Thursday, 26 May 2016

On Sabbatical (and finding it hard to relax)

As I write, I'm four days in to my first ever sabbatical. I never had a 'gap year' or anything similar, so this is the first time in all my adult life when I've not been working full time at something. It feels weird!

The closest I suppose I've come to anything similar is my 3 maternity leaves, but as anyone who has had babies knows, that is really not a break in any meaningful sense. Though to be fair to those of you who think maternity leave really is a break, when I was pregnant with my first I did think it was going to be a nice break.  I even bought a piano, thinking that on maternity leave I would of course have time to learn to play it. (Cue hollow laughter). As it turned out, for the first few weeks I didn't even have time to eat lunch. And I was back at college for the second year of my theology training 2 months after he was born, as it was either that or take a whole year out which we just couldn't afford at that time (no maternity pay when you are training for ordination).

So this is the first time I've had anything like an actual sabbath period in my working life. I keep feeling that I should be doing something. In fact, I haven't yet broken myself of the habit of making a daily To Do list - garden, quilt, have a swim - and feeling guilty when I don't manage everything on the list.

I had a quiet day at Shepherd's Dene retreat house yesterday, and found that even then, I was stressing about not achieving sufficient 'spiritual quiet day' success! Do you find that a problem when you go on retreat?

The message I came away with was simply to  relax and let be. As anyone who knows me in real life will testify, this is definitely the spiritual gift that I am most in need of! So though I started the sabbatical with a list of things I wanted to achieve, I am really hoping that I can relax, and for perhaps the first time in my life, find out who I am before God when I am not achieving stuff. I know the theory of 'being not doing', but putting it into practice in real life - in MY real life -  feels like a real leap into the unknown.

Wednesday, 18 May 2016


I was struck this year by the theme in both the Acts and Gospel readings for Pentecost, of thinking big.

In the Pentecost story, when Peter tries to explain what is going on to the gathering crowd, he tells them:
"this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: ‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams' "(Acts 2:16-17)

When I get frustrated by the church - which happens all too frequently! - it is usually a frustration with us thinking too small. We don't tend to dare to dream dreams, prophesy, imagine a different future, try to live up to our visions. Our thinking on church growth can all too easily be limited to 'we'd like it all to stay the same but with a few more people on the coffee rota please'.

And when we do try to dream and envision a different future, I seem to hear a sense that this is for the young ones to do - that we oldies have had our day and it is someone else's turn now. Yet the Pentecost story does not let old folk off the hook! Both young and old, slave and free (in verse 18), men and women, girls and boys are expected to participate in this dreaming, prophesying, visioning.

Its not surprising that we don't tend to dare to dream dreams. All too often in life we are told not to be so stupid, so naive, when we dare to imagine how things could be different. We can probably all remember being a child saying 'that's not fair!', and being told firmly by adults to get used to it, life isn't fair. And it is all too common for someone who dares to dream of a different future to be firmly slapped down by those around them. (Terry Pratchett describes this brilliantly as crab-bucket syndrome in 'Unseen Academicals' - the crabs can't climb out of the bucket because other crabs keep pulling them back down). We hear the voices in our heads, internalised from long repetition, telling us not to be naive, not to waste our time day-dreaming, that we won't make any difference.

Maybe part of receiving the kingdom of God as a little child is daring to get back to that childlike expectation that life SHOULD be fair, that things SHOULD be different? Daring to have impractical dreams once again?

In the Gospel reading from John, Jesus is quoted as saying:
"the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it." (John 14:12-14)

Ask for ANYTHING? Dare we?

In church this morning we thought about this and then spent some time in silence, in which people were invited to admit to God what they really, really wanted. What in their wildest dreams would happen. First for ourselves, and then for our church.

What would be a dream come true for you? Why not risk praying for that?

What would be a dream come true for our church? For the world? Why not dare to pray for that?

Saturday, 2 April 2016

'Doubting Thomas' and Christian witness

A brief reflection on the lectionary readings for Sun 3rd April
 (Acts 5:27-32, Rev 1:4-8, John 20: 19-31)

The theme of Christian witness runs through all these three readings, in ways that make it quite clear that witness is not an optional extra to being a Christian, but essential to what a Christian is.

I'll say that again: witnessing to Christ is not one activity amongst many that Christians may choose to engage it. It is what being a Christian IS.

The apostles in the Acts reading are boldly telling people all about Jesus, even though the civic authorities have banned them from doing so. They can't do anything else, they say - 'We are witnesses of these things'. Being a witness compels them to speak - not to do so would be to live a lie.

In the gospel reading, Jesus's first concern when he appears to the disciples is to show them his hands and his side - in other words, he is making sure that they are witnesses to the reality of his resurrection. This is really him that they are witnessing - he is forcing them to examine the forensic evidence so that their subsequent testimony will be informed and accurate.

This is the often overlooked background to the story of  'Doubting Thomas'. Thomas' rather gory (to modern ears, at least) insistence on poking his fingers and hand into the holes that the nails and spear would have left on Jesus' body emphasises that it is only these wound marks that would prove if it was really Jesus that his companions had seen. This is exactly what Jesus took pains to show the other disciples when he appeared to them, a point reiterated by Thomas's story. And when Jesus finally appears when Thomas is present, he doesn't rebuke Thomas for his desire to see this evidence for himself, but immediately displays it and invites him to investigate.

And the gospel then goes on to make the point that this is also why the gospel itself has been written down - so that you may believe that Jesus is really the Son of God. Just as Thomas wanted to be an eye witness for himself, the gospel writer accepts that we are going to want as much evidence as possible for who Jesus was if we are to believe the really startling claims of his disciples - and that is why the stories he has selected have been presented to us. As a dossier of evidence, so that we can witness for ourselves what Jesus was like and the sort of things he did - in the hope that we will draw the conclusion that he was indeed the Christ.

But its not just the disciples and the gospel writers who are witnesses. The author of Revelation describes Jesus himself as 'the first witness'. Jesus in his very being is witness to us of who and what God is.

So being a witness is not just something that certain special Christians do - it is the nature of the Christ we seek to follow.

Being a witness to what we have seen or glimpsed of Jesus is an integral part of being a Christian. It is not an optional extra.

Last week, I challenged the 8am congregation to tell one person that day or that week that they had been to church on Easter Day - but not just that they had been. I asked them to mention one thing that had struck them, or that they'd been reminded of, about Jesus. And I asked them to specifically mention the word Jesus! Because I had noticed, I said, that whilst we had spent over a year in PCC meetings and elsewhere telling each other our faith stories, hardly anyone had mentioned Jesus or God by name. Most people clearly feel much more comfortable talking about going to church than talking about Jesus. But feeling comfortable isn't enough - we are called to be witnesses. Even, as the Acts story makes clear, when that is certainly not going to be comfortable.

When I issued the challenge last week, I asked them to write down on a slip of paper as soon as they could after the conversation - anonymously - what they had said, and what the reaction had been from the person they said it too. I asked them to bring those slips to church tomorrow for us to share.

In conversations at the door, it seemed that people were up for the challenge!  I wonder how many and how varied the stories we will hear tomorrow will be...

Monday, 21 March 2016

The Strength of Grass

Here, for National Poetry Day, is a poem that I wrote on retreat a year or two ago:
The Strength of Grass

I want the strength of grass.

For too long I have huddled in the shelter of walls,
Barricaded myself behind books,
Armoured myself with a carefully constructed C.V.
Invested in equity-cushioned bricks,
Double-glazed, triple-insulated against the cold:
Nothing can touch me now.

But I am lonely, safe in my fortress.
I do not want my epitaph to read:
'She was safe'. Safe as houses.

And so I rummage through the other available metaphors.
I could be strong as a rock? Too static.
Strong as an ox? Too bovine.

I want to be strong like an oak tree -
No, make that a flowering cherry -
Firmly planted in the gound,
Roots drinking from living water,
Holding fast to the rock,
Resilient, bending before high winds,
Bearing in due season
Exuberant blossom,
A lush green canopy,
Gleaming juicy fruit.

But still alone.

I want the strength of grass:
A mat of roots so tangled
God only knows where one plant ends and the next begins.
Cut low and growing thick,
Packed together so that even the chillest wind
Barely causes us to shiver.

Heavy weather and heavy boots
May trample us into the mud -
But we will spring back, re-grow,
Flush green again for generations to come.

I want the strength of grass.

Thursday, 17 March 2016

Sabbatical FAQ

Here are my answers to the most Frequently Asked Questions about my forthcoming sabbatical!

Q: What is a sabbatical? Is it a long holiday, or something different?
A: The Durham Diocese website says this: A ‘sabbatical’ is a period of three months in which the minister is excused duties in order to engage in a project or set of activities that will promote personal and spiritual renewal. Sabbaticals are not holidays and so the three month period is over and above annual leave and is normally supervised by a mentor.

An image often used for ministry is a jug, constantly being poured out. Every so often you have to go back to the well and refill it. A sabbatical is ‘going back to the well’, a time when you can spend a significant period of time being re-filled and refreshed.

In the Bible, Jesus does lots of things and teaches huge crowds of people: but he also regularly withdraws from the crowds, and goes off to pray alone. Jesus knows that he only has anything to give if he also regularly spends time alone with his Father in prayer. Another Biblical image is of the ‘Sabbath’, resting for one day in seven – hence the word ‘sabbatical’.
Q: Why now?
A: Church of England guidelines are that clergy should aim to have one sabbatical after every 10 years of ministry. It has been found that this helps reduce clergy ‘burnout’, and means that clergy come back to their parishes renewed and refreshed (the parish often find that they themselves have been renewed in the meantime too!). I have been ordained for 13 years this summer, but I had to wait until I was well settled in here to start arranging this sabbatical. 

Q: What will you be doing?
A: A mix of things. I’m having a long silent ‘Ignatian’ retreat at St. Bueno’s monastery, spending a week at the residential Gladstone’s library, and having some extended holiday time.  I was hoping to go to Africa, but an old medical condition means I can’t have the jabs.
The main project that I’m going to be working on for about half the time is a piece of work on how the church has understood ‘difference’ at various points in its history. How we handle difference theologically is a big theme in the Anglican Communion at the moment, as we discuss how to cope with widely different views on things like same sex marriage in different cultures. In wider society, too, it matters how we think about difference: think about the arguments we are having about immigration, or the hijab, for example. I am hoping to help us have these debates by summarising some of the debates that Christianity has had in the past over other differences.
 I’ve always found that theological and historical study has been one of the ways I have connected with God and been spiritually refreshed, so I am very much looking forward to being able to spend a sustained period of time focusing on this.

Q: When exactly will you be away?
A: We’re having a special joint service followed by a bring and share lunch to mark ‘sending me off’ on Sunday 22nd May, and I will be on sabbatical from then to mid August. I’m then adding a couple of weeks of annual leave on the end, and I will be back on Sunday 4th September.

Q: So you will be coming back?
A: Yes! And we are planning a series of coffee mornings and similar gatherings for the first week or so in September so that I can share what I’ve learnt/discovered/experienced over the summer with you all.

Q: What about the family?
A: The children will still be in school, so they will still be here even when I’m away. Phil works from home so he will be around. You may see some grandparents drafted in to help from time to time!

Q: Are we allowed to speak to you if we see you? Do we have to pretend you’re not here?
A: This question did make me laugh! I will still be living here for much of the time, so you may well still see me at the shops, taking the kids to school, and so on. Please don’t ignore me – that would feel very unfriendly! However, I would really appreciate it if you could refrain from discussing church business or sharing pastoral concerns with me over the period of my sabbatical. If you do, I probably won’t be able to put it out of my mind, and will end up worrying about it. So be friendly, but please don’t ‘talk shop’. For the same reason, I and the family will worship at another local church over the summer. 

Q: What happens about services and so on?
A: All our usual church services will be covered by a rota of local clergy and lay people, as appropriate. Our regular assisting clergy and reader – Leslie, Jenny, Kate, and Patrick – will be covering many of them, and other clergy from the deanery and diocese have also generously offered to help out. The rota is already arranged right through to September (it is on the vestry wall for reference).
On Sundays, we will have one Joint Benefice Service a month, alternating between Belmont and Pittington, apart from the four Sundays of August (when so many people are away), when we will have joint services every week alternating between our two churches.
Weddings and baptisms are also being covered by local clergy, and the Revd. Alan Middleton (a local retired vicar)  will take any funerals that come in over the summer. Our house communion team, Patrick and Margaret, will visit those who need emergency pastoral care.

Q: Who is in charge?
A: Legally, the Churchwardens of each parish are in charge in my absence, just as they are in a vacancy between vicars. Practically, the PCCs will continue to meet, and the ‘team’ of churchwardens, Carol Bloomfield our administrator, and Patrick our reader, will be meeting roughly weekly to ensure that everyone is OK and that all is running smoothly.

Thursday, 7 January 2016

Pope Gregory and #Primates2016 - diversity, sex, and church order

 Augustine became the first Archbishop of Canterbury in 597. Soon afterwards, he wrote this letter to Pope Gregory with a series of questions concerning matters of church order and doctrine.

Of the eleven questions that he asked:
Six are about sex;
Two are about bishops, one specifically about the limits of authority when dealing with foreign bishops;
Two are about money;
One is about diversity in church liturgy and order.

As the Primates of the Anglican communion gather at Lambeth next week to discuss very similar things, the vatican has lent the crozier of Gregory, the pope 'who initiated the conversion of England' to edify and inspire the meeting.
The crozier, from the Anglican Communion website linked to above

Apparently it is a 'symbol of ecumenical encouragement' and 'a mark of the bond that spiritually unites the Catholic and Anglican Churches'. (Nice to see the Vatican spokesman there calling the Anglican Church a Church).

Maybe, then, the meeting might also be inspired by reflecting on the advice that Pope Gregory gave to Augustine of Canterbury?

Pope Gregory I dictating, from a C10th manuscript (via wikipedia)
Pope Gregory was a prolific writer. His letters run into several volumes: they are online here, for example.

He is very widely considered to have been A Good Pope. Commonly known as Saint Gregory the Great, he is one of the Doctors of the Church, and was considered by Calvin to the be last pope worth listening to!

So, what does he have to say on the big issues facing the Angles then, and the similar issues facing the Anglican Communion now?

 On Diversity in the Church:

Augustine's third question: Since there is but one faith, why are the uses of Churches so different, one use of Mass being observed in the Roman Church, and another in the Churches of Gaul?

Answer: Your Fraternity knows the use of the Roman Church, in which you have been nurtured. But I approve of your selecting carefully anything you have found that may be more pleasing to Almighty God, whether in the Roman Church or that of Gaul, or in any Church whatever, and introducing in the Church of the Angli, which is as yet new in the faith, by a special institution, what you have been able to collect from many Churches. For we ought not to love things for places, but places for things. Wherefore choose from each several Church such things as are pious, religious, and right, and, collecting them as it were into a bundle, plant them in the minds of the Angli for their use.

This seems pretty clear that diversity in liturgy is perfectly acceptable, and that choosing things fit for purpose in particular contexts is fine. Of course, we can argue til the cows come home (and no doubt the Primates will indeed do so) on what is 'pious, religious and right' - but Gregory seems fairly clear that this is left to Augustine's good judgement.

It is also worth noting that all the complexities and sensitivities in our Communion about colonialism are put into a much longer historical context here - the Church in England was itself first a church which was planted alongside occupation by a colonial power, the Romans, long before Gregory's mission, and was then re-planted by the Roman church (with some inevitable tensions - fast forward to the Synod of Whitby).

On Sex, Marriage, Morality and the Bible:

Isn't it interesting that matters of sex and marriage law (albeit with different specific hang ups) were as much of an obsession then as now?

Six of the eleven questions relate to sex:

2. Whether clerics can get married (Gregory says yes)
5. Whether two brothers can marry two sisters (Gregory says yes)
6. About the permitted degrees of kinship for marriage
7. About whether those in marriages that controvene (6) should be denied communion
10. Various questions about pregnant and menstuating women, and regulations for cleansing men after marital sex
11. About wet dreams

Here there is no easy reading-across of answers from Gregory to present day controversies. However, there are a few things that it is worth noting.

First, some of Gregory's answers are based on current empirical understanding, or a view of what is 'natural', as much as, or more than, theology. For example, he says that although Roman law permits the marriage of cousins (as English law currently does), church law forbids it because
'we have learned by experience that progeny cannot ensue from such marriages'. 
More positively, he rules (clearly against the cultural expectation of the Angles) that menstruating women should not be barred from communion as
' the menstruous habit in women is no sin, seeing that it occurs naturally'.

It would seem, then, that Gregory's example encourages the Primates to consider up to date scientific views on matters of sexuality, and the question of what is natural (for example, the scientific consensus that homosexual behaviour occurs naturally in animals?)  as well as what the Bible has to say.

In fact, what Gregory has to say about what the Bible has to say is also worth reflecting on:

For while the law forbids the eating of many things as being unclean, the Lord nevertheless says in the Gospel, Not that which goes into the mouth defiles a man, but the things which come forth from the heart, these are they which defile a man Matthew 15:11. And soon after He added in explanation, Out of the heart proceed evil thoughts (Ib. 19). Hence it is abundantly indicated that what is shown by Almighty God to be polluted in act is that which is engendered of the root of polluted thought. Whence also Paul the Apostle says, All things are pure to the pure; but unto them that are defiled and unbelieving is nothing pure Titus 1:15.  
That's again in the context of menstruating women, so he is quite happy to read from dietary laws to matters of sex and gender as they relate to purity: and indeed to elide 'what goes in' with 'what comes out'. 

Not that I am arguing that Gregory was a wishy washy liberal! Immediately after that passage he declares that although menstruating women can take communion,
'a man after sleeping with his own wife ought not to enter the church unless washed with water, nor, even when washed, enter immediately'.

This  is because, he argues, it is impossible to have sex without thinking impure thoughts, and taking sinful pleasure in the act, and so those thoughts have defiled you.

Interestingly, he then again refers to local diversity of practice, and seems to rest his prohibition more on secular Roman custom and practice than on theology per se:

'For, although in this matter different nations of men have different notions, and some are seen to observe one practice and some another, yet the usage of the Romans from ancient times has always been for a man after intercourse with his own wife both to seek the purification of the bath and to refrain reverently for a while from entering the church.'
I am reminded, reading this and the sections on who can marry whom, of Prof. Linda Woodhead's point that our debates about same sex marriage echo very closely indeed past historic moral panics about other marriage questions. She pointed out line by line how the Hansard debates on the C19th Deceased Wife's Sister Act mirrored closely the debates this decade on same sex marriage. Here, Gregory and Augustine (and Augustine is clearly passing on concerns of the society to which he has been sent) have similar debates about going to church after having (marital) sex, and about the marriage of cousins. 

Finally, about Bishops:

I also find it amusing that two of Augustine's questions (three, if you count the first one about where the money goes) are about bishops, and specifically that question 9 is about jurisdiction.

Reading between the lines, it is clear that Augustine has been given a mandate to reform the church in Gaul as well as establish one in England (Gregory seems not to have known about the existing church structure and bishops in England - who were understandably narked at having this new Archbishop suddenly put over them). How, he asks, does he deal with the bishops in Gaul?

Gregory's reply is clear: you will need to influence them by persuasion and by the evident holiness of your life, as you have no authority over them:

Over the bishops of Gaul we give you no authority, since from the ancient times of my predecessors the Bishop of Arelate (Arles) has received the pallium and we ought by no means to deprive him of the authority that he has acquired. If therefore it should happen that your Fraternity should pass into the provinces of Gaul, you should act with the same bishop of Arelate in such a way that vices in bishops, if any, may be corrected. And, if he should by chance be lukewarm in the vigour of discipline, he must be stirred up by the zeal of your yourself will not have power to judge the bishops of Gaul by authority of your own; but by persuading, alluring, and also exhibiting your own good works for their imitation'.

The letter doesn't give easy answers, but I very much hope that reading it may help to problematise the questions a bit. Adding in to all our discussions of context and morality some curve balls from a very different context - but one that still has all the complexities of a past empire and colonial thinking - might help the primates to discuss these issues more abstractly and with less heat, at least for a brief pause for thought.