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..."

Friday, 30 June 2017

Nothing makes a difference...


A very, very small, almost trivial thing happened the other week. Nothing was added. And it made a vast, vast difference.

The small Scottish Episcopal Church on the Isle of Bute, St Paul's Rothesay, has been present in that community for getting on for 190 years.  The current rather bijou Victorian chapel-style church is from the 1850s, but they were in living rooms and temporary buildings for a bit before that.  This was one of the missions of the Episcopal Church (once no longer illegal and suppressed) to reach out into parts of the Scotland that needed to hear the gospel, and needed to hear the gospel wrapped in the subtle, nuanced way that only a balanced ministry of Word and Sacrament, as exemplified by Episcopalian/Anglican worship, can do. That's the driver behind a great deal of our Victorian expansion.

Churches like St Paul's are never going to be 'mega-churches' the way that city centre churches can aspire to be.  Set in an island community of maybe six thousand people, it has had glory days of Sunday schools and fuller pews (well, probably) - but there is a confidence about St Paul's presence on the sea front in the resort town of Rothesay.

So where does the nothing come in?  What difference does it make?

Well, in 1838 (don't you love church blog posts that start that way...) In 1838, a clergyman from Dundee was appointed to be the rector of St Paul's in Rothesay.  There was no building, no church as such, just a few people who gathered week by week to worship.  Samuel Hood built up those people into a church.  He was the dean of the diocese too.  Within fifteen years he built a wooden church, then laid a foundation for a stone one, then built that church.  He was a classic church planter, as well as operating as the dean of a diocese that stretches from Lewis to the Mull of Kintyre.  He is buried in Rothesay, in the main graveyard by the old St Mary's chapel and the High Kirk (now the Church of Scotland United Church of Bute).  Dean Samuel ministered on the island and in the diocese for 34 years before he died.  He is a founding father of our church in Argyll and The Isles, and also a founding father of modern Rothesay, which he will have seen grown around him as he grew his church, celebrated the sacraments, ministered to the people.

But the nothing? Yes, I'm getting there...

After his death, he left more than a church community and his memory.  He left land and funds for a shop and a hall, to be built beside the church he founded.  This hall and shop is still part of the mission of the church today, nearly 150 years on.  And the street that the church, shop and hall created was named after the man who left the land.  Dean Hood Place: a Scottish street, named in honour of that Episcopalian founder.

When I arrived on Bute in 2010, I spotted something strange.  At some point in the past a council employee had made an error in transcribing street names.  The sign by the entrance to the church said, 'Deanhood Place'.  A place named for the abstract concept of a dean? Or the fact of being a dean?  Custom and practice had set this error so firmly in place that documents, leases, all sorts of 'official' matters now referred to 'Deanhood Place'.  Having checked that the official database is correct (which it is), I tried, rather half heartedly, to contact the council to try and address this, but to no avail.

Wind the clock on seven years.  Much has happened, and many relationships formed in Rothesay.  The church has changed, things have developed. Wonderful things have happened, painful things have happened.  But the little church community of St Paul's has matured in many ways.  Old Dean Hood is often thought about and talked about, and a chance conversation between Margaret, the vestry secretary, and Provost Len Scoullar, of the local authority, suddenly causes things to happen.  The issue is raised.  A founder of Rothesay has been lost! This feels unjust.  Something should be done...

And it is. Nothing, a space, a gap, is added to the sign on the street by the church.  Malcolm, the Rothesay sign man, prints it off, and with little or no fuss, the name of the street is restored to 'Dean Hood Place.'  Samuel is back in his place of remembrance.  The old Dean, from so many decades ago, is remembered again.  It will take a long, long time for 'Deanhood' to slowly slide from usage, and Samuel to be everywhere again, but for the moment, the insertion of that 'nothing' has made all the difference.


A church planter, who grew a faith community in Rothesay as their context developed and flourished, is restored to his rightful place in society. Does anyone walking past that street name wonder who 'Dean Hood' was? Probably not.  But the work of proclaiming the gospel in the west of Scotland goes on, and his restoration on our townscape is a great encouragement to those who follow Dean Hood in that mission today.  Nothing really can make a huge difference...

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Wilderness

Lent begins today, with Ash Wednesday, services to remind us of our fragility, sinfulness and the grace of God.  Lent looks busy.  Synod.  Vestry meetings.  Courses.  Extra services.  Lots of stuff in the life of the church.

But Lent is wilderness.  Lent is Jesus going into the desert for forty days to be tempted.  Lent is space in the church's year to let us try and find God in emptiness.  Or for God to find us in our emptiness.

Some of my earliest church memories are, as a primary school child, going in a long crocodile for a mile or so down to our church for stations of the cross on Wednesdays in Lent.  The memory is of dry, slightly chilly days, with dusty roads and pavements.  The memory is of not quite understanding what was going on, but living it in a way that was just normal.  The memory is of rapid words, memorised responses, kneeling, standing, crossing oneself.  I am sure the memory has been conflated with adult understandings (such as we adults are actually able to understand such things), but the sense is of emptiness.

Clergy may find it hard to achieve that sense of emptiness. We are purveyors of the emptiness to others, and that can be a rather busy and frantic activity.  But we need to find that space.  Open our eyes to the wilderness around us.  Open our hearts to the wilderness inside ourselves.

Lent starts today.  May the wilderness open up a way before us all...

Thursday, 22 September 2016

In search of straw...

Towards the end of his life, Thomas Aquinas, one of the great medieval theologians and doctors of the church, is reputed to have said, "The end of my labours has come. All that I have written appears to be as so much straw after the things that have been revealed to me."  In the face of God, all his wonderful and insightful endeavours were, to him, nothing.

In our ministry, as humans, as Christians, is this a helpful thing on which to reflect?

Churches with mission plans and renewal appeals and directives and initiatives: they are all about (on a good day) the flourishing of a place where the gospel is proclaimed, and (on a bad day) the survival of an institution.

But is it all straw, compared to the God that is to be revealed in, and through, and sometimes despite the church that is 'the Body of Christ' here on earth?

Of course it is.  Nothing that we humans can achieve, or even aspire to achieve, can begin to give even a pale glimpse of the God that we worship, revealed in human form in Jesus.  It's even rather precocious and arrogant of me to make a statement like that, as if I, somehow, had a deeper knowledge than others on matters divine.  This is all straw too.

So, whatever we may achieve, whatever honours and admiration and human achievement we may manage as individuals or as a church, before God it is all straw, it is all nothing.

But we ARE the body of Christ in the world, tasked with living the life that we have been shown in the redacted and revered fragments that come to us in scripture.  We search out the straws that are the Christian life, the human life.  

Does it matter that they are just so much straw?  Of course not - salvation and light into all darkness is already assured, by the cross and the empty tomb.  Hope for all humanity is complete.  The straw of our lives, ministry and mission is infinitely valuable and wonderful.

But let's not forget that it is still just so much straw...

Monday, 15 August 2016

Roland Walls: In the world, but not of the world...

That distillation of the lines from the gospel of John, chapter 17, that disciples of Christ are in the world, but do not belong to the world, is a constant challenge to Christians today.

I have just (a few moments ago) finished reading "Mole Under the Fence", a series of conversations with Roland Walls.  Roland died a few years ago, after a remarkable life, especially centred on his time in the Community of the Transfiguration at Roslin.  He was a priest, a monk (effectively), a sharp and self-deprecating man who had Christ at the centre of his life.  I never met him, but a retired colleague of mine did, and lent me the book. 

Image from Northumbria Community

Roland lived a life of poverty, and always seemed to be at the edge of things.  He turned down an academic career in the Church of England, and lived life in that (ecclesiastically) strange country: Scotland.  He also "swam the Tiber", converting to Roman Catholicism, but in a rather Newman-like way, because that is how he and community were taken, rather than the angst-laden protest conversion that one hears and sees these days (usually about women in ministry).

Why am I blogging about him?  Because he has immensely challenged me.

He talks of Christians taking on the powerlessness and insignificance of Jesus on the Cross, rather than hanging onto the coat-tails of Christendom (I grossly, grossly paraphrase much of what he says).  He pretty much rejects institutional models of church (although has such immense and complete faith in church as a place where people ought to be able to encounter God).  He is rather non-plussed and embarrassed when people do NOT encounter God in churches.  The eucharistic encounter is central to him - to meet the Trinity (love defined and defining) in the simplicity and complexity of that uniting and dividing mystery.  And that's not even starting to scratch his views on justice, liberation theology, the social gospel, the Iona Community principles - the things that spill out when you do, really, meet God.

And I am immensely challenged.  I am married, and have a family to (now) get through University.  I am not free to drop everything and join the crucified human and divine saviour in a place of emptiness and poverty. I am part of an institutional machinery (in church, and even in a secular, state way) that rumbles on, in a more-or-less well oiled state. It measures success by growth and stability and influence and titles and even (God help us) the clothes we wear.  And I can be immensely fed by all that. Isn't it great to be part of something good and shiny and visibly successful (I hesitated over that word - what word is right?  The sense of being "in", of being "approved", of being "favoured"?)

But Roland challenges us all where we are, I hope and pray.  I am trapped, just as he was trapped by the poverty of his community and de-skilling of any form of institutional ministry by the community's rule.  I am trapped (very willingly) by family, by church, by duty - but in that state of being trapped, I can work (I hope and pray) to help others to encounter God in the communities which I serve.  I am human enough to feel my ego and pride being fed when things are grand: but I can try to be human enough to keep looking for the cross, and the broken garbage nailed there to remind us where and how we are actually invited to meet God.

We are in the world, and the world's "stuff": church, state, society, success, failure - it is all around us.. But I pray that we will not be of the world, defining ourselves by all that "stuff".  We are defined by the brokenness of the cross, meeting the delightfully and bewilderingly complex and simple Trinity of God in bread and wine.