Monday 23 July 2018

Moving on

This will be one of my last posts on this blog, as my "Dances with Midges" in Argyll end in just a short while.

I have spent the last eight years as a priest in one of the most beautiful places in the world - not an exaggeration - and have been profoundly affected by my journey with the Christian communities I've served in Cowal and Bute and the wider area.

In just over two weeks I will move, with my family, to live in Dundee, on the East coast of Scotland.  I suppose I am a natural 'East-coaster', being born in Aberdeen, living in Edinburgh and Fife for quite a few years as a young adult, growing up in a Central Belt house that took 'The Scotsman' newspaper (the Edinburgh paper, for those reading further afield).  A couple of weeks after I move I will start my new role, as I will be consecrated as the Bishop of Brechin in the Scottish Episcopal Church. *pauses for effect*

More on that elsewhere...

For now I am in that strange transition time of leaving churches where we have put down some very strong roots.  A leaving dinner, last services in churches on Sundays and weekdays, farewells with people in the local community: it is a very extended, lovely, but hard goodbye (even if we are smiling still...)

(Photo credit: Alison Clark)

Someone asked my what had been the hardest thing about my time here. Many people have asked what the highlights have been.  It still feels a bit too much like being sat in the middle of the ministry, the God moments, the relationships, to be able to make too much sense of those questions.  The goodbyes are hard, and they should be, as being a priest is making strong connections and bonds with the people that you serve.  Breaking those bonds and moving on to something else should be difficult: it is worth it.

Overall, God has been here with us in so many ways in the past eight years.  The pattern of eucharistic worship, with bread and wine blessed and shared, three times per week, on the same days in the same places, has been a heartbeat throughout the time.  The faces have changed, as some have died, some have moved away, some have left for other (harder) reasons, and new people have come, have encountered the community, have held out their hands to receive the broken body of their redeeming God, taken the cup of the blood of their new covenant. That has underpinned the prayers said in people's homes, the profound (or trivial) discussions in meetings, at events, in the freezer aisle in the local supermarket.  The pitta bread broken in the secondary school as part of the years of Experience Easter outreach projects. So, so many other ways that a Christian community grows, forms, reforms...

That priestly heartbeat will continue here (a little slower for the vacancy). It has been, for me, a thing of great wonder, value and encounter.  That heartbeat will change for me now - it will still be a Sunday heartbeat, but in different places each week.  I will also look for the eucharistic heartbeat on other days in those other places. And the new styles of encounter, the new ways that God will be glimpsed. I feel a new blog coming on...

Someone asked me if have learned much in my eight years here. It was a very loaded question (I may not have always done what they would have liked me to do...). But I reflected: I have learned to be calm and thoughtful, and to listen for God. To be rash and impetuous, and to take risks for the gospel.  To keep going when your stomach is tight with the tension or anger. To keep going when your heart is singing with the joy and wonder. To keep going, and trust that God is with us. I have been formed, my vocation developed and tested and stretched. I have done nothing but learn and be transformed. It never stops!

It has been a wonderful dance, this 'Dances with Midges' of the last eight years. The dance here will continue, but with others taking the lead. Praise God!

Tuesday 17 April 2018

Faith in a time of war...

There's been a lot of coverage and conversation about war on my various social media feeds.  We even interviewed our youth in the sermon-slot at the service last Sunday about this: quite how apocalyptic it can feel, in a time of nerve agents, false news, missile strikes, political positioning, environmental catastrophe, or not...

How can people of faith respond to a situation where countries attack each other? What is right or wrong?

There is a Christian view that is to be a pacifist. In that view, war is never acceptable.  That is fine, and is a valid and legitimate place to be.  Most Christians would use a 'Just War' approach, however, to making judgements about war.  The primacy of a 'Christian' Just War theory rather fades into insignificance in the modern world.  The ideas that have populated such a theory, from Augustine through Aquinas, have been subsumed and adapted into the modern day UN Charter.  Christian 'Just War' is ultimately rooted in maintaining order so that true religion can flourish (if one takes it all the way back to Augustine, trying hard to reconcile Christianity with a military Roman Empire). The UN charter has a different absolute value for judging the making of wars: sovereignty of nations.  None of which really helps the Christian make sense of war and the modern world.  Does God really care about one country over another? Things change, systems and political structures wax and wane.

But Christians must be rooted in values that place humanity first: God did that by becoming one of us, becoming a human. God's grace is open to all, every single human being.  Hairs on our heads are counted.  So in looking at any issue of justice and ethics, where is the path that values humanity the most?  Is fighting a war a way that humanity can be built up, valued, cherished and affirmed?  Sometimes, yes.  What if the second world war had NOT been fought, and the dark of Nazism had not been challenged. But what about firebombing Dresden?  The "jus in bello" subtlety of Just War theory (if you must fight a war, fight it nicely, essentially) rears its head again. History does a fine job of judging which wars are just or not, even given the victors' habit of writing that history.

So what do we do at the moment? Do we actually know what is going on, who has done what to whom?  Have we been manipulated by regimes or news organisations or troll-farms to have a pre-conceived pro- or anti-war view?  How can we, as individuals, even start to make that judgement?

But we can, as Christians, engage in the processes that are open to and are around us.  We can challenge the politicians that represent us to be accountable and make decisions that are just and humane.  We can protest and take direct action to force such accountability.  We can preach and blog and tweet about the issues: to get others to work for accountability and human value.  We can always even pray about it. A lot.

Can we get to a place where we, as Christians, can make definitive statements about whether war should happen or not? Unless we are truly pacifists, I think not, in the modern world of media and fluid truth (did I make that term up? I suspect I didn't) as we can never really know all the facts. No, I believe that is an anachronistic and arrogant view for 21st century Christians in a plural and secular world. We no longer own the right to define a "Just War". But we can be agents of light, agents of pressure, agents forcing accountability onto the powers and structures that act on our behalf.

Jesus appeared among the disciples and said, "Peace be with you." And they were glad...

Tuesday 3 April 2018

Easter begins again...

Holy Week and Easter Day are past.  The new week, the Octave of Easter, is calmer and forward looking, the fifty days of Easter stretching before us. But isn't it all a bit backward looking, this commemoration of events nearly 2,000 years ago?

Good Friday is central, for me, to the flow of Holy Week.  It is hard and gritty and uncomfortable.  Lots of people stay away from the reading of the Passion, the starkness of the cross, the harshness of death.  This Holy Week I led the Good Friday service on Bute, in the little pisky church in Rothesay.  Inside, just over a dozen of us lived through the last hours of Jesus' life.  Outside it was an almost-holiday-Friday, with shouts and laughs, children out of school, swearing, police sirens, cars and seagulls squawking.  Normal life was running past the hard place of our remembrance.

I reflected, in the service, that this was just like that first Good Friday, so many years ago, from Pilate's court to the rubbish dump of Golgotha.  A normal bustling eve-of-the-Passover-sabbath was going on.  Shouting, children playing, shops selling wares, people getting ready for the holiday.  And a crucifixion, too - another bit of normality in a first century CE Roman occupied state.  A spectacle for the masses, suffering as a tool of population control and political expediency.  All very normal...

But Easter Day comes.  The New Light is lit.

Photo credit: Alan Mole

Is this still normal? The disciples' lives are about to be turned upside down (again) - but this time by the risen Jesus.  Can that same impact be found in the busy world that looks pretty much the same as it did on Friday?  Do the holiday makers of Bute, or wherever, really care about the empty tomb?  Can they see past the gothic buildings, anachronistic ways of talking and dressing, the rich traditions that can attract or scare: and can they see the love of God, embodied in blood and pain, and embodied in light and new life?

Well, that is what we are here to do, this Easter and every day, to help people see past the medium to the person of Jesus Christ, our Saviour.

Does anyone care? God does - and that is why we will continue to shout, "Alleluia, Christ is Risen", and watch as, life by life, the world is transformed into the Kingdom of God!

Tuesday 12 December 2017

Advent again...

A beginning of the church's year, just as the rest of world descends into the commercial chaos of Christmas celebrations and purchase.

We try hard for this to be a time of year for waiting, for preparation, for holding onto the richness of the darkening nights and the browning hillsides.

What are we waiting for?

For God to come and make it all well?  For the Christ child to be born?  For light to come into the world?  It can be a tiring wait, as the millenia start to click by.  And what are the people of the world waiting for?  It's not a Messiah they look for now: it's to be loved, to be fulfilled, to be assured of their worth and self-respect.

Which the gospel that we serve brings.

We wait for the sonorous tones of, 'In the beginning was the Word...' and we can know that we ARE loved, we are fulfilled, we are worthy of respect.  All from the God who became human, ever distant and close enough to touch.

We really are waiting for rather a lot.  And it is here among us already...


Friday 6 October 2017

Sex and violence...

The world has always been obsessed with sex and violence - usually inextricably linked together, as power and dominance at a personal, social, national and international level. That's a big proposition, but just glance at the papers any day and you see it right in front of you.

And the church? Surely different?  Not at all!

The recent flurry of interest in the Anglican Primates' meeting - with the Scottish Episcopal Primus attending, a few months after the church amended its canon on marriage - is all about sex and violence!  The visceral response to same sex marriage, which is less to do with the nature of marriage and more to do with perceived physical aspects of (male) homosexuality is right at the heart of church (and human...) fascination with sex.  There are some who debate on theology, on the nature of sacramental covenanted partnerships, on reading of scripture: but in most human beings there is a sexual response that fascinates and attracts or repels (or both).

Jesus did not teach much about sex.  He didn't, as far as we can ascertain, ever have sex or even express an interest in it.  He was unusual, in someone who ended up (maybe inadvertently) spinning off a religion, in not tightly defining sexual behaviour, as Judiasm, Islam etc. all do.  So Jesus' teaching treats sex as a secondary issue.  But the church has always had a fascination and obsession.

But violence?  Surely there isn't actual violence in the Anglican Primates applying 'consequences' to the SEC?  Any judicial process is based on violence, explicitly or at least implied.  To have the power to limit someone's participation IS power.  And that is the thin end of the wedge that ends with imprisonment, chemical castration and execution.  The Primates' meeting is NOT judicial - that's what ++Justin has said - but is rather a group of people with shared responsibility who gather to talk and listen. But there is an undercurrent of desire in some quarters for judicial punishment for those Christians who have 'transgressed' in sexuality.  That's certainly what the media are looking for...

Jesus did not teach much about violence.  When he did, it was passive and pacifist.  Turning the other cheek. Going the extra mile.  He did not fight.  He went, eventually, willingly to a dreadful, violent death.  Jesus was only ever a victim of violence.  And changed the world by that willingness.

The world is driven by sex and violence.  Jesus was not.  In fact, he was so NOT driven by sex and violence that he changed the world forever, saving all humanity from their brokenness, sinfulness, their darkness.

The church is in the world, and the obsessions of the world run through it like marbling.  We have structures and rules and membership and punishments with veiled violence (the gloriously entitled SEC Canon 26: "On the Repelling from Holy Communion"...)  But the grace and salvation of Christ Jesus can transform even something as fragile and provisional as his people and his church...

(with major idea acknowledgement to David Martin, "Ruin and Restoration", 2016)  

Thursday 27 July 2017

Feet of Clay

Christian ministry is a tricky thing, wherever you're doing it.  In my own contexts, in charges in small Scottish towns, and also as a senior leader in the diocese, it can feel almost impossible to be able to do all that needs to be done, to be able to meet the demands and expectations of all the people I serve.

At one level, I know all too well that I am supposed to be meeting God's expectations, praying, studying, discerning the spirit and image of God in the world and people around me.  I've been trained, I've read, 'If You Meet George Herbert on the Road, Kill him', all that's very clear after over a decade in ordained ministry.

But it then meets people.  And it meets those people where they are, with THEIR expectations, and hopes and fears and baggage and experiences of rectors and deans from the past.  And those people treat you in a strange way.  I am very, very privileged in ministry, as I am a) male, b) white, c) straight, d) university educated, e) married, f) with children, g) fairly tall, h) clean shaven (ok, that's my choice).  But I am a rector/dean that doesn't press many of the prejudice buttons that congregations might have.  That is an immense privilege, and it would be all too comfortable to minister, maybe for a whole career, from within that privileged and comfortable position.

But I would still fail to meet all the expectations of the charges and people that I have been called to serve, in the Church of God.  I might be male, but I wouldn't visit enough. I might be white but I wouldn't respond quickly enough when someone was in a place of emotional crisis.  I might be straight but I would be a firm advocate and supporter of equal marriage, which disappoints some. You get the idea.  Feet of clay.

I can't even begin to imagine what it must be like if one isn't a) to h) above (well, maybe a) to f)).  You are starting, with some people, not with feet of clay but with a whole body and nature of clay.  That must be so, so hard.  How can you feel called by God, discern the spirit and nature of God in people's lives, when your whole person is judged and rejected by some that you are called to serve.

But Christian ministers are called to serve God.  To do what is right, even if it might feel uncomfortable from a human perspective.  When I was licensed as the priest to these charges, just over seven years ago, the bishop who licensed me, now the Primus of the SEC, gave slightly different sermons in the two churches. On the island, among other things, he said that the charges had to support and nurture me, even when what I preached or led or did was not what an individual might want to hear or see. That is a hard thing to hear, when church can be desired as a comfort zone, a place where people want to hear their own opinions given from the pulpit like reading an editorial in their favourite newspaper.

But Christian ministers are called to serve God.  To challenge and to be prophetic, even if that might be an uncomfortable place to be.  Even if you can hear that others regard your mere feet of clay to be spreading up your legs and into your very person.

Where does all this go?  Is it about same-sex marriage and its application in our churches? Of course.  Is it about pastoral care and meeting the expectations that one should be a pastorally adept mind reader? Of course. Is it about the ghosts of former rectors and their feet of clay being put firmly into the backsides of bruised people? Of course.

But mainly, it is about reminding myself about those feet of clay.  Accepting them and working within them, in my own fragile, flawed humanity.  Whilst working out a call from God to be a leader of God's people in this place, at this time.  God have mercy on us all.  And God's blessing upon us all.

Saturday 8 July 2017

Wash your mouth out...

Crematorium funeral yesterday.  All went OK, insofar as it can on these occasions.

At the wake, the following episode was told to me by the father in question...

Small boy, maybe 5 or 6, I would guess, had spoken to his father.

"What's the deal with THAT guy?"

"Which guy?"

"The guy in the funny clothes, doing all the talking."

"What about him?"

"Well, he said, 'Jesus Christ' at least two times, and nobody told him off for it..."