Wednesday, November 29, 2017


Recently I was asked what advice I would give to someone training for ordination. I replied that I would tell them that, sooner or later, they would feel betrayed by the Church; and that I told them this not to dissuade them, nor cause them dismay, but so that when it inevitably happened it would not be utterly incomprehensible. My observation is that theological college would not prepare them for this; but the good news is that the experience contains the transformative potential to make them not only a better licensed minister but also (and more importantly) more fully human.

The painful experience of betrayal is universal.

Whether we are betrayed by a lover (infidelity, adultery, divorce, death…)

or by a family-member or friend or neighbour or work colleague or community;

or by our self-sabotaging choices or actions

or even by our own bodies (various ‘disorders’, infertility, cancer, dementia…all can feel like betrayal)

sooner or later we are all betrayed;

and sooner or later we all act (through wilfulness or weakness) in ways that leave another human being feeling betrayed.

You have most likely experienced betrayal in one form or another before, and you will most likely experience it again. And yes, if you commit to the Church (or any other relationship or community or shared purpose) you will know it there too.

This is one significant reason why I find the Bible to be the most relevant library available to us. It is, among other things and perhaps before all else, a record of the universal experience of betrayal.

Abraham and Sarah are betrayed by their union, their bodies, their inability to conceive a child. Together, they betray Sarah’s handmaid Hagar and her son Ishmael. The son they do eventually have together, Isaac, will be betrayed by his wife, Rebekah, and one of their sons. That son, Jacob, will betray his brother Esau, before himself being betrayed by his uncle Laban. Jacob’s son Joseph will be betrayed by his brothers who sell him into slavery (and then betray their father by claiming that Joseph is dead), by his master (surely Potiphar knew his wife was lying, or he would have had Joseph killed, not imprisoned?), by his fellow-prisoner who forgets Joseph to rot in prison once he has gone free.

And that is just a snap-shot.

There is a great deal of pain and bewilderment in these foundational stories of human beings encountering God. Encountering God intermittently; but encountering God nonetheless. It almost reads as if the experience of betrayal is the necessary condition or circumstances in which we are displaced enough to meet God. (Or, to put it another way, death is the precondition for new life.)

As betrayal is, apparently, inevitable and universal, this is incredibly hopeful.

One of the problems we humans have is the drive to fix problems. Which is great if the problem that needs fixing is that the village has no safe water supply, so let’s build a well. It can be a good thing when the problem is medical, though pushed to the extreme we lose sight of the people at the heart of the matter. But it is not so great when the problem is betrayal, which may not be fixable, certainly not quickly or easily. Rather than rush to fix the problem—through fight or flight, or numbing, or distraction—we would do better to find ourselves in the place where we are.

Feeling betrayed by an entire nation, Elijah runs away. That takes only a day; but God then sends him on a journey of forty days and forty nights—a highly symbolic number in the Bible, and far longer than needed for the geographical distance he travels. There, on a mountain, he experiences rock-splitting wind, earthquake, and fire, before a sound of sheer silence in which, at last, God was present. This story is best read psychologically (which is not to dismiss its historicity, but perhaps to suggest that God speaks to Elijah’s inner turmoil through corresponding outer energies). Deep emotions are acknowledged, permitted, affirmed; and in time there is stillness and renewal of vision. There is also fresh insight into the experience of other people—for we are not alone—and, with that, deepened authority to invest in the lives of others.

When we find ourselves feeling betrayed, our family history (for that is what the Bible is) leads us to conclude that God might turn up, unexpectedly, in the most unlikely of moments—even if this is not to our timescale. And that our present circumstances do not terminate God’s intention to bless us and to bless others through us. Indeed, they may well open-up whole new seams of blessing.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Gracious spaces

These past five days I was in Hamburg as part of a 14-strong delegation from Durham Diocese, visiting our sister-church the Nordkirche (the northern-most German Lutheran church). We spent Sunday afternoon until Tuesday lunchtime at a retreat centre, in conversations around our respective practices of Confirmation (in particular) and youth work (in general). But before that, we were hosted from Friday evening until Sunday afternoon in parishes. On the Sunday morning, we took part in church services and acts of remembrance at war memorials on the People’s Day of Mourning. It was a deeply moving privilege.

First written on 21 November on facebook:

One of the many conversations we have had over these past days has been around reconciliation. In July 1943 the RAF and USAAF launched Operation Gomorrah—named after the biblical settlement destroyed by fire from heaven—against Hamburg. In one raid alone we killed 42,600 civilians, injured 37,000 more, and all but destroyed the city.

I was telling two of our hosts that I think that my Grandfather may have taken part in the bombing of Hamburg [and if he did not, other men like him did]. They were so gracious. By gracious, I do not mean merely polite. I mean that they created around me a space so filled with love that I could face our shared past with all its complex emotions—shame at what the British had done, for in war there is no-one without sin; sorrow for the German losses; compassion for my Grandfather and other men like him who faced impossible choices; gratitude for the peace we have shared, for good that came out of what was not good—and held that space safe for as long as I needed.

Of course, we have also spoken of Brexit. In the UK at present, there is no public discourse on any subject to which Brexit is not the backdrop. The referendum has been deeply divisive both among ourselves and between us and our European neighbours, with hurt caused and felt on all sides. New wounds have been inflicted; and old animosity has been stirred up. And so the issue of reconciliation does not only pertain to the past but to the present and future.

The ministry of reconciliation is always a central vocation of the Church. We in the Church of England have much to learn from our German sisters and brothers about creating and holding gracious spaces in which this can happen.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Great questions to ask local teachers

What are you learning at present?

Can you show me how to…?

Who could you teach this to? (this might lead on to, Who do you need to connect with to make that possible?)

What might be the next step in taking this learning further?

Teachers at the local level

Not all teachers-by-vocation are teachers by profession*. But of all the five gifts of apostle, prophet, evangelist, shepherd, and teacher, the teacher is the one we have most fully identified with professionalisation. Consider the audience for cookery tv programmes and the sales figures of cookbooks by celebrity chefs, and contrast that with locally-held knowledge and handed-on experience (beyond childhood). For all that there are more pastors and teachers than apostles, prophets and evangelists—just as there is more flour and butter than salt, yeast and oil in breadmaking—the local teacher may be an endangered species…

On the other hand, the plethora of community activity groups such as adult art classes, or Pilates or yoga instruction, might suggest that the local teacher is alive and well, albeit evolving from neighbourliness to a more transactional relationship. If this is so, church-owned premises are the primary hubs—and may be well-placed to enable neighbourliness to flourish, alongside enabling some teachers to earn a living.

I am thinking of a member of our congregation who creates intricate bead-work. She makes and sells items of jewellery with the profit going to support the Minster or other charities. In fact, she can hardly keep up with demand. As her skill became known, she was asked to come and speak to our Friendship group, and gave a fascinating talk on the history of indigenous North American beading. What was striking was how many of those present talked about her talk afterwards, to people who were not there. She had brought a niche subject-matter to life, weaving culture and history and faith together; and is already planning another talk, on one of Africa’s many beading traditions. And now she has organised a class, starting in the new year, for people who have expressed an interest in making bead jewellery themselves. Her gifting as a teacher gets to find expression in both presentation-style and in workshop-style.

Another member of our congregation teaches flower-arranging. Another, bell-ringing. Others are involved in teaching and learning singing and music. All these things are expressions of creativity in a society that slavishly emphasises economic utility, and opportunity for social contact in a society that experiences a crisis of isolation. All these things can be taught to the glory of God—the act of teaching being understood as an act of worship, and of loving-service to our neighbour.

Asset-Based Community Development starts by asking, ‘What skills do we have in our community?’ and goes on to explore how we can put those skills to work, enabling the community to flourish. It is not surprising that there are so many teachers in the community; but their presence alone does not guarantee that they are received (from God) and given (to the community) as the gift that they are. The temptation, especially in times when resources are cut-back, is to see only what we lack—the skills-base that is missing, including those who can teach x or y or z. We need to look with fresh eyes.

*And not all teachers by profession are teachers in the primary-vocation sense: schools are communities, and need all the people-gift types reflected on their staff team.

Wednesday, November 01, 2017

Further thoughts on All Saints & All Souls

All Christians have hope in the promise of the resurrection of those who have died in—or known by—Christ. But we hold a range of views concerning the time-line of eternity, so-to-speak. As I understand it, the Roman Church remembers those who have reached the joy of heaven on All Saints; and those who are in the intermediary state of purgatory, or purification, on All Souls. Anglicans don’t subscribe to the doctrine of purgatory, but are open to an intermediary state (indeed, heaven itself is temporary, awaiting the new heaven and new earth).

Nonetheless, the idea of purgatory is a helpful analogy for the process and purpose of remembering.

The human being is a storied creature. The act of remembering is not so much about living in the past as about curating the stories which have shaped us in regularly-refreshed arrangements to inform the continually changing present. Just as the best museums and art galleries do.

All Souls creates room to remember those we have known personally, and lost. These memories are in a state of purification: alongside thankfulness, we also experience numbness, sorrow, regret, anger, a need to extend forgiveness either/or both/and to the deceased and to ourselves—a whole range of memories with emotional attachments that need to be worked through, over an indeterminate but lengthy period of time.

All Saints creates room to remember those who have passed beyond that initial stage, for whom we are able to lay to rest the hurt and pain human lives inevitably cause, and gladly give thanks for the good that endures. This is not to pretend that our ancestors were saints in the popular sense of ‘did no wrong’ but rather to receive the gift of forgiveness of sins and the redeeming work of God to bring good even out of evil.

Of course, how we curate those stories can still help us address the ongoing challenges of our own time.

So, for example, there is much in the history of Europe (a history that has shaped me), inseparable from Church history, that is lamentable; but there comes a time to focus on the good, the amazing riches of that cultural inheritance.

That we observe All Saints first, and only then All Souls, reminds us of the end goal of memory: the ongoing passing from death into life.

All Saints & All Souls

We are about to enter a Season of Remembrance. Today is All Saints’ Day, when we remember all those who have gone before us, and whose deposit of faith we have inherited. In our locality, the congregation stretches back to 930AD, so that is a lot of saints, or saints-who-were-also-sinners. Tomorrow is All Souls’ Day, when we remember those who we ourselves have known and loved, who have passed through death to life ahead of us. Soon after, we come to Armistice Day, when we remember the cessation of hostility of the First World War; and Remembrance Sunday, when we remember those who have died in conflict in that and all subsequent wars.

The First World War changed the way we think about death and the dead. For many families, there was no possibility of a funeral, or a grave. Mass monuments for the whole parish in a sense took us back to the mass ‘parish grave’—for a long time, people, other than the very rich, were buried together, with marker stones indicating that they were buried ‘nearby’ rather than actually marking their grave. The Service of Remembrance in a sense took the place of a funeral service. And often, both the monument and the act of remembering took place in the market square, rather than the church building.

The Service of Remembrance has become a ‘holy cow’ that cannot be questioned. But I wonder, at what point do we need to let ghosts lie, and allow people to pass from this form of Remembrance to the remembrance of All Souls’ Day and then All Saints’ Day?

I wonder, for example, whether after next year, after 100 years has passed, we need to stop marking Armistice Day, the end of WWI; and allow Remembrance Sunday to mark those wars that have been fought since that War? And if 100 years is not enough—we don't mark any wars that pre-date WWI in this way—then when might be? 150? 200? Never?

It is not that remembrance is not important; but that it comes in more than one form.

I still remember my grandfathers, who fought in the Second World War (so, an All Souls’ connection) but know no-one who fought in the First World War (they have become to me an All Saints’ connection).

Remembrance involves a letting go—not a perpetual holding on—an entrusting to God, and a move from grief at loss to thankfulness for all that was good. It is a process, as much for communities as for individuals.

Perhaps we need to remember what remembrance is truly for?