly outline each one, looking at the strengths and weaknesses of each.


Administration in the Bible
On the whole, the Old Testament has more to say about the practical details of administration than the New. In keeping with its emphasis on the story of a people, issues of good government such as taxation, record keeping, and food storage and distribution are scattered throughout the Old Testament. The most famous example is probably the story of Joseph in Genesis, which has as its turning point Joseph’s advice to Pharoah to ‘appoint commissioners over the land to take a fifth of the harvestof Egypt during the seven years of abundance…to be held in reserve for the country, to be used during the seven years of famine’ (Genesis 41: 34-36). Secretarial and accountancy work are implicitly assumed in many episodes, such as in the long and detailed lists of the materials used in the construction of the tent of meeting and its furnishings in Exodus 35-9 and in the census described in Numbers 26. Administrators and their tasks are also mentioned explicitly on occasion, such as in 1 Kings 4:1-28, which lists all King Solomon’s officials, including secretaries and a recorder, and also records the daily provisions required by the royal household and who was responsible for providing these things.
Because the Old Testament presents the story of a people as the record of God’s activity in the world, it is generally holistic in its approach to life. This is of course an overly sweeping statement, and the different books of the Old Testament clearly present many different approaches. Nevertheless, a spirituality can be discerned throughout the Old Testament writings which treats the whole of life as the religious sphere. Questions of what to eat, what to wear, who to marry and generally of how to live one’s day to day life are not set aside from the religious aspect of life but are seen as comprising it. The purity laws of Leviticus, and the sayings of Proverbs, for example, make no distinction between their moral, ritual and common sense instructions. Administration at all levels and in all guises, from good government of the nation, to faithfully copying the book of the law, to accurately accounting for every shekel donated to the construction of the tabernacle, was thus simply one more aspect of every day life which was done under God.
Turning to the New Testament, this sense of administration being a natural part of human life can be seen in the gospels, though less so in the other books. Jesus is frequently recorded in the gospels to have used imagery and examples drawn from the worlds of business, accountancy and administration. Many of the great parables use this sort of imagery, to powerful effect. For example, the parable of the talents (Matt 25:14-30) tells the story of a master delegating administrative powers to his servants and then settling accounts with them. Whilst the point made in this story has become a commonplace in our society, this was by no means the case at the time the story was first told. Well-known rabbinic maxims and parables clearly taught that burial was the best means of safeguarding money which had been given to you on trust; the idea of speculating with it would probably, therefore, have been regarded as wildly irresponsible. Jesus was not therefore simply using the language of commerce and administration to give background colour to his story, but rather was drawing a substantial example from the business world of his day.
Other parables do seem to use business imagery in a more illustrative, rather than a substantive, way. In the parable of the unmerciful servant (Matt 18:23-35), Jesus uses the example of a king settling accounts with his servants to emphasise his teaching on forgiveness, whilst the parable of the tenants (Luke 20:9-16) uses the idea of an absentee landlord being defrauded by his tenants to make several indirect points, such as about Jesus’s identity as God’s son. Sometimes the expected paradigms of the business world are deliberately subverted for ironic effect, as in the humorous parable of the shrewd manager or the dishonest servant (Luke 16:1-12), in which a sacked manager is praised for safeguarding his own future by some well-directed corruption. Jesus’s frequent and neutral use of such imagery gives the impression that these administrative activities were considered a natural part of human life. The only point at which such activities are critiqued are when they take place in the Temple. This is in stark contrast with the modern tendency to talk down such activites as inherently sinful.
Similarly, the need for effective administration appears to have been well recognised in the early church. The communitarian ideal outlined in Acts 2:42-47 and 4:32-35 clearly required some degree of organisation, and although this is not at first spelt out the need to reform it is made explicit in the appointment of the seven in Acts 6:1-6. This episode provides a rare glimpse of the mechanics of early church organisation, and whether this represents an historical reality or an ideal that Luke wishes to present, it is notable that the prayerful and efficient administration of such practical matters as the administration of alms is considered worthy of mention as an important part of the establishment of the early church. Barrett argues that what Luke intends to communicate to his reader in Acts 6:1-6 is precisely that ‘a minor deficiency in administration is immediately set right…and the consequence is a great increase in the number of believers.’
The only other mention of administration in the New Testament comes in one of Paul’s lists of spiritual gifts, in 1 Cor.12:28: ‘in the church God has appointed first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then workers of miracles, also those having gifts of healing, those able to help others, those with gifts of administration, and those speaking in different kinds of tongues.’ The greek word translated here as ‘those with gifts of administration’ is which literally refers to steersmen, pilots or captains. This term, and that immediately preceding it, have puzzled generations of commentators since they do not appear in other lists of spiritual gifts and seem to be of a different order to the other gifts that they appear alongside. The Vulgate and early modern translations into the vernacular such as the King James Version, rendered as ‘governments’.
Contemporary commentators tend to give more weight to the naval basis of . as referring to ‘the ability to hold the helm of the church’, perhaps leadership or vision, but the most detailed studies have agreed that practical leadership skills are the point here, with Paul deliberately setting the practical skills of leadership alongside the more ‘spiritual’ gifts of leadership such as teaching, and speaking in tongues, which the Corinthians were mistakenly exalting.
Administration in the early church
Although very little evidence survives about the running of the early church it is clear that it was highly organised and that individuals were appointed to specific roles with particular administrative responsibilities. For early Christianity, however, there was a clear tension between the practical and the spiritual. Part of the church’s coming to terms with the continued failure of the expected end times to arrive was a need to understand how Christianity could be lived out in society.
On a practical note, too, administration becomes necessary with the acquisition of property, even if it is only used to give that property away again as speedily and fairly as possible (as in Acts). Whilst the church had certainly had property prior to Constantine’s conversion, the amount involved increased dramatically in the years and centuries following. Property belonging to the church which had been confiscated under the various persectutions was restored, and Constantine himself – along, no doubt, with many others – made donations to the church. Over the following centuries the church became wealthy, and in particular the various monastic movements, begun in poverty, attracted donations of land, money and ornamentation from members of the church who admired their aims and hoped to benefit from their prayers. Alongside this change in the circumstances of the church went the development not only of administrative and legal structures, but also of theological rationales for the church owning property at all.
The sudden shift that the church experienced on Constantine’s conversion, from being a small beleagured minority to suddenly becoming an approved religion and soon becoming a sine qua non for advancement, had a profound impact on the self understanding of the church and on its spirituality. A self understanding based on purity and martyrdom was swiftly replaced with one which sought to recreate that original purity by the test of asceticism; martyrdom reinterpreted for a church that was no longer the target of persecution. Yet the fact that the church had become wealthy, and the fact that many wealthy people became members of the church as it became the official state religion of the Roman Empire, also needed to be addressed.
The phenomenon of desert monasticism and the debate which raged over whether virginity and marriage were equally allowable both produced a large amount of literature arguing that an ideal Christian spirituality required freedom or withdrawal from the day to day concerns of married life (with marriage essentially defined as the socio-economic state of householder, rather than in terms of sexual relationships per se). Even those who argued that marriage could be an authentically Christian way of life were at pains to point out the many disadvantages of the distractions of marriage for one’s spirituality. This council of perfection had to be reconciled with the reality of a state church of which most people were to become members, and over the period from the late second to the fourth century A.D. a concept of two types of Christian follower was worked out, the first excluding marriage and property, the second allowing a full range of interaction with society including even involvement with the government or army.

As the monasteries and churches acquired land and buildings so the need grew for both effective administrative structures and a spirituality which made sense of time devoted to such duties to be developed. The Benedictine Rule, which grew out of this context, managed to synthesis the material and practical with the spiritual and religious dimensions of life. Its success in doing so can be inferred from the fact that it has endured the test of time for around 1500 years, and is today the guiding rule of more than 1400 Benedictine and Cistercian communities. Benedictine spirituality offers a framework within which the need for paperwork and administrative duties to be undertaken by the churches’ ministers can be understood theologically and even treasured as a spiritual discipline. Life is to be well-ordered, even comfortable, and the discipline needed for accounting for tools and managing land is seen as part of the discipline needed for living in community, which in turn is understood as the best way to become as God intended us to be. Benedict’s rule spends as much time on the practical ordering of the monastery as on its prayer life, refusing to draw a distinction between the two.

This sense of the holiness of daily life is of course not exclusively Benedictine. It does, however, seem strangely inappropriate that a sense of the holiness and the idea of a spirituality of daily life should have been largely the preserve of monastic communities rather than the laity! I guess the women looking after twelve children and a farmyard whilst getting on with being Christians were just too busy to go about writing down how they did it.

Typology
Overall, I want to suggest that there are broadly four ways of understanding administration theologically, one negative and three approaches which are positive to varying degrees. The first of these is a ‘rejectionist’ approach. This is typically characterised by a suspicion of society and of all the trappings of participation in society, and in particular by a radical rejection of wealth and property. Those taking this view would tend to criticise all time spent on administrative tasks or worldly work as a distraction from higher things, and to reject attempts at better church administration as being a sign of the church compromising with the standards of the world. This approach can be seen throughout Christian history, and in many ways has right on its side. It certainly provides a powerful corrective to the human tendency to be seduced by wealth and power and be distracted by the pursuit of these from our calling to live our lives in God’s service. However, as an entire philosophy it is severely lacking, as the early church discovered very soon; we are called to live our lives in this world, for now at least. This approach is useful as a corrective, but must be kept in check if it is not to become life-denying.
The first of the positive approaches to work we might call the ‘enabling’ approach. This sees administration as something that it is worth doing well because this will enable other tasks to be done better or free up more time for those other tasks. This is typical of most theological writing in the late twentieth century on the subject of work. Typically, this advocates that the clergy adopt time management techniques and embrace technological advances such as word processing and accountancy software packages, in order to enable their “real” work (their pastoral and perhaps their liturgical duties) to be done more effectively. Although advocates of this approach do not follow the rejectionist line of thinking to its conclusion, nevertheless they are aware of and in sympathy with many of its precepts, and wish to guard against the possibility of their positive approach to worldly wisdom going too far. They stress that ‘administration...is always secondary to the main purpose’, that it is a means to an end.
The third approach to administration is the ‘spiritual’ understanding. Under this heading I include the ideas that it is important to do one’s work well, whatever it may be, in order to honour God; that God can be encountered in any work that is done wholeheartedly, well, and with the aim of honouring God in mind; and finally the ascetic idea that doing unpleasant or uncongenial tasks can be a valuable spiritual discipline, training the Christian to deny the self. All of these ideas see spiritual value in many kinds of work, and as such are a useful element in the Christian tradition, which has generally had little to say about day to day life in the workplace. Again, however, the value placed on work is essentially secondary, as with the ‘enabling’ approach. Although this third approach dignifies administration as a spiritual discipline and a place where worship can happen, the positive value given to administrative tasks is still seen as deriving from what they lead to, rather than from any inherent value in the work itself.
So this brings me on to the fourth approach, which I call the ‘anthropological’ understanding of work. This approach sees inherent value in administrative work, which on this understanding forms an essential part of what it is to be human. Human beings are understood as inherently social creatures, and the construction of systems and societies and their ensuing administration can then be seen as an essential expression of our created nature, even as one aspect of our being created in the image of God.

I wonder if we can develop this idea – can we see God as an administrator? For example, it might be possible to read Genesis 1 not just as about God creating, but about God as the One who also orders, sorts, and systematises?

Each of these four approaches to administration clearly has its merits, and a full understanding and location of our work within our Christian lives will draw on the insights of all four. The rejectionist approach warns of the dangers of embracing the world and our culture without critiquing them in the light of what has been revealed of the Kingdom. The enabling approach provides a practical rationale for improved administration and the motivation for continual striving for improved efficiency. The spiritual approach provides for even the dullest tasks to be redeemed by a conscious decision to do them well, and dignifies the common round by seeing it as a location both for epiphanies and prayer. The anthropological approach liberates us from thinking of our day to day administrative tasks as inherently contradictory to our human nature and divine calling. It means we can see our paperwork as an expression of our human creation as social and structuring beings, and as a means of human flourishing.





Wednesday, 9 July 2014

'Frozen' End of Term Assembly (Change/Transition)

Like many vicars, I have several end of year Leavers' Assemblies and church services to do at this time of year, for various local schools. This year I've put together an assembly addressing the perennial change and transition themes, using the popular film Frozen. Several people have asked to see it, so here are my notes. Feel free to use/adapt locally as you see fit!

The version here is primarily intended for KS2 pupils, though I'll also be doing a simpler adaptation for KS1. As I did it here, it was for a church school whose pupils could be relied on to already know the parable of the building on rock and sand - that might need more explanation in some contexts.

Various different versions of this as used in practice also incorporated hymns (eg One More Step), and children reading poems and prayers.

Frozen Assembly

1. Begin by playing 'For the First Time in Forever' (track 3 on soundtrack, youtube link here. )
I played this just up to the first chorus ('for the first time in forever'), and stopped it there just after Ana has sung 'Wow, I am so ready for this change!'.

2. I asked the children if 'Wow, I am so ready for this change!' was how they felt about moving on? After gathering responses, briefly discussed how we found some changes exciting, and some scary. There are lots of changes in the film Frozen - some good (like Elsa discovering how to control her powers), some bad (like the King and Queen dying). Most obviously, the weather changes dramatically when Elsa is scared and upset.

3. Jesus also told a story about the weather changing dramatically. Tell the story of the wise and foolish builders. So the Bible doesn't say that nothing bad will ever happen to us; storms will come in our lives, things will change in all sorts of ways, the important thing is whether we have strong foundations. When Jesus told that story, he said that if people had built their lives on what he taught, they would have strong foundations and would be sheltered and kept safe even in raging storms.

4. Ask the children what the film Frozen identifies as the most important foundation? I got the answer 'love' straight away the first time I tried this, but if not try asking what does Elsa come to realise is the key to controlling her gift? What does Ana need to save her? Then draw out that love is the thread that runs all through the film. It is because Ana has such a firm foundation in love for her sister that she keeps believing all through the story that Elsa is good, and can be saved and can work out how to save the country from the snow. Her love for Elsa means she saves her life rather than save herself, when she uses her last few seconds before freezing to save Elsa from Hans, rather than to run to Kristoff to try to save her own life. And then Elsa realises the power of love for herself, and is able to unfreeze Arundell and use her gift for everyone's enjoyment.

5. The Bible says that love is the most important foundation there is for life. Read (or paraphrase) 1 Corinthians 13 - if you have parents there for the end of term assembly you might refer to this being the best known and best loved passage in the Bible for weddings. Paul says that even faith in God is useless without love.

6. The best known song in Frozen is 'Let it Go'. (just mentioning this got a cheer!). When Elsa sings it, she is scared and fearful that now that people know who she really is, they will reject her. Because we know that God already knows everything about us, and loves us, we have a firm foundation for life. As we go through life, we can keep what is good about the past and leave behind what is not so good, and what we have grown out of as we go into the future. So in a moment we're going to sing Let it Go: and I invite you to clench your two hands in fists in front of you. Imagine that you are holding tight to everything that hasn't been so good about the past year. Maybe a time when someone said something mean to you. Maybe a time when you said or did something you're not very proud of. We'll keep the good from the year in our hearts, and take it with us into the future: but when we sing 'Let it Go', I invite you to fling out your arms and open your hands, and let go of all the things you want to leave behind from this year.

7. Sing 'Let it Go'! (track 5 on the soundtrack CD, or on youtube here.)

8. Conclude: So we have let go of anything we want to leave behind, and because we know God loves us and we have built firm foundations through our time in this school so far, we can embrace whatever the future holds with excitement, saying with Ana, 'Wow! I am so ready for this change!'.

(Play 'For the First time in Forever' again as they leave if you like).

(You could even include the snowman's song 'In Summer' in the middle if you want to make this longer, as an example of someone who has no idea what a longed-for change really means!)


Tuesday, 17 June 2014

What did a Seventeenth Century Anglican think of intersex and trans?

I came across an astonishing aside in a seventeenth century sermon recently. The author casually mentions intersex individuals, including one specific example of someone who has changed both gender and the sex of their marital partner.

He doesn't mention them to condemn them, but merely to underline a rhetorical point. There is not a hint of a suggestion that this is a problem - unusual, yes, but within the normal range of unusual events. Intersex, he says, happens 'pretty often', and is God-given.

The author - John Wallis DD - is speaking about the Athanasian creed, and specifically about the possibility of a virgin birth. He says that it is no less likely than the raising of Lazarus and other miracles.

Then he goes on:
"I was about to say (and it is not much amiss if I do) it is not much more than what (pretty often) happens amongst men, when God gives both sexes to the same person (such there are, and have been; and I think there is one yet living, who was first as a Woman married to a Man, and is since as a Man married to a Woman;) and what hinders them, but that God, if he please, may mingle the Effects of both these Sexes in the same Body? A little alteration in the structure of the vessels would do it."

Maybe this should go into the Pilling report as some theological background?

(Reference: 'An Explication and Vindication of the Athanasian Creed', by John Wallis DD, London, 1691. In Durham University library special collections, PG.Routh.36.B.16)

Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Why Easter Matters

What does the average vicar write in their parish magazine for Easter? Who knows. But this is what I wrote for our Belmont and Pittington 'Grapevine' this month:

Christ is risen, Alleluia!

We are now in the middle of Eastertide, the season of the year when we remember and celebrate Jesus' resurrection from the dead. Like Lent, Eastertide lasts for several weeks. Over these weeks, we remember Jesus' many resurrection appearances. Sometimes he appeared to an individual, sometimes to a small group, and sometimes to whole crowds of people. By the end of a few weeks after that first Easter, there were hundreds, even thousands, of witnesses to the astonishing fact that Jesus had been raised from the dead.

Jesus's death and resurrection is the central point of our faith. Without it, the church is nothing but a social club. With it, we have the most wonderful message of hope to share.

And the hope that we have in Jesus is one that our culture, our friends and neighbours, and we ourselves, need so deeply. We live in a culture which is desperately scared of illness, weakness and death. So many of our newspaper and TV reports are about what might give us cancer, what might kill or cure us. Our magazines are full of 'miracle' diets and health tips. The most controversial question facing our politicians and society is that of euthanasia - whether people should be allowed to help those who are too frail to kill themselves to do so without fear of punishment.

What do health, life, illness and death mean to us as Christians? Being a Christian does not make us immune from fear of pain or suffering, or from worry and grief when we or those around us are ill and dying. But Christianity does change our perspective on illness and death.

Because we follow a God who showed his love for us most profoundly by being born as a helpless, squalling infant, and by being prepared to die in the most horrible way imaginable for us, we are forced to confront our fears and to see weakness and death in a new light. They are still horrible, still fearsome, but we know that God can and does work through, and overcome, even the worst that can happen. And we know that death is not the end.

We know that God knows what the worst pain imaginable feels like. God knows what it is to suffer in Jesus. And because God is Father and Son and Spirit, we know that God also knows what it is to watch someone close to us suffer and die. Even more, because Jesus on the cross cried out just before his death 'My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?' we know that God knows even the pain of feeling ourselves abandoned by God.

When we think of death, we can see it not as the end of all that is good, but as a movement into things that are even better. Instead of fearing the natural process of ageing and dying, we can relax into it, welcome it even, because we know that this life is not all that God has in store for us.

Because that tomb was empty on that first Easter morning, and the risen Jesus appeared to his friends and disciples, the Christian faith is that we too will one day be raised from death to life with God. Alleluia!

Friday, 4 April 2014

Prayers after (Same Sex) Marriage: A suggested order of service

 You've all seen Rev episode 2, haven't you? That's why I've written this...

A Suggested Draft Order for Prayer and Dedication after the Civil Marriage of a Same Sex Couple*


*NB: The Church of England has a recognised Order for this purpose when the couple concerned are a man and a woman, and that Order should be used in those circumstances. There is no analagous provision for couples of the same sex: instead, clergy are encouraged to make appropriate pastoral provision. This draft order draws heavily on the existing Order (copyright Archbishops Council), and makes some suggested adaptations, but it is not an official or authorised liturgy. It is suggested, however, that it may be of use as a basis for discussion with the couple concerned as to what would be appropriate pastoral provision in their particular circumstances.

Introduction

God is love, and those who live in love live in God, and God lives in them.

A hymn may be sung here, or after the next section.

The minister welcomes the couple and their family and friends, using these or similar words:

N and N, you stand in the presence of God having contracted a legal marriage earlier [today], to dedicate to God your life together. We pray with you that God may empower you to keep the vows you have made to one another.

Edited: Personally, I  might want to include the next bit, an adaptation of the Preface. However, as Peter O points out below, it could be construed as illegitimate under the present guidelines. Since the point of this draft is to offer a contribution that should be fully acceptable, I offer an alternative below. I don't commend this bit as above reproach, but am keeping it here for honesty, as its what I'd like to say - and frankly, I'd prefer to use this version at opposite-sex marriages....

[The Bible teaches us that marriage is a gift of God's grace, a holy mystery in which two people become one flesh. It is God's purpose that, as two people give themselves to each other in love throughout their lives, they shall be united in that love as Christ is united with the Church.
Marriage is given, that two people may comfort and help one another, living faithfully together in need and in plenty, in sorrow and in joy. It is given that with delight and tenderness they may know each other in love, and through the joy of their bodily union may strengthen the union of their hearts and lives.]

An alternative paragraph could be:
[We thank and praise God for bringing you together,
God is the creator of all joy and gladness,
pleasure and delight, love, peace and fellowship.
God loves all that God has made, and declares it to be good.
God's Holy Spirit is known by the fruit of love, joy and peace.
In Christ, God shows his love for us in that while we were still far off,
God met us in His Son and brought us home.]
Is it your wish today to affirm your desire to live as followers of Christ, and to come to him, the fountain of grace, that, strengthened by the prayers of the Church, you may be enabled to fulfil your marriage vows in love and faithfulness?

The couple reply: It is.

A hymn may be sung here.

Collect

Almighty God,
You have taught us through your Son
that love is the fulfillment of the Law.
Grant to these your servants
that, loving one another,
they may continue in your love until their lives' end.
Through Jesus Christ our Lord,
Amen.

Readings
At least one Bible reading should be used, and other readings, poems, may also be used here.

The Dedication

The couple face the minister, who says

N and N, you hve committed yourselves to each other in marriage
And your marriage is recognised by law.
The Church of Christ understands marriage to be a lifelong union
For better, for worse
For richer, for poorer,
in sickness and in health,
to love and to cherish
Til parted by death.
Is this your understanding of the covenant and promises that you have made?

The couple reply: It is.

Have you resolved to be faithful to one another,
forsaking all others,
so long as you both shall live?

The couple reply: We have.

The couple will already be wearing their wedding rings: it would be appropriate for them to keep them on their fingers, since they are already married, and for this prayer to be said over their hands:

Heavenly Father,
may these rings, we pray, be to N and N
symbols of unending love and faithfulness
and of the promises they have made to each other:
through Jesus Christ our Lord.
All: Amen.

The minister says to any family and friends present:

Will you, the family and friends of N and N
support and uphold them in their marriage
Now and in the years to come?
All: We will.

A hymn may be sung here

Prayers: these might well be said by a friend or family member, or even by the couple themselves.
Prayers in a church context should usually include the Lord's Prayer.

A hymn may be sung here.

Conclusion

A final Bible reading (in the manner of a dismissal gospel) or poem may be read here.

A blessing of the whole congregation would be usual here, but may be considered contentious in case it is misinterpreted as a blessing of the couple per se, which is contrary to the Bishop's guidance at this time. It may be advisable to use a form that makes the congregational nature of the blessing explicit, for example by using the inclusive 'us' form:

God the Holy Trinity make us strong in faith and love,
defend us on every side, and guide us in truth and peace;
and the blessing of God almighty,
the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit,
be with us [you all] and remain with us [you all] always.
Amen.

If even this is considered inappropriate, I would suggest a form of the Peace:

We have celebrated the love of N and N
and we now celebrate God's love for us all.
Peace, in Christ, to all of you.
All: and also with you.

The exchange of the peace may follow, and form an informal end to the service; or the service could end on those words, and the minister and couple process out.