Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Ecumenical Encounter

Tim, the minister of the free Evangelical church in the other half of the village, wanted to come and see me as a result of a discussion which had come up in the local Churches Together group which includes most of the Christian congregations in the Hornington area, though Tim's church isn't one of them. So yesterday he did, and we had coffee and discussed each other's religious histories and the ways our churches work (or don't).

But the meat of our debate was soteriology - how God saves us. Coming from where he does on the Christian spectrum, Tim feels it's very clear. "Look at Acts 2", he said, "Peter preaches about Jesus and the people are 'cut to the heart' and ask what they should do, and he says, 'Repent and be baptised'". From Tim's perspective, the New Testament gives an absolutely clear-cut picture of how salvation works and what human beings have to do to gain access to the grace of God. It means - as he eventually admitted - a person agreeing to what is basically a definite credal statement including the concept of Jesus as the atoning sacrifice for our sins, as well as other basics of 'the faith'. I think it's less clear, that the workings of salvation as the scriptures present them are more diffuse, less formulaic. I see it more as a disposition of the heart including our response to Jesus the person when we encounter him (not what we consciously think about his position in the cosmos) and whether we're prepared to admit our fallibility and our need of him.

We weren't going to agree but I think this is the most ecumenical thing I've done in eight years as an ordained person, actually engaging with somebody from a different Christian tradition and exchanging ideas. Too often ecumenical endeavour on the ground doesn't deal with ideas or things that might stir up disagreements, but has drifted into simply repeating an annual round of lowest-common-denominator events that nobody really questions. This, on the other hand, is surely what ecumenism is about.

Oases in the Desert

I've just finished reading this book by Peta Dunstan, The Labour of Obedience, a history of the Anglican Benedictine monks of Pershore, Nashdom and Elmore. It's a fantastic story, beginning with the defection of Abbot Aelred Carlyle of Caldey Island to the Roman Catholic Church in 1913, telling how the Order survived just through Denys Prideaux, who was then a mere oblate but was convinced to take full orders so that the Benedictine life could be maintained in the Church of England, an aim to which he devoted his life and, arguably, sanity; of the personalities not just of Denys but his successors as Abbot and their battles with the less Ultramontane hierarchy of the Anglican Church; of the monks' gradual acceptance; of the dislocations of the 1960s and 70s, and the marginalisation of the monastic tradition since then. It's very well done.

It made me reflect what's happened to the religious life in the Church of England as a whole, particularly the Benedictine tradition. The Sisters of West Malling we know about and indeed hopefully I will be off there for a retreat in a few weeks' time. The six brothers of Alton Abbey, where we had our pre-ordination retreat from Staggers, are holding doggedly on to their gigantic plant in the Hampshire woods, and Edgware Abbey is still there with its atrocious buildings, but elsewhere religious communities have had to relinquish their grand premises and occupy more humble settings. The Sisters of the Holy Cross are now based at Costock:
... having sold the rather well-appointed Rempstone Hall for £2.5M. The brothers and sisters of Burford are now at Mucknell Abbey in Worcestershire, which in its starkness seems to reach back beyond the Middle Ages to something even earlier:

And what of the great foundation of Pershore/Nashdom itself? Well, the brothers made the move to humbler surroundings at Elmore in Berkshire in 1987, unable to keep up the gigantic Lutyens mansion which had been their home for sixty years. Last year they abandoned Elmore in turn, and this is where the remaining brethren are now, St Benedict's Priory in Salisbury:

It's the former house of the Principal of Salisbury Theological College, as was; and how permission was ever granted to build it in Salisbury Cathedral close one can't imagine, but there you go.

What this represents is the relinquishing of the great medievalist fantasy of monasticism, expressed through stunning buildings, elaborate liturgy, mitred abbots and ecclesiastical politics. Instead God seems to be sending Anglican monasticism back to humility, smallness, and a ministry of prayerful presence whether in the Dark Age isolation of Mucknell or the urban centrality of Salisbury. It's something different for a different age.

Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Chin Up

Tracy from the congregation said, 'People have said to me, Your vicar seems very nice, but we do wish he'd look up and smile a bit more'. They mean when I'm walking about the parish - not that I'm doing much walking at the moment thanks to an inflamed plantar fascia, an organ whose existence I didn't even suspect until the doctor revealed it - rather than in church. I may come across as a grumpy git on the blog, but though descending to the grinning idiot stage is something that hopefully is far away in my future, it's probably important not to be perceived as standoffish to the parish in general. After more than two years in Swanvale Halt, I can probably manage to squeeze out the odd smile for Jesus.

It Had To Come

When the LGMG went on the Cock Lane Ghost Walk last October this was what it looked like as we passed St Paul's Cathedral, not knowing when we started whether we would be able to get anywhere near the place, rather inconveniently as that was one of my planned stops. In the event it was a wedding rather than protestors who got in our way more.

Today the Occupy London protest has been cleared from the steps of the Cathedral, ending the chaotic and catastrophic series of events which ravaged the Chapter, brought resignations and unfavourable headlines the nation over. It ought to have been obvious right from the start what was going to happen, but the Church of England has an unfortunate tendency to favour the gesture over the substance; various members of the cathedral staff wrung their hands about being seen to do the exact opposite of 'turning the moneychangers out of the Temple', thus only delaying the dreadful day when that happened. So now we have hypocrisy as well as inevitable connivance with the World. I like to think that, had I been Dean of St Paul's when the protest started, I'd've come down the steps and told the assembled boys and girls, 'You're completely right, and I agree with everything you say. And now you're going to go and say it somewhere else. Oh look, a bulldozer.' I'm not sure I would have had the guts, though.

My friend Ms Orphanides has a wonderfully sane assessment of the whole Occupy phenomenon here, which is especially valuable as she actually had some interaction with it.

Friday, 17 February 2012

More Sourness!

I got this email yesterday from the Bishop's media officer.

"Dear XXXXX,

Bishop XXXXXX is aware that the Queen's speech at Lambeth Palace last night was very warmly received, and commends it to us as an affirmation of the part the Church of England plays in contemporary Britain:

"Your Grace, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Prince Philip and I are delighted to be with you today to pay tribute to the particular mission of Christianity and the general value of faith in this country.

This gathering is a reminder of how much we owe the nine major religious traditions represented here. They are sources of a rich cultural heritage and have given rise to beautiful sacred objects and holy texts, as we have seen today.

Yet these traditions are also contemporary families of faith. Our religions provide critical guidance for the way we live our lives, and for the way in which we treat each other. Many of the values and ideas we take for granted in this and other countries originate in the ancient wisdom of our traditions. Even the concept of a Jubilee is rooted in the Bible.

Here at Lambeth Palace we should remind ourselves of the significant position of the Church of England in our nation’s life. The concept of our established Church is occasionally misunderstood and, I believe, commonly under-appreciated. Its role is not to defend Anglicanism to the exclusion of other religions. Instead, the Church has a duty to protect the free practice of all faiths in this country.

It certainly provides an identity and spiritual dimension for its own many adherents. But also, gently and assuredly, the Church of England has created an environment for other faith communities and indeed people of no faith to live freely. Woven into the fabric of this country, the Church has helped to build a better society – more and more in active co-operation for the common good with those of other faiths.

This occasion is thus an opportunity to reflect on the importance of faith in creating and sustaining communities all over the United Kingdom. Faith plays a key role in the identity of many millions of people, providing not only a system of belief but also a sense of belonging. It can act as a spur for social action. Indeed, religious groups have a proud track record of helping those in the greatest need, including the sick, the elderly, the lonely and the disadvantaged. They remind us of the responsibilities we have beyond ourselves.

Your Grace, the presence of your fellow distinguished religious leaders and the objects on display demonstrate how each of these traditions has contributed distinctively to the history and development of the United Kingdom. Prince Philip and I wish to send our good wishes, through you, to each of your communities, in the hope that – with the assurance of the protection of our established Church – you will continue to flourish and display strength and vision in your relations with each other and the rest of society."

Now, the Bishop is my Father in Christ to whom I owe due and canonical obedience, to say nothing of the Queen. Nevertheless, I'm afraid I sent a message back saying that, in so far as it describes the position of the Church of England now, Her Majesty may be speaking no more than the truth, but in historical terms, that "environment for other faith communities and indeed people of no faith" was not graciously granted by the Established Church, but carved out in the teeth of its occasionally violent opposition. I refrained from stating that the Supreme Governor was talking out of her (doubtless very nice) hat which was my first thought. The news that the Church of England has a duty to protect the free exercise of other faiths would have had every Archbishop of Canterbury until perhaps the great Michael Ramsey falling right off the Throne of St Augustine in shock.

Monday, 13 February 2012

Bothering God

It's not a surprise that Heresy Corner has been discussing the ban on saying prayers as part of the agenda of local authority meetings. Along with other local clergy, I've led the prayers at the start of Hornington Town Council meetings on a couple of occasions and couldn't actually remember whether they were part of the formal agenda or not. A congregation member who's an ex-councillor recently confirmed it for me: they aren't, but were quite intentionally put before the formal calling-to-order of the meeting when the practice of praying publicly was revived some years ago. It's a moot point, though: prayers only occur when the Mayor has been led in and the mace put in its place, even if attendance is only recorded from the end of the prayers onwards.

I feel conflicted about leading prayers on these occasions. I'm very aware that there is, let's say, a possibility that, even if none of the councillors positively objects to being present, their degrees of devotion may differ. I therefore find myself framing the petitions in such a way that, if you are serious about offering the business of the Council to God, you can use the time in that way, or if (the Lord forfend) you're indifferent about doing so, you can let the words wash over you. It's not exactly an intense demonstration of faith - not that I am very prone to intense demonstrations of faith. Would the prayers be more genuine, the faith more profound, if the Christian councillors were praying privately on their own without the formality of the meeting and the intervention of a professional?

The Hornington prayers were instituted by the Lib Dems on the Council. I wonder if Dr Evan Harris knows?

Sunday, 12 February 2012

'Through the Narrow Gate', by Karen Armstrong

I've just finished reading Karen Armstrong's memoir of her time as a nun in a restrictive Roman Catholic order in the 1960s. A very good read indeed - though given Ms Armstrong's less than fastidious approach to religious history you must wonder, all allowances being made for the novelistic style, whether everything really did happen quite like that. The contrast between the etiolated emotional life of the convent and the warm, supportive community of women students the former nun has entered at the end of the book is a little too neat and tidy. What emerges most strongly is the bizarre attempt such orders made to live entirely in the head, to the extent of repeatedly ignoring what were clearly physical illnesses (not just Karen Armstrong's, though years later her fainting fits were traced to temporal lobe epilepsy) on the grounds that the sisters concerned were hysterical or not being tough enough. 'If seven years in the order taught me anything', Ms Armstrong states, 'it was the relative feebleness of the human will' - a lesson which should have been a fundamental assumption in any Christian spiritual venture. Vatican II got shot of a lot of things which would have been better retained, but the excessive and very unChristian Platonism of the religious orders is not one of them.

St Catherine Commission

I keep meaning to add things to this blog, but the mood keeps passing and I forget what I wanted to say.

This, however, should have up ages ago. My friend Cylene the Goth is an artist, and creates various things under the name of Zoe Monday. Her blog is locatable here.

I commissioned Cylene to produce an image of St Catherine. She settled for watercolour and, as it turned out, gold leaf on a heavy laid paper. I wasn't sure what she would come out with as part of the point of the exercise was leaving it entirely for her to work her imagination on without any specifications from me. I would not, to be honest, have been surprised by something a little bloody and extreme, but as it turned out the treatment Cylene gave Catherine was very 'straight' and classical. 'I just kept thinking of strength and grace', she said; so the only hint of martyrdom is the tiny line of blood around the saint's neck. The halo forms the wheel (which I like) and you also have the martyr's sword and palm. I haven't found a frame and a place to put it yet and must get on with it (perhaps when this year's chutney is out of the way ...).