Now it's Istanbul, not Constantinople
Been a long time gone, Oh Constantinople
Now it's Turkish delight on a moonlit night
gal in Constantinople
Lives in Istanbul, not Constantinople
So if you've a date in Constantinople
She'll be waiting in Istanbul
old New York was once New Amsterdam
Why they changed it I can't say
People just liked it better that way
I can actually say why
the name of the town of New Amsterdam was changed to New York (on September 8,
1664 in honour of the Duke of York) but that’s not what I want to talk about in
this letter. I could also spend a long
time explaining (did someone, as my children do, say ‘droning on’?!) the
timeline by which the Thracian city state of Byzantion (Βυζάντιον), Latinized
as Byzantium, was settled by Greek colonists from Megara in 667 BC; of how the
name is believed to be of Thracian origin and thus predates even the Greek
settlement; how it was changed to ‘Constantinople’ in 315 AD when it became the new capital of the newly
Christianised Roman Empire under the Emperor Constantine; of how it fell, in 1483,
to the Ottoman Turks, thus finally ending the Byzantine Empire and with it the
last part of the Eastern Roman Empire; and finally of how the new secular
Turkish state in 1930 politely requested the rest of the world to refrain from
referring to the city by any or all of the above titles and refer to it instead
by its Ottoman Turkish name of ‘Istanbul’; this being rather like the Germans
asking the French to start using the term ‘Deutschland’ instead of their
accustomed ‘Allemagne”! Hence the
fanciful song above, “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)",a 1953 novelty song,
with lyrics by Jimmy Kennedy and music by Nat Simon, written on the 500th
anniversary of the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans.
So you will see that
the history of the name of one city, admittedly a pretty remarkable one, gives
a lot of scope for explanation, (or ‘droning on’, whichever you prefer),
carrying with it as it does so much of the history of Europe; the change of
name reflecting the wider changes going on around it.
A postcard, c. 1905, refers to the city as
Constantinople, and the inner city as Stamboul.
How we refer to something is
often determined by what is going on in the wider world, whether that something
is a place, person or idea. Re-watching
the stunning Netfix drama ‘The Crown’ which depicts the early part of the
Queen’s reign, there are at one point in 1952 three women who bear the title
‘Queen’, all living in the same building, Sandringham Palace, with two of them
also confusingly being called Elizabeth.
To avoid this confusion the servants come up with the idea of referring
to them as, in order of age: ‘Queen Mary’, ‘Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother’
and, of course, ‘The Queen’, who still reigns and bears the title to this
day. The names stuck, even though all of
them had been referred to at one point in their lives simply as ‘The
The Bible too is full of
people whose names change; Simon is changed to Peter, Levi to Matthew and Saul
to Paul. Not the least of these changes
is how God himself is referred to, from firstly ‘Yahweh’ (meaning simply ‘I am
who I am’), to ‘Jehovah’ and, revolutionary as it must have been, by Jesus
as ‘Father’ and using a form ‘abba’,
which a young child might use to their dad, specifically, ‘daddy’. These changes of name go along with, in
people, a great change in their lives by which they express their new
relationship with God – they are still the same person but the focus of their
life has changed – their way of referring to themselves changing to reflect the
better self they have become, or are in the process of becoming. The change of name by which God himself is
referred to isn’t because He has changed, rather its something in the way in
which He is perceived, or related to, that has changed, something more of who
God is is discovered and the old name becomes simply inadequate.
So it is and so it must be,
and so it always has been with what happens in a church when God is worshipped,
when we experience his presence with and through the shared community, which is
‘church’ itself. If I were to be
transported back in time and enter a medieval church anywhere in Europe I
would, as a priest, be allowed into the chancel and enter the sanctuary where I
would consume both parts of the sacrament.
That this would be denied to anyone else in the church, who would also
hear me read the entire service in Latin, which they could not understand, we
would think of as being an inadequate use of the beautiful church building and
certainly an inadequate expression of the worship of God. Skip forward seven centuries to around the
year 1900 and the chances are that in the same church, while reading the
service in English (although a version of English far removed from the
familiarity and perhaps understanding of many of those present) it would still
not allow its congregation up into the chancel, let alone the sanctuary, and
still not usually give them both parts of the sacrament – for the simple reason
that the sacrament would at that time be hardly celebrated in most Anglican
churches at all! Perhaps the church is
facing another such a call to change in the way we worship God. Certainly churches which are growing, and
certainly the best attended of our own services are those which do not focus on
the sacrament – if the mountain won’t come to Mohamed, then, as it were,
Mohamed must go to the mountain.
All this is simply to say
that I hope we would all agree that its not how we worship that matters but
who. I am sure that God wants us to
experience Him in Church as anywhere else in ways which speak to us now, not to
cling on to ways of doing things which are of no more use to us, still less to
the many, in fact the large majority, who live around us and for whom what
happens in church is strange and off putting.
What happens in a church has always changed and evolved along with the
society around it – how many would find a service held entirely in Latin a life
enhancing deepening of our relationship with God, as our worship should
In the modern city of
Byzantium, sorry Constantinople, sorry Istanbul, stands the beautiful Hagia
Sophia, perhaps the greatest surviving example of Byzantine architecture. Its
interior is decorated with mosaics and marble pillars and coverings of great
artistic value. The temple itself was so richly and artistically decorated that
the Emperor Justinian proclaimed, "Solomon, I have outdone thee!"
(Νενίκηκά σε Σολομών). Justinian himself had thus overseen the completion of
the greatest cathedral ever built up to that time, and it was to remain the
largest cathedral and indeed the largest building in the world for the next 1,000
years, up until the completion of the cathedral in Seville in Spain.
When in 1483 Constantinople
fell to the Ottomans the Hagia Sophia became and remained until the Turkish secular
revolution of 1930, a mosque. Since then
it has been and remains a museum, despite recent pressure from on the one side Islamists
to turn it back into a mosque and on the other the American evangelical
Christian right to turn it back into an orthodox basilica. It remains the most visited destination in
Turkey to this day. In order to maintain its religious neutrality the secular
Turkish state made sure that worship, of any sort, was for many years forbidden
in the Hagia Sophia; carpets were taken up to reveal the magnificent Byzantine
mosaics, plaster was stripped off to show the stupendous Byzantine murals. There was though provided within this most
magnificent of buildings, and only for the use of the museum’s Christian, Jewish
and Muslim employees, a plain and bare shared small room for prayers; with prayers
from the different religions often taking place at the same time. This room has no official name; to some it is
a worship place or space, to others a prayer room, its name doesn’t matter
really, church, mosque or synagogue, it is just there as a place for people to
worship God, call it what you will!
The Hagia Sophia
Your friend and vicar
I have a photograph,
printed, as it is from the days before digital photography, of myself with the
great Pyramids of Giza standing majestically in the background. The pyramids look exactly as you would
expect: three imposing stone structures standing in the desert sands with a
vast vista of emptiness stretching seemingly limitless behind them. This fine scene, of the pyramids I mean, is
taken from the vantage point of the camera, obviously, because it is looking out
towards the pyramids and the sandy desert and so fits our preconceived notion
of how the scene looks in our mind’s eye.
Quite a different picture would meet the vision of anyone looking in the
opposite direction, the direction that I was facing, namely away from the
pyramids. As anyone who has ever visited
the site will know, the pyramids do not stand amid miles and miles of empty
desert but instead are at the edge of the vast sprawling urban metropolis that
is modern day Cairo. Far from seeing the
desert view of the camera, my eyes beheld, behind my friend who was taking the
photo, a bustling riot of shanty dwellings with all the comings and goings that
might be found at the outer edge of any large middle eastern city. The pyramids and the sphinx which stands
beside them are not in the desert at all, but, I suspect have halted the
encroachment of a city of nine and a half million people, whose outer edge they
The picture we have of
things in our mind’s eye is not always matched by the reality. The picture I had of the pyramids was true
when looking one way, but shattered mercilessly when looking the other. The picture I had was in fact a myth –
factually untrue but helping to convey a deeper truth. And that deeper truth, in this case the
majesty and mystery of the ancient Egyptian monuments, was not in the slightest
part for me dimmed by the experience of visiting them. The huge stone relics of a culture so utterly
alien to us now are just as exciting to visit, and must really be visited to be
really experienced, whatever their location.
Indeed, the fact that they are to be found not, as I imagined, in the
middle of a sandy desert, but at the bustling and teeming edge of a modern
middle eastern city only reinforced the power of their utter strangeness and
otherness from our modern experience of life.
The impression which my mythical picture conveyed was not dimmed by the
reality I found, if anything is was enhanced, its just that the mythical
picture was factually wrong.
Much that we take for
granted in what has come down to us from the past might also be viewed in the
same way. Consider for instance the
story of King Alfred burning the cakes.
The fact is that in 878AD, despite being paid the previous year the
Danegeld ‘protection money’ tribute to keep them at bay, the Viking army, led
by the Danish King Guthrum, drove Alfred and the west Saxons westwards into the
marshes of Somerset where, at Easter, with a small band of followers, Alfred
survived by dodging from islet to islet foraging on whatever they could be
given by the local population. But from
this desperate plight comes one of the best known tales in English
history. Taking shelter in the home of a
poor swineherd whose wife was busy baking some bread, the story goes that the
refugee king, sitting by the fire, was so preoccupied by his problems that he
didn’t notice that the loaves were burning.
“Look here, man”, exclaimed the woman, who did not know that her
bedraggled guest was the king, “you hesitate to turn the loaves which you see
burning, yet you’re quite happy to eat them when they come warm from the
oven!”, and in some versions of the story, then beats him with her sweeping
brush! This endearing story ends with
the apologetic king meekly submitting to the woman’s scolding and setting to
work tuning the bread.
The story however does not
come, unfortunately, from Alfred’s lifetime.
The earliest manuscript that recounts the burning of the loaves (which
have been turned into ‘cakes’ over numerous retellings) was written over a
hundred years after Alfred’s death and is not mentioned in the contemporary
Anglo Saxon Chronicle. Much was written
about Alfred both during his own lifetime and in the years immediately after
his death so it seems unlikely that such a good story, if it were true,
wouldn’t have been written down on parchment like much that was actually true
was. It is most likely a folk tale
handed down by word of mouth, a myth by the strictest laws of historical
evidence but conveying the deeper truth of lots of other episodes of Alfred’s
life, which were documented in his own lifetime. These build up a picture of a great warrior
and nation builder, who was to go on and beat the Vikings in May 878 at
Athelney and so establish the kingdom of Wessex, saving the emerging English
language and, through its later expansion into the rest of what was to become
England, establish the country we know as England today. Alfred is the only English King to have the
prefix ‘great’. This comes not only from
his mighty conquests but also from his well-documented modesty, learning,
passion for education (he put together a panel of scholars to translate all the
known major Latin works into English) and spirituality. “”The saddest thing about any man,” he wrote,
“is that he be ignorant, and the most exciting thing is that he knows.” Comparing his life to a house built out of
whatever timber he could forage from the forest of experience Alfred describes
how “In each tree I see something that I require,” advising others to “go to
the same woods where I have cut these timbers” where each may construct “a fair
enclosure and may dwell therein pleasantly and at their ease, winter and
Reading Alfred’s actual
words it might reasonable be assumed that such a spiritual and modest man might
have accepted a deserved reproof from whomever it came regardless of their
station in life. The myth of the story
of Alfred and the ‘cakes’ conveys this inner truth whether or not it ever
really existed in fact. The picture we
have of Alfred from the cakes story is perhaps true as a picture of the man
himself which is for me more important than whether this or that episode ever
took place in this or that particular way.
Looked at this way the difference between what is myth and what is
realty is far less important than the much more interesting and infinitely more
rewarding understanding of the truth that the myth conveys. Children are not interested in whether their
Easter Eggs come from Tesco’s, Sainsbury’s or courtesy of the Easter Bunny;
they just can’t wait to rip off the foil wrapper and taste the delicious milk
(usually) chocolate inside – our own children are about as much interested in
the fact that I prefer dark chocolate to milk chocolate as they are in the
proportions of cocoa, sugar, milk and preservatives which make up the delicious,
addictive and increasingly expensive hardened goo which they, like millions of
other children, eat rather too much of on Easter Day.
So what of all the
incomplete, contradictory and far-fetched stories we read of at the ends of the
gospels in the Sundays after Easter?
What about the even more incredible stories in Acts, to say nothing
about the strange festivals which the Church keeps between Easter and Pentecost
(which include the Ascension, St George’s Day, Philip and James – about whom
virtually nothing is known, the visit of the Blessed Virgin Mary to
Elizabeth and Pentecost itself)? What about other seemingly and often
non-Biblical festivals such as the Assumption, the Annunciation – Lady Day and
Christ the King? What are we to say
about these things if, at this distance, we can say anything meaningful at
all? Are these just myths, do they have
any basis in actual history, are they true?
I suspect the answer depends on how they are seen, how we view them and
that their basis in historical fact is of far less importance than the deeper
truths they convey. The truths that
these myths, if they are myths, tell us is to be found in the rich depths of
their utter strangeness, mystery and unknowableness. Things can be true in many different ways; it
just depends, like my picture of the pyramids, which way you look at them.
Your friend and vicar
On a recent family trip to
Edinburgh, like many fans of the Harry Potter series of films and books, we
made our way to creepy Greyfiars Kirkyard and the grave of 19th century
gentleman Thomas Riddell, who died in 1806 aged 72, whose name may have
inspired that of JK Rowling’s famous villain Tom Riddell, aka the nasally
challenged Lord Voldemort. Although little
is known about the original Thomas Riddell’s life. ‘J. K. Rowling, the author
of the Harry Potter books has previously said that the tombstone of Thomas
Riddell Esquire in the famous Kirkyard may have subconsciously been the
inspiration for anguine Voldemort’s true name, since she often took strolls
through the spot, which is overlooked by the Elephant House cafe, where she
wrote several of the books. The nearby gravestone of poet William McGonagall is
also said to have offered inspiration for the name of Professor McGonagall, the
head of Gryffindor, while nearby George Heriot’s school is claimed to be a
template for Hogwarts.
Some Edinburgh University
students, who now run The Potter Trail – a trip through city spots connected to
the texts – say people may be getting in a ‘muggle’ between fact and fiction. One
said: “The recent trend to leave notes and such has been building up over the
past month. The fact and the fiction have become a little blurred – on the tour
we do state that ‘This is Voldemort’s grave’ but most people understand he is
just an inspiration.” The notes appear to have been left by people from all
over the world. One says, “RIP Tom, thank
you for making us all believe in magic. You are an inspiration.” But not
all visitors believe the magic, with one mean-spirited note saying: “Dear idiots, you know there’s a difference
between fiction and reality, right?”
The difference between fact
and fiction, fiction and reality. That
difference is a stumbling block to many people who I have talked to about
Easter, and specifically the resurrection of Christ, without which, St Paul
reminds us, our faith is null and void.
In another old cemetery I once visited, In the old cemetery of Christ
Church, at Fifth and Arch streets, Philadelphia, USA, the passerby can see
through the iron railing the grave of one of America's greatest men and one of
the world's most versatile geniuses. Walled
off from the city's roar and traffic, as if to comment upon the vanity of it
all, you can just observe the flat stone over the grave of Benjamin Franklin which
bears the epitaph which he composed:
Like the cover of an old book,
Its contents torn out,
And stripped of its lettering and gilding,
Lies here food for worms;
But the work shall not be lost,
For it will (as he believes) appear once more
In a new and more elegant edition,
Revised and corrected by the Author.
That the work shall not be
lost but will re appear, elegant, new and exactly how the author intended may
be one way of beginning to approach the mystery of how the resurrection, or any
resurrection, can contain both joy and sorrow, happiness and sadness, like two
sides of a coin, at the same time. The
difference between fiction and reality, or at least how it has come down to us,
may in this way be seen as, at best, missing the point. My children greatly appreciate the CBBC series
‘Horrible Histories’, in which a certain licence is taken with historical
scenes and characters, but the essence of the person or period are brilliantly
conveyed. In one memorable scene a group
of visitors to Oliver Cromwell is shown suggesting things that they may do that
day, which happens to be Christmas Day. At each suggestion, each one of which forms
part of our modern Christmas, from eating mincepies, via singing Carols, to
giving presents, the Lord Protector of England shouts “Guards”, as each one was
actually banned under the Cromwellian regime.
The scene ends with one of the visitors suggesting “I know what we can do,
we’ll go to Church!” which brings forth the predictable response “Guards!”, as
going to Church at Christmas was actually also banned by Cromwell’s puritan
regime. Now I’m not suggesting that the
series’ creators are saying that the actual scene depicted ever took place, and
I’m not pretending that the message provides a fair or balanced understanding
of the complexities English 17thC religious and political issues – but it does
cut straight to the essence of it and conveys it brilliantly - to any age
So it is I believe with our
understanding of the resurrection of Jesus and what has come down to us as a
picture of it, the details are to miss the point, it is the essence, the
message which is life giving. Whilst
visiting that graveyard in Philadelphia I came across another story from the
American War of Independence, or ‘Revolution’ as the Americans have it. During the War a young officer in the British
army, before embarking with his regiment, became engaged to a young lady in
England. In one of the battles the officer was badly wounded and lost a leg. He
accordingly wrote to his affianced bride, telling her how he was disfigured and
maimed, and so changed from what he had been when she had last seen him and
they had plighted their troth that he felt it his duty to release her from all
obligation to become his wife. The young lady wrote an answer not less noble
than that which she had received from the young man. In this letter she disavowed
all thought of refusing to carry out the engagement because of what had
happened to her fiancé in battle, and said that she was willing to marry him if
there was enough of his body left to hold his soul!
Well he week of Christ’s
death, burial and resurrection was a week that began with tremendous excitement
and great expectations for these early followers of Christ. The followers of
Jesus were ready to crown Him as their King, only to have all of their hopes
and expectations crushed because of His death. They were unable to grasp the
significance of what was taking place. Their belief in Christ was so shattered
that even after His resurrection they were slow to believe. All of Jesus' disciples and other followers
forsook Him, one betrayed Him and one denied Him. Matthew 26:56 says they all
They had lost hope, Peter
was mired in self-pity and despair. Matthew 26:75 says he went out and wept
They had given up all to
follow Christ and now they were filled
with bitterness and total disillusionment. They no longer had the direction or
meaning to life that they had experienced during the 3 and a half years they
had been with Jesus. They were lost and without hope. But all of this was about
to change because of the resurrection of Christ – if only they would dare to believe once
Like the first disciples,
there are many people today, and perhaps for all of us at sometimes too, who
with them are searching for a glimpse into the path God has purposed for our life
and to discover our destiny and purpose. In doing so, we will be able to live
the role created for us. Whether we are just starting out on that journey,
anywhere in the middle, or have become detoured and lost our way, we sometimes
need help to shine the light on the invisible path that leads to God’s goodness
and to experience His kingdom within. The
great Easter truth is not just that we are to live newly after death – that is
not the only great thing – but that we are to live here and now by the power of
the resurrection; not so much that we are to live forever as that we are to,
and may, live better now because we are to live forever.
The truth of what the
resurrection means is not to be found in any graveyard, whether in Edinburgh,
Philadelphia or 1stC AD Palestine.
That’s why the writer of the Greyfriars note had it spot on in
describing an inability to separate reality from fiction as ‘idiocy’. Just as the angels said to those who first
experienced the resurrection that the reality was not to be found in the tomb
but out among the living, so we too miss the point if we dwell too much on the
details. Resurrection may never be
contained to a graveyard just as that English soldier was no less himself after
he lost a limb than he was before – it’s the essence that’s important, not a
list of facts.
One interest of mine, as a
great lover of history (you’ll notice I avoided the word ‘scholar’) is how
little we know about the period in English history from when the Romans left in
415AD until about the time of King Alfred, around 890AD. We know so little both because so little was
written down (and what little there was is often contradictory) and very little
of that has survived and come down to us.
As if that’s not bad enough, buildings were mainly of wood rather than
stone and so very few archaeological clues remain other than stains and
discolorations in the ground. This vast
period of time of warrior chieftains, of the real person on whom King Arthur
was based maybe, in which the foundations of what became England were laid, is
largely unknown; the lives of those who lived in it lost to us. It has been famously described by an eminent
real scholar of the period as being like ‘a vast, unknown continent about
which, from time to time we may find a clue; but that clue is only like glimpsing
a distant headland of that vast continent from a passing ship’. The glimpsing of a distant headland of a
vast, unknown continent – the resurrection in a nutshell!
Your friend and vicar
Reading recently in the excellent new book on
evangelism by our Archdeacon Mark Ireland, I was fascinated by his description
of the Jesus Boat and the lessons he draws from it:
the sea of Galilee recently, I saw the so-called ‘Jesus Boat’, a wooden vessel
discovered embedded in the mud of the lake floor a few years ago, when drought
had made the water level exceptionally low.
The boat is of a size suitable for fishing, and dates from the first
century, hence the nickname. One
remarkable feature of the boat, archaeologists discovered, was that 12
different types of wood were used in its construction, a number of them clearly
reused from other vessels or objects.
Pondering the skills needed to build and repair boats like that made me
realise that carpenters and fishermen in a place like Capernaum would naturally
have known each other and worked together, which suggests that the encounter on
the shore would not have been their first meeting, and may explain Peter’s
apparent willingness to let Jesus commandeer his boat as a pulpit in Luke 5:3”
Researching the boat does indeed confirm that the
boat's construction conforms to other boats constructed in that part of the
Mediterranean during the period between 100 BC and AD 200. Constructed
primarily of cedar planks joined together by pegged mortise and tenon joints
and nails, the boat is shallow drafted with a flat bottom, allowing it to get
very close to the shore while fishing. The boat was row-able, with four
staggered rowers, and also had a mast allowing the fisherman to sail the boat. The boat has been dated to 40 BC (plus or
minus 80 years) based on radiocarbon dating, and 50 BC to AD 50 based on
pottery (including a cooking pot and lamp) and nails found in the boat, as well
as hull construction techniques. The evidence of repeated repairs shows the
boat was used for several decades, perhaps nearly a century. When its fishermen
owners thought it was beyond repair, they removed all useful wooden parts and
the hull eventually sank to the bottom of the lake. There it was covered with
mud which prevented bacterial decomposition.
Fascinating as this is in its own right to me,
I was equally intrigued by the Archdeacon’s conclusion – that “The call of the first disciples happened
(not in a religious setting but) at their place of work, when Simon and Andrew
were casting their nets into the sea, and James and John were mending their
nets. Matthew’s encounter with Jesus
also happened at his place of work”.
He points out that, of the 168 hours in a week we are usually awake for
around 120, and how many even regular Church attenders spend more that at best
10 of those hours either at Church or involved in Church activities. So at least 110 hours of even most Church
members’ lives will be spent away from a specifically religious environment –
“at home, work or in the neighbourhood – this, then is their primary context of
their discipleship”. So it might be that
efforts to get people to come into our Churches are less about following the
pattern set by Jesus than those which involve going out to meet people as and
where they are. Indeed I was heartened
to see the suggestion that ‘making disciples’ is truly focussed when it is
about deepening faith rather than concocting novel ways of getting people to
come to our traditional services.
Consider the example of Jesus himself. Jesus wasn’t content to remain in an isolated
hill village where everyone know everyone else.
Instead he moved to Capernaum to begin his ministry, a busting centre of
trade and commerce on the Via Apia trade route where a cosmopolitan and diverse
section of cultures met and passed through.
Just as fishing boats in Jesus’ time were not the work of one single
boat builder but required a range of skilled craftsmen working together to
produce, so Jesus goes to where people live, work and find nurture to meet
others and bring about a community.
Making new disciples, Mark Ireland suggests, is above all else something
that finds its fulfilment in the places outside Church where people live, work
and look for happiness and fulfilment:
‘”drawing more people into running the church system can stifle the
primary mission to which they are called…the discipleship of all God’s people,
lived out among neighbours, in the workplace, in the community”
Where church life is about getting people to do
things in a church in ways that they have always be done is therefore contrary
to both the example and calling of Jesus.
We can follow Jesus’ example more nearly when we focus on not our own
preferred ways but are prepared to leave them behind and go to where people
are, as Jesus himself did. If we don’t
we may be condemned to be like the
author who wrote:
“I am out of humanity’s reach,
I must finish my journey alone”
The writer is none other than Alexander
Selkirk, ‘during his solitary abode on the island of Juan Fernandez’, the model
on whom Daniel Defoe based Robinson Crusoe.
Selkirk went on to write:
“I am monarch of all I survey;
My right there is none to dispute;
From the centre all round to the sea
I am lord of the fowl and the brute
O Solitude! where are the charms
That sages have seen in thy face?
Better dwell in the midst of alarms,
Than reign in this horrible place.
If a fisherman followed a carpenter because
they were already used to working together the challenge for us, if we are not
to let our church become a horrible deserted island disconnected with the
society around it, must be to look outside it for new ways of working with
modern day fishermen and carpenters, and with each other.
Your Friend and vicar
On 30 June in 1860, Samuel
Wilberforce, Bishop of Oxford, known as ‘soapy Sam’ because of Benjamin
Disraeli’s description of his slippery or evasive words, spoke at a famous
meeting of the British Association in Oxford about the nature of human
ancestry. Legend has it that he attempted to pour scorn on Darwin’s Origin of
Species, but that his scepticism about evolutionary theory was roundly defeated
by a certain scientist, and inventor of the word ‘agnostic’ T. H. Huxley. In
this memorable encounter Huxley’s simple scientific sincerity apparently
humbled the clerical superiority and religious certainty of Soapy Sam; the idea
that the Church could dictate to scientists the conclusions they were allowed
to reach was decisively defeated.
There is no accurate account
of the event, but according to some sources, Wilberforce turned to Huxley and
asked: `Is it on your grandfather’s or grandmother’s side that you claim
descent from the apes?’ whereupon Huxley retorted: ‘If the question is put to
me would I rather have a miserable ape for a grandfather or a man highly
endowed by nature and possessed of great means of influence (meaning
Wilberforce himself of course) and yet who employs those faculties and that
influence for the mere purpose of introducing ridicule into a grave scientific
discussion – I unhesitatingly affirm my preference for the ape.` In other
versions it is more simply quoted as ‘I would rather have an ape for an
ancestor than a bishop’
Either way, the statement
was so shocking that, apparently, a certain Lady Brewster fainted on the spot
and had to be carried out. If only such emotional sensitivity towards the
public sensibilities of bishops were evident these days.
So how times have changed,
or have they?
I was watching, on You Tube,
a staged re-run of the debate in the Oxford history museum, between Richard
Dawkins, the famous scientist, atheist and campaigner against religion, and
John Lennox, a mathematician and philosopher of science, but also a Christian.
At one point, when they discuss the possibility that the universe has an
intelligent design, John Lennox says this:
‘The fact that we have the language of DNA points …
to the existence of a logos, a divine logos who started it, rather than the
notion that it’s going to be exhaustively explained in purely naturalistic
terms … I’m not just terribly tempted to believe it’s all been designed. I
believe it’s all been designed.’
Dawkins’ reply reflects
Huxley’s sentiments, 150 years before, in accusing the Christian of abandoning
reason in favour of myth and magic: ‘when
you feel like it’, he said ‘you smuggle in magic, you smuggle in magic for
miracles, in the bible, and you smuggle in magic to explain the origins of
the accusation is the same in both debates: whenever Christians cannot explain
the workings of nature and the universe, we fill in the gaps with a divine
explanation: the God of the gaps. In this context I find Lennox’s use of the
term logos is very intriguing, as he is tapping into a very strong theological
tradition which finds its origins in John’s gospel, where the meaning of the
Greek ‘logos’ is the eternal and uncreated ‘Word’, ‘In the beginning was the word and the word was with God and the word
The logos is a way of trying
to describe the indescribable. But I am more than a little uneasy with using
this theology as a rebuttal of scientific atheism. For one thing, a ‘God of the
gaps’ must keep shrinking as the gaps get smaller, and I for one find the idea
of a shrinking God deeply heretical!
Secondly, the notion of a logos does not work as a decisive argument
against a purely naturalistic explanation of the origins of the universe and is
easily dismissed in such a context, as Dawkins has well demonstrated. However,
far from being a meaningless concept, it is, in fact, about something much more
important. It is about a deeper truth and reality, not really concerned with
intelligent design, or explanations, or indeed science at all, but to do with
very personal questions of purpose and meaning and the spiritual life.
For St. John and St. Paul,
the fact of creation is one thing, with all the questions it raises, but it
cannot be separated from another fact. The fact of Jesus Christ, the historical
figure who lived, taught, died, and rose again. Once Jesus’ life and death are
taken seriously, St. Paul would say, then the question of how the universe came
into being, and how it exists, are seen in proportion to a profound question of
why life exists, and for John and Paul, (if not for George and Ringo!) their
personal experience of Jesus Christ, his life, teaching and resurrection, not
as an ancient myth or magic, but as a recent and fresh reality in their lives,
gave them a strong conviction of the significance of Christ for their own lives
and for the whole of humanity. Clearly their first hand experience of Christ,
the logos, made such an impact upon them as to cause them to reconsider their
preconceptions about literally everything.
If, as Christians, we are to
get anywhere near that kind of passionate belief, without switching off our
rational minds, we must also experience something of the reality of God, albeit
two thousand years later. I want to suggest that we can do this, for there are
more ways of knowing something than simply absorbing facts. One analogy might
be that of music; the beautiful singing of the choir, a Bach Cello suite, a
Beethoven string quartet, can be explained scientifically in terms of sound
waves and frequencies interacting in an organized pattern, but the meaning of
music which is clearly a personal encounter that can move us to tears and
transform our lives, goes well beyond such a set of facts. The philosopher
Roger Scruton calls it ‘aboutness’. A Mozart Sonata is about something. We may
not be able to articulate it, indeed we cannot and may not want to, otherwise
why have the music? But it is about something that touches us deeply. It
transcends the mathematics and physics of the sound and transports us to
another reality, more about spirit than about sound.
One person who understood
this clearly was the French Reformer of Geneva, John Calvin. For him knowledge
of reality was not simply merely a matter of cognition in the narrow sense of
the term, as though such knowledge were merely a matter of patterning the mind.
Knowledge involved love, trust, fear, obedience, and worship. It embraced mind
and heart, affections and will and work. It rested on God’s free grace towards
us, and focussed on the duties of love toward God and toward one’s neighbours.
I’m not sure that anyone
would have left the Dawkins/Lennox debate with any of their fundamental ideas
challenged, on either side. But there have been billions of lives utterly
transformed to the depths of their souls by the presence of the indescribable
gift of the eternal Christ. Like Huxley,
I would rather acknowledge the fact that we all share a common ancestor with all
living things than use a God given faculty to wilfully deny what is
demonstrably true. Like Dawkins, I also
think that using God to plug the gaps is lazy and, is also, in some ways,
blasphemous! God is a living presence
which, like music is an experience.
Faith in that living presence, tat experience, may be a gift, and it is
a gift which is there waiting for all of us and as we respond to it, from
wherever we might have come, whatever we might have seen or been through, or
perhaps for those too who even only who want to believe, invites us, like a
good song, to sing along.
Your friend and vicar
A while back I was browsing,
by the magic of catchup tv, various comedy series which I remember from many
years ago and which I never thought I would see again; but which now,
miraculously, can be seen again, and in our living room. Those of a certain age may remember a
strikingly idiosyncratic, and at the time I remember very popular, BBC
‘sitcom’, if that’s the right word for it, from the 1970’s called ‘The Fall and
Rise of Reginald Perrin’.
Reginald Perrin, played brilliantly
by the great Leonard Rossiter was a typical, for the time “middle class, middle
aged, umbrella swinging salesman” for ‘Sunshine Desserts’, a jam making 1970’s
company of the sort which would have long since gone out of business. Reggie Perrin, as played by Rossiter is the
superb embodiment of a hapless middle aged pedlar, bored with his job whose
life is an endless round of tedious dinner party following soul-sapping meeting
following nightmarish in-law visitation with exhausting relentlessness, and who
realises that he’s been sleep walking his life away. Perrin supposes that his path to happiness is
blocked by what one reviewer called ‘the greatest concentration of loveable
Berks ever gathered together’. These
include two ‘yes-men’ whose function in Sunshine Desserts is to agree with everything
that the boss, CJ, says; one following the other with a sycophantic, ‘great”,
“super”. CJ himself is a corporate
tyrant, whose initials are of course a reversal of JC, and constantly reminds
his cowed staff that “I didn’t get where I am today by…..” whatever the latest
inadequacy he perceives in them is.
Perrin begins to see that
all the asinine trappings of mid 1970’s middle class life, which are brilliantly
parodied in the show, from a colour supplement feature on jam making to cosy Building
Society ads, are the totality of his world,; all the things which nobody ever
asked for but which are presented as indispensible. To bust out of this stultifying, life
limiting world, Perrin fakes his own suicide on a beach at night (which, soon
after the novel by David Nobbs on which the TV series is based came out, the MP
John Stonehouse did the very same thing!).
In the wrong hands this plot could be seen as very dark, but with a
combination of brilliant acting, script and direction, ‘The Fall and Rise of
Reginald Perrin’ shows comedy to be a sharper tool than drama for conveying the
depths of someone cracking up.
I realise that, for a
December magazine vicar’s letter this has not been very Christmassy so
far. But let me assure you that it
is. Think for a moment of the greatest
Christmas parable of them all, ‘A Christmas Carol’. There, in the figure of Ebenezer Scrooge, we
see the embodiment of the redemption that the Christ child brings. Here is a man whose life has become so
limited by disappointment and struggles, all of which we see courtesy of the
ghosts of Christmases past, present and future, that he has become a selfish
reclusive miser: the opposite of what Christmas is truly about.
By a process of letting him
see himself and how he became the wretched, lonely monster that others see,
Scrooge, as you know, realises that it doesn’t have to be like that and, in the
words of George Eliot, ‘Its never too late to become what you might have
been’. The redeemed scrooge who gives
away so generously at the end of the Carol discovers that joy and fulfilment
come with giving and fellowship, not with accumulation and possession. The ads for the all those middle class
trappings of Reginald Perrin’s world (which at best would today be considered
‘retro’) were the very things, Reggie realises, that limit and circumscribe his
world and his life. To find true life he
must free himself from them. In the same
way does the redeemed Ebenezer Scrooge not think twice about giving away all
that he once clung onto but which was in fact destroying him. That the Carol was written by Charles Dickens
as a response to the life limiting squalor he saw in the Manchester of the
1840’s shows it to be a reaction to and a parable about how to escape all that
would limit our lives and make them less than they might have been, and still
Without giving away too much
of a spoiler, Reggie Perrin, like Ebenezer Scrooge, also finds a redemption, of
sorts. Although Reggie comes to realise that the fake suicide was not necessary
to have left his old world behind, he nevertheless knows that he had to leave
it. This is the invitation given to us
by God which we celebrate each Christmas: that through the gift of God coming
directly into our world, we are invited to live in it with him, that we might
not be limited to the things which the world values, whether colour supplements
on jam making or whatever, but are, like Ebenezer Scrooge, invited to see how
we might really have life, and have it in all its fullness.
Your friend and vicar
I was recently listening to
a radio programme (The ‘In Our Time’ Podcast actually) about how in 1831 a
relatively uneducated and largely self taught chemical assistant at the
National Institution in London, named Michael Faraday discovered
electromagnetic induction. This is the
principle behind the electric transformer and generator, the discovery which
was crucial in allowing electricity to be transformed from a curiosity into a
powerful new technology and which basically changed the world from being steam
powered to being electrically powered.
What Faraday discovered can
be shown in a simple experiment. Take a
metal screwdriver and a piece of plastic coated wire. Wrap the middle section of the wire round the
metal shaft of the screwdriver in coils until two ends of wire come off the
screwdriver at each end. Now attach each
end of the wire to a battery. If you
place a pile of paper clips at the flat end of the screwdriver they will be
immediately magnetically attracted to the point at the very end of the
screwdriver and become attached to it. If you take away one end of the wire
from the battery they will start to drop off as the electromagnetic field
established by the electricity going round the coils of the wire wears off. Further, the more coils are placed around the
screwdriver the more powerful the electromagnetic filed becomes and the more
paper clips the flat end of the screwdriver can pick up. In the same way less coils will produce a lesser
field and less paper clips can be picked up.
The importance of this discovery cannot be overstated to our
society. Electromagnetic induction
powers every electric thing in the world including the computer I’m currently
typing on – its not stretching the point to say that it has created the modern
Now not many people
understand what exactly is happening when the electromagnetic field is created,
still less are able to explain it to the uninitiated in terms that someone who
is not an expert in sub atomic physics can grasp. Its enough for me to know that there are at
least some people who at least think they know, as I understand it, and many
more who can make use of it.
It reminds me a little of a
Church. Not many people have more than a
rudimentary understanding of the relation between to various persons of the
Holy Trinity – and that despite great tomes of theology being written about it
over the centuries. Having had to plough
through more than a few of them I can honestly say that I am still none the
wiser! However, although I can’t
adequately understand how the Holy Trinity works (still less explain it in a
way that can keep people awake) I am sure of the power it can give through the
gift of the Holy Spirit and I’m much more interested in what this power can do
in people’s lives. What’s more, rather
like the numerous coils being wound around the screwdriver, I’ve seen and had
my observations confirmed by others, that the numerous people coming together
in groups, trying each of us in our less than perfect way to follow Jesus, can
generate a power and an attraction which can touch people’s lives in
transformative and powerfully deep ways.
I’m sure that this was far from the thoughts of Michael Farady when he
saw how the more times he coiled the wire the more powerful the force became
but there it is, in a sense the Holy Spirit works in the same way!
As a young sixth former I
used to enjoy the music of a musical trio the name of which I will tell you if
you ask me. Although their music was
enthusiastically received by those of us who were devotees, not to say
fervourous disciples, often to the point of obsession, I am sad to say that it
was not perhaps appreciated as much by the population at large, not as much as
I thought it should be (and still do!) anyway.
Despite this limitation, and the outright hostility on the part of some youth
sub-cultures at the time, the trio in question went on to enjoy not
inconsiderable chart success. Indeed at
the time of their disbanding, sadly too soon in my opinion, they were the
single biggest selling group in the country.
This was down to the fact, I have no doubt, that anything they released
on single or album (yes it was vinyl in those days) was immediately purchased
by almost every single one of their large, but alas not worldwide, following, I
nearly said ‘worshippers’.
Being a true disciple myself
I had listened every day for at least two years to one or more of their songs
and could virtually recite the lyrics world for word of each and every song. I had
thought I had reached the pinnacle of adulation in the satisfaction that
listening to their music brought me. But
it was not so. I discovered that there
was yet another level of musical appreciation I had not even knew existed. This I discovered at Deeside Leisure Centre
on November 3 1980 when, along with 5,000 other (oops, I nearly
said their name), devotees I enjoyed what, to me, was a revelation in musical
appreciation, if not mass crowd hysteria, beyond anything I had imagined. Yes,
not only was this my first glimpse of my heroes in the flesh, it was also my
first proper ‘gig’, which is to say it wasn’t a ‘rock’ concert as the music
was, in the ears of the devotees, most definitely not described as ‘rock’
(wrong sub-culture) – but it was a huge exciting, buzzing and truly
electrifying experience, at least for me, nonetheless. It was a revelation. It wasn’t so much the music (although that to
me is timeless), rather the atmosphere: the energy, electricity, excitement and
sheer joy which comes with 5,000 people who all appreciate the same thing
appreciating it together.
I went on to see this trio
another two times, including on their farewell tour in December 1982 (that
should give at least some of you a clue as to who they were) and on one other
occasion, 33 years later when, last year, I took (or rather bribed to come with
me) my daughter to the Clitheroe Grand to see one of the members of this trio re-enact
the glory days with another two musicians; call it a tribute act to himself if
you must but it didn’t feel like that to the, much less than 5,000,
worshippers, the magic was still there.
Now I’m not suggesting that
you need a congregation of 5,000 to feel the electric presence of the Holy
Spirit, or that only large congregations can have the resources to provide an
attraction to others to join them. By no
means; the spirit can fill each one of us in times of solitude, out on a walk
in the country or wherever two or three are gathered and its true that you
don’t have to go to Church to be a Christian.
It’s just that without that shared experience we risk being a bit like
me before I went to the Deeside concert: I thought I had the ultimate
experience in my favourite group’s music, only to find that there was a whole
new experience which was bigger, better and beyond anything I could imagine, it
stays with me to this day.
It’s just also that it might
be better to have more coils around a bigger screwdriver if we want to attract
more paperclips than having several little ones which are not very powerful and
which dissipate their potential. I
enjoyed the small concert at Clitheroe Grand, I enjoy still the sound of my favourite
trio, (although these days via itunes rather than on vinyl) – but none of this
compares to the 5,000 worshippers at Deeside roaring out, to a person, their
call for an encore.
Your friend and vicar
In our garden stand three
apple trees. The trees are, I know, some
very many years old, as I can see from old photographs taken in the garden,
some pre war. Looking at the trees you
might be forgiven for thinking that they have seen better days; bits of them
with no apples on, no leaves or any sign of life at all. Similarly the apples that the trees produce (and
which are currently ripening, falling from the trees and lying, waiting to be
collected on the vicarage garden), are not, perhaps, the ones you might choose
from the fresh produce department at Tesco.
Small, mis-shapen and blotchy, the taste their appearance suggests is
only confirmed when you bite into them, not something I would advise doing,
although they are nice stewed, with crumble, sugar and custard – or whatever
your favourite accompaniment to apple crumble might be. The apples lack the sweetness of Pink Lady,
the glossy crispness of Granny Smith’s and the, well, whatever they have that
some people somewhat inexplicably see in French Golden Delicious.
Yet my apples share one
thing in common with their more famous cousins; they have the ‘secret star of
the apple’ within them. If you have
never come across the secret before, take a sharp knife and put the apple on
its side, ie the core horizontal to the cutting surface. Cut the apple in half sideways, ie across the
core not through it. Inside you will see
what no one else could have possibly seen, the star in the centre of the
apple. Yes, thanks to how the pips are
arranged, at the centre of each apple, even my humble, mis-shapen ones, lies a
star. Try it and see.
Now I’m not going to
advocate the chopping of humans in half and I’m sure that there might be better
ways to prove my point, but I believe the same to be true about humans: that
is, every human that is living, regardless of class, race, religion or
education, and every human who has ever lived too. No matter who he or she is, young or old,
rich or poor, handsome, beautiful or otherwise, they have a star within them, a
star given them by God. Sometimes that
star is easy to see, for example like in people known throughout the world for
their good works (St Mother Teresa of Calcutta is one, in the house of whose
good works I was privileged once to sit, the only time to my knowledge that I
have been under the same roof as a saint, or at least one recognised as such by
the Church). Or it might be someone known to only a very few and who, like most
people who have ever lived, will be completely forgotten within a few
generations of their passing. But what,
I am certain of, is that all these people share a star within them.
Sometimes, because of how
the world has treated individual people and the bad choices they have made as a
result, that star is hidden; behind appearances, behaviour or personalities,
which, on the surface, may appear less than attractive, even to themselves. Sometimes its hard to see, and yet we would do
well to follow the example of Jesus who saw God’s star in the lives of those
who were also on the margins of their society; what, I wonder, are today’s
equivalents of tax-collectors, prostitutes and Samaritans? Yet they too have a star within them.
And just as we need food,
water, fresh air and sunshine if we, like my apple trees, are going to flourish
physically, so do we need a spiritual and inward nourishment if the star within
us is going to shine out and grow and be seen, even if only by ourselves or
those around us. This might be Bible
reading, attendance at Church services to receive the sacrament, or a discussion
and reflection on some Church teaching.
Just as good is a walk in the countryside, doing someone a good turn or taking
a decision to make a positive change in our lifestyle (although sticking to it
is not always as easy, but the Lord loves a tryer!), listening to a good piece
of music, reading a good book, learning something that you didn’t know you
didn’t know or a hundred and one other ways in which the star, or soul, call it
what you will, is nurtured.
This autumn, as fruit falls
from the trees and the rhythms of Church, school and work get back to normal
after the holidays we can see nature changing, sometime spectacularly so, all
round us. If we can find a way of
nurturing that star we each have within us, given to us as a precious, loved,
individual and infinitely precious child of God, then the spiritual nurturing
of our souls can also have an opportunity to change us too. In the eyes of the world we might not all be
a Pink Lady, but surely we can do better than be a French Golden Delicious!
Your friend and vicar
our summer family holiday this year to Devon, some of our children, including
the youngest, pleaded with me to let them go ‘coasteering’. Coasteering, in case you hadn’t heard of it
is advertised as being
“all the things you wanted
to do as a child at the coast but your parents wouldn’t let you.”
consists basically of putting on a strong wetsuit and crash helmet, being taken
by mini bus to a particularly rocky part of the coast with waves crashing in
and then jumping off the same rocks, which in other circumstances might
accurately be described as ‘cliffs’, into the same crashing waves. Despite the assurances from the group
‘leader’, (who appeared to be not much older than our eldest child) that the
activity was perfectly safe, the location tried and tested by ‘professionals’,
(whatever they might be in those circumstances), and that the water was deep
enough for even the largest person to plunge into safely, it did take all the
considerable powers of persuasion our youngest child has, which are many, to
make us agree. Needless to say, that despite
our misgivings and my wife’s inability to look at any of our children as they
plummeted off the precipice, hurtling towards those same crashing waves, they
all emerged safely from the experience and, far from, in my view being lucky to
have had a narrow escape, all seemed enthusiastically keen to repeat the
experience again, and as soon as possible!
a family member leaping off a cliff can be a pretty disconcerting experience
for anyone. For me it was doubly so as
it brings home the lack of depth of understanding I have had in one of my
favourite and, no doubt, oft repeated, analogies of having faith in God. “Believing in God”, wrote CS Lewis, “is not so much something you can try to do
as something you finally stop yourself from not doing, like diving into water,
its about letting yourself go”.
Well, as someone who, no doubt erroneously, has always considered
himself a competent swimmer and has never, from memory, had any difficulty or
fear of diving into the nice, safe, warm water of a swimming pool, I have
always quite liked this analogy, because, I now realise, it is about something I have never been
fortunate enough to have had much difficulty in doing. When we lived in Wigan I used to take our
young children to swimming lessons in what was then the old Olympic sized
swimming pool, sadly now no longer there (replaced, as with much else, with
something identical to that which could be found anywhere and everywhere). That pool had at one end a three tiered
diving platform, with the top one at 10 meters high. Luckily for me the council had long before
took the decision to close the platform to public use so I had no reason to
have to find an excuse to my children as to why I didn’t go up and dive, or
even jump, off the highest platform. I
wonder if, either by having to think up an excuse or even having to face the
terrifying possibility of actually ascending the towering structure, I would
have since been so fond of the analogy about faith from CS Lewis?
my children disappear off the edge of a rocky precipice into broiling waters
suddenly made me aware of the depth of wisdom in the diving analogy. It wasn’t meant to be about something you found
easy at all, it was really about stopping stopping yourself from doing
something you found terrifying! In other
words to make yourself powerless as you force yourself to do that which you
most fear. No wonder faith is sometimes
difficult and no wonder I have been so slow sometimes to see it. What was even worse for me as a parent than
even the prospect of doing the coasteering myself was the powerlessness you
feel when watching your closest family doing it – it certainly brings you down
I should add, that any of my children showed even the slightest sign of my
anxiety as they hurtled enthusiastically towards the cliff edge. It wasn’t I think that they possess the bravery I
lack and the strength of character to overcome the fear that I could not. I told myself, I hope its true, that at their
age I would have had the same lack of awareness of danger and heedless abandon
in the face of what, to any normal person would seem a hugely hazardous
activity. No, they, in their turn will
like me, I am sure, have to come to face their own versions of what I now
perceive in myself as a previously unknown fear, or at least dislike, of
heights. The lesson learned for me that
day was not about admiration for bravery in others, as I am convinced there was
nothing brave about what the children were doing at all, more like fools
rushing in where angels fear to tread really.
No, the lesson was about how I had thought I had understood something,
only to realise how little did I appreciate the depth of a picture I am pleased
to so regularly use. It is about just
how big is God’s care for us that he will support and uphold us no matter how
big and terrible that dive he calls for is and how little, or at least how
seldom do we all perhaps appreciate it.
More than anything it is a lesson learned, as all lessons truly
understood must be, from personal experience – the experience of having to
trust not for personal safety, but for something even more important.
Friend and vicar
I recently came upon a
Parish Magazine which is unwise enough to invite the opinions of its readers to
be published in letters sent in. I am
all for listening to the concerns of parishioners and yet perhaps its as well
that God gave us powers of following our own conscience and not being led by
any and every view one encounters. For
your summer entertainment I include a small selection of some of the milder
letters which were obviously sent in in a spirit of jest and contain no kernel
of truth within them whatsoever, or do they…………………….?
Candles are expensive. We use two candles on the
altar, two around the altar, and two for the acolytes. That’s six candles lit
every week. It soon adds up.
I have invented viable solar-powered candles by
embedding LED lights into the tops of wax candles, and solar panels and
batteries into the candlesticks. Their use would save an average of £14.22 per
annum. Services would have to be shorter in the winter, but nobody would mind.
In the course of my experiments I have run up some
expenses. I therefore include an invoice for £74.22.
My seventeen-greats grandfather built Woodby Chapel
so he could have a church conveniently placed next to his house. He then
knocked down all the copyholders’ cottages so he did not have to put up with
the site and smell of the peasants, except on Sundays and at Christmas.
And yet, when I asked the vicar if we could hold our
Sunday service on Mondays, when he is less busy, he said he was afraid not.
If one cannot get one’s own clergy to do what they
are told, I no longer know what the Church of England stands for.
So many people telling us how great it was to
celebrate the Queen’s 90th birthday with a special church service.
A special united benefice-and-ecumenical church
service. If it had not been that the people from all the other churches refused
to turn up, St Mary’s could have been full.
On balance, I am glad we marked her Majesty’s 90th.
But I hope we do not do it every year.
I would like to apologise for the Children’s Church
presentation of “Our Glorious Queen” at the 90th Birthday service.
In our rehearsals they had pretended to be corgies,
they waved Union Jacks and sang “Happy Birthday Dear Ma’am.” I suspect they got
their ideas from Mr Corbyn, the “trendy” teacher at our Primary. But calling
for “class war” and a republic. and demanding that the “Hanoverian leeches
cease feeding on the blood of the working class” was definitely not in the
script the previous Sunday.
I heard that the wardens were having trouble with
Bats can be seen as a nuisance – their droppings mean
that all items of value have to be covered, and they make an awful mess on the
church floor. But they are rare animals, and protected by law.
That is why I nipped in when the church was unlocked
and shot the lot with an air gun. Figured that would save the vicar and church
wardens a lot of trouble.
Ask no questions etc….
An apology and a plea, after last month’s celebration
of Her Majesty’s 90th Birthday.
I now know that by “Joint Service”, what was meant
was a service with our ecumenical friends, and the other parishes in the
I realised my mistake when, handing out a few
spliffs, people pointed out to me that the Health Act 2006 made the tobacco
element illegal in church. Also, the Baptists complained, thinking it was
incense. Although when I handed out the “turbo chocolate brownies” instead, I did get an invitation to
contribute to the next fete cake stall.
As a result of my mistake, and the subsequent raid by
Her Majesty’s Constabulary (ironic considering whom we were celebrating) I am
£100 worse off. Also I now have quite a lot of space in my greenhouse. So if
anyone has a few tomato plants they can let me have, I will be grateful.
I hear that the Vicar has banned the jumble stall
from this month’s fete on the grounds that all the jumble has spent the last
seventy years in the jumble cupboard in the church hall, only coming out for
fetes where nobody buys it.
I am outraged. The jumble stall, selling the same
mouldy clothes every summer, has been woven into the fabric of this parish. If
we lose the jumble stall, we may as well let the tower fall and sell the nave
off to the Scientologists.
This means we will have only the crockery stall, the
coconut shy and the tombola. Truly a fete worse than death.
I dropped into the Bell Ringer’s meeting last week
again. I am rather confused.
A load of people I have never seen in church, all
wearing sweaters and ringing bells. Where do they go when the service starts?
Do the wardens lock them in the bell tower until the next practice?
Once again we have been unfortunate enough to have
“modern worship” foisted on us, in the Vicar’s constant attempt to be “trendy”.
Honestly, what he thought he was doing last week,
introducing a radical hymn by Charles Wesley was beyond me. My family have
worshipped in this parish for 1,000 years. And I do not see how this kind of
innovation has been allowed to slip in, unnoticed.
According to the diocesan training programme, there
are certificates for lay worship leading, preaching, children’s work,
evangelism, church administration and leading small groups in Bible study. I
think these courses are an utter waste of time.
If the vicar didn’t learn all this in three years at
theological college, why are we expecting him to go on all these courses now,
when he should be ministering to people?
“In a time of universal
deceit - telling the truth is a revolutionary act.”
Have a great summer
the Vision 2026 Evening at Preston Guildhall last Tuesday we heard a wonderful story,
which I hope you won’t mind if I share with you. It was told by the Diocesan Missioner, Revd
David Banbury and was indeed, for him, a very recent experience. On entering, slightly later than intended,
the walkway connecting the large multi story carpark to the Guildhall building
itself, which was suddenly descended on en mass and at the same time by
representatives from all 250 parishes in the Diocese, he was suddenly stopped
in his, rather rushed, tracks. A lady
who had recognised him from when he had been a vicar in Preston 25 years
previously refused to let him proceed any further until she had showed him, on
her phone, every last picture she had there of her new baby granddaughter, such
was her great joy at becoming a grandmother.
It didn’t matter that, as one of the organisers of the event Revd
Banbury’s presence was required, with increasing urgency, in the meeting room
organising the meticulously planned and, I have to say, extremely well
organised and executed, event. No, what
could be more important than sharing the great joy that went along with
becoming a grandmother for the good lady, and shared it would be, and was!
tell this story to show, as Revd Banbury did himself, that, whatever is
planned, organised or intended about our faith in Jesus, be it a great rally in
Preston Guildhall attended by thousands of uplifted Christians from around
Lancashire, as happened last Tuesday, or our own week by week meeting together
to worship in our Church – at the root of it all, and without which everything
that we do would be utterly meaningless, is the joy that living our lives as
followers of Jesus brings. That point
was made very clearly at the Preston event by the Bishop of Burnley, Bishop
Philip. That what we intend to share in
implementing Vision 2026 is not about structures, orders of service or
buildings, but living and inviting others to share in the joy that comes from
faith in Jesus. The lady who had known
the Diocesan Missioner 25 years ago couldn’t stop herself from sharing the joy
she felt in her new Grandchild. What we
do in implementing Vision 2026 must be from the same sense of joy we feel in
knowing Jesus, no matter how convenient or inconvenient it might be for the
best laid plans, structures, buildings or whatever.
me be clear. I am not saying that along
with belief in Jesus, whether sudden, rediscovered or grown into over a
lifetime, comes only happy times with nothing much to bother us in life. No, rather that along with belief in Jesus,
whether sudden, rediscovered or grown into over a lifetime, comes a deep peace
and security in life which can enable us to meet with and transform all the
experiences that life may bring. Real
joy is not like some transient and soon gone ‘legal high’, here one minute and
gone the next. Real joy is a result of a
deep security and peace, never better illustrated than by Jesus himself in telling
the story of the wise man building his house upon the rock; real joy from
having firm foundations.
a word, ‘foundation’. The Oxford Concise Dictionary defines a
foundation as; ‘a body or ground on which other parts are overlaid, a basis or
underlying principle’. My point, and I
think Revd Banbury’s point, in telling the story is just this; that unless the
foundation of our Christian life together, which is to say our sense of being a
‘church’, (as opposed to a church building), unless this foundation is the joy
which faith in Jesus brings, then whatever is built on it will itself be
joyless, dead and doomed. Further, if we
are prepared to build on joy, then what we do build will naturally have to be
appropriate to the new foundations and will perhaps look different from what
was built in the past, or maybe only what has been left over, what remains from
the past. It will, however be a
foundation built not on sand but on rock and will stand. Let joy be the foundation of what we build in
our Vision 2026 programmes, and let it be so infectious and overflowing that it
makes us stand in the way of people who are in a rush, who have somewhere to
get to or someone to meet, and by standing in the way and sharing our joy, help
them, and us, to realise what life’s priorities really are, or could be.
friend and vicar
Report to the Immanuel Annual General Meeting
17th April 2016
context of this AGM is the Diocesan Mission initiative Vision 2026, which we as
a part of the Diocese are invited to be part of, which the PCC will be exploring
by doing the Vision study course and which we will begin to put into effect
starting with a PCC away day at a date and venue to be decided. As we move towards the Vision Visitation
commissioning event in Preston Guildhall on May 10th we also are thankful of
the commitment of Jason Brewer who has taken on the role of Vision Champion, to
keep the Mission vision at the forefront of our thinking.
I would like to use this vicar’s report to outline to the AGM some of the
thinking behind the Vision initiative, how it could give us what I believe are
tremendous opportunities at Immanuel and how this fits in with a wider picture
of change within both the Diocese and the wider national church. Furthermore it can be shown how that change,
unavoidable though it is, need not be a management of decline but an
opportunity to transform our Church to be fit for purpose in bringing God’s
transforming love to work in this community.
changes which the Diocese are proposing are challenging. This has been taken by some to imply that
previous activity has not been as fruitful as we would have hoped, that the
priorities might not have been the right ones.
It is important to stress that much good work has taken place in the
past and continues to take place now. The vision priorities are those which are best
for the future, not a reflection on what worked or didn’t work in the
past. Its important to recognise too
that we, like many Churches share a priest and live in an increasingly secular
and mulit-faith culture.
What is taking place in
Lancashire is not out of step with other Diocese around the country, most face
similar problems and challenges as the recent document Anecdote to Evidence by
the national church spells out clearly.
Vision setting is about using our resources more effectively in this
setting in order to reverse a tide of decline and marginalisation which our
Diocese shares with all
others. The broader context is one in which a
Diocesan Bishop (not ours) has remarked
that, on the present trends, the Church of England in his diocese will slide
off the radar in about 10 years if something isn’t done to reverse the decline.
The Burning Platform metaphor
facts on the ground in our diocese show that we are in a serious situation, one
that is well described by the image of being on a burning platform. Doing nothing is not an option, neither is
soldiering on and keeping things going as they are. We must resist the twin dangers of
complacency on the one hand and of pretending that things are better than they
are on the other. We at Immanuel share
issues which have been highlighted by the Diocesan Synod as affecting the
Diocese as a whole including but not limited to
• A continued decrease in Electoral
• A high average age profile of the
• A struggle with finance to maintain
• The continued decrease in the
availability of stipendiary clergy
• A change in demographics resulting in increasing numbers from other faith communities
• A sharing in the effects of the rate
of decline in church attendance being greater in this diocese than elsewhere in
the UK because of previously higher church attendance than was the average in
the UK – a sort of ‘catching up’
is fair to say that the situation is serious and requires radical change. The picture of being on a burning platform
might create the right sense of urgency for change. We know that God is the God of the
unpredictable, not the God of statistics but I firmly believe that without his
intervention the bishop’s statistics tell us that there won’t be a Church of
England in this diocese by the year 2050.
The Social context
are important lessons from our social history in Lancashire. The cotton industry in this town was thriving
100 years ago; this Church was itself built on its profits. However the social and economic challenges of
a changing world economy and pattern of trade meant that without change and a
reinvention of itself, the industry faced pressures which could only lead to
its decline. Change and reinvention did
not come and so, as a result, did decline.
apart from a few niche craft islands, the cotton industry has ceased to exist
respected academic book about the decline of the Lancashire cotton industry,
John Walton’s ‘A Social History of Lancashire’ highlights the reasons for
root of the trouble lay in the way the industry was organised and the near
impossibility of changing it to meet new needs and problems. An industrial structure that had served
Lancashire well during its years of prosperity proved quite unable to adjust to
the new stark realities of the 1920’s and 1930’s. Much of cotton Lancashire became custom
bound, aging, inward looking and defeatist, as the rising generation failed to
respond to the new stresses and new needs.
The vast majority of the people on the industry were firmly rooted in
their culture, sceptical of innovations and slow to rouse.”
was the unwillingness to change and adapt that did for the industry, according
to the latest research by social and economic historians, not the
inevitability, which has been the assumption for its demise in much of past
recent thinking. I would say that the
same is true for each parish in the Church of England, there is nothing
inevitable about decline if change and adaption is chosen; but unless we change
and adapt we are done for.
image that Bishop Julian as wisely given us is that of the parable of the sower
from Mark 4. Bishop Julian talks of how,
in order for the seed of faith to take root it must fall in good soil and so,
the preparation of that soil is crucial.
The seed must be nurtured by confronting spiritual opposition,
addressing spiritual superficiality and by encouraging spiritual loyalty. Part of the Vision 2026 process must then be
to heed what the spirit is saying to us about how we sow and nurture the seed
in this parish. This must involve
planning; to know where we are heading, what it is we are seeking to achieve
and how we measure where we are on or journey to get there: What do we want to
look like in 2026 and how will we know if we are meeting our targets to get
there in, say, 3, 5, 7 years time?
uncomfortable truth that Bishop Julian is telling us is that this will require
radical change, which many will find difficult, not just a few tweaks and minor
adjustments. Our priority must be to
turning the tide of faith in Jesus Christ in our Diocese and for us
specifically here in our parish, in order to transform lives in our
community. For this to happen other
priorities must be laid down and let go of, if we cling to the past it will
drag us down, and we don’t have much time.
How might we reinvent ourselves?
1. Making Disciples of Jesus Christ
words of the liturgy speak of hearts being set on fire with love for
Jesus. This kind of spiritual passion
needs to be reawakened across not just this parish but also the whole Diocese. We see this kind of passion each week on the
terraces of football clubs, although not, perhaps at the moment at Villa Park
where, from how I understand it, a singular lesson may be learned from the
relegation of a previously great football club; Aston Villa failed to learn
that in football, as I believe in the Church, doing nothing will not lead to
standing still, it will lead to decline, to stand still you need to keep
running, to move forward you need to run increasingly hard.
what God needs is not better strategies, ideas, programmes buildings or even
visions; he needs a more Godly people who are committed to him and to spreading
the gospel among those with whom they come into contact, which is where all
effective evangelism begins, not in stadiums or rallies. This calls for a
wholehearted discipleship, not just attenders for whom the church is little
more than a social club.
How can this happen?
Julian has highlighted three key markers
a. Knowing the Scriptures better: Many
people have a willingness to explore their questions and, often doubts, about
the scriptures about how they may become an anchor in the pressures of modern
life. The Church teaches that without
that anchor there will not be a renewal in discipleship. So a renewal of discipleship involves the
ministry of preaching and teaching as a key component.
b. Learning to use the gift of
intercession: The letter of James rebukes its readers with the word ‘you do not
have because you do not ask. When you
ask you do not receive because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend
what you get on pleasures.’
corporate and personal is about waiting on God and seeking how we may
participate in building his kingdom on earth.
A renewing of discipleship means that prayer should be the first thing
we do, not something we turn to as a last resort.
c. Giving generously to the cause of
Christ: Banging the drum for money only in order to keep the shop open will
Corinthians speaks of ‘generous giving follows on as a response to the generous
grace of God towards us.’ Stewardship of
time, talents and money as well are successful when they help people to learn
for themselves 2 Corinthians 29 ‘All things come from you and of your own do we
2. Being Witnesses to Jesus Christ
happens in all our daily interactions with all with whom we come into contact
in both spoken and unspoken ways. If our
priorities in life reflect our understanding that the Gospel is not about what
we do for God but a responding to what he has already done for us, the gospel
will flow out of us like it did with those first Christians in Acts 1:8 who
were emboldened by the spirit to be witnesses to the transforming love and
power of Jesus. It is important that the
message is give that each disciple is a witness. Mission is not just a task for the clergy or
even leadership of the church but for ‘the whole people of God’. One way in which this may be done is the
invitation by the Vision 2026 initiative to each parish to consider a project
that identifies and then seeks to meet a local need, which is not being met by
others. The motive of this will be to
share the compassion of Jesus in order to sow a seed planted in good soil,
which may, in time, bear fruit.
3. Growing leaders for Jesus Christ
of ministry and leadership which may have been effective and appropriate in the
past need to be adapted for the very different context of 2016 and beyond. This challenges us to find a new flexibility
in Church leadership; a re-equipping of the people of God for a more strongly
evangelistic use of all pastoral contacts including baptism, wedding and
funeral, to bring those who may be seeking to a commitment to Christ.
Julian believes that for each local Christian community to grow there must be a
pivotal, central figure who provides a stability and continuity of presence
when that community meets for worship, prayer and planning. That person must be visible normally each
week if the drive for every member of the community to develop their ministry
and discern and develop the gifts of the spirit within them. When I was a young boy I went to the
Blackpool Tower Ballroom to hear the Great Wurlitzer Organ played by Reginald
Dixon. I remember the great Organ coming
up out of the floor with Reginald Dixon on the stool. I doubt very much if I would have such a
vivid memory of the day if Reginald Dixon himself were not present. This may pose a question for us at Immanuel as
it seems to be a reversal of previous thinking!
of reducing the number of leaders and merging parishes in pastoral
reorganisation, increasing pressure and workload on an already hard-pressed
leadership we should aim to develop a missional leader in each different sector
of the Church’s mission, under the umbrella, as it were, of that key central
‘sector’ leaders could include but are not limited to, for example:
a. A youth and children’s leader – it is
uncomfortable to realise that 48% of Churches within the Diocese have less than
five under 16’s attending weekly. The
job of a youth and children’s ministry leader may include making Church life
and worship so good for young people and their families that it is he kind of
place they would want to come to. It may
also involve carefully planning with the overall leader all age worship, which
engages with and relates to young people.
b. A missional leader to encourage how we
welcome people into Church, with implications for how worship is structured and
organised. In the past century most
church of England services were changed to become Eucharists; we need to move
away from a situation where most services are geared to minister to the
faithful and in a new, missional environment,
think about how we introduce a new emphasis on the ministry of the word and the
c. Baptism, wedding and funeral follow up
We need to take more of the
opportunity we have in explaining what it means to turn to Christ in the
contacts we have through baptisms, weddings and funerals – something is drawing
these families to us. This is not an
appeal to change the way we do occasional offices, although there is always
room for improvement, more of a chance for the whole
to be involved in follow up and for someone to co-ordinate this.
of the above raises many questions and gives many opportunities and it is not
possible to do everything at once. This
is why a special PCC away Day will take place to enable the PCC to look into
each of these areas more deeply and to discern some priorities. My role in this is to guide and to lead, also
to put into effect decisions which are made by the PCC. It is for the whole Church however to engage
with and, to the extent that this happens, to make the necessary changes and to
move to the next chapter in the life of Immanuel. What I said in my vicar’s report last year
still stands; we have fantastic opportunities at Immanuel and some wonderful
people. I believe that using the tool of
Vision 2026 to change what we do and how we do it can unlock even more of this
potential and to make this Church stronger, more vibrant and a flourishing
place where people will want to come to be part of what God is doing.
is the challenge.
friend and vicar
I came across recently
somewhere a snapshot, admittedly arbitrary and particular but nevertheless
revealing, of Christian knowledge, not even belief, in this country. Here it
IS THIS A CHRISTIAN COUNTRY?
Portsmouth, not so long ago announced that of the young conscripts entering the
Only 23 per cent. can say
the Lord’s Prayer correctly.
Only 72 per cent. know who
Only 39 per cent. know where
Christ was born.
Only 83 per cent. know what
Christmas Day celebrates.
Only 62 per cent, know what
Good Friday commemorates.
Only 45 per cent. know about
Only 2.5 per cent. know
The snapshot becomes even
more revealing when I let you know that I found this in an old parish magazine,
not of this church, or even this year; in fact it was taken from a parish
magazine from Easter 1951! I wonder what
the percentages would be today?
The redoubtable Revd Davies,
the vicar who wrote the article, and whom I am sure has long since gone to his
rest, gives the following observation to further underline his survey of faith
– remember that it comes from a time some of you might remember, a time before
television when cinema going was far more widespread than it is today:
FIVE GOOD REASONS
Dr. Hugh Elmer Brown gave
five reasons why he does not go to the cinema. We seem to have heard them
before in another connection!
1 I was made to go too often
when I was young.
2 Nobody ever spoke to me
when I went.
3 When I have gone, I’ve
always been asked for money.
4 The manager never calls at
5 The people who go don’t
live up to the fine things they see in the pictures
Now bearing in mind that
these observations were taken from over 65 years ago, they have a peculiar
resonance with today, and the context in which Bishop Julian is rightly calling
us to engage in the Diocesan Mission programme Vision 2016. The context may have changed, become even
more difficult perhaps, but the fundamental human condition in which it takes
place has perhaps not changed that much, if at all.
But the good news is that
the message that the Church brings has also not altered. Easter, which I hope we have enjoyed
celebrating, means hope, and that hope is exactly the same today as it was in
Revd Davies’ day, or indeed any day. It
is in the context of this, the eternal truth of the hope that can transform our
life and set us free, that the mission will succeed. The truth is that if the Easter hope of our
faith doesn’t underpin everything that we do in the Vision 2016 initiative,
then no matter how professional, slick or well organised we make it, it will
lack the one ingredient which will give it life. What is more, that great hope must make the
things that we do as a church look and sound different, even though they remain
essentially the same things that Christians have been doing for two thousand
years. The riches of the past can still
speak powerfully today, but only if we fill them with the life of faith. But let the good Revd Davies tell it in his
own words, and with an illustration, which, though expressed in the style of
the day, makes the point, more clearly than I can:
My dear Parishioners,
This time of the year makes us all feel better. The
winter has been long and hard, but the beauty of the spring flowers, the
splendour of the trees, and the green lusciousness of the meadows, bring new
hope and joy, and make us feel better.
But the change which the coming of Spring makes in us
is small compared with the change produced by the message of Easter. The
knowledge that Christ rose from the dead should make an indescribable
difference. As an illustration of this influence, let us recall the following
true story. Reichel, the great conductor, was rehearsing his choir for a
production of the Messiah. The chorus had sung through to the point where the
soprano solo takes up the refrain I know that my Redeemer liveth. The technique
of the soloist was perfect faultless breathing, accurate notes, splendid
enunciation. When the final note died away all eyes turned on Reichel for his
look of approval. Instead he silenced the orchestra, walked up to the singer
with sorrowful eyes, and said quietly, Do you know that your Redeemer lives, do
you? Why, yes, I think, I do, she replied. Then, sing it, the conductor
replied, Tell it to me, so that I will know, and all who hear will know that
you know the joy and power of it.Then he motioned to the orchestra to play again.
This time the soloist sang the truth as she knew it, and had experienced it,
and all who heard, wept under the spell of it. The old master approached her
with tear-dimmed eyes and said, you do know, for you have told me.
The knowledge of Christ crucified, but risen from the
dead, left its mark on her song. We may not be professional singers, but the
Resurrection of Jesus Christ should influence our daily task, if we really
believe it. We need that influence in our industrial, economic and social life
now as never before, if we are to resurrect the greatness of our national life.
We have had a long winter, but Easter is with us, and Easter means hope.
Your friend and vicar
promote the 2014 New York Air Show five members of the US Red Bull Air Force
flew, superman style, over the New Yok skyline using wingsuits, after having
jumped from at plane at 7,500 feet!
Falling at speeds of up to 120mph, the intrepid five flew for about 2
miles before landing on a narrow barge in the Hudson River, having used
parachutes to slow them down. All five
landed safely on the barge without ending up in the river. The high tech suits worn by the wingsuited
flyers may be seen on You Tube or on page 150ff of this year’s ‘Ripley’s
Believe It Or Not’ annual, which is where I found out about them. As I understand it the wingsuits add surface
to the body giving enough lift when descending to allow forward movement rather
than plummeting like a stone – gliding like flying squirrels rather than
powered flight would be a good way to imagine it.
seems as amazing to me as the feat of gliding above the streets of New York
unpowered is the apparent simplicity of the design of the suits the skyriders
were wearing. Indeed, when I think about
it, all the gliding equipment that I can think of, from hangliders to fixed
wing paragliders, to an actual glider itself, it all looks so simple that I can’t
imagine why it’s never been thought of before.
Watching all the old silent black and white films of intrepid birdmen
with incredibly complicated contraptions usually plummeting to their doom it’s
hard not to wander why the simple designs worn by today’s gliding enthusiasts
were never thought of before. Well one
answer is of course that they had been; from the well documented Elmer the
Anglo Saxon flying monk of Malmesbury Abbey in 1010 AD to Leonardo Davinci’s
design for a parachute, like many things in the history of science, the
technology and ideas had been around for a long time, it just takes a reason
for someone, or more usually a number of someones, each developing the ideas
and achievements of those who came before, for those ideas and technology to be
put into practice.
we look at the emergence of any new so called invention it very rarely, if at
all, appears out of nowhere dreamed up by one person, it almost always has a
the case of unpowered flight and gliding, the revolutionary changes which have
allowed men to soar unaided like superman over New York appear to have come in
the last few years due to a convergence of advances in the understanding of the
physics of flight (lift, thrust, drag etc) and the chemical development of
superlightweight materials – both of which were previously unavailable to past
generations, although that doesn’t seem to have stopped the Elmer, the
hangliding anglo saxon monk!
if most advances in science and technology are, like Isaac Newton said of his
ability to see further than anyone previously, the result of being able to
“stand on the shoulders of giants”, the one huge advance in our relationship
with God is not a result of anything which came before, or since for that matter. When we celebrate Easter we are celebrating
something unique which happened once, in one time and place in his tory,
which, if we had the ability to travel back in time we could witness for
ourselves, done for us, unexpectedly, unsought, undeserved and, at least in the
manner of its happening, unpredicted.
resurrection of Jesus is for Christians the bolt out of the blue when
everything changed. It was not the result of the efforts of any predecessors
and was not refined or improved on by anything which came after it. For Christians the resurrection is the single
most important event in human history.
This is because Easter changes how we exist in relation to God – through
the resurrection we can approach God directly, not by having to stand on anyone’s
shoulders, giants or otherwise. Through
that direct experience of God in our lives we can then let God work his will
through us, and by his work, transform who we are into who we were meant to be.
That God doesn’t work like
human scientific research and development should come as no surprise to us
really; whereas humans need to stand on the achievements of previous
generations in order to advance should lead us to the conclusion that God
doesn’t need to be limited in this way because he is, well, God! Neither should this startlingly unique
transformation in our approach to God blind us to our need to hear the
experience of others and learn from the riches that previous generations of
Christians can bring to help us in our understanding of what God can do through
us – we don’t need to reinvent the wheel, many
others have grown in their relationship with God before us and we, as mere
humans will see further from their shoulders.
it does mean though is that others can’t do the work for us of growing in our
relationship with God and letting his love transform us, we have to do it
ourselves. Those brave skydivers who
stood at the door of that plane above New York had the benefit of generations
of research and testing on their equipment so that they could be assured that
it would work. But they were like
Christians in one respect, they had to do what I’m sure I could never have done
in their situation; no matter how much trust and faith they had that what they
were about to do would work, they had, like Christians, to put it into practice
for themselves if they were going to experience it personally, in other words
they had to jump!
friend and vicar
have a friend who was telling me recently of how much he had been looking
forward to watching, with his young daughter, a film on at Christmas which he
had found uproariously funny and entertaining when he had first seen it at her
age. He went on to tell me also of his
disappointment, not only at his daughter’s utter indifference, not to say
boredom when she was forced to sit through the said film – but of his own
reaction to the film which, whether through maturity of years or the worldliness
experience has brought, made it look to him not so much dated as corny to begin
with. I’ll tell you the name of the film
if you ask me!
own experience of coming across something from years ago happened last
summer and was entirely the opposite.
Coming across a beach on holiday in Scotland I realised it was the very
beach of which I had golden memories from my own younger days. Far from finding it smaller than I remembered
or noticing tacky surroundings of which I was oblivious to in youth, the beach
seemed to me both bigger and more beautiful than ever, surrounded if anything
by countryside more stunning than I had been mature enough to appreciate when
last I saw it and, the best bit of all, seeing how my own daughter (who is
incidentally the same age as my friend’s child) was enjoying tearing round the
beach and crashing into the water in an even more enthusiastic way than I had.
this means that my friend was somewhat naïve in his younger days whereas I
didn’t fully appreciate the wonder surrounding me I don’t know. What is certain to me though is that details
of an experience of time and place in our memory are perhaps more connected to
our memory than to the time and place itself.
It’s not just that your old school hall will look smaller to you if you
see it now than you remember it, it was always that size – it hasn’t changed,
reminds me of a piece of poetry….
‘Because I know that time is always
And place is always and only place
And what is actual is actual only
for one time
And only for one place………..’
think Eliot means here something similar to what King Saladin meant in the
movie Kingdom of Heaven when he was asked what Jerusalem means. He says,
"nothing, everything". As in it's really just a patch of worthless
dirt, but since so many abstract connotations have been associated with it over
time, it now means everything to enough people for it to act as a necessary
Wednesday is the first long poem written by T. S. Eliot after his 1927
conversion to Anglicanism. Published in 1930, this poem deals with the struggle
that ensues when one who has lacked faith in the past strives to move towards
Western Christianity, Ash Wednesday marks the first day, or the start of the
season of Lent, which begins 40 days prior to Easter (Sundays are not included
in the count). Lent is a time when many
Christians prepare for Easter by observing a period of fasting, repentance,
moderation and spiritual discipline. During some Ash Wednesday services, the
minister will lightly rub the sign of the cross with ashes onto the foreheads
all Christian churches observe Ash Wednesday or Lent. They are mostly observed
by the Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian and Anglican denominations, and also
by Roman Catholics. Eastern Orthodox churches observe Lent or Great Lent,
during the 6 weeks or 40 days preceding Palm Sunday with fasting continuing
during the Holy Week of Orthodox Easter. Lent for Eastern Orthodox churches
begins on Monday (called Clean Monday) and Ash Wednesday is not observed.
Bible does not mention Ash Wednesday or the custom of Lent, however, the
practice of repentance and mourning in ashes is found in 2 Samuel 13:19; Esther
4:1; Job 2:8; Daniel 9:3; and Matthew 11:21.
is a time for changing, and that means that having gone through a time of
change, things we had become accustomed to being part of our lives, or places
we remember will look different to us as we see them with new eyes. This might mean that some things, which used
to satisfy, like my friend’s film will, to some extent at least, lose their
allure. If we are lucky it might also
mean that some things we didn’t fully appreciate the first time around will
give us a second chance to take in how wonderful they truly are. Like the experience of TS Eliot however, that
change may come gradually, and not as fast as we might like. True change is not here today and gone
tomorrow and might take time. Yet,
journeying, gradually but surely towards God we might sometimes find ourselves
surprised by how different things might have become without us noticing. This Lent, I hope that you find a Lenten
discipline which leads to true change; and I will remember the prayer I often
have to challenge myself with;
‘God, grant me the serenity to accept the
things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I
And the wisdom to know the difference.’
friend and vicar
Can you solve it? Are you smarter
than a German 10-year-old?
A festive question about German
concern for the Christmas wishes of the nomadic tribes of north Africa
year the German Mathematical Society runs an online puzzle advent calendar for
schoolchildren in which a new puzzle appears every day from 1 to 24 December. This fantastic initiative has been going
since 2010 and about 150,000 schoolchildren aged 10-16 now take part. On
average about 80% get each question correct. Sehr gut, ja?
like the following question – from the 2010 calendar – and not just because the
word “elf” in German means 11.
Waldemar the Elf has a job to do: he
must collect all the Christmas wish lists from children who live in the Sahara
Desert. Starting in Timbuktu, he is able to complete the round trip and return
to Timbuktu in six days. But he is an elf, which means he is very small. An elf
can only carry a maximum of four days’ worth of elf food. What is the minimum
number of elves Waldemar needs to bring with him to complete the trip?
Clarifications: Waldemar can only
travel with other elves. Every elf on the trip must eat a day’s worth of elf
food every day. Elf food is not available to buy during the trip, but elves can
give each other food that they have brought with them. No elf is allowed to
leave Timbuktu twice, nor be left stranded in the desert with no food.
solution follows. At the
time of writing, still early December due to printing deadlines, some of us
are, like Waldemar the elf, very much concerned with Christmas wish lists. At the time of writing, however, due to the
devastating effects of Storm Desmond (you may recall), you might be forgiven
for thinking that some people’s wish lists may be very different from those of
the children of the Sarah Desert – Pooley Bridge, for example, at the north end
of Ulswater in the Lake District, which dates from the 18th Century and which
I have crossed many times, being completely collapsed. In another sense though, those wish lists
which comprise just life’s basic necessities may have much more in common than
those with which I am currently daily being bombarded – in this way the children
of the Sahara Desert and those whose homes have been destroyed through no fault
of their own, may have more in common than would at first appear.
New Year, when most people will be reading this, is of course a time to look
both forwards an backwards – a bridge in some sense, connecting one set of
memories or events, with another. I hope
that for you 2015 was a time when your wish list could be like those I am given
to send off to Santa and not like those stricken by flood or some other
disaster, meaning that life’s basic necessities are all that can be wished
for. New Year also reminds us that,
whether we consciously make a new resolution or not, we can always make a fresh
start – which is a fundamental truth about our faith in Jesus, whenever and wherever
we may find ourselves. We can always
cross a bridge to something better!
all the violence, poverty, talk about climate change and refugees with which
2105 may come to be remembered (Oh, and an election, in case you have
forgotten!), I was heartened to find some news that cheered me up no end! It seems that some characters you might have
thought, and which I certainly did, think, were and for some time had been no
longer with us, are still very much still alive, if not perhaps kicking in quite
the way they were in their, long past, heyday.
If I started this letter with a puzzle, let me end it with a quiz. One feature of the Review of a Year usually
includes a list of those who have left us for a better place in the previous
twelve months but, how many, would you say, of the following celebrities from
yesteryear are still with us at the end of 2105 (at least, at the time of
Olivia de Havilland (b.1916), Doris
Day (b. 1925), Sidney Poitier, Kirk Douglas (b. 1916), Zsa Zsa Gabor (b. 1916), Alan Young (b. 1916,
the owner of talking horse Mr Ed), Maureen O’Hara (b. 1920), Dick
Van Dyke (b. 1925), Martin Landau and
Evie Marie Saint (co-stars of Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘North by Northwest) and Jerry
Lewis? Answers also to follow
Friend and vicar
The answer is two elves.
The solution, explained:
Waldemar cannot complete the trip on his own, because
he will run out of food after four days. So he needs to take at least one
companion to carry the extra food.
Let’s say he takes his best friend, Edeltraud. Both
elves start off with four days of food supplies. At the end of the first day,
the elves have three days of supplies left each.
Now let Edeltraud give Waldemar a day’s supply of
food, so Waldemar has four days worth, the maximum he can carry. This means
that Edeltraud only has two days worth left.
At the end of the second day, Waldemar will have
three days of food left, and Edeltraud has a single day of food. ELF DISASTER
ALERT! Waldemar does not have enough food to complete the six day trip, and
Edeltraud only has a single day of food left so she must return home or remain
stranded in the desert with no food.
So, Waldemar must take at least two companions. Let’s
say he takes Edeltraud and Johannes. They all leave Timbuktu with four days of
At the end of the first day, they all have three days
of food left. At this point Johannes gives one day of food to Waldemar and one
to Edeltraud, leaving Johannes with only one day of food left and his companions
with four each. Johannes then returns home.
At the end of the second day, Waldemar and Edeltraud
are down to three days of food each. Edeltraud gives one day of food to
Waldemar, meaning he has four days worth of food, enough to finish the trip
since he has only four days left to go. Edeltraud, down to two days of food,
also has enough food to return home and not be stranded.
So, the trip is possible with Waldemar plus two
The question was originally set in 2010 in a puzzle
advent calendar organised by the German Mathematical Society, 80 per cent of
the schoolchildren (aged 10-16) who entered got the right answer!
In fact there is an alternative solution: Waldemar
starts off with only Edeltraud, who gives him one day of food as above, leaving
him with three days of food left at the end of day two. Waldemar has enough
food for five days - but on
Answers to Celebrities you thought were dead quiz;
Answer – All of them are happily still with us,
except Maureen O’Hara, who sadly passed away on 24 October this
One of my better attempts at
baking this year was a homemade, indeed home designed, lamb and vegetable pie
(pictured above). Finding a fridge full
of soon to be out of date vegetables and chancing upon an unfeasibly reduced priced
premium pack of lamb pieces in Tesco Express, I resolved to blend them together
with an inspired choice of herbs and a few spices! So pleased with myself was I by the result
that I took the above picture – not I hope out of vanity, more surprise, not
least the surprise of my family at how well it had turned out. Looking at the outside of the pie no one
would have guessed the mixture of what was inside, nor how well the combination
worked, hence the photograph above, or so I told myself.
Chancing upon an iron age
stable in Roman occupied 1 Century Palestine and finding there not
only the expected animals but also; an unmarried mother, a man who had
abandoned all hope of respectability by choosing to stand by her despite his
not being the father of the baby lying in an animals’ feeding tray in front of
them; a group of bewildered shepherds who didn’t really know why they were
there; three (at least) exotic foreigners with odd gifts, two welcome and one
rather peculiar; a weird star which kept on shifting and stopping in the night
sky; oh, not to mention an unpleasant gang of armed militia, sent from a brutal
dictator on their way to see the demise of probably the lot of them. What an odd collection of characters. Chancing upon this scene anyone at the time
could be forgiven for wandering how the strange collection fitted together, and
certainly wouldn’t have expected what was on the inside of the stable from its
seemingly prosaic outside!
Yet that is the surprising
scene with which God arrives on earth! That is the scene which we look at at and
celebrate with a million cribs and Christmas cards once again this year. That the scene should be surprising should
itself perhaps come as not much of a surprise to us since surprise itself, it would
appear, is how God works. One of the
books which has had one of the biggest formative impacts on me is entitled “God
of Surprises” by Fr Gerard Hughes who, in wonderful and often funny pictures
and stories teaches us that, where God is concerned, we’d better expect the
unexpected, but even more importantly, God will never be confined to what we
expect and, if we let him work through us, neither will our lives.
One of the ways in which
this can transform us is to find within ourselves, and within other people,
unexpected gift and talents, often hidden from the surface, but just waiting to
be discovered and have a transforming effect on us and all those around
us. I read this week the obituary of a
faithful and imaginative Jesuit Priest, like Fr Gerard Hughes, called Fr Joseph
Fahey, although he died in 2002. In his
obituary Fr Fahey is described as a player of blackjack ‘For the greater glory
of God’, donating all his winnings to the Jesuit Order:
“(Possessing a doctorate in economics from the
Massachusetts Institute of technology) Fahey was considered a mathematical
prodigy and played the blackjack tables from Atlantic City to La Vegas. Among the sequins, gilt and glitz, he struck
an incongruous figure in his blue suit, but he always managed to beat the
odds. Blackjack – his chosen game –
offers the best odds of any in a casino, but is nonetheless one of the highest
earners for casino owners. Fahey, unlike
most customers, exploited the possibilities to the full. Ever true to his vow of poverty, Fahey donated
tens of thousands of dollars to Jesuit missions and schools, boosting for
instance the income of Boston College High School by 500% from 1988 to 1998 and
financing an athletics centre, library and computer lab. Fahey’s view that God and Mammon were
perfectly compatible was not one shared by the casinos however, which
eventually blacklisted him. Not to be beaten,
Fahey would as Dean of Studies at Holy Cross College, Mass., give at the end of
each term, a lesson for his students on card counting and how to beat the odds
at blackjack. The class was always well
attended. At the time of his death,
Fahey was provincial assistant for finance of the New England province for the
Whilst I am not suggesting
that we all take our Christmas Shopping money and see what we can get with it
at a supercasino (although if you do, the Church always welcomes donations!!),
and have never myself had the remotest interest in gambling, it is interesting
to learn what gifts lie within us and how they may be used for God. The thing about using our gifts for God is
that in doing so we let God work through us, and we become much more marvellous
versions of the people God created us to be as a result – and help others to do
Judging by the way our
children unfailingly bankrupt me at monopoly I am sure I would be a complete
disaster at blackjack – yet I like to think I may have a hidden talent for
baking (although this is sometimes disputed in our household). Whatever talent might lie beneath each one of
us it is no use unless it is brought out and nurtured, and this means having
the freedom to make mistakes and get things wrong lots of times – only by so
doing do we learn to eventually get things right. What we do get right may often come as a
surprise, as may its results both for us and for those around us – just as the
Christmas scene we celebrate is such a surprise, and contains within itself the
biggest surprise there has ever been!
What the nativity tableau
can encourage us all to do is to look beyond the surface of our superficial selves
and see what surprises we might have within us and learn how to use them. Just like my lamb and vegetable pie, we won’t
know what’s there inside unless we crack it open and see, oh and not forget to
bake it properly by coming to Church this Christmas!
Your friend and vicar
Fr Joseph Fahey SJ, RIP
October / November 2015
I was interested to learn
recently that tourists are now able to traverse a glass walkway on Yuntai
mountain in central China’s Henan province. The bridge hugs a cliff side 120m
(394ft) above a canyon. Officials however closed the walkway, which opened on
20 September, after cracks appeared in the structure on Monday. State
broadcaster CCTV reported that a single pane of the 68m-long section shattered
into coin-sized segments.
The reason for my interest
in the walkway, , along with a natural interest in a fantastic structure (se it at
is that I recently
had an experience of a glass walkway which, in its way was also unnerving. This
was on a recent family holiday to London where, on the ‘Tower Bridge
Experience’ my family and I had the pleasure of walking along the upper walkway
which connects the two towers. This
memorable experience was made all the more memorable by discovering that,
previously unknown to me, the floor of the each walkway (there are two, you
walk north-south along one and then south north along the other) has been
completely replaced by a glass floor, toughened, we were assured, but glass
nevertheless! This means that each visitor walks along a floor while looking down (although
its best not to), onto the Roadbridge traffic and River Thames below. Tower Bridge (built 1886–1894)is a combined bascule and suspension bridge and as such is extremely unusual if not unique
in being still fully working. Originally
intended as a solution to London’s mounting volumes of traffic in the 1880’s
(nothing changes does it?!) it had to allow tall ships access to docks which
were further along the Thames than The Tower – its rising cantilevers did just
that. So whether you cross up on the
glass floor peering to the certain death which would await should one of the
panes of glass give way, or else cross lower down knowing that the ‘road’ you
are walking along can be raised in five minutes’ notice, the surface you walk
on feels less than rock solid!
"The name of
infinite and inexhaustible depth and ground of our being is God. That depth is
what the word God means. And if that word has not much meaning for you,
translate it, and speak of the depths of your life, of the source of your
being, of your ultimate concern, of what you take seriously without any
reservation. Perhaps, in order to do so, you must forget everything traditional
that you have learned about God, perhaps even that word itself. For if you know
that God means depth, you know much about Him. You cannot then call yourself an
atheist or unbeliever. For you cannot think or say: Life has no depth! Life
itself is shallow. Being itself is surface only. If you could say this in
complete seriousness, you would be an atheist; but otherwise you are not."
--Paul Tillich, The Shaking of The Foundations
These are some challenging words from one of my favourite Christian
thinkers (which is all theologians really are) from the 20thC. It’s really just a distillation of the much
more accessible picture that Jesus gives in a wise man building his house on
the rock whilst a foolish one builds his house on sand, with no foundations (Matthew 7:24-27)
How many people build lives on sand?
How many think they have built their lives on rock only to find, sometimes
with a shock akin to mine to see myself walking 65 meters above the River
Thames, that what they had thought of as solid ground has, in fact, an enormous
and precipitous chasm yawning ominously beneath it? Of course, the lack of solid ground was there
all the time, only we get very used to covering it up and pretending it wasn’t
there – which I must admit was exactly what I was feeling walking along an
unexpected and worrisome glass floor, in a structure over 120 year old, wishing
someone would put a carpet down.
Let me be clear: I’m not talking about the times in our lives when, for
one reason or another, the bottom falls out of our world – those are indeed
terrible times and ones in which many have not realised until much later that
Our Lord was there with them, only that it was too dark to see him. I’m talking about those times when we realise
that what we thought of as the solid basis of our lives is not all that solid
after all. Not the times when we might
feel as though we are falling down a great hole, but the times when we realise
that we could.
Jesus’ message to us is clear at those times: whatever it is that we use to carpet over the
glass floor that we walk upon needs to come up if we are to have true peace and
security; that the gap beneath us will not go away just because we use the temporary
distractions of life to cover it up or blindfold ourselves with; that to walk
on solid ground we need to base our lives on things that last, that are solid
and will give us a true foundation in life.
As I walked over the road under tower Bridge and saw the unforgiving
brown waters of the Thames beneath me I said a quiet prayer : not the one you
might expect that the bridge would hold (although that would be
understandable), but to give thanks that Jesus is always there to provide a
true ground and solid foundation in life – or at least, if we mess it up, a
Your friend and vicar
of the most enduring hoaxes you might hear in a backpacker hostel is that of
the drug-soaked business card: someone hands you their card, and the drug is
instantly absorbed by your skin. You fall into a zombie-like state, where you
will do anything for your attacker, from empty out your bank account to pull a
trigger on someone.
drug is burandanga, or scopolamine, derived from nightshade plants, and there
are countless stories about how criminals in Colombia and Ecuador use the drug,
which is said to remove a person’s free will, to assault victims or rob them.
It is also known as “devil’s breath” and has been described as “the most
dangerous drug in the world”. It’s hard to know which are urban myths and which
are genuine. The US’s Overseas Security Advisory Council warns travellers in
Quito about the dangers of falling victim to a scopolamine attack, and refers
to “unofficial estimates” – it doesn’t say where this figure is from – of
50,000 scopolamine incidents there every year.
according to reports, the drug has been used on “dozens” of victims in Paris,
and three people have been arrested. The Daily Telegraph suggests that two
women had encouraged their victims to breathe in the drug, then got the victims
to take them home where they stole money and jewellery.
idea that someone could become zombified after someone blows powder into their
face is one thing, but does it remove free will? “It would completely zonk you
out,” says Val Curran, Chief pharmacologist at University College London, “ but
I don’t know about removing free will. It incapacitates you because you’d feel
so drowsy, you wouldn’t remember what was going on. But you would do after huge
doses of alcohol, or lots of other drugs like Valium or other benzodiazepine
is one of those drugs with a rich backstory. It is said to be one of the first
“truth serums”. In the early 20th century, it was administered by some doctors
as a pain-relief drug – or rather a drug that led to the forgetting of pain –
in childbirth until one obstetrician noticed how women who had been given it
answered candidly to questions; he later wondered if it could be used when
questioning people charged with crimes. It was used as evidence in some trials,
drug which removes free will, a drug which ‘zombifies’ to the point where the
previous personality is eliminated and a person exists perfectly at the command
of another. Some people, listening to
some versions of Christian proclamation may conclude that if only we could find
the effects of such a drug in our imperfect discipleship following Jesus, we
would become perfect Christians and always conform to Jesus’ will. Personally I think that following Jesus is
the opposite; the removal of not just this but of all ‘drugs’, in the sense of
things, habits, patterns of behaviour which we use to shield us from who we
really are. Following Jesus is actually
rather more about giving drugs up, which is why so many find it so difficult
and, in our society at least, why the number of committed Christians is
former Archbishop of Canterbury, Professor Rowan Williams describes a Church as
“first of all a kind of space,
cleared by God through Jesus, in which people may become what God mad them to
be (God’s Sons and Daughters)”
can think of no better definition of being a Church, and as part of it a
Christian, than this. Becoming what God
made us to be is not to be controlled by someone else, still less is it about using
things to shield us from ourselves or abandoning who we really are, but rather finding,
through growing self control, that we are happiest when we are most fully
ourselves. As we grow in our faith in
Christ, so we grow in our knowledge of ourselves, and we are better people with
happier lives as a result
friend and vicar
Showing mountain ranges
taller than the Pyrenees and gorges three times deeper than the Grand Canyon,
this week’s images from New Horizons, the flyby space probe currently passing
Pluto have re-ignited the debate among astronomers about whether the ninth
heavenly body discovered to be orbiting our sun deserves the title ‘planet’. Pluto was discovered in 1930 and was
originally considered to be the ninth planet from the Sun. After 1992 however,
its status as a planet fell into question following the discovery of several
objects of similar size in the Kuiper belt beyond Pluto but still orbiting the
sun. In 2005, Eris, which is 27% more massive and further away from the sun than
Pluto, was discovered, which led the International Astronomical Union to define
the term "planet" formally for the first time the following year.
This definition excluded Pluto and reclassified it as a member of the new "dwarf
The discoveries made this
week however make the debate about Pluto’s status as a planet redundant. It no
longer matters what we call it, because Pluto is now shown to be the gateway to
a hitherto poorly appreciated third zone of our solar system. This third zone was first put forward as an
idea by the Irish astronomer Kenneth Edgeworth.
As early as 1938, Edgeworth plainly stated that newly discovered Pluto
was too small to be a planet, but was probably the largest member of a family
of objects that formed out of the rubble left over from the formation of the
solar system. These ideas were developed in the 1950s by a Dutch-American
astronomer, Gerald Kuiper, and this third zone became known as the
Edgeworth-Kuiper Belt, now frequently shortened to the Kuiper Belt.
The first high-resolution
images of Pluto this week overturned decades-old theories about these icy
worlds beyond Neptune. Scientists were
thrilled and somewhat startled to see a mountainous landscape devoid of craters. For years it was widely assumed that the
worlds of the Edgeworth-Kuiper Belt were cold and lifeless places. This week we
know that is not true. Pluto and its moon, Charon, must have some source of
internal heat driving geological processes on the surface. What is more, Pluto is only one of many
thousands of objects on which liquid water might exist beneath the surfaces in
the Edgeworth-Kuiper Belt, possibly in vast quantities, and where there is
water, there will probably be life.
So whether or not Pluto
remains a ‘dwarf’ or a fully-fledged genuine ‘planet’ is really not the most
exciting thing about it. Yet names, or
what something is called does, to some extent at least, matter. A child’s name
can tell us something about his parents — their race, social standing, even
their politics. This is not to say that a name is always someone’s destiny, or,
like Mr Gradgrind in Charles Dickens’ ‘Hard Times’, suggests something of their
character, (still less as in Roger Hargreaves’ Mr Men and Little Miss series,
suggests parents who have the prescience to name their child after its defining
characteristic; Mr Messy, Mr Silly, Little Miss Helpful and so on). However there
is some evidence to show that a name can influence how a child performs in
school and even her career opportunities.
Perhaps its only one factor among many, but the act of naming something
is certainly to do with influence, power and even ownership.
This is certainly true in
the Bible where names are full of meaning.
Sometimes a person’s name is changed to reflect their changed nature,
for example Jacob’s name being changed to ‘Israel’ after his successful all
night wrestling match with an unnamed divine creature, or Cephas being called
‘Peter’ to reflect the rock on which the Church will be built.
Genesis 2; 20 tells how:
“Out of the ground the LORD God formed every beast of
the field and every bird of the sky, and brought them to the man (Adam) to see
what he would call them; and whatever the man called a living creature, that
was its name. The man gave names to all the cattle, and to the birds of the
sky, and to every beast of the field”
This is not to say that over
50 million of the known species were somehow classified by one individual (and
in 24 hours at that), but I think something rather deeper. Adam and Eve are presented not as historical
figures in the way we would understand history but as ‘every woman’ and ‘every
man’ since human life began. That just
as they show how ultimate standards of good and evil are not theirs to settle,
so their status as custodians of the beauty of God’s created world is part of
their developing relationship with and awareness of God. The naming of the created world speaks less
of ownership and mastery than of a duty of stewardship and responsibility to
look after what has been given to us.
Surely then Pope Francis is
right to draw attention to how climate change is the modern day equivalent of
not looking after the Garden of Eden.
Surely it is right to play our part in looking after God’s wonderful
creation even as we find out more of the wonders of his universe. And surely it matters less what we call the
ninth identified object currently known to be orbiting our sun than what it
teaches us about how our solar system was formed, what might lie beyond it, and
how we look after our own bit of God’s glory, sorry, ‘planet’.
Your friend and vicar,
Bless the Lord all you works of the Lord: •
sing his praise and exalt him for ever.
Bless the Lord you heavens: •
sing his praise and exalt him for ever
(From the Benedicite)
A strange experience occurred to me yesterday as I heard not
one but two of our children quietly singing a song which goes like this:
“Ch, Ch, Ch, Changes….Turn and face the strange, Changes….”
which, to those of a certain generation like me was
immediately recognisable as ‘Changes’ from David Bowie’s 1971 album ‘Hunky
Dory’. This is an album of which, back
in the day, I could not only list the playing order backwards but would very
probably have been able to recite with 100% accuracy every word of every lyric.
What was strange to me was that these same two children,
whilst merrily singing the song had not the slightest idea not only which album
it came from but, unthinkable to those of us from that certain generation, had
not the faintest idea who David Bowie was, or indeed still is! On enquiry it seems to have appeared in an
episode of ‘The Simpsons’, a favourite TV show of theirs from which they appear
to have gained most of their knowledge of the outside world!
Well, the song struck a chord with me for a different reason;
that the life of a vicar, at least in the measure of that I have enjoyed to
date, is characterised by the whole issue of change, and how strange
introducing that change can sometimes be.
There are, it seems, different ways that things are changed. First,
there are those things that need changing in a hurry (in the spirit of person
and parish preservation) and that have to be made immediately. Then there are
those things that need changing in the course of the movement of time and as
seasons change. Those are changes that take more time, require consultation and
deliberation with a wider gathering. Then there are the Grand Changes that
concern whole-parish direction, its mission and vision. Those sorts of changes
are brought about with wide consultation and over a longer period of time.
The common characteristic in all matters regarding change is
that people seem not to like it. The whole idea of change is not, of course,
about the matter at hand. That the Hall WC is that colour or this is of no
significance per se, but in parish life nothing (and I mean nothing) is that
wasn't put there for a reason (and often by someone long dead).
To move a chair from a place of hazard to a place where it
may be sat upon seems like a process of the obvious, until you discover that
Mrs Miggins RIP 1942 used to sit in that spot and on the chair she donated. To
change locks because seven million copies of the door key exist and are in the
hands of nameless masses seems like a sensible thing to do until you discover
that someone was given a key by the vicar back in the 20s to let in the reddleman
once and therefore has rights to new keys.
People acquire things. People take on little jobs around the
place. People, with a good heart, dedicate themselves to things. We ask them to
do it. We enable with one hand and disable with another because we have to.
What we are not taught in Vicar School is how much people attach significance
to things that exceed the original significance. A key to one person is to open
a door and an onerous duty, but to another it represents affirmation, authority
and even a sense of power. Often, we change things (even through specific need)
that people regard as 'theirs', even when they are not.
The lesson I am learning is simple. I must make the changes
that are required as it is my role to lead a community from one place to
another in all senses. The end result is almost always peaceful, but the
liminal space - the moment of transition - is hard for most if not all of us.
It is the case that we identify ourselves as who we are in many external things
- and in church life at least, those things are the ones oft changed by those
whose heavy responsibility it is to bring that change about, and the experience
can sometimes be very strange!
Your friend and vicar
On the wall in my study is a
print of Rembrandt’s ‘The Return of the Prodigal Son’. It’s a marvellous painting, completed only
two years before the artist’s death in 1669 and to me it has almost iconic
qualities. It speaks, in other words, of
the welcome we will always find when we return to the Lord in humility and
repentance. For the prodigal son, you
may remember, his partying lifestyle was well and truly over, but it was only
then that his real life could begin.
At Pentecost, another party
is finally over. The fifty days of the Easter festival come to an end. The word
“Pentecost” in Greek means “fifty days” to mark the seven weeks since the
The feast of Pentecost has
deep roots that take us way back into the agricultural world of Canaan before
the Chosen People entered the Promised Land. Passover itself marked the
beginning of the harvest season with the first cutting of the barley crop. The
harvest came to an end fifty days later when the wheat harvest was finished;
and both the Canaanites and Israelites celebrated this as the Feast of Weeks,
After their entry into the
Promised Land, the Israelites took the harvest festivals of Canaan and made
them their own. The spring-time fertility festival became Passover and was tied
to the exodus from Egypt. The Feast of Weeks fifty days later was tied to God’s
giving of the Law to Moses on Sinai. And the autumn festival – called the Feast
of Tabernacles or Tents – was tied to the Israelites’ wandering in the wilderness
when they lived in tents. The rhythms of nature were linked to the great events
of salvation history. What had begun as Canaanite became Israelite.
But the story of Pentecost
does not stop there. Because the early Church took what had become Israelite
and made it Christian in another act of re-interpretation, but this time what
was being celebrated was the giving of the Holy Spirit; the harvest was not
barley and wheat but what the Apostle Paul calls “the fruits of the Spirit” –
“love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and
self-control”, Galatians (5:22-23).
The Feast of Weeks was a
time of joyful celebration, since God had once again given what was needed for
life. In the ancient world, famine was a constant threat, and a good harvest
was cause for celebration because it meant the difference between life and
death. So too the Christians saw the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost as
making the difference between eternal life and eternal death.
The Feast of Weeks was also
a moment of sharing with the needy the good things of the land, so that no-one
went without. And the Christians saw Pentecost as the beginning of a great
God-inspired sharing of the fruits of the Spirit with a very needy world. They
saw it as the beginning of the Church’s mission, as we still do.
That mission continues to
this day because God has not ceased to breathe the Holy Spirit into the Church.
Without that Spirit, the Church would be a corpse, but with the breath of God
within us, the Church becomes the Body of Christ – wounded it is true, but
still radiant with the life that is bigger than death, the life of Easter.
At a time when we need to
become more missionary, God is breathing the Holy Spirit into us in new ways.
It may be that for some of us we may have too much to eat, but famine of a
different kind still looms, more than ever in our great abundance. To become
more missionary in a culture like this, we may need to turn away from abundance
of one kind to find and share with others a different kind of abundance. We may
need to say no to material abundance in order to find and share with others a
genuinely spiritual abundance. That was certainly the inspiration of someone
like St Francis of Assisi and the example of the current Pope Francis, who took
his name. God will always be there,
waiting with what we really need for life.
The party may be over, but the real work must now begin.
Your friend and vicar
I have been reading a book
lately by Richard McGuire called ‘Here’.
Actually, ‘reading’ isn’t quite the right word, for reasons which will
become apparent in a moment. ‘Here’ is
the story of a corner of a room. It
starts out with a picture, drawn by the author of that corner of the room, with
nothing in it but an empty fireplace.
The following pages are simply hundreds of similar drawings of that same
room, but showing the events which have happened in that space over the course
of hundreds of thousands of years. Its
not just that ‘reading’ is not quite the right word for looking at pictures, but
that by looking at the pictures the ‘reader’ is working out for themselves the
stories, often interlinked, of the people who stood in that same space over all
these years. ‘Reading’ is one word, ‘becoming
aware’ would do just as well, as would ‘recognition’
This month, May, sees the
Feast of the Ascension of Our Lord, on 14 May, to be precise. This event, whatever it was, is often seen as
the way in which we express the sense of Christ Universal, that is to say, of
Jesus as not being limited to a particular time or place, but being found and
seen in all places and all time. Yes, he
did live on earth at a particular time and in a particular place, but our faith
is bigger than we will ever understand and contains mysteries beyond our
comprehension – or at least, beyond mine – and this is one of them. That Jesus did live in a particular time and
place, (the incarnation), and he is at the same time lord of all time and all
places (The Ascension). To those who
would limit our faith to narrow dogma I would throw that challenge, the mystery
of the truth of both the incarnation and the ascension.
I wonder if the ‘ascending’
part of the Ascension wouldn’t more helpfully be understood by thinking in
terms of ‘becoming aware’, or another word might be ‘recognising’. ‘The Recognition’ might be a more clumsy and
less elegant phrase than ‘The Ascension’, but I believe that, at least in part,
is what it might be. The recognition
that Jesus is present in all places and at all times, if only we had the eyes
to recognise him. The recognition
therefore that there is nothing which is beyond or more powerful than the love
of God and therefore that there is nothing that cannot be redeemed. The recognition also then that it is now,
here, in this world, in this room, at this time that we can meet Jesus and experience
something of the power of the new life that he brings, the life for which we
On the memorial stone in
Ross-on-Wye of Margaret Potter are the following words: ‘All the way to heaven is heaven.’
Next to it, on the memorial stone of her husband, the brilliant
playwright, Dennis Potter, is written this: ‘And all of it a kiss.’ All the way to heaven is heaven. And all of it a kiss. The present is the only opportunity for union
with God which we have. This place, this
corner of the room is where it will be found, as it might have been found in
this same place by countless unremembered others before us.
The Incarnation and The
Ascension are for me then both of the same truth, however dimly I perceive
it: that both are a recognition that the
divine moment is now, the divine place is here, or ‘Here’ as my book would have
it. So our prayers must then always be
from our present, however painful, blissful, hilarious, dull that might be at
the moment. We have to be here to
recognise the kiss.
“The fact is that if you see the present tense, boy
do you see it, and boy can you celebrate it” – Dennis Potter, in his last interview by Melvyn Bragg on March 15
1994. It was broadcast by Channel 4 on April 5 1994. Potter died on June 7 1994
Your Friend and Vicar
This month saw the sad passing
of Sir Terry Pratchett, author of over 40 ‘Diskworld’ Fantasy novels, selling more than 85 million books worldwide in 37
languages, who was the UK's best-selling author of the 1990s, and one of my favourite authors. His first Diskworld novel, ‘The Colour of
Magic’ was published in 1983, which was when I first read it. With his trademark leather hat, brown leather
jacket and white beard, Sir Terry was instantly recognisable. When he was diagnosed with early onset
Alzheimer’s disease in 2007 he made a large donation to the Alzheimer’s Society
and allowed many documentary films to be made of how he coped with this awful
disease, which have been an inspiration to many whose lives have been affected
For those of you who aren’t
familiar with the fantasy ‘Diskworld’, it involves a fictionary huge disk
floating through space, supported by four enormous elephants, who themselves
stand on the back of a giant turtle, Great A’ Tuin. If this sounds implausible to us then its
worth considering that Sir Terry didn’t make it up, but took the picture from
beliefs held by many ancient societies and religions before the discoveries of
Galileo had spread worldwide. Until the
time of Columbus many thought that to sail west across the Atlantic would mean
falling off the edge of the world. The
Romans though, it seems, knew otherwise.
However the action of the stories taking place on the Diskworld could
take place anywhere in our own world, and that’s the point of the novels; each one
is an unbelievable fantastic parody of an aspect of some all too recognisable facet
of our own ordinary world.
To make a point, Jesus often
made up stories as an illustration – the parables of the Good Samaritan, the Persistent
Widow, the Lost Coin and the Prodigal Son are all not memories of real people
and events, but stories made up to make the listener think. That this can further be enhanced by fantasy
has a long tradition in English Literature, both written and dramatic; consider
‘A Christmas Carol’, ‘1984’, ‘Peter Pan’, ‘Shrek’, the whole gamut of Walt
Disney Studios and the fine tradition going back to Shakespeare’s fantasy plays
like ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ and ‘The Tempest’. To teach a truth a fable doesn’t have to be
historically real, but its realty comes from the truth of its experience.
It’s the same with how we
look at people and history. We can meet someone and find out what percentage of
their lives they have been employed, married or retired etc. We can measure their height, weight, eye
colour and find out a whole range of facts about them. But this tells us nothing of the person they truly
are. To truly know someone doesn’t only
involve statistics or percentages but rather learning of their life in terms of
story, relationship, pictures and memories.
There are different levels of truth and, like anything worth finding out
about, people have many different layers of truth to discover.
So the work of Sir Terry
Pratchett, for me, is not diminished by the fact that it is not real. Consider for example these lines from some of
“Stories of Imagination tend
to upset those without one.”
“The presence of those
seeking truth is infinitely to be preferred to the presence of those who think
they’ve found it.”, Monstrous Regiment
“It’s still magic even if
you know how it’s done.”, A Hat Full of
“Goodness is about what you
do, not who you pray to.”, Snuff
“So much Universe, and so
“I’d rather be a rising ape
than a falling angel.”
“I have no use for people
who have learned the limits of the possible.”
what about our own world? What happens
in our own world is, by definition, real and not fantasy. Well, for me just because something is not
‘fantasy’ doesn’t mean that it can’t be fantastic. Just because something is familiar doesn’t
mean that it can’t yet contain many levels of truth and meaning. As we tell this coming week the familiar
story of Jesus’ death and resurrection, we are telling a story not about
something made up or fantasy but something which really happened on our own
earth, in a particular place and at a particular time. What’s more it’s the most fantastic thing
ever to have happened; something that has the power to transform lives, to free
minds from everything that would limit them and empower all who come to it to
see themselves and the world as a place of previously unimagined opportunity
Pratchett’s fantasy Diskworld is not real but it can teach truths that are real
in our own world. Our world is real and
the story of Easter can help us see within it, and within ourselves, things that
we might never otherwise have thought possible.
Easter is a time when we
celebrate the triumph of life over death, the triumph of God over sin, and the
reality of Christ's risen life in us. We can prepare for Easter by taking stock
of where we are spiritually, emotionally and mentally.
I recently discovered a helpful
meditation about the cross, which might help us see within it things which are,
well, just ‘true’
The horizontal — a reminder
that like Christ I am on a pilgrim journey...
that like Christ I cannot always choose the way...
that like Christ I carry with me a burden I cannot
The vertical — a reminder
that God is always there...
that all I do is in the end to give him glory...
that my journey to heaven must be rooted in the
If my life is really a pilgrimage to God, carrying
the weight of myself, it is sensible to abandon unnecessary trifles so as not
to be encumbered
for I cannot serve God and material things...
to be willing to lay the axe to the root of the tree
and be converted,
for to be perfect is to have changed often...
to accept the company of others, their consolation
and their help,
for on my own I am powerless...
The road is rough and the falls are many.
God draws me towards himself,
For his love is patient...
my baptism has marked me out for him...
my heart knows no rest until it rests in him.
May you all have a very Holy
Easter, following not the wrong path, but being lead in the path of life
eternal. Wherever that path may lead you,
even if it is to the ends of the earth, remember that you’re never going to
Your friend and vicar
Sir Terry Pratchett RIP
180 years ago newspaper readers were thrilled by a story about plants, animals and flying men on the Moon. The Great Moon Hoax, as it has become known, was published in the New York Sun over several days in the summer of 1835. It claimed to describe what the astronomer John Herschel had seen through his telescope from the Cape of Good Hope. It was read and, apparently, believed by tens of thousands of people across the US and Europe. It began by admitting that this was “an unusual addition to our journal” but promised it was worth reading, for there had been recent discoveries in Astronomy which will build an “imperishable monument to the age in which we live, and confer upon the present generation of the human race a proud distinction through all future time.”
The first article gave little more away, simply describing Herschel’s telescope. Over the following days, however, the articles included increasingly lavish descriptions of planets, the lunar landscape, “several new specimens of animals” and, ultimately, in the last paragraph of the 6th and final part, the bat-like “Vespertilio-homo”, which appeared “scarcely less lovely than the general representations of angels by the more imaginative schools of painters.”
Those who knew something of scientific matters would be aware that not only was there a Sir John Herschel FRS but also that he was then at the Cape of Good Hope, observing with a large telescope. There was an Edinburgh Journal of Science too, although it had recently folded. Names of real instrument makers, opticians and astronomers were dropped, the optics of the telescope were described with convincing technical language, and what could be more likely than that the inventor consulted the Board of Longitude? (Except that it, too, had shut down.)
What was the purpose of this elaborate fiction? It has been seen as prefiguring newspaper circulation wars, as demonstrating the gullibility of the public, as early science fiction (along with Edgar Allen Poe, who wrote not dissimilar newspaper pieces), and as a critique of popular science writing. What seems certain is that many did, at least initially, believe these were genuine observations. All becomes clear when we learn that the story was intended as satire rather than hoax. Richard Adams Locke, an apparently well-educated recent British immigrant who wrote for the Sun, eventually came clean in a letter to another newspaper. It was, he said, “an abortive satire”; he was “self-hoaxed” because his mimicry was too accurate to be spotted as parody.
Locke’s target was the widespread and uncritical belief in extra-terrestrial life among men of science. In particular, he took aim at Thomas Dick, a Scottish minister, teacher and author, whose faith in the existence of other worlds appeared throughout his writings and whose books were achieving enormous popularity.
It was this popularity that undid Locke’s satire. People were well prepared to hear that men had been found on the Moon. Some see the Hoax as a case of science versus religion, but this is too simple. It was I think rather a satire on the gullibility with which Locke saw his contemporaries blindly accepting anything they were told, either in the name of science or religion or, in this case, by a popular newspaper.
I wonder have we moved on much since that time? I don’t mean in a philosophical sense of how we perceive the world around us, how we make sense of things that we see or experience. Rather, by what do we measure the truth claims made either in the name of science or religion? I’m not at all qualified to comment on scientific matters, other than to make a general observation that one generation of scientists generally show the previous generation’s understanding of reality as, if not mistaken, then at least incomplete (Einstein showing how Newtonian science is, well, not really how it is, for example; Quantum physics showing how previous physics was, well, not really how it is either). I feel even less qualified to comment on religious definitions of ‘truth’, mainly because I know a bit more about them, and so am more aware of how much more there is about it that I don’t know!
This isn’t meant to imply anything about the torrent of truth claims shortly to be made in the coming weeks by those who want us to vote for them, or their veracity! It’s more to echo what Jesus said to Pilate when Pilate asked if it was true that he was a King, “What is truth?”, in the sense of ‘we all have truths, are mine the same as yours?’ Yes, Jesus is a king, but in a very different way than Pilate understood it. So for me there is no conflict whatsoever in the discoveries made by science and the truths claimed by our faith, they are both true, but in different ways, or different ‘magisterium’s’ to use a term. Its just like enjoying Christmas day in different ways; eating buttered sprouts and then watching the re-run of the Morecambe and Wise 1977 Christmas Special – or whatever takes your fancy. Enjoying eating and enjoying watching, both are good, especially when its Morecambe and Wise!
Lots of dreadful things are happening in our world today because some people think that their religious ‘truth’ is so true that any other claim cannot be tolerated. For my part I have always been suspicious of anyone from any faith who claims to have an absolute certainty. If someone says something is true because ‘God says it is’ that doesn’t allow any room for argument. The trouble is that someone else can come along and say something completely different in the name of God too and an implacable impasse is reached which all too frequently leads to some of those dreadful things we have seen in the name of religion recently. I rather think of religious truth as being something to be explored, discovered and learned about in dialogue, listening and learning as we go along. One of my favourite quotes, I have it on my study wall facing my desk, is from someone who was writing about history, but it could equally apply to religion, Christopher Hitchens;
“Those of us who write and study history are accustomed to its approximations and ambiguities. This is why we will never submit to dictation from those who display a fanatical belief in certainty and revelation.”
I have been sure to order a ‘Je Suis Charlie’ badge in support of the murdered Charlie Hebdo journalists’ families’ appeal.
Incidentally, Scientists are discovering hundreds of earth like planets all the time at the moment, thanks to advances in astronomical technology. Perhaps until proof is eventually found its anyone’s guess if life in some form is on one of them, and if it is, what it is like. There may not be Vespertilio-homo on any of them, but whatever is there, God is God there just as much as here. But how would we know if there were Vespertilio-homo, or any other life form on these distant worlds? Well, it would be in the newspaper of course!
Your friend and vicar
I am always pleased when we reach February. It is not that winter is over but as the month progresses the long dark days recede and the promise of spring approaches. There is the hint of better things ahead. February marks a transition from the deadness of winter into and towards the newness of spring. Although variable as to when Easter falls, nevertheless Lent regularly begins in February. This year as Easter is relatively early about half of this month will be taken up into Lent.
Lent is what is traditionally understood as a penitential season, a
time to reflect and amend our lives. In many peoples’ minds this has become associated with the giving up of some pleasure. While for some this may be a worthwhile exercise I would suggest that in order to get the most out of lent this will generally not best be achieved by simply giving up something in that way. Instead, what seems to be far better is choosing to do something positive. Here is a chance to take action that will enrich and transform our lives and the lives of others. It may be endeavouring to do a new thing or it may be something familiar that needs rekindling.
Amending our lives doesn’t have to be miserable.
Paradoxically part of acting positively may include giving up but not in the way I have so far described. What I mean is the positive
creating of space and time in our busy lives to read, reflect and do something new with others. The giving up then is the laying aside of something to make space for something better.
Among the creative things positively on offer this lent we might make time to read and yes, enjoy the Bible and to think afresh about its core message.
Not everyone finds Bible reading easy. There are many Bible reading notes and booklets which can help in this available either online or from any decent bookshop. If anyone would like any recommendations (or indeed for me to arrange to have one delivered direct to your door) please contact me – I would be only too delighted to help. The Bible is the written Word of God and vital in our knowing Jesus the living Word of God. To grow in our love for Jesus, we need to know him with our hearts as well as with our heads. Enjoy Lent.
Your Friend and Vicar
Lose Weight, Volunteer to Help Others,
Quit Smoking, Get a Better Education, Get a Better Job, Save Money, Get Fit,
Eat Healthy Food, Manage Stress, Manage Debt, Take a Trip, Reduce, Reuse, and
Recycle, Drink Less Alcohol. Yes, these
are the (‘apparently official’) top UK New Year’s Resolutions from last
year. Well, as they say, if the cap
You will be reading this letter
afterwards but, as I write we have yet to experience Christmas; the printer
needs my copy before mid December so at home the lights are not up, the
Christmas cards unwritten, the presents still on a list that is studded with
question marks, while at church we have yet to decorate, put up the crib,
prepare the flowers or complete the lists of people helping at the Christmas
services. So, I trust that we have all
had a happy Christmas.
There are, it seems, always lots of
lists and some of you may by now have a new one with New Year’s resolutions;
that list of things we plan to do differently in 2015 than in 2014. Some of the items will be new; some will be
about doing more of the right things; some will be about doing less of the
things that are not so good for us. My
friend, who attends a Weight Watchers class, tells me that numbers swell after
Boxing Day and that January is the busiest time of year. There is no shortage of helpful advice about
what to do next; the advertisers on television have turned their attention from
toys, special festive food and drink and brands of exotic perfumes to holiday
destinations, January sales and a plethora of health products.
Advertising is a strange thing; one of
the ways it works is paradoxically to make us unhappy. A frequent subtext is that our hair is
insufficiently glossy (not one of my priorities I have to say) our front rooms
not comfortable enough and our feet definitely malodorous, but luckily the
solution to our new found misery about ourselves is at hand, we need only to
buy the sparkling shampoo, the sumptuous sofa, the sweet smelling sole and all
will be well and our lives improved.
If you had to write down five verses
from the Bible which encapsulated the Christian message one of the references
could be Paul’s letter to the Philippians, its message is “Learn to be content”
- here it is in its context:
rejoice in the Lord greatly that now at last you have revived your concern for
me; indeed, you were concerned for me but had no opportunity to show it. Not that I am referring to being in need; for
I have learned to be content with whatever I have.”
Of course there are many who have
little, sometimes less than little, and we should and must continue to give
fully of our time and our gifts to help those in real need but many of us are
much more fortunate. So, I wonder if we
might be counter cultural, do away with the lists and teach ourselves to be
content? This is a good first step to a
deeper more spiritual way of living, a way of taking the joy, humility and
comfort of that first Christmas, to take it from the newness of the Christ
child into the newness of the Year.
With blessings and a happy new year to
Do you recognise any of these people: Maurice Micklewhite, Norma Jean Mortenson,
Reginald Dwight? If you don’t the
chances are that you will still recognise them by their ‘adopted’ name:
respectively Michael Caine, Marilyn Monroe and Elton John – you can see why
they changed their name! Some people
might have even more cause to take an adopted name, what about ‘do Namscimento
Edson Arantes’ (Pele) or ‘Dzhugashvili Iosif Vissarionovich’ (Stalin)
Jesus had many
names given to him both during his life and when he came to be more deeply
understood by the early Church. Some of
the titles that were gradually used in the early Church and then appeared in
the New Testament were adopted from the Jewish context of the age, while others
were selected to refer to, and underscore his message, mission and teachings.
Here are just a
Advocate, Almighty, Almighty God,
Alpha and Omega, Amen, The Ancient of Days, Anointed, Anointed One, Author,
Author of Eternal Salvation, Beginning,, Beginning and the Ending, Begotten,
Beloved, Beloved Son, Beloved Son of God,, Blessed of God, Bread of Life,
Bridegroom, Bright and Morning Star, Captain of Man's Salvation, Captain of Our
Salvation, Carpenter, Carpenter's Son, Chief, Cornerstone, Chosen, Chosen of
God, Christ, Christ Child, Christ of God, Christ the, Lamb, Jesus God or Son of
God, Jesus Saves, Jesus Facts, Jesus Bible, Jesus Church, Comforter,
Consolation of Israel, Cornerstone, Counsellor, Creator, Creator of All,
Things, Deliverer, Divine Son, Door of the Sheep, Emmanuel, End of the Law,
Endless, Eternal, Eternal Father, Eternal God, Eternal Head, Eternal Judge,
Eternal Judge of Quick and Dead, Everlasting Father, Example, Exemplar,
Faithful and True, Father, Father of Heaven and Earth, Finisher, Finisher of
faith, First and the Last, Firstborn, First fruits, Forerunner, God, God of
Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Israel, God of Jacob, God of Thy Father, God of
Whole Earth, God's, Anointed, God's Holy Child Jesus, Good Shepherd, Governor,
Great I AM, Great, God, Great Shepherd, Head of Every Man, Head of the Body,
Head of the Church, Healer, Heir of All Things, Holy, Holy Child, Holy Messiah,
Holy One, Holy One of Israel, Holy One of Jacob, I AM, Image of God, Immanuel,
Jehovah, Jesus, Jesus,, Christ, Jesus of Galilee, Jesus of Nazareth, Joseph's
Son, Judge, Judge of Quick and Dead, Just One, Just, The, King, King of Israel,
King of Kings, King of Zion/Sion, King of the Jews, Lamb, Lamb of God, Life,
the Light of the World, Light, the Lion of the Tribe of Judah, Living Bread,
Living Stone, Living Water, Lord, Lord from Heaven, Lord God, Lord God
Almighty, Lord God of Hosts, Lord Jehovah, Lord Jesus, Lord of All, Lord of
Dead, Lord of Glory, Lord of Hosts, Lord of Living, Lord of Lords, Lord of the
Sabbath, Lord Omnipotent, Lord our Righteousness, Lord's Christ, Maker, Man of
Counsel, Man of Holiness, Master ,Mediator, Meek and, Lowly, Messenger of the
Covenant, Messiah, Messias, Mighty God, Mighty One,, Mighty One of Israel,
Mighty One of Jacob, Minister, Most High God, Nazarene,, Offspring of David,
One Body, Only Begotten, Only Begotten of the Father, Only Begotten Son, Our
Passover, Physician, Power of God, Prince, Prince of Life, Prince of Peace,
Prophet, Prophet of Nazareth, Propitiation for Sins of Whole,, World, Rabbi,
Redeemer, Redeemer of Israel, Redeemer of the World,, Resurrection and the
Life, Revealer, Righteous Judge, Righteous Man, Rock, the Rock of Heaven, Root
of Jesse, Sacrifice, the, Saviour, Saviour of Israel, Saviour of the World,
Second Comforter, Seed of Abraham, Seed of David, Seed of the Woman, Servant of
Jehovah, Servant of the Lord, Shepherd, Son, Son of Abraham, Son of David, Son
of God, Son of Man, Son of Mary, Son of Righteousness, Son of the Blessed, Son
of the Eternal Father, Son of the Everlasting God, Son of the Highest, Son of
the Living God, Son of the Most High God, Spiritual Rock, Stem of Jesse,,
Teacher Come from God, True Vine, Truth, the, Unchangeable One, Way, the, Well,
Beloved, Wisdom of God, Wonderful, Word of Life, Word, the, Worthy.
I wonder if
anyone can come up with any more! Each
of the titles or ‘adopted names’ expresses or emphasises something about who
Jesus is. In Advent we think of those
words about Jesus, which help us to understand what it means to wait for, or to
look for his coming among us and to prepare ourselves for that. We usually think of this in two different ways;
firstly Jesus coming as a little baby at Christmas and also at the same time
remembering that secondly, we wait for Jesus to come at the end of time to
judge the world – the first rather unsurprisingly being our preferred option! In biblical language both of these senses of
waiting for, or looking for Jesus coming to us are accompanied by great signs
and cataclysmic events which point out Jesus’ arrival in no uncertain terms;
think angelic choirs appearing in the sky, a new star, not to mention fires, earthquakes
and the odd war to usher in the end times.
There is a
long-standing belief among humans that important events are connected with
happenings in the natural world. Such events are often referred to as omens and
the Bible happily shares in this.
Comets, especially Halley's Comet, have often been assumed to portend
some momentous event. The birth or death of someone of importance is often
linked with such phenomena. However, as
“When beggars die
there are no comets seen; The heavens themselves blaze forth the death of
princes.” Julius Caesar Act 2, Scene 2.
So it might be
more difficult to look for signs of Jesus’ coming among us NOW, or presence
among us might be a better way of putting it, which is I believe at the heart of
the biblical message of Advent. Far from
being accompanied by all kinds of fanfare, we might find Jesus, if we pause to
look, in the most unlikely of places, or people, just think of this…
‘For I was
hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me
something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; naked, and you
clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to
Me’. Matthew 25: 36;
A similar point
is made by the poems of one of my heroes, G.A. Studdert Kennedy, an Army
Chaplain in the First World War, more commonly known as ‘Woodbine Willie’ who
earned the huge respect of ordinary soldiers through his empathy and devotion
to them (and the woodbines he gave out to injured and dying soldiers which
earned him his ‘adopted name’, and which were perhaps not the greatest danger
those men faced). In the poems he wrote,
his theology and teachings simply and powerfully express the ‘incarnation’
message; that God, in Jesus, not only came among us and will come again one
day, but is here NOW, if only we would see.
This one is
Indifference, by GA Studdert Kennedy
When Jesus came to Golgotha, they hanged Him on a
They drove great nails through hands and feet, and
made a Calvary;
They crowned Him with a crown of thorns, red were His
wounds and deep,
For those were crude and cruel days, and human flesh
When Jesus came to Birmingham, they simply passed Him
They would not hurt a hair of Him, they only let Him
For men had grown more tender, and they would not
give Him pain,
They only just passed down the street, and left Him
in the rain.
Still Jesus cried, ‘Forgive them, for they know not
what they do,’
And still it rained the winter rain that drenched Him
through and through;
The crowds went home and left the streets without a
soul to see,
And Jesus crouched against a wall, and cried for Calvary.
As we prepare to
celebrate that incarnation throughout Advent again this year, lets keep our
eyes open to the people, places and situations where Jesus may be present in
our own time. There may not be any
comets but we might still be surprised!
Your friend and
Arabic: الأرض، الكُرة الأرضيّه , Czech: Země ,
Danish: Jorden; jordkloden; verden , Dutch: aarde , Estonian: maa , Finnish:
maa , French: terre , German: die Erde , Greek: γη , Hungarian: a Föld ,
Icelandic: jörðin , Indonesian: bumi , Italian: terra, Latin: tellus. These are all how to say ‘Earth’ in other
languages. Ok so I looked it up on yahoo
answers and you might have guessed it from the French or Italian but all of
these translations share one aspect of our English sense of the word
‘Earth’. In each language the word means
both the planet we live on AND the ground we walk on. Each language has its own name for our planet
but they all have one thing in common.
Each is derived from a word meaning ‘ground’ or ‘soil’ or sometimes
‘creation’. The modern English word
‘Earth’, for example, is derived from the Germanic ‘erde’, meaning
‘ground’. The roots of all such words
date from a time when humankind was unaware that the earth is actually a
planet. They signified at that time only
the ground beneath our feet.
It fascinates me that the same word can mean both
what is below us and something which belongs in the heavens. As we look up we can now see other planets
very like our own – actually now quite a lot of Earth – like ‘exo-planets’
(literally planets beyond our own solar system) thanks to huge advances in
astronomical technology in the last twenty years. This is not the place for a consideration of
what form life might take on any of these other worlds, as life in some form
beyond our own world there must surely be, and where life is, so is God. That can wait for another letter. What I have been thinking about is how we
look, as humans, both up and down, to see what is beyond us and also
what is within us. I don’t just mean
this in an astronomical or biological sense.
What I mean is how we find God in both the beyond and within.
In the library inside the Vatican there is a
painting adorning the ceiling of the quarter given to Philosophy (the other
three are; Theology, Literature and Law).
The painting is called The School of Athens and depicts a scene, which
can never have taken place- a scene in which all the Philosophers of the
classical world are gathered together.
At their centre, and larger than all the rest, are possibly the two most
influential philosophers; Aristotle and Plato, representing two different ways
of thinking. One, Plato, is depicted as
pointing up while the other, Aristotle is pointing down.
One way of thinking about reality is to look
beyond, another is to look within, at our own experiences. I believe God is to be found in both.
Quite often we look for God in the wrong
places. We can search and struggle when
all the time he is there staring us in the face, if only we had eyes to see,
and this quite often comes from within our own everyday, ordinary lives. The great Christian thinker Paul Tillich
called God ‘The ground of our being’ which for me has been a constant source of
growing awareness of God, often looking back at times, people and places I have
known and not being aware of God speaking to me through them at the time.
This is how Tillich put it;
not a supernatural entity among other entities. Instead, God is the ground upon
which all beings exist. We cannot perceive God as an object which is related to
a subject because God precedes (all subjects and objects)”
Another way of putting this is that both Aristotle
and Plato show different ways in which God can speak to us. The Earth is both what we walk upon and a
celestial sphere floating through space.
God is found in both within our own life experience (as we reflect upon
them in prayer), and without (which can take many forms; the Bible, Church
History, the advice of others, Christian and I believe non Christian, even, in
some Churches, a sermon).
For me there can be no doubt that we meet God both
beyond ourselves and within ourselves, Jesus showed us so, by coming down from
heaven to earth.
Your friend and vicar
you a fan or riddles, or puzzles or mysteries?
I sometimes start a talk by posing three ‘riddles’, with the answer
being three ‘objects’ in my bag, which I dutifully produce when the correct
answer is given. See if you can work
them out - the answers appear later in
1. What is full of holes but holds
2. What gets wetter the more it dries?
3. When I’m full I work and play, when
I’m empty I rest all day, what am I?
on, you should be able to get the first one at least! Jesus certainly liked riddles and puzzles,
often answering a question with another question, and turning what was often a
trap not only to wrong foot his opponents, but to teach those who have ears to
hear. Think for instance of Matthew
21:23ff; Jesus is being asked by those who are trying to trap him, where his
authority comes from, ‘humans or God’.
If Jesus says ‘humans’, the Pharisees, who are asking, will say that he
is a charlatan, if from God, that he is a blasphemer. Jesus however asks them a question in return;
where did they say that the authority of John the Baptist came from, ‘humans or
God’? If the Pharisees said God, then
they would be guilty of putting one of God’s prophets to death (which they
did), if from humans then they risked the people, who still held John in high
regard, turning against them. In fact
Jesus is making a powerful point that his authority is indeed from God, and
that he is also the answer to any riddle, or indeed puzzle, challenge, problem
or seemingly insurmountable obstacle that anyone could ever come across in the
whole of life – with Jesus there is always a way through, always an answer.
what may seem at the time like an insurmountable obstacle, or indeed a defeat,
can with hindsight, seem not only a stage on the way through, but indeed a
blessing! Think for instance of the
evacuation of the British army at Dunkirk between 27 May and 4 June 1940. At the time Churchill said that, “a colossal
military disaster “had occurred, saying "the whole root and core and brain
of the British Army" had been stranded at Dunkirk and seemed about to
perish or be captured. On 4 June however, in his inspirational ‘We
shall Fight on the beaches” speech Churchill proclaimed it as a "miracle
of deliverance". What at first had
seemed, and was, a catastrophic defeat was later seen to be an inspiration to
the whole nation, as people pooled their resources and came together in the
One of my favourite stories of defeat being turned to
triumph is the story of the battle of Thermopylae. In the year 480BC the disunited Greek city
states, before the time of Athens and the great philosophers, playwrights and
political traditions of democracy, (which eventually passed on into our culture
through the Romans and the enlightenment, making us who we are), faced
extinction, before its civilization even got going, by the threat of a huge
Persian army led
King Xerxes. Modern classics scholars
put the number of Persians at between 100,000 – 150,000 to about 7,000 Greeks,
led by King Leonidas of Sparta; the first time that the Greeks had ever
combined in such numbers. In the 19thC
the great English scholar JS Mill said that the battle of Thermopylae was more
important in ENGLISH history than the Battle of Hastings! The battle was a complete massacre of the
Greeks but, and this is the crucial thing, after having faced overwhelming
odds, the brave Greeks realised that, after three days that the game was up and
King Leonidas, realized that the battle could not be won, but by combining in
the future that the war could be, and sent away all the soldiers except his own
300 Spartans. These 300 then fought the
Persians until Leonidas and the 300 were all killed. The example of bravery however then led to
the very combining of the Greek states that Leonidas knew would defeat the
Persians and the Persians were duly defeated at Sea at Salamis later the
following year, so sending Xerxes home and saving not only Greek civilization
but with it, the whole of western democratic and free civilization which was
passed down to us. The model of our
democracy and the freedoms we now enjoy come directly from the thoughts later
developed at Athens and which were made possible by Thermopylae, and not the
despotic monolithic state represented by Xerxes and the Persian Empire. As the
author William Golding said in his famous essay ‘The Hot Gates’, “way back, and
at the hundredth remove, that company (the 300) stood in the right line of
history. A little of Leonidas lies in
the fact that I can go where I like and write what I like. He contributed to set us free.”
year ago, when we first changed our Church Service times and I was honoured to
take responsibility for St Francis as well as having the privilege of being
vicar at Immanuel I wrote that we might not get it right first time. We didn’t, and we are changing our service times
back. When you read this the next Sunday Immanuel Service times will be 9:15am
and 10:30am, and I will alternate between the two Churches on consecutive
Sundays. I also wrote that the first
Sunday the new arrangements came into effect was a bit like D-Day in the Second
World War, because it was, in theological terms, the ‘Kairos’ moment of
action. Well, victories take many
forms. Thank God that the real D-Day was
a success, though not without enormous sacrifice. Things, which at the time don’t appear to be
a success, like Thermopylae, like Dunkirk, can often lead to quite wholly
unexpected, and better outcomes. No one
chooses to be in position where two Churches share one vicar. Maybe the last year hasn’t been the D-Day we
might have hoped for, but it could be our Dunkirk, or even our Thermopylae.
Your Friend and vicar David
Answers to the ‘riddles’ set in the vicar’s letter
1. What is full of holes but
holds water? A Sponge
2. What gets wetter the more
it dries? A Towel
When I’m full I work and play, when I’m empty I rest all day, what am I? A Glove
evacuating Dunkirk's beaches
August and September 2014
special vicar’s letter will set out why, after consultation with the wardens
and the PCC, we have decided to go back to the previous Sunday morning service
times of 9:15am for the BCP Communion Service and 10:30am for the Parish
Eucharist, Sunday School and Parade Services.
This pattern will replace the existing times of 8:30am and 9:30am and
will come in into operation on Sunday 5 October. I hope you will read it, as I believe that
the changes will be beneficial to the congregation, the worshiping life of the
Church and the wider parish.
From Sunday 5
October the services every Sunday morning at Immanuel will be at 9:15am and
10:30am. This replaces the existing times of 8:30am and 9:30am and will revert
to the times which had existed before September 2013.
From Sunday 5
October I will alternate between Immanuel and St Francis, ie I will be at one
Church one week for both services and the other Church the next week. This means that I will be present to take
both services at Immanuel every other Sunday.
When I am not present another person will take the services. This will initially be Revd Peter Hallett but
may in time include others and could be lay led. To this end a worship team will be set up
with a view to helping lead worship at Immanuel (if you would like to join
please contact me!)
are a number of reasons why this decision has been taken and why I think it
will prove beneficial to both Churches:
the present arrangement came into operation twelve months ago I thought it
important for both Churches that I take all the services as the vicar of the
Church. This was the overwhelming view
of the consultation that we undertook and I think that it was the right
decision at the time. However, twelve
months on enough time has passed both for Immanuel to be used to me having
other responsibilities and for St Francis to get used to me (I nearly said ‘to
have learned to put up with me!’). You
should know that although the way the service times at both Churches are
arranged at the moment allow me to be present at all services at both Churches,
there is a sense of rush about it.
it affects St Francis, for which I also have responsibility, I am not at the
moment arriving after the Service starts or leaving before the end, but I am
almost doing so. With the current
arrangement I can’t arrive any earlier at St Francis or, on most Sundays, stay
the new arrangement I can not only be present at two services at each Church
but fully focus on them, and those who come to them. I know that it’s important to have sense of
‘go’ in what we do but I don’t think that’s the same thing as ‘rush’, or being
on the last minute!
regards Immanuel directly, whatever time of service a Church chooses it’s going
to please some and be inconvenient to others.
Having said that, more than a lot of people have said that they find
8:30am and 9:30am too early for them, particularly if they are working families
whose working days are full of early (some very – I know!) starts. I hope that a later start will mean that a
not too early start may mean that it’s easier for everyone to come to Church,
no matter what stage of life we find ourselves at. There were certainly more people attending
services before September 2013 than since.
The new times also mean a proper interval can be had between services to
properly finish one service and prepare for another.
drawback to this of course (which it might not be to some!) is that I will only
be at Immanuel every other Sunday, as will also be the case at St Francis. That I will be absent every other week is
because my time is shared between two Churches, as it is already, but I think
that this new way will be a more effective use of that time for both
Churches. I know of some very good
vicars (“Why can’t we have one then?” I hear you shout!) who work this way with two or more Churches
and I have seen it work well. Another
side of this coin though is that it will enable a worship team to grow and develop
at Immanuel, which, in an age of increased sharing of clergy resources is the
only way to grow worship and so nurture the Church. Collaborating with a team is, I am convinced,
the way forward in these days of ever decreasing clergy numbers and Immanuel
can only become stronger as a result. By
the way these are not my own original thoughts (I have very few of those) but
those who are both much cleverer and more experienced than me, and with a much
wider vision, Bishop Steven Cottrell being one of them
commend these new arrangements to you and ask for your support in making them
work. It may be that some ways of doing
things might have to change, while others will remain exactly as they are.
all of this and in all our life together I think that it’s important to
remember three things:
is that a Church is, first and foremost, a group of people; ‘ecclesia’ in Greek
meaning just that, and anything else, from the Church building to service times
to who serves the coffee is secondary to that basic tenet. Our worship is an expression of our life
together and we should never be afraid of allowing that life together to change
and to grow.
that the ministry of the church at Immanuel is not the vicar’s alone; I have a
part, and a distinctive part, to play, but so does everyone else, and we will
be most effective when we each play our part as a team. Anyone in secular employment knows this is
the case; those who think they are indispensable to any organisation quickly learn otherwise!
one thing is essential in any organisation, that each play their part fully in
pursuit of a common goal. In our case
that goal is the third thing we must remember; that the ministry we share
together is in fact Christ’s ministry, not ours. God calls us as Christians to join in with
the work he is already doing, and it’s through us that it is advanced. We would do well to remember that in all our
supposed successes or indeed failures, that the work we do at Immanuel demands
that we play our part, and give of our best, because it is the Lord’s work that
we are about;
Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
compassion on this world.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.
St. Teresa of Avila (1515–1582)
Your friend and vicar
In my Brass Banding days and especially at Brass Band
contests, I found myself quite often the ‘guest’ of another Band, sometimes
slipping one band’s blazer off and another’s straight on. Let me say now that this had less to do with
some outstanding musical ability in me being sought out by many other bands, rather
than a shortage of players on the instrument I finished up on, the B flat
bass. Nevertheless, despite the fierce
competition on the stage between bands at contests, there remained a common
sense of being a banding fraternity in which help was always given when
Slipping off one uniform and putting on another is one way
of showing a sense of identity with those wearing the same uniform. In a different way I was honoured once in my
visit to Guyana, South America, to be given a ceremonial cloak by the Akawaio
people, which I wore during one of the meetings of the village I was staying in
as a guest. I’ll never forget the honour
I felt, and humility, at being made an honourary member of a people whose lives
were so very different, and much materially poorer, than my own. What we wear says something about who we are
and what we do; there’s nothing like wearing the clergy collar to bring you up
against the reality of your own inadequacies.
At our Confirmation Service on 18 June, Bishop
John told a powerful and deeply moving story about clothing, and being
vested. The Bishop told us of how he
recently attended a meeting in a Mosque of a multi ethnic community group he
set up in Burnley years ago, and how this would be his last meeting with them
due to his forthcoming retirement. The
area the Mosque serves is one of the poorest in the country, the community
being composed of Bangladeshi descended families, living in poor housing, and one
of the most deprived wards in the whole country. At the end of the meeting the Imam asked
Bishop John to take off his jacket, which he did, to be then clothed, vested in
the black ceremonial robe of an Imam – an extremely high quality Robe only
made in Syria, which would have been very expensive and which that deprived
community has raised the money for themselves.
They clothed the Bishop in the vestments of the highest office of their
faith because, they said, he is a man of God.
Which Bishop John certainly is.
This moving and powerful gesture reminds me of a passage in
Colossians; “As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with
compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience…Above all clothe
yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony”
Colossians 3: 12. Perhaps none of us can
properly claim to display all of those virtues all the time, I certainly can’t! It is in some sense though helpful to see our
faith as something we wear, both in its sense of showing something about what
we believe, and also because, even though we are all to one extent or another
incapable of living up to the ideals of our faith, the idea of being clothed in
it frees us from the fear and reality of failure, and gives us permission to
When my lack of say, patience, is exposed by my less than
charitable reaction to a tenth request in the last ten minutes to bring
something or other to a child’s dinner table, I know that despite my lack of
it, patience is something I can aspire to, and aspire once more when I don’t
succeed. The high musical standards, the
commitment to practice and to do the best one can for other members of a brass
band, or any other musical group, are expressed by the pride taken in wearing
the uniform – even if, despite my best efforts, I can’t say I always played
every note correctly (and probably hadn’t practiced enough to make sure that I
did!). Wearing any uniform says
something about what we are and what we are trying to do, the wearing of our
faith is no different; it’s the trying that’s important. I can’t say that our Band won every Brass
Band contest we ever entered, we won very few in fact, but we enjoyed trying.
Your friend and vicar
June is one of those months
in the Church year that, like November and December, sees a lot of thing s
happening one after the other. It is
important that everyone who is part of the Church tries to support these as
best we can.
On 14 June I
will from 10am to 4pm be sat outside Church, (if wet in the porch), underneath
a gazebo which will hopefully be providing shelter from the sun, with a
selection of homemade cakes and tea and coffee.
The vicar’s Gift Day has been a big success in the past in raising much
needed funds for our Church and, I hope, will be just as successful this
year. If we remember that when we make
an annual special donation to Church on the gift day, we are only giving back to
God a tiny fraction of the abundance he has blessed us with in our lives, then
I think that once again we will see a handsome amount raised for the upkeep of
our beautiful Church. The Church
reflects God’s presence in our community and if we remember God’s presence in
our lives when we make our Gift then we can all advance the work of the Church
here in Feniscowles and Pleasington.
On Wednesday 18
June at 7:30pm we have our Confirmation Service at St Francis Church, with the
newly Confirmed making their first communions the following Sunday. Once again we have a good number of
candidates from Immanuel and it would be good to see families and friends come
along to either the Confirmation Service itself or to Church the following
Sunday to support them. This year our
Confirming Bishop will be Bishop John Goddard, the Bishop of Burnley who is to
retire later this year. We all wish
Bishop John and his wife Vivienne a long and happy well-earned retirement.
On Saturday 28
June at 2pm we have our Garden Party and Summer Fayre, beginning with the
crowning of the new Rose Queen, Millie Ellement at 2pm. Please do make every effort to come along and
join in this happy occasion in the life of our Church. It is a very important source of income for
us and so important that we make it a financial success. Even more importantly though, the Fayre is
one of those occasions when we can come together as a Church family and enjoy
time together showing a welcoming and happy face to the community which our
Please do put this date in
your diaries/wallplanners/fridge doors etc and bring family and friends along
to support it.
Liturgically the Church also
celebrates the feasts of Pentecost (8 June), Trinity (15
June) and Corpus Christi (19 June) this month. What these feasts together point to, as the
natural end to the Eastertide season, is an outward looking direction in the
future life of the Church family.
Just as our June activities
at Immanuel are inclusive and outward looking, so those feasts of the Church
which run alongside them show a bias towards mission and inclusivity in the
future life of the Church after Jesus returns to the Father at the
Ascension. The giving of the Holy Spirit
at Pentecost enables and encourages the small group of previously timid and
uncertain disciples to become the apostles whose preaching and ministry took
the good news of the Kingdom out into all the world. On Trinity Sunday we remember how God is not
just found in heaven or in the past but is a living relationship of love in our
present lives and world. Corpus Chisti,
the foundation of the Holy Communion, reminds us of how we meet this living
reality as we meet together in worship and celebration.
Taken together the Church
feasts in June point to the outward looking nature of our faith; celebratory,
communal and inclusive. Lets all work
together to make sure that our own Church events at Immanuel, the Gift Day, the
Confirmation and the Garden Party show the same priorities in our life together
as God’s Church.
Your friend and vicar
people, even those who have never been to Sunday School know what Noah’s Ark
looked like. And now a new Hollywood
film starring Russell Crowe is showing it as perhaps it has never been seen
before! It was a long pointy wooden ship
with a large house built on top – obviously as that’s how it was described in
the Bible. Except that according to a
new book, ‘The Ark Before Noah’ by Irving Finkel, an archaeologist at the
British Museum, the truth which might lie at the root of the Noah myth is that
the original Ark might have been round – indeed there may have been many more
than one of them!
have known that the ancient Babylonians had a version of the flood story as it
was found preserved on one of their cuneiform (clay) tablets, which was brought
to the British Museum in 1872. At the
time it caused a great furore among Christian and Jewish scholars as,
disturbingly for those at the time who dismissed all other religions out of
hand, the Babylonian and Hebrew versions of the Noah story were so closely
related, often word for word, that it is impossible that they are not related
in a literary sense. Since then other
cuneiform (clay) tablets have been found in the Iraqi area, which tell the same
story including, recently, one written in 1750 BC, which far predates the
writings of either the ancient Babylonians and their parallels in Genesis.
ancient times and right up to the 19 Century AD the typical way to
get around on the rivers of Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq) was by Coracle, a
round, light, buoyant and thoroughly waterproof basket made small boat which
could transport family members and their animals from one side of the Euphrates
to the other. There are photographs of
coracles being made and standing by the banks of the Mesopotamian rivers from
the 1920’s. It was this, coracle like
craft that the tablet from 1750BC describes.
It was almost certainly in crafts like these that the ancient Persians
rescued their families and animals in the many times the rivers flooded, as
they are still prone to do and which there is lots of historical evidence
for. Perhaps one great tsunami like
flood, or floods once swept away whole villages and it was this deep seated
factor in the history and psychology of the peoples of Mesopotamia which
underwent mythological development into how one man can avert not only the
forces of nature, but, behind them, the power of God.
course Christians believe that one man has also delivered us, and offers the
means to ride on top of, if not entirely avoid, the many destructive forces
that we face if we are to live in the world.
The world that God created contains many powerful forces, which, like
the environment, if not used in the right way, have the power to sweep us
away. That God did not just create the
world but also entered into it himself in the form of his Son, provides us with
the means to ride out anything which might harm, threaten or destroy us. The only catch is this; Noah spent twenty
years building his ark and was no doubt mocked and ridiculed by those who
doubted missed the point of his faithfulness.
Accepting the rescue, which Jesus provides us with, and the fullness of
life which goes with it, might also lead to some counter cultural decisions we
might have to make in our lives.
might not always have to be seen as leading to misery, sacrifice and po-faced
seriousness. It was the philosopher
Neietzsche (himself perhaps not quite
the most cheerful soul there has ever been), the son of a minister who,
expressing concern about how the strict 19thC village German Protestants he
found himself among lived out the Easter message said of them: “His disciples
should look more redeemed!”
visit to many Churches, although I hope not ours, may give ground to this
criticism. Many Christians often seem
surrounded by an air of heaviness, of a lack of humour and irony about
themselves. Not many of us might, like
Noah be course, vulgar and drunken (well, maybe a few!), called by God to spend
20 years on a seemingly outrageous project.
But however it is that we do live out our faith I hope it might be with
an awareness of the power of love and joy that rescues our lives from all that
would drag us under and sweep us away and embrace it; and if that sometimes
makes us look ridiculous in the eyes of the world, whatever the ark is that God
calls each one of us to build, to embrace that as well.
friend and vicar David
As someone whose household is affected more
than most by the date of Easter I was certainly interested when I found out how
late it falls this year. By this I’m not
just alluding to the terms of my employment.
Our fridge door has the dates of school holidays from three different
schools (one primary school, one secondary and the school my wife teaches at)
and the list has been pretty interesting this year. Easter this year is almost as late as it can
get, 20 April being only four days before the last permissible
date, the earliest being 22 March.
This seriously messes up the school holidays and from families I know, childcare
arrangements for many other working parents as well. Although more than thirty local education
authorities have now fixed a spring holiday for schools in March or April many
schools are free to set their own holiday patterns which mark Easter by more
than having the two Bank holiday dates off.
Should we succumb at all, I wonder, to secular pressure to fix Easter to
a particular date merely to make all school terms the same length, or for that
matter, to allow industry to co-ordinate the bank holiday calendar to the
In fact legislation already stands which allows
Easter to be a non-moveable feast in the UK!
The Easter Act of 1928 fixed the date of Easter so that it always would
fall on the first Sunday after the second Saturday in April. The problem is that a caveat was added to the
effect that before the Act could come into effect “regard shall be had to any
opinion officially expressed by any Church or other Christian body.” That, you might imagine, gave a lot of scope
to a lot of people and agreement has never been forthcoming.
It might be pointed out that were the UK to fix
our own date of Easter then we would be out of synch not only with other
countries but with many other Churches within those countries. Well, the fact is that Easter already is
celebrated on different days in different countries and Churches. In the west the formula is that Easter should
fall on the first Sunday after the first full moon that occurs on or after the
spring equinox, even though we have that equinox fixed as 21
March, which is not, I am led to believe, quite as astronomically precise as we
might think. Easter is however is celebrated on different days by Latin
Catholics of the East and a different day again by Orthodox Christians – of
whom there are many more than there are Anglicans in the UK! Its not just a matter either of trying to
reconcile two different calendars (Julian and Gregorian), some Christians see
differences over Easter as part of what constitutes their distinctiveness and
But quite apart from the practical difficulties
of trying to agree a common date for Easter I believe there is something more
profound at stake. Should Christianity,
especially in the west and especially in this country so much on the wane,
further distance itself from the rest of society, allow itself to become a
sub-culture for like-minded believers?
Should it instead look at how it might more engage with that society and
not be afraid to change how it does things in an effort to remain relevant and
meaningful to modern society? Should it,
in other words, move with the times in relation to the date of Easter or
anything else? Or rather should the
Churches, as I myself am more incline to think, not be afraid to stand against
the tide, not water down what we offer to a needy and often desperate world and
offer, as far as we are able to, not stones but bread, and living bread at
The problem with trying to accommodate the
veneer of modern materialism is that it keeps changing. How many times, and in how many different
ways would the church have to change its ways of ‘being church’ if it were to
try and accommodate every passing fad and fancy? The fact that Easter is fixed with reference
to both the solar and lunar calendars keeps us in touch with something more
rooted than what is here today and gone tomorrow.
Part of the richness of human existence comes
from interaction with rhythmic cycles, over which we have no control. There is the cycle of the seasons with its
subtle variations (we had no snow this year but next year, who knows?). There is the cycle of our body clock, which regulates
our metabolism and different kinds of sleep in line with the pattern of our
days. There is the cycle of the moon
itself, which controls tides, and a gravitational force, which affects much
else. There is the liturgical Church
calendar, which combines the mystery of eternity with a linear process of
history. Easter is part of that
rhythmical cycle and to fix it according to the whims of schools, industry or
parliament would seem to me to diminish part of the richness of that cycle
which provides structure and rootedness in a world of uncertainty, disorder and
So let the school holidays fall where it suits
the bureaucrats best – whatever chaos it might cause on our fridge door, just
don’t let them attempt to regulate the mysteries of eternity. Some things, even moveable feasts, are better
Your friend and vicar
And in the naked light I saw
Ten thousand people, maybe more
People talking without speaking
People hearing without listening
People writing songs that voices never share
And no one dared
Disturb the sound of silence
So go the familiar lyrics of Simon and Garfunkle’s timeless classic song, ‘The Sounds of Silence’. Silence is one thing that many stressful people long for and many lonely people fear. As we approach the beginning of Lent on Ash Wednesday I hope that far from fearing silence we actually make some time for it on our daily lives, and in the silence, listen to God speaking to us.
In a Church we often struggle to reconcile two basic human longings. One is for community, with all its energy and messiness, the need for fellowship, affirmation and recognition by others whom we value. The other, equally fundamental, human need is for stillness in an ever more noisy and distracted world. Its often hard to bring both these things together but I don’t believe the way to do it is to have some services to appeal to the quieter ‘contemplative’ personality types and others to appeal to the noisier sort. Rather I think that we all have both these needs within us and that our church life, just as in our daily needs, leaves us impoverished if we don’t have a healthy balance between the two.
We can see this in the example of Jesus who, in his constant need to go away on his own to pray and in his fellowship with those regarded as outcasts by the more ‘respectable’ type, shows that life may contain both feasting and fasting. At one point Jesus is praying alone away from everyone while at another he is accused of being a “glutton and a drunkard”! While there may be for some of us a natural affinity to one way or the other (work out for yourself which one is yours!!) Jesus challenges us to regard silence, and especially silence before God, to be treated not at all as the preserve of a certain personality type, still less an evasion of the world around us but to recognise that any activity we do on behalf of God, ie ‘mission’ it must be recognised first and foremost as GOD’S activity. So, for any activity to be done in God’s name we must see this as something we are participating in WITH God, that it is something in which he is already at work. Before we act for God we must first discern how and where God is at work – and then we can join in.
At the centre of our lives together as God’s Church for me is the Eucharist. It is in the Eucharist that the worship we offer is moved beyond words (which is why the first part of our service is called ‘the ministry of the word’ and the second, held in balance, is ‘the ministry of the sacrament’ – both are as necessary as the other), it is where the walls between our world and God’s perspective are, for me, paper thin. It is also there to remind us that any discipleship begins with God’s activity, not our own. What other response can there be to such a mystery other than the silence of awe and wonder, to be still and silent in the presence of God and see our lives in a new perspective?
Anyone who has seen the awe and wonder on children’s faces when they are gripped by something which speaks meaningfully to them will know that silent wonder is just as important in the nurture of spirituality in children and young people as it is in adults. Jesus challenges us all to include children and young people just as he welcomed children to come to him when the disciples began to stop them. The silent wonder of the Eucharist is not just for adults; unplug them from their video games for a moment and we know what capacity for wonder and silent awe children have too.
In one moving episode of the popular TV series, ‘Call the Midwife’ (popular with my wife at least), set in the 1950’s in the east End of London, the midwives join with the nuns who run the midwife services in that area of London. The women are together because one of the midwives has herself been taken to hospital with complications arising from her own labour and there is great fear for both the mother and child. After some words have been spoken there is a silence as, together, midwives and nuns knit and sew together the quilt they have all been making for the new family – not knowing if it will ever be used. The narrator, one of the midwives speaking years later reflects that the silence was all the prayer that was needed, the silence and the making of the quilt were together the prayer. I’ll let you watch the episode yourselves to see how the prayer was answered.
As we begin Lent we have an opportunity to make our prayers more than acts of penitence and self-denial, important though these are. We have an opportunity to place ourselves in silence before God, not to retreat from the world that God has placed us in but to see more honestly and clearly how we can move on in our lives to more effectively participate in God’s mission of generous, transforming love.
Your friend and Vicar
If I were to put one of my twins on a rocket and blast him
into space on a long journey and at great speed it is a fact that he would
return to earth younger than his twin sister.
This idea was first put forward by Albert Einstein in his Special Theory
of Relativity and is called ‘gravitational time dilation’. It is based on the discovery by Einstein that
time, gravity and acceleration are all interrelated and has been proved true by
particle accelerators such as the CERN in Switzerland. Why this is true and how it works is, alas,
beyond me but, like many things in creation, it just is; space and time are
related whether we understand it or not. To give a specific example, if the
travelling twin were to journey to the nearest neighbouring star system to our
solar system (approximately 4 light years away) at a rate of 80% of the speed
of light the round trip would take 10 years (because it 80% not 100% the speed
of light) from the perspective of the twin remaining on Earth. However from the perspective of the
travelling twin the trip would take him only six years (look on Wikipedia the
‘twins paradox’); so if the twins are born on the day the spaceship leaves, and
one goes on the journey while the other stays on Earth, they will meet again
when the traveller is 6 years old and the stay-at-home twin is
10 years old.
This fact of the universe in which we live would have been
totally incomprehensible to any scientist before Einstein (as I must say it
still is to me!) whose model of the universe was essentially that of a machine,
as proposed by Sir Isaac Newton. In
Newton’s idea of the universe there were unbreakable laws which remained the
same wherever you were and however you travelled. Newton would have expected the travelling
twin to have been ten years old from a space journey which took ten years,
since Einstein we now know that this is not so.
Tempted though I am at times, if I had the means, to put
Einstein’s theory to the test, there is a great deal else that we might know
and have yet to discover about the creation in which we live. The fact that I
can’t understand it or lack the imagination to grasp it doesn’t make it any
less real. What we can actually ‘know’
comes in many different forms: In one
sense, knowledge is simply an encounter with something or someone. We can say we ‘know’ our friend or neighbour,
partner or (sometimes) child. What we
mean is that we have a ‘feel’ for who he or she is. But when we come to describe them to someone
else we might say that they are ‘quiet’ or ‘loud’, ‘lively’ (hopefully, or it’s
opposite maybe) or friendly. We would
however soon become frustrated that these general terms don’t quite adequately
sum up the person we ‘know’ and if continually questioned say something like
“Look, you’ll just have to meet her”, words failing to describe the sense of
uniqueness our knowledge of that other person provides.
Yet ‘knowing’ someone personally still doesn’t give us the
complete picture of that person. There
is another kind of knowledge that comes from putting things together from
bits. This is the knowledge of what we
call ‘facts’. So we could begin to build
up a pen portrait of the person we are trying to describe; ‘she was born on 16
September 1964’, say, or ‘she lived for the first three and a half years of her
life at 66 Gas Street’, ‘she worked at Boots for ten years’ etc. But this kind of knowledge is also incomplete;
it can never really convey a sense of what the person is really ‘like’.
These two kinds of knowledge are referred to by different
words in different languages; Latin - Cognosere and Sapire, French – Connaitre
and Savoir. One is about trying to
understand, the other about amassing knowledge.
Both sorts of knowledge are needed I would maintain, to try to
comprehend the wonder of the universe.
You wouldn’t, for example want to describe the colour blue as ‘the point
where electromagnetic waves scatter at 0.46um degrees’. You wouldn’t reduce music to its component
notes and mathematical structure. Rather
we would try to imagine a magnificent sky or sing, in my case less than
perfectly, a catchy tune. When the poet
William Blake was asked once when he saw a sunset, did he not see merely a ball
of fire about the size of a golden guinea, he replied, “Oh no, I see a
multitude of the heavenly host crying, ‘Holy, Holy, Holy, is the Lord God
That is the point where I part company with the work of such
‘new atheist’ scientists as Richard Dawkins and Stephen Hawking. I am absolutely fascinated by their ability
to describe to those like me with a less than adequate understanding, how the
universe works, but I don’t remain in thrall to the factual mechanistic way of
understanding what it is, true though that may be. For me the universe is so much more
wonderful. If we limit our understanding
of knowledge to just what facts we may amass we will not perceive the reality
and the presence of God. If reality is
only viewed in mechanistic factual terms then it will be literally
insignificant, ie it won’t point beyond itself, it won’t signify anything, and
if it doesn’t point beyond itself it will be literally pointless and therefore
always only disappoint.
The discovery of the twins paradox and other wonders of the
universe way beyond my understanding is never for me either pointless or
disappointing (even if at times the lack of opportunity to put it to the test
may be!), but full of wonder, a thirst to discover more and ultimately, like
Your friend and Vicar
When someone does a full day’s work, and receives a fair
day’s pay for their time, that is a WAGE.
When someone competes with one opponent or many, and
receives a trophy for their performance, that is a PRIZE.
When someone receives appropriate recognition for long
service, or for major achievements, then that’s an AWARD.
But when someone is not capable of earning a wage, can win
no prize, and deserves no award, yet receives one anyway - that is unmerited
favour. It's how a loving parent
encourages and affirms a child who is more often in trouble than top of the
And above all this is how - Christians believe - God treats
all of us, though we often fall very far short of how he would like us to
live. It's what we mean when we talk
about the GRACE of God. Most people know
the opening words of John Newton's famous song.. "Amazing grace, how sweet
the sound, that saved a wretch like me!"
We can never earn his grace and favour, and yet we are loved and
forgiven, we are granted acceptance and peace, and hope and purpose, because he
loves us anyway.
And Christmas is when we see this truth brought to life. The
Bible tells us that God loves us so much that he GAVE his own Son. This is THE WHOLE POINT of Christmas. We
celebrate the birth of Jesus, for here is "the one who came from God, full
of grace and truth, to live among us" (John 1.14).
But there's also a major challenge to be faced. The latest research tells us that most people
say, "The birth of Jesus is irrelevant to my Christmas." It is suggested by among others former
Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Carey, that we have reached a critical tipping
point. The leader of one major mission agency has suggested, "Our society
is trying to airbrush Christ out of Christmas." Apparently only 10% of
adults say the most important thing about Christmas is ‘religious meaning’, and
36% of children aged 5-7 don’t know whose birthday we celebrate on 25
December. No wonder Lord Carey says he
thinks the Church is just one generation away from extinction.
However, we have a chance to buck the trend
One of my favourite stories about a school nativity service
is of the little boy who wanted to play the part of Joseph. He was very
disappointed to be given instead the part of the innkeeper, but he appeared to
accept his teacher’s decision and got on with his part in the play. However, on
the day of the performance, in front of a school hall packed with parents, the
boy took his revenge. When Joseph and Mary asked him if there was any room in
his inn, he abandoned the script, stood back so that the door to the inn was
wide open and said, “yes, there’s plenty of room: come on in!”
That might not be the way the familiar story goes but I
think the little boy’s actions have some things to say to us at this time of
year. We all are invited to ‘come in’ to greet the holy child, born into such
very humble surroundings. All are welcomed! God welcomes each and every one of
us. He does not want anyone to be turned away, because He loves each of us so
much. God has shown the depth of that love in His unique gift to us; the gift
of His Son, born as one of us, part of a loving human family; the One who was
willing ultimately to give his life for us, so that we might share in his life,
At this time of year there is always a great sense of
anticipation and of hope. We have anticipated the celebration of Jesus’ birth
at Christmas, not only because it was a great excuse for a bit of a party, but
also because his birth gives us hope. Hope for the future. Hope in the midst of
much that seems to be changing all around us. Our Christmas celebrations lead
into celebrations of the New Year, with a heightened sense of anticipation for
all that 2014 might bring. Many will be praying that the next year will be
better than the last; others will be going into the New Year with a deep sense
of anxiety and uncertainty. However we approach 2014, we should remember the
wonderful promise, which Jesus made to us: ‘remember that I am with you always;
yes, to the end of time’ (Matthew 28, verse 20). Jesus promises to be there
with us in whatever it is that life brings; in the happy times and in the
sadnesses; in the pain and also in the joy.
St John’s Gospel tells us, ‘God so loved the world that he
gave his only son’. We make a fuss of celebrating Jesus’ birth because we are
celebrating the truth of God’s love for each and every one of us, God himself
living as one of us, experiencing life, with all its joys and pains, and
ultimately giving his life for us on the cross.
When we begin to reflect on all of that, then we will
understand something of why it is so important to make some space in our own
lives to celebrate ‘The Birth’. God invites us to come in because He has made
sure that there is room for us all. Lets
make sure that we make room for God in our lives in 2014, because I’m convinced
that the more room we manage to make for him in our lives, the more we realise
just how much room he has made, and makes, for us
Your friend and vicar
I know that Christmas is
approaching when I catch the sound of Dean Martin singing “It’s beginning to
look a lot like Christmas, everywhere you go…”
and then noticing that he’s right!
Once again we find ourselves in the Holiday Season, that very special
time of year when we join with our loved ones in sharing centuries old
traditions, a particular favourite of mine being trying to find a parking space
at the Trafford Centre. We traditionally
do this in my family by driving in circles near to an entrance until we see a
shopper emerge and then follow her, very much in the same spirit as the Three
Wise Men who, 2000 years ago, also followed something for week after week
until, eventually, it led them to a parking space!
In fact I absolutely love
Christmas and can’t get enough of the traditions it brings, from decorating the
house with more lights than the Blackpool Illuminations to eating chocolate at
5am after being woken up by someone jumping on the bed shouting ‘He’s
Been!’ (I love chocolate even though I
have a son who hates it!!)
I remember as a boy sitting at
the Christmas dinner table pulling Christmas crackers and taking turns reading
out the jokes – some people might say that’s where a lot of my jokes come
from. I remember going round shops
asking for first this, then that and after the other as well – and making lists
of presents I hoped to get. Although
I’ll never forget my first Scalextric, the funny ting is that I can’t seem to
remember the details of many of the other presents, just the weeks of
anticipation and the writing of lists.
When we get older we might remember the odd present we were given, but
more often than not our memories come from the people we spent Christmas with,
and the laughter, games and traditions we shared with them. My clearest memories are of us all packed
around the Christmas dinner table – all loved ones together. Perhaps the greatest gifts are not the ones
most appreciated at the time, and that certainly is true of the greatest gift
there has ever been, the reason we celebrate Christmas at all, the gift of the
What I also remember on the
Christmas Dinner plate, and certainly a tradition in our family is…..brussels
sprouts. Yes, lovely round, green soft sprouts, coated with butter and in a big
pile, along with turkey, stuffing and cranberry sauce, yumm!!! But sprouts are a funny vegetable, something
you either love or hate, like marmite, for every person who loves them there’s
probably another nine who think, Ughhh.
So at Christmas everyone had to have at least one sprout on their dinner
plate, even if it was always the last thing rolling round in a sea of gravy on
my brothers plate – after he’d unsuccessfully attempted to hide it under his
mashed potato (people have different tastes, think of chocolate in our
family). ‘Eat your greens’, my mum used
to say, ‘and you’ll grow up tall, strong and they’ll keep you regular!’ I’d like to think that sprouts for me are
responsible for two of these at least!
However we celebrate Christmas,
I hope we remember that Jesus came into the world, which is what we are really
celebrating, not to be an afterthought, like a brussels sprout which might only
get a look in after the turkey and potatoes on our Christmas dinner plate have
all gone. Jesus came to give hope to a
hopeless world, and to sooth the wounded in a world with too much hurt. The Bible says “Taste and see that the Lord
is good” and that’s not just for those with a taste for Brussels Sprouts
May God bless you anew this
Christmas and, however you spend it, spare a thought for those who will not be
enjoying the traditions you love.
Perhaps one way of expressing this care might be to make an extra
donation (perhaps just two instead of one item) in the Blackburn Food Bank
collecting box – only probably best not make it brussels sprouts!
With every blessing for a joyful
Christmas and a happy and prosperous new year
Your friend and vicar
I was fascinated
to learn recently of a discovery in Georgia of five human skulls dating back
over 1.8 million years ago; they are the earliest examples of the homo species
(a species of which we homo-sapiens are part of) to be found outside Africa. The skulls, along with stone tools and
artefacts found with them suggest striking differences in appearance within the
same species, just like we found today, and suggests that what have up till now
been held to be several varieties of the species homo were actually all part of
the same sub-species, homo erectus. As a
keen student of human origins I will follow this story with interest.
The finds also
confirm the growing awareness among scientists and especially
evolution, far from being an even and gradual process works rather in sudden
jumps and, in the context of the long periods of time involved, rather abrupt
changes. As conditions on the earth
changed often relatively quickly, so also life adapted quickly to the changed
conditions around it, or at least the life that survived. The 99.9% of all species which have ever
lived on this earth and are now extinct show what happens when life doesn’t, or
So also it seems
that we have had a lot of changes rather quickly in the last few weeks in our
Churches. Saturday 19th October saw the
inauguration of Rt Revd Julian Henderson as our new Bishop of Blackburn in
Blackburn Cathedral. I hope that we will
all pray for Bishop Julian as he begins his new Ministry in the Diocese which,
we must remember includes not only the town of Blackburn but almost all of
Lancashire, with many varied and many challenging parishes and
communities. Bishop Julian will I am
sure bring vision and energy to addressing the many challenges facing Churches
not only in this Diocese but across the country. Bishop Julian didn’t waste any time before
visiting our cluster of parishes as, on Monday 21st October he Licensed Revd
Cath Brooks as the new priest for St Luke’s and St Aidan’s. As with Bishop Julian we send Cath our very
best wishes as she begins her ministry and assure her of our prayers. Despite the formalities of titles Cath and I
have been given, Cath’s ministry is for St Luke’s and St Aidan’s and mine is at
Immanuel and St Francis (anything linking me with St Aidan’s is a formal title
only while the old United Benefice of St Aidan and St Francis is dissolved –
although I have many friends at St Aidan’s I think I have quite enough to
do!!). Which brings me to the third
change, which is still relatively new, the new ministry I have begun at St
Francis, and the changes in patterns of worship which have taken place to allow
this to happen. Although it is still
very early in the new relationship, I feel that things are working well and are
heading in the right direction. With
continued good will on all sides there is no reason why this may not continue
to be so.
Its easy to look
back, from our human perspective and see not only changes in human history but
the whole of evolution as leading to us sitting watching Downton Abbey with a
glass of wine in front of a nice fire or in a centrally heated room. The
Neanderthals or the 99.9% of all other species which have died out, may not
share our perspective! But as Christians
I do believe that we should try to understand the words of St Paul in Romans 8:
28, “that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have
been called according to his purpose.”
It’s not always easy, let alone possible to see this in every situation
we might find ourselves in, but somehow, and in some way we can perhaps only
ever catch glimpses of, I believe that it’s true.
Your Friend and
In my diary the page
for Sunday 8th September this year is headed ‘D-Day’! By this I certainly don’t intend any
disrespect for the bravery of those who took part in the Normandy Landings of
6th June 1944 (of which two of my great uncles, one still alive(!) were
participants.) The term D-Day is not
actually exclusively used for that momentous event, but
is the day (along with H-Hour) on which
a combat attack or operation is to be
initiated. Combat attacks
notwithstanding the date of 8th September 2013 is certainly important for
Immanuel - although seen in proper proportion to the Battle of Normandy we see
it in it’s true lesser perspective.
Sunday 8th September 2013 though was the date when Immanuel changed its
service times to 8:30am and 9:30am and, for the first time in its history,
shared its vicar with another Church.
I must say that I feel
extremely grateful to everyone at Immanuel for the helpful and supportive way
in which you have approached this very big change, and particularly for the
support given in it to me. What is more
I am very grateful to all the members of the congregation who have changed
Sunday morning routines and adopted the new pattern. At the time of writing there has been no one
at all who has turned up at Church at the old service times - at which I am
totally amazed (when we changed service times in my
old parishes in Wigan someone turned up at the wrong time at least every Sunday
for the first month - and one occasion six months after the changes were first
We are still at the
very beginning of the new arrangement, called a ‘Plurality’ with St Francis but
so far, I have to say, so good. I pray
that the excellent spirit in which we have begin this sharing arrangement may
continue and bear fruit guided by God, and pray for discernment of the path he
continues to guide us on.
These changes are not
the only changes we will see at Immanuel in the near future, hopefully before
the next magazine comes out. When we
received the very generous legacy of £20,000 last year from the late Glenys
Jones, the PCC rightly decided to use it for mission in doing work we would not
be otherwise able to do. Accordingly on
Tuesday 1st October work will begin in the Church Porch not only on long needed
redecoration of walls and ceiling, but renovating the notice board and putting
in a new lighting system. This will give
to all who enter our lovely Church the rightful first impressions of a building
that is loved, valued and cared for, reflecting the value we give to our
faith. In this way the work in the porch
will be a deeply mission - orientated endeavour and a fine use of the gift we
were blessed with. Along with this work
the Buildings Committee designed and the Diocese have approved a new Church
sign to replace the existing one with updated information and a better notice
cabinet that won’t leak and serve to advertise the good work done here. Not only that but the Car park signs, both
long overdue for replacement are to be replaced, giving visitors and
parishioners alike the sense that we cherish and value the property we have
been given stewardship of, and of what that property stands for. Finally, as if that wasn’t enough, lots of
work has been taking place renovating and repairing the Cottage in readiness
for new tenants who bring much needed revenue to our Church in rent. I have been given some old photo’s of the
cottage in former years and although space prevents me from publishing them in
this edition, I hope to share these with you in the next.
On D-Day plus 21 I am
sure we are heading in the right direction!
Your friend and Vicar David
I read recently (Church Times 16.8.13) that a judge in Tennessee has ordered that a baby’s first name be changed from ‘Messiah’ to ‘Martin’ on the grounds that the name could put the baby ‘at odds with a lot of people and at this point he has no choice what his name is..The Messiah is a title, and it’s a title that has only been earned by one person, and that person is Jesus Christ.’ The baby’s mother is appealing the ruling!
Quite apart from observing that, following the time honoured Monty Python formula when the child gets told off (‘He’s not the Messiah, he’s a very naughty boy!’) the name could indeed cause the child problems, and that I would have thought the name Martin should not be without resonance in Tennessee (Dr King), the story raises many interesting issues for me. These are not to do with strange baptismal names I have known (although I have known a few!). They are not either to do with the rights of parents versus the rights of children (although that is also something which raises many questions in our society). Rather it spoke to me of how we make assumptions based on superficial information and of where the limits of freedom lie.
Whenever we come to a time of change and decision, as societies, as individuals, the choices we make say something about our values. It’s alright to say we believe in something but its when we are called to put that belief into action that it will really be tested. When none of the choices we face are ideal but instead are between least worse options our way forward may seem clouded and uncertain. The freedom we give ourselves at such times and the willingness to look beneath what is on the
surface show what we really hold to be central in our lives. We don’t for example know the motives behind the parents’ decision to name their son in the way they did, I suspect the judge is on dodgy Biblical and theological ground if he maintains that Jesus had to earn his titles and the last time I looked the gospels show Jesus being called Messiah when he too was a baby!
Sometimes in other words we don’t have the whole picture and, like the judge, we have to decide between competing rights (both in the sense of what people are due and the opposite of that which is wrong) and make a decision based on what we think is best. The mother has the right to appeal the judge’s decision and the judge, as the one with authority is the one who has to decide - and bear the responsibility for the decision. As a Church, Immanuel is to have new Services times form Sunday 8th September because I am also now vicar (sic) of St Francis Feniscliffe. The times of our new services are 8:30am and 9:30am which I will always be at when I am not on holiday. I will also take the one service at St Francis on Sundays at 11am. I think that this arrangement is the fairest outcome in a situation where our two Churches have to share one priest, and that it is both manageable in terms of time and sustainable.
I commend it to you and ask you to support it and make it work (I have recently been given a copy of the Church Magazine from June 1953 on the front of which I note that the early Service then, Holy Communion, started at 8am - which gives me an extra half hour in bed than Revd Porteus had, and I’ll bet he had no central heating or lovely shower!). All of us are constrained to some degree or another by the rights of others, it’s what makes our society civilised. I would rather live in a country where the strong did not have absolute freedom than one where the weak have no rights.
I also believe that Jesus said something similar.
Your friend and Vicar David
Do you ever feel a slight sense of misgiving whenever an ‘expert’ is brought on to the TV or radio to pronounce about something? I have a wonderful book to which I constantly repair whenever I feel that some expert or other is pushing me in a certain direction; its called ‘The Experts Speak And Get it Wrong!’ It’s a collection of actual words said by those in the know that perhaps they wish, well, that they had never said. Here are just a few of them;
‘The Phonograph..is not of any commercial value’ - Thomas Edison, 1880
‘That’s an amazing invention, but who would ever want to use one? - Rutherford B. Hayes, President of the USA after participating in a trial telephone conversation between Washington and Philadelphia 1876
‘Radio has no future’ - Lord Kelvin, British mathematician and physicist, President of the Royal Society 1897
‘Video won’t be able to hold on to any market it captures after the first six months. People will soon get tired of staring at a plywood box every night’ - Darryl F. Zanuck (head of 20th Century Fox Studios) 1946
‘There is not the slightest indication that atomic energy will ever be obtainable. It would mean that the atom would have to be shattered at will’ - Albert Einstein 1932
It heartens me that such disastrously inaccurate predictions were made by those with what would be assumed to have been the greatest foresight. It confirms my view of history that nothing is ever inevitable, fixed or unquestionable. In a wise view of history Karl Marx said that ‘men do make their own choices in history, but not in circumstances of their own choosing.’ It shows that whatever or whoever we are there can always be hope, that people are not doomed to follow one path in life or another and that as our faith teaches us, nothing and no-one is ever beyond redemption. Another way of putting this is as one of my favourite authors, George Eliot said, ‘Its’ never too late to become what we might have been’ - that for me is a deeply Christian truth, even though it came from a deeply agnostic writer.
We all know that our Church is going through a time of change, and as you read this the precise shape of that change will become clearer. I’m not going to write here again of how change is inevitable as I have already done that. I’m not either going to pretend to be one of those so called experts who stand up and say with certainty exactly what the right course of action is - if Einstein can get it wrong about Nuclear Fusion what hope have I got? All I will promise is that whatever changes are implemented they will be after prayer, reflection and a will to produce the fairest and best outcome in the circumstances we find ourselves. I don’t pretend to be an expert and I certainly don’t have a crystal ball (and if I did I wouldn’t trust it!). We may not even get things right first time and, if we don’t, we should not be afraid to say so and change them.
In his seminal song ‘The Times They Are A-Changing’ Bob Dylan sings, “Come
Mothers and fathers throughout the land, and don’t criticise what you can’t
understand”, which perhaps applies to all of us faced with the uncertainty and the unpredictable and unknowable nature of change and the future. Instead we would do well to commit to God the future he holds out for us and work together and with him to build the great future that remains unwritten
Your friend and Vicar,
In this issue of the magazine on page 7 appears the following notice;
Revd David Roscoe, Priest in Charge of Immanuel Feniscowles, has also been
appointed to the post of Associate Priest in the Benefice of St Aidan’s, Mill Hill and St Francis Feniscliffe but with responsibility for St Francis. David will remain Priest in Charge of Immanuel Feniscowles. Within the current benefice of St Francis and St Aidan, he will take pastoral responsibility for St Francis. David's Licensing will take place at St Francis on Wednesday 7th August at 10:30am by Rt Revd John Goddard, Bishop of Burnley. All are warmly invited to attend.
What this means is that from 7th August I will once again be running two Churches, as I did in Wigan for over eight and a half years. While I have hugely enjoyed having one Church to concentrate all my efforts on I, like all of us, must accept the facts of the world we live in, not how we would like it to be. Whatever image we choose, fighting against the tide coming in, making water run uphill and the like, we must accept that change has to come and the best outcomes will be achieved by working with that change.
I will still remain Priest In Charge of Immanuel but as well I will be ‘Associate Priest’ at St Francis, (actually I’ll go on calling myself Vicar because everyone knows what one of those is, and the standards people rightly expect from one). My title will be Associate Priest in the current United Benefice of St Aidan Mill Hill and St Francis Feniscliffe but, that is only because it still is a United Benefice and my role will be limited to St Francis alone within that Benefice, I will have no responsibility for St Aidan, that should be understood very clearly. The current United Benefice of St Aidan and St Mark is being dissolved; St Aidan’s are going to form a new United Benefice with St Luke’s, for which the new Vicar’s job is currently being advertised, that new Vicar will live in St Aidan’s Vicarage in Mill Hill. When the St Aidan / St Francis United Benefice is dissolved I will then become ‘Priest In Charge’ of St Francis, in plurality with my current job as Priest in Charge of Immanuel. It is hoped that we can then set up a new United Benefice of Immanuel and St Francis and when that happens my title will change again to become Vicar of the new United Benefice.
All of these title changes are for the future, what we face in the present is the need to find a way of working with me running two Churches, Immanuel and St Francis, so that both may grow in discipleship and reflect the love of God in their respective parishes. This will obviously entail some changes at Immanuel and these will be made clear when they are going to happen. Evolution teaches us that only creatures which have the ability to adapt to their environments survive, the dinosaurs could not adapt so they, like 99% of all the species of life that have ever existed on Earth, died out. Being a Church in this day and age is not easy, but I truly believe that its not impossible either. It will involve making changes but those changes will mean our survival. The only thing which doesn’t change is something which isn’t alive. Ask the dinosaurs!
So I ask your prayers, not only for me as I take up my new responsibilities and do what I think necessary for the health of both Churches, but for all the people who are involved and affected, that it may be for all of us a time of renewal, opportunity and growth into the future God has waiting for us
Once when I was at University I set out to our local branch of Sainsbury's with the sole intention of buying a jar of coffee, as my current jar had ran out. Entering Sainsbury's (it could have been any supermarket, I used that particular emporium as it was the closest) I was enticed to buy some apples (which I had forgotten that I also needed), some chocolate hob nobs (how else could you get through an essay on St Augustine of Hippo), some milk, which I knew would be a heavy weight but again, absolutely necessary and I believe from memory enough other items to fill three of Sainsbury's best plastic bags - which, to give them their due, did their job and lasted al the way back to my rooms. It was only when I was back in my rooms and began making that longed for cup of coffee that I realised that, you’ve guessed it, the one thing I had not bought which I needed was, yes, a jar of coffee!
Well, apart form my forgetfulness and distractedness this story has always for me highlighted the way that we can allow ourselves to become too easily sidetracked, take our eye off the ball, go off at a tangent - call it what you will. This is I believe as much true in life in general as it is in Sainsbury's! We all know how the world can be both an exciting and wonderful place and at other times in our lives an uncomfortable place to live. From the earliest times humankind has set out on a religious quest or spiritual search, so that life and death may take on some significance or meaning. Out of this the world’s religions have emerged. One thing I remember form my chocolate hob nob accompanied reading of St Augustine is that he said this;
“Lord you have made us for Yourself,
and our hearts are restless until they rest in you”
Perhaps its that we do all get easily distracted from where our true home is, and where our true needs are met, that we find restlessness as well as rest in life. Perhaps that jar of coffee that we set off to find is forgotten too easily and our journey through life changes from the destination we aimed at when we set off. Broadly speaking there are two main traditions within the world’s religions - both of which I can see represented in Christianity (and for all I know in other religions as well, although I am not qualified to speak of them). One accepts the essential goodness of the physical world but tries to change the parts of it that are wrong or broken. The other sees reality at its truest as essentially spiritual and seeks to free us from bondage to pale imitations of what is most real. Both of these elements I can see in both Catholic and Protestant traditions - and from what I know of Orthodox too.
I personally see myself as somewhere in the middle (in true Anglican style) and would go further by affirming the truth of something Mahatma Gandhi said;
“Religion is not alien to us. it is always within us: with some consciously;
with others, unconsciously. But it is always there.”
It’s not a unredeemable catastrophe when we lose our way in life and take our eyes off what would bring us truest fulfilment and happiness because, like the prodigal Son we can always return. Religion is not about vainly trying to keep ourselves undefiled and somehow ‘clean’ of the world. Rather I see it as enabling us to remember that the jar of coffee we set out for is still there on the supermarket shelves waiting for us to go back and pick it up - only we would have saved ourselves a lot of hassle if we had just remembered what we set out for in the first place. I think I can remember that it started to rain just after I set out back to Sainsbury's for the second time, the sun had been shining the first !
When Europeans and North Americans first began to catalogue the ruined Mayan cities of Central America in the early 19th Century, they were astonished to discover that they were not the first white men to have set eyes upon them. The soldiers and priests of the Spanish Conquest, pre-eminently among them Bishop Diego de Landa, had stumbled upon many sites over 250 years earlier and had compiled exhaustive records of Mayan religion and culture which, on the assumption that these astonishing buildings could not possibly owe their creation to the indigenous population, who were seen as incapable savages, were then neatly filed away in European libraries and forgotten about. In the intervening years all sorts of rumours and myths arose as to the origin of wonders such as the Palace of the Mayan Governors at Uxal,
Yucatan . Among these it was held that, the indigenous tribes, being savages and so could not possibly be responsible, the mysterious temples and pyramids of Central America were the work of, in turn, Egyptians,, Phoenicians, Canaanites, Carthaginians, Greeks, Scythians, Swedes, Welsh - or the lost tribe of the house of Israel, take your pick!
Gradually it became clear that, far from being the work of any of this disparate group, the wonderful Mayan monuments and cities were indeed produced by none other than the Mayans themselves, whose society, religion and culture, to say nothing of their science and engineering, were far more sophisticated than anyone had ever realised. The Mayans were different to the Europeans but they had intelligence, heritage, structured society and religion - it was just expressed in a different way. Yes, they practiced human sacrifice - but this was at the same time as the Spanish Inquisition was burning people at the stake, just before the burning of the English Martyrs, 75 years before the execution of the Pendle ‘witches’, and many Centuries before the time when many more millions of people than there ever were were Mayans were led to their systematic deaths at Auschwitz, Belsen and Treblinka. When one culture sees only barbarity in another because of differences it is usually blind to the barbarity within itself.
These thoughts sprung to mind for me this week reading of the revulsion felt by all faiths at the dreadful bombings in Boston, coming as they do after many such acts of bigoted terrorism. I have been fortunate to experience the cultures of not only southern Central America but also India, China (for a short time) oh, and Lancashire too! What these experiences have taught is that people are more alike than you might think. We all, and in our increasingly pluralistic society its becoming ever more diverse at home, express our beliefs and values differently, but scratch below the surface and we find that we’re not that different after all.
Above all it has taught me that we should always be open to the possibility of change and achievement, in others and in ourselves. To write off a culture as incapable and savage clearly says more about the almost comical assumptions of those dismissing an entire civilisation. Equally to write off any possibility in others or ourselves before we give it a chance is to my mind equally as blinkered and surely quite the opposite of what the lesson of Pentecost demonstrates; that change, transformation and wonderful things are always possible to those who put their assumptions and prejudices aside, and look at what is in front of them. It might be different but its no less valuable for that
Recently, a man well into his 90’s eagerly accepted Richard Branson’s gift of a trip into space on the Virgin Atlantic Shuttle when it makes its inaugural flight. The intrepid Nonagenarian is James Lovelock, a renowned scientist who thought up the theory of ‘Gaia’ when he first saw the earth from space courtesy of the Apollo astronauts. Lovelock described this moment as a revelation as he saw the earth as a single living organism, a ‘living planet’. Lovelock first formulated the Gaia hypothesis during the 1960s as a result of work for NASA concerned with detecting life on Mars. The Gaia hypothesis proposes that living and non-living parts of the Earth form a complex interacting system that can be thought of as a single organism.
Last week, we enjoyed hosting the National farmers’ Union Ladies Choral Evensong at Immanuel (pictures on the website at immanuelfeniscowles.org). I said at the service how, although not coming from a farming background myself, quite the opposite in fact, I have greatly come to value and respect the work of the farming community in its role of managing the countryside. This means harnessing the natural power of creation and husbanding it in particular ways as directed by the farmer. As we look around our landscape most, if not all, of what we see has been crafted by human endeavor. This is achieved not by working against the forces of nature but harnessing their natural power and channeling it in a particular direction.
The concept of working with a power greater than our comprehension or ability to control is, of course, nothing new to Christians. The power of God, just as the power of nature, is there, I believe, whether people choose to accept it or not. Ignore both and life becomes extremely perilous. Work against either and you're doomed from the start. God gives us power to choose our path in life, he did not create us to be puppets, neither did he create us to be automata, meekly submitting to his will, as if the purpose of life was nothing other than to seek his will and obey - he’s not some kind of celestial Jabba the Hut (Star Wars reference). Instead I see God as being like the force of nature, giving power to our plans and making them germinate, but working in a particular direction over which we have no control - that direction being our wellbeing. At Easter time we see just how powerful the lifegiving force of God is. As Hamlet said in Act 5 Scene 2 ‘There’s a divinity that shapes our ends, Rough hew them how we will’
This April sees the retirement from their current roles at Immanuel of two people who have, I can see, given exemplary service to the Church as they have walked the path that God has asked of them and have made that path their own. Ken Winterburn and Peter Hodkinson will shortly step down from their current roles and I want to say a huge thank you to them both for all they have given to this Church and, particularly, for their untiring help to me! I know that Ken and Peter will continue to find new ways of putting that life giving force of God into practice and ask God to bless them in all their work in his name. I hope that this Easter we all too can find new ways of rough hewing the great gift of creation that God holds out and offers to us.
Happy Easter - David
Like many families we have recently enjoyed watching the twenty fifth James Bond film ‘Skyfall’, possibly, and you are welcome to disagree with me, the most action packed of the lot! Born two years after the first James Bond film was released I can’t remember a time when James was not jumping out of planes, driving cars underwater or escaping from impossible situations usually contrived by super cool villains, embodied for me by Donald Pleasance. Did you know that there have been six actors who played James Bond in the second highest grocing franchise of all time after Harry Potter - and highest when inflation adjusted? They are Sean Connery, David Niven, George Lazenby, Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton, Pierce Brosnan and Daniel Craig (alright I know that’s officially seven, but you can’t really count David Niven, can you?)
Usually James winds up in front of the Donald Pleasance character saying something like," And I suppose you expect me to talk, you villainous scum?” To which comes the reply, “No, Mr Bond, I expect you to die!” and “Take him away and see that some harm comes to him!” Of course, even if we haven’t seen the ending we know that, while harm may indeed come to Mr Bond, he will certainly not die. In fact he will overcome all obstacles, however unlikely and spectacular, and not only escape, but defeat his evil enemy and destroy the fiendish empire which threatens the world!
As we approach the Easter Story in our Lenten readings in Church and through the drama of Holy Week, Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, we of course know the outcome of our drama. Although everyone thinks that Jesus’ life has been futile and ending in defeat, actually, for those with eyes to see, it ends in complete victory over all evil. But whereas James Bond will go on to face yet another, (the twenty sixth) malicious threat to world safety, Jesus has won the final, ultimate victory. The resurrection of Christ means that no sinister looking Russian sounding dandy stroking a cat, no difficulty we might face in our own life, however bleak that might appear at the time, no abyss so dark we might find ourselves staring into at some time - none of these things are more powerful than Jesus. He has, in the words of St Paul, ‘put all things under him’, and all we need to do is to have faith, or rather, try to have faith, in him and that power to overcome all obstacles can be ours too.
That doesn’t mean that we should go around triumphantly pretending that pain, sadness, defeat or anger are not part of our life, because we know only too well that they are, or if they are not yet, they will be. Neither does it mean that we only offer the medicine of faith to those we know who are in dark times, rather than get alongside them and share their pain. But what it does mean that this Easter, just as all Easters, assure us that our hope is, well, ‘not in vain’. The truth of this story is our inspiration and the fundamental core of our faith. This Easter let’s open ourselves up anew to be stirred by this story, and not shaken by life!
Your friend and vicar
If someone asked you what has been the most important event in your life, what would you say? It might be something good or it might be something bad. It could involve things beyond your control or it might be a conscious decision you have made. Whatever it might be, the most important thing in your life would have been something which gave direction, purpose and drove other elements in your life.
Historians sometimes see turning points in history. Sometimes these are great battles like Trafalgar or Waterloo (and I love the ‘counterfactual’ history books which imagine what might have happened if events had turned out differently at, say, D Day or Hastings, and which are held in such disdain in fashionable historical circles). Sometimes turning points happen over many years but change the world utterly like the Industrial Revolution or the change from pre-history to modern, recorded history during the Iron Age. These great social movements involve not single individuals but shifts in patterns of work, trade and innovation which affects the lives of everyone.
For Christians the greatest event in history is the life on Earth of Jesus. In Jesus we see the one and only time that God has appeared on Earth. We see not God in human form, but God, pure and simple. We see what God does, which is to give utterly that we might have life. This happened once in history, at a specific place and time. It had never happened before and it will never happen again until the end of time. It happened once and once only and, if we have the faith to see it, it changes everything.
For those with faith the fact of Jesus can change life at an individual level too, by making us more the people that God created us to be. We should never then be afraid of change, because if we are in control of it, it can mean changing things for the better. To ignore change, or to try to pretend that change does not come is like King Canute ordering the waves to turn back - they won’t, and if he continued to sit there on his throne all that would happen is that he would get wet, no matter how many proclamations he made.
Of course you will have realised by now that I am talking about change and about turning points because that is what we face at Immanuel in the coming months as we face the changes of how Churches in this area are going to be linked together. This will happen whether we like it or not. The worst we can do is to stick our heads in the sand and pretend it won’t happen, because it will and it would be remiss of me not to point this out to you. The best we can do is to embrace this change and in it discern something of God’s work, to let it change not just us but how we live as a Christian Community. We see this all the time in history, that although the past can be looked back on with nostalgia and even celebrated, those who have eyes to see know that the best is yet to come.
Your Friend and Vicar, David
No doubt by now, as you read this, there might have been one or two more paracetamols or alcha-selza’s taken by some of you than would normally be the case. I don’t mean to suggest that anyone might have over-done it, but
Christmas has been known to lead to an increase in the taking of pain-killers or things to soothe that which has been unsettled. This seems more than a little ironic to me, as Christmas, the incarnation, is about the coming into the world of the very thing which has the biggest power ever to unsettle! It’s about the thing which will not only end in the pain of rejection and execution but opens up all those who follow to a life if not of guaranteed pain then at least an openness to the possibility of it. At the beginning of the journey of Bilbo Baggins in Tolkien’s ‘The Hobbit’, brilliantly (in my view) adapted to the screen, Gandalph the Wizard, in answer to Bilbo’s request for the certainty of a safe return from the journey, says to Bilbo that he can guarantee no such thing and, furthermore, says that should Bilbo return, he will not be the same as he was when he set out.
Perhaps its not just at Christmas time that we in the west seek to dose ourselves up and try to avoid the possibility of pain. C.S.Lewis once described pain as ‘God’s Megaphone’, shouting out above the noise with which we try to surround ourselves to avoid his uncomfortable, unsettling maybe, challenges. Once upon a time I used to play rugby, League and Union (actually I played one to a higher standard than the other, but I’ll leave you to guess which that was). I was told that if there’s one thing certain in playing rugby, as opposed to shouting advice from the touchline, its that you’re going to get hurt. The thing is that I found that while that was certainly true, it was worth it. I once scored a try of which I was very proud, I’ll not bore you with the details other than to say it was not half as important as I thought of it at the time, but I wouldn’t be without the experience (or at least it would take a lot for me to be without it). It was, as I’m sure you’ve guessed I’m going to say, worth the pain. The thing is, I can’t remember feeling the pain now, but I can certainly remember putting the ball down over the line.
Actually someone who goes through life trying to avoid painful experiences at all costs is not only a coward, but in their cowardice is missing out on the richness of life’s experiences. God does not, I am certain, want us to be like The Happy Prince in Oscar Wilde’s marvellous fable, he wants us to experience the life he has given us in all its fullness.
If anyone seriously believes that we at Immanuel can go through the next twelve months without feeling any pain at all then I suggest that they misunderstand what a Church is. A Church is a place which helps us to grow in our relationship with God in and through our relationships with other members of God’s family. That family will be widened in the coming months to include a closer relationship with our friends in the neighbouring Churches. I have never met a family yet which agrees all the time on everything, certainly not my own and I’d bet not yours either - but we are a family just the same. We might need a few more paracetamols from time to time in the coming months, but let’s not take too many!
Your friend and Vicar, David
I have on my shelves in the Vicarage study a jar of coins. Now this jar is not there because of any theological significance or as a souvenir of an important time or experience in my life. Its simply where I tip all the loose change in my pocket at the end of each day and so is a useful place to turn when change is quickly needed - as it always seems to be in our home.
The jar does remind me of one of my stock in trade school assemblies or all age talks. It goes like this. First I explain what the jar is, as I have just done. Then I ask about four or five volunteers to come out and to try to guess the exact amount of money in the jar. Of course none of them ever gets it right (this relies of course on my having counted, or saying that I’ve counted, the money in the jar previously!). Next I invite all the children to shout out their guess of how much the coins come to. When the cacophony has died down I explain that its almost impossible to guess the right answer and that its quite a waste of time counting them out anyway as that’s not what the purpose of the jar is. Incidentally I always ask if anyone did get the right answer and, wouldn’t you know it, there Is always some Smart Alec who did, or says he did, or she did.
Some things in life we are bound to get wrong, and its usually frustrating when we do. Some times this might be in an exam or a relationship or maybe a choice, even a life changing one. We might remember some striking examples of people who have been wrong, like the several publishers who turned down the first Harry Potter Book when JK Rowling was initially seeking to have it published, or Albert Einstein’s teachers who asked him to leave school because, as they now infamously said, he would ‘never amount to anything’!!!
The important thing to remember is that we are all human, and that means that we are going to make mistakes. If we set ourselves the unattainable target of always being right, or perfect, then we are eventually going to be very disappointed. The key to life is to use our mistakes to learn from because, as the American poet Maya Angelou put it, unless we learn form the past, we are condemned to repeat it forever. What’s more, I could waste time counting up all the coins in my jar and arrive at an exactly right answer, but that would be just one thing, and how much more of life would I miss by such pedantry, life is just too short for it to be always perfect.
God gave his Son to us not that because of him we could become perfect, but precisely because he knows that we are not, and never can be. The more we try to make Christ the foundation of our lives the better our lives will be, but we all fall short of what is perfect, and the Good News is that we don’t have to be. At Christmas time we remember that just as the Jewish people of God were waiting for a Messiah to come and rescue them from their own imperfections which had led them into a dead end, so Christ will come to each one of us to rescue us from our dead ends. What’s more he’ll turn us round and show us the way to go to a better, happier and more fulfilled life, (a ‘Wonderful Life’ perhaps, well it is Christmas). This Christmas lets take the chance to marvel at the miracle of God coming into his own world and invite him afresh into ours. We might not get everything we want, we might not get everything right, but we will be much nearer both of them - and who cares if we are a few pence out of the precisely correct total.
With every Blessing for a Joyous Christmas and a Peaceful New Year.......David
I wonder if you have ever heard the fable of the Powerful Prince and the Peasant Girl? Basically it goes like this: There was once a very beautiful but very poor peasant girl who, though she enjoyed nothing more than dancing and singing, had to work hard in the fields all day. Far away there was a very powerful prince who, passing by the peasant girl’s field one day, saw the beauty of the girl and fell instantly in love with her. Back in his powerful castle the rich prince decided that he would go to ask the peasant girl to marry him. Just to make sure he made a good impression, he donned his finest regalia, jewellery and armour and was about to set off. Suddenly a though struck him; how would he know if the peasant girl really loved him in return, she might just be impressed or even frightened into saying she loved him by his fine robes. Yet, if he didn't wear the finery he possessed he might risk losing the girl he loved. He decided to take a risk. He took off all his fine robes, armour and jewels and dressed as a peasant himself for, if he was going to know if the girl truly loved him for who he was and not what he was, he must take the risk or being rejected. He approached the girl dressed as a peasant and the girl saw him, he held her hands and told her of his love and she......, well the rest is up to you. Did she return his love or was he rejected?
When God showed himself on earth he did not come with all the heavenly hosts and with great triumph. Quite the contrary, he was born, as ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ has it “in such a backward time and such a strange land” and, although we can glimpse something of God’s power now and again in the miracles in the gospels, in the end, God’s true nature was shown in utter rejection and loneliness, although this was only one side of the coin which was revealed two days later. God did not come in order to impress, frighten or order us into loving him, he came ‘emptied’ of all his glory (the theological word is ‘kenotic’) in order that we might truly respond to him. God wants our love but he will not force it because true love can never be forced.
At either end of November we see two different aspects of that love. At All Saints Tide we see examples of people who loved God in particular times, places or circumstances which, though it certainly doesn’t make them perfect, shows a remarkable response to God’s love which we might learn from. At the other end of the month we have the feast of Christ the King, just before Advent. This is when we think of the true glory of Christ (Pantokrator - universal ruler is the term) which exists even when, like the peasant girl, we are not allowed to see it.
St Augustine wrote of a much misunderstood term called ‘original sin’ which has been taken to paint a bleak picture of Christians as people who believe that fundamentally we are all as humans bad. This is not what Augustine meant at all. Rather, like the peasant girl, however much we might like dancing and singing, the fact is that we have to work in the fields. However much we might try, we are never going to approach the glory of God by our own efforts. Rather, along with all the things which make us human, if we grow in our relationship with God, we might learn to be drawn to him, to let go of all the things which are less than glorious and to recognise, like a prince found in peasants clothing, where things that are better than we ever yet imagined were possible are to be found. That life can be better than we ever thought. Being a saint (or a Christian which is what saint means) is not about being perfect, its just about realising that we don’t have to remain a peasant
Your Friend and Vicar, David
In the 1983 Film adaptation of the Willy Russell Play ‘Educating Rita’, Rita, played by Julie Walters (In her first film) is a working class girl wanting to study literature because, in her view, the middle class people who read it all have happy lives. What she discovers is that they don’t. Her tutor, played by Michael Caine, is an alcoholic whose family life is collapsing, describing himself as “'appalling but good enough for my appalling students”, and her room mate at university attempts suicide.
Rita then discovers that if she is to carry on her ‘education’, then it must be as much personal as it is academic. She is forced to abandon her working class family’s lifestyle, which means her husband chooses to leave her (not her choosing to leave her husband, it is worth noting). Furthermore, when her tutor (Caine) recovers from his malaise and sets off to a new life in Australia, inviting her to go with him, Rita realises that to be truly ‘educated’, she must give herself the freedom to make that choice, ie, to let go of even the security which she has found in her ‘educated’ life, that is to say, her tutor, Michael Caine.
Reading recently the writings of the great Christian mystic, Meister Eckhart (as you do, I can hear you say!), I was instantly reminded of this film. Why, you might legitimately ask? Well, on one level it is because Eckhart’s theme finds echoes in the theme of letting go, which Julie Walters plays out so painfully and with such humour and grace in ‘Educating Rita’. Eckhart noticed that it is a characteristic of creatures to make something out of nothing. A bird, for instance makes a nest out of all sorts. So also does God make something out of nothing, both in creation and, if we will but let him, with us, if we would just let go of those things we cling to which give us, we think, security; for example, possessions, doctrines, ambitions, attitudes, even, dare we say it, buildings. They may provide a security but it is the security of a security blanket. It is a peace of sorts but it is the peace of the desert. Eckhart rather describes how true peace means becoming nothing and letting God create us into something.
You might wonder what is the other level that I was reminded of in ‘Educating Rita’ when reading of these themes of letting go of security. Well, I’ll tell you. I first saw the film on board an aeroplane. It was the plane taking me, aged 18, in the February of 1984 to Calcutta, India. I was travelling alone and, although I was to be met, I didn’t know it then, by some of the kindest and caring people whom I have ever had the privilege of knowing, and who recognised immediately my vulnerability, I was at that moment, how shall I put it, terrified! Set in places I knew well, Liverpool, and reflecting some of my own family background, the film I saw on that aeroplane perfectly reflected my own terrified predicament, yet I knew that this was a journey I had to take - and one which I now see leading, many years later, to my ordination, by some divine irony, in Liverpool Cathedral!
Your Friend and Vicar, David
First there was the cost, could we as a nation in a time of austerity afford it? Then there were the border issues, what would the staff do in the end? Then there were the security issues, they only had seven years to prepare! There was comment from a gaff prone American visitor and finally the empty seats where the already privileged should have been sat. Yes, if you’ve not guessed already, I’m talking about the 2012 Olympic games, or, more specifically, how anxieties over their preparation was perceived.
And then the games began, with a huge spectacular to match any seen anywhere in the world. The medals started pouring in (with some North West athletes taking the lead!) and everything went swimmingly (well not perhaps in the swimming!). We have had our best games ever (yes, I know that 1908 provided more medals but the 2012 games were infinitely more competitive - 10,490 athletes from 204 countries in 2012 compared to 2,008 athletes, of whom nearly 700 were British(!) from only 22 countries in 1908, when China didn’t even send a team!!). The games and almost everything in them went off without any major incident, and in Mo Farah and Usain Bolt, not to mention their celebrations, there came the ‘magic’ moments so hoped for by Lord Coe.
Well, we have to ask, was there any need for any of that worrying, not to say curmudgeonly prophesying of disaster which preceded the games. In my view there probably was, and the questions about the cost still have relevance, but only in that they helped to focus attention and ensure the careful planning which ultimately led to a lovely Olympic Games. Where there is any major action or change there will always be, probably rightly, those who tread carefully and ask searching questions. There will also be a need for a far reaching vision which the questions can help to succeed.
We all know what challenges and changes face us at Immanuel in the coming Pastoral Reorganisation, and those which face our Brothers and Sisters in all the other local Churches. Over the coming months there will be many difficult questions to be asked and many challenging choices to be faced. The important principle to be followed must be to face these issues head on and not to duck them. In this way we can, I believe, ensure the success of the vision we must share for the long term well being of our Church and all who this Parish Serves. That’s not being negative or curmudgeonly but being realistic and practical, because the vision needs to be forged by the reality if it is to succeed, as I believe that it can.
Let us ‘Run the Straight Race’ that is set before us, as the writer to the Hebrews tells us, and we will thereby commit our best efforts to the Lord. We might not set a new world record, but, like I think the 2012 Olympic Games probably were, it will be worth it
Your Friend and Vicar, David
There’s an old joke which I hope you’ll forgive me if I tell again. It concerns a certain man who, faced with rising floodwater takes to the roof of his house. As a God fearing man he faithfully waits to be rescued by God. Along comes a lifeboat, which he refuses to get in as he knows that God will come. As the waters rise further, along comes the Marines, whom he likewise turns away.
As the rising waters drive him to his chimney he lastly sees an RAF helicopter lowering a winch to airlift him to safety, but this too is refused, so sure is he of God’s faithfulness to him. The water rises further and he drowns. Standing before God in heaven he asks God why he was left to drown. God answers, as I’m sure you know, “But I sent you a lifeboat, the Royal Marines and an RAF helicopter, what else did you want?”
It might feel, on reading my report on pages 6-7 of this magazine, of
discussions about proposed pastoral reorganisation that, especially when viewed in the wider Diocesan context, the flood waters are now all around us and rising. Despite the very real flood waters which have been seen in this and other areas lately, and which you can see on page 17 of this magazine and on the website, the flood waters of secularism, rising costs and the declining numbers of clergy may seem very threatening.
I recently saw in a book of photographs from old Blackburn and Darwen some people being rescued from houses in Darwen which were completely flooded out in, I think, 1964, A policeman carrying a small child while an anxious
father looks on with an expression I don’t think would be any different no
matter how far back in time you went. With the recent floods in this area I wonder if any lessons were learned.
If we don’t learn any lessons and remain holed up waiting to be rescued by some almighty divine intervention from the challenges faced by reorganisation then we might find ourselves one day being asked by God why we refused the help he sent, indeed is sending to us at the present time. Perhaps our prayer should be to have the eyes to see where our faithful God is acting, I’m sure that Darwen father in 1964 didn’t need telling.
The Ancient Isrealites were terrified of the sea, they were not a sea going people, which might be why the storm which Jesus calmed was doubly
frightening, they hated the water. But surely the challenge of a storm or a flood is to build better boats, to work with what you have no power over or can’t control. I’m sure that in the months ahead that is exactly what we at
Immanuel will do; to build lasting structures, boats and watercourses and to recognise and work with what God sends us.
Your Friend and Vicar, David