Category Archives: Faith

Resurrection People

Last week was not a good one for the Rochester Diocese.

One of the smaller dioceses of the Church of England, it does not make the news very often, yet it managed to do so last week in ways that make it almost emblematic of the Church of England as a whole.

First, the Archbishop Cranmer blog highlighted its financial difficulties. Like the national Church, Rochester is suffering from declining numbers of Church goers and with it declining revenues, yet as befits one of the nation’s oldest dioceses, it has its full measure of historic village churches whose small congregations have to struggle disproportionately to maintain our national heretage.

Unlike the church in France, whose revolution seized both the assets and the liabilities of the Church, the Established Church of England is fast becoming heritage liability with a missional church attached. Rochester tried to address the problem in two ways, both noble in themselves, but worth noting if only to draw lessons.

It held to its ideals, perhaps in retrospect for too long; Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali was committed to ” one priest- one Parrish” which is ideal -but meant that if the church numbers did not respond to the financial  needs of the diocese, the financial reserves -never great – were depleted quickly.

The Diocese has recently moved from a “Parish Share” system to one of local congregations making offers to address the published diocesan budget. Many, perhaps too many, who once struggled to meet their quota, may have taken this as the opportunity to ‘bid low’ with the promise to do more of they could. Where, in a harsher regime, they might have pulled more weight in order to ensure they kept their individual priest, under the twin influences of benignly assuring them that they would keep their priest anyway, whilst freeing them from a fixed figure contribution, such parishes probably relaxed in the early transitional period.

There is an  “elephant in the room” ;  some richer parishes, capable of paying their  full  share, for doctrinal reasons, choose not to do so, diverting the monies to projects of their preference, rather than supporting smaller churches outside of their tradition. Perceiving some churches as excessively liberal/inclusive/lax they preferred not to offer a subsidy.

The Rochester difficulty is not entirely a financial problem, but partly a fellowship issue. It emerges early in Rochester, it may may be seen elsewhere. The wider Church needs to take note.

If that were not enough, within the same week,  Rochester hit the news for all the wrong reasons with the publication of the independent report into the historic problems of a girls residential home, Kendall House in Gravesend, where the distinctive feature of the report was the misuse of powerful prescription drugs to render residents more compliant, with devastating effects. There was also some sexual abuse; it is worth highlighting that some adult females are abusers: that is easily overlooked.

If there is any ” good news ” in these stories, it  lies in the response.

Financial nettles are being grasped: a new financial regime has been adopted under the aegis of a former Local Authority Chief Executive , financial stringency is being embraced and some clergy posts may not be filled, as previously.

The Kendall House Report was published for all , in all its embarrassing detail.  The victims acknowledge and take comfort that anyone can read and understand what went wrong. Those in the town of Gravesend who know the woman who ran the home and respected her, are shocked, but not forming a committee to protect her memory: the reason is simple.

Rochester has been transparent.

You can read the story without identifying the victims. Chichester should learn the lesson as it continues to struggle with its handling of the  Bishop George Bell controversy.

In both these Rochester crises, transparency and accountability are at work. Knowing what must be addressed will enable us to do what is right.

Difficulties come to all peoples, and all institutions.

In an entirely different context, Archbishop Justin recently said ” truth is better than doubt”: St John wrote ” The truth will set you free”.

Rochester Diocese is facing some difficult truths at present but we are nothing if not the people of the resurrection.  We still have a mission “to put Christ in the centre of this country’s life where he rightfully belongs” as Canon John Spence has periodically and powerfully reminded General Synod.

We may have to go about things in different ways, we may be chastened by past failures but in a fundamental sense, nothing has changed. We have fallen but we are called to renewal. That is our hope, that is our mission, that is the task ahead

 

The Church remains inadequately prepared for “Digital Evangelism”.

Brother Ivo is not – and should not be – privy to the secrets of the in-house discussions of the Church of England when it comes to the delicate financial and staffing discussions surrounding the creation of the Digital Church initiative.

He is an informed outsider.

He is also free to ask questions, raise awareness, make representations, provoke debate and draw conclusions from what is said and, equally importantly, what is not currently being said.

It is not difficult to draw agreement from the Church Institution about the need to engage with communication. It has ever been thus.

Early Churches did well not to economise on the costs of scribes to copy the early Pauline letters- they might have decided otherwise but did the right thing for us, investing in communication to the benefit of the Church of the future.

The creation of Illuminated manuscripts was costly, in training and implementation. Printing was a challenge, as was the advent of film; Brother Ivo once enjoyed a hilarious conversation with the woman who first secured access to catalogue the Vatican Film Archive, which was an unexpected treasure trove of important early material for the history of cinema. At an early stage, the 19th Century Popes recognised the importance of the new medium and engaged with it.

Social Media is older than we recall. The magisterial Archbishop Cranmer Blog recently celebrated its tenth Anniversary. It continues to be the benchmark for quality and sheer dogged determination to produce weighty and well considered material on a virtual daily basis. Those of us who have attempted to replicate such outreach know the impossibly high bar it sets. One suspects that only political prejudice has prevented the Government from honouring that blog’s founder for services to Christianity and the development of Social Media.

Amongst the other noteworthy exponents held in respectful affection by this blog are DigitalNun and Bishop Nick Baines, yet in this fast moving field we are seeing younger initiatives emerging.

The text based blog  is giving way to the “vlogger” – the digital blogger who shares short film. Brother Ivo must give a brief promotion to TGI Monday and the Virtual Pastor – both coming out of Lichfield Diocese. May Lichfield show the way!

At the February Anglican General Synod we had no scheduled report dedicated to this aspect of the programme called Renewal and Reform, to the newcomers and no illustrated presentation for those new Synod members who have no real notion of what can be done,  or how to conceptualise “Digital Church”.

That absence was nevertheless raised, with an early question to the Business Committee about the absence of a current budget and the fact that if that budget is not in place soon, it will be problematic to call the authorities to account quickly because the York Synod is already virtually closed to new business by reason of a continuation of the ” shared conversations”

The progressing of Renewal and Reform at that Synod focussed on spending £50 million on Ministerial Education; with the shared conversations and sexuality dominating the time on the next occasion, if there is no budget approved by July, the Issue of Digital Church may not pressed by the Church’s elected representatives until after next February.

That would not be a mistake it would be an outrage.

Canon John Spence is spearheading that initiative. Brother Ivo has confidence in him and his team. He did tell Synod that an 81 year old is 8 times more likely to attend Church than an 18 year old. Whilst discussing Evangelism we were told that most Christians have engagement with the Church before they are 25. After that, reaching the ” lost generation” becomes increasingly difficult and unlikely.

Yet our focus  last time was on examining the minutiae of spending £50m to train people to be Ministers who do not currently know that they have a calling; they cannot come ” on stream” for the best part of 8 years.How many young people will have been lost by then?

That budget would have financed a sophisticated professional Digital Media outreach to the young for over ONE HUNDRED years! Such a programme could be formed up and running within a year for an annual budget of £350- £500k per year.

Brother Ivo is not against training vicars, but the contrast in terms of money and focus is arresting.

Jesus taught ” Where your money is so shall your heart be”; he spoke of the Shepherd who leaves the 99 sheep to their own devices whilst he stakes all on the rescue of the lost. We seem to prioritise circling the wagons and doing what we know well, rather than embracing” the scary new” and heading off in search of engagement with those who, as yet have no idea of their need of Christ.

Synod was briefly reminded, this is not a ” budget for social media” – it is a “budget for the evangelisation of the un-churched young”. Yet a year after announcing it the budget is still not allocated.

We, as a wider church, do not seem to have understood that young people no longer obtain their news, opinion, culture or affirmation other than online, yet, when we were joined by young people in the pubic gallery for the debate on evangelisation, it was noticeable they were looking at their mobile devices throughout. Maybe, like Brother Ivo, they were following the parallel debate online amongst those not called by the Chair!

Yet actually doing something about this remains institutionally problematic and currently under addressed. The last Brother Ivo heard the all important budget consideration had been put back to later this month.

Canon Spence did assure us that all will be well, and that the powers that be will get this done, and Brother Ivo accepts his bona fides. No apology however should be made for flagging up the problematic delay that plainly has occurred. The Canon is a diplomat negotiating his way through the labyrinthine processes of Church House; fair enough, but do not assume that all is yet well in the development of this vital outreach.

It is important to set this strand of the Renewal and Reform agenda in its missionary context.

Currently the CofE has 58,689 Twitter followers. The KitKat chocolate bar has 310,401 twitter followers.

Strip out the CofE payroll vote and the story looks incredibly bleak.Yet ask some questions.

Both have a message; each is saying ” look at me” in a culture where every individual makes a daily choice to pay attention to a few of the myriad messages that comes his/her and to ignore the many.

When somebody invites us into their social media world it is an immense privilege. They are giving us permission to break into their world 24 hours a day and to offer our story. It is a preferential position, a great honour to be trusted to that degree. It says- “Your message / story / opinion is important to me and I allow you to tap me on the shoulder and share your thoughts in the midst of my busy day”.

Why would we not be interested in developing such relationships? Why would we not respond to that invitation by offering that person the best of our care love and intellect?

You may be sure that Kitkat employs a highly professional team to calibrate its message into simple and accessible terms. Do you sense that the Church “gets it”?

What does is it say about our attitude to mission that we are so meagrely   engaged in perfecting our skills in responding and developing that outreach. Yet if the person to whom we outreach likes what we say and how we say it, will they not share it with their  friends, cousins, yoga class, book club etc?

The crazy thing is how cheap and cost effective it is to make wider communication. It costs no more to communicate with 5 million people than 500 once the message has been devised and professionally executed.

Digital outreach is a highly professional industry; the Church would be mad to try and reinvent it when there are brilliant professionals out there ready to take away the stress of creative content, keeping up with new platforms, negotiating the licences for the necessary analytical software that underpins the cutting edge targeting of the best campaigns.

We cannot imagine how our message can be packaged for the unchurched young, but we can employ those who can.

There is another aspect to worry about. How many Bishops are “owning” this project? Are our leaders priming our Ministers to seek out evangelising content on the web and to share it with their congregations? There is a already a lot of good material out there, but we seem very poor at seeking it, recognising it and sharing it. We do not have to be good creators of suitable material but we can all be digital evangelists.,sharing the good news at the click of a button.

Brother Ivo closes with an industry story that needs to fire our hope and ambition.

A top advertising agency secured new business and sent the pitch document round its creative teams with the brief to find an angle to make a successful campaign. It was a rather dull prosaic product and many of the top creatives in the agency shook their heads and passed it on until it reached the team that always got the scraps off the table of the more established players. Nothing worked when they did the expected, then somebody had a mad idea.

In that moment “Compare the market” became “compare the meerkat”. The rest is marketing history.

Oh that we in the Church had a similar digital Damascene moment when we realised that our faith can be shared in new and attractive ways.

In the modern era we have the chance to reach many many more than our forebears; but do we have the imagination and drive to make it happen?

Might you, for example. share this amongst Church folk you know, might you raise the need to “click and share” so they too may appreciate the opportunities for evangelism that are slipping away every time we see something online and fail to pass it on?

 

Bible Sunday – and Brother Ivo’s Petty Larceny

Yesterday was Bible Sunday, and Brother Ivo joined the company of preachers seeking to make a sermon that encompassed not a single text, not a parable or a story – but the entire book – from Genesis to Revelation.

He began by reminding the congregation that not only is the “Good Book” – not a ” book” at all, but rather a collection of books, a library, but also that there are a variety of contenders vying for what might be called the definitive version of the Bible.

Is it St Jerome’s original Latin text – the Vulgate – or the “Authorised” Version? Not only are there some books respected but not recognised as canonical, across different traditions, Coptic, Syriac, Orthodox, but in the English speaking world we have many versions, a few of which include the New Jerusalem, Revised, New American, to say nothing of the Good News. We Anglicans don’t do “Good News” as much as we perhaps ought to.

This quest for THE “Bible” which we were celebrating, became even more complex as the congregation was reminded that there are many incomplete bible translations for many of the 6000 languages of the world community. Some Christians have to learn and teach the good news of Christ’s redeeming love via only a handful of completely translated texts , maybe a Gospel or two, Genesis and a few of the letters.

Lest we think them impossibly disadvantaged in attaining salvation, it is worth recalling that for the first three centuries there was no Bible as such, yet the early Church not only survived but positively exploded into life despite massive persecution. It is also important to recognise that celebrating our Bible is not just about celebrating its artifactual presence: equally important is the uses to which we put it.

Brother Ivo had encountered a quotation by the great Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon which he knew, early in his sermon preparation, that he needed to share .

“A Bible that is falling apart usually belongs to someone whose life isn’t”

Brother Ivo decided to take and exhibit his usual Bible, only to disconcertingly realise as he examined it, that it bore on its inside cover the stamp from his old secondary school! He hopes they don’t come for it!

In the context of the sermon, close examination of that Bible revealed that the New Testament – the Gospels especially – was decidedly dog-eared, tatty, with paper clips marking past preached texts. The Old Testament ? Less so…

That probably needs attention, but at least there was some objective proof of engagement with the texts.

The earlier reference to the partial texts of other cultures came to cover Brother Ivo’s embarrassment, for the liturgical texts for the day referenced the word of God being “living and active”.

Last week Giles Fraser wrote in the Guardian of the fact that nearly a quarter of Anglican Churches had fewer than 10 worshippers in them on a Sunday. It is not good to generalise, but it might be a safe assumption that a goodly portion of those did not prioritise the effective sharing of the Bible with the young who are conspicuous by their absence in too many churches.

Winston Churchill once said that a community never makes a better investment than “putting milk into babies”. Brother Ivo reminded his congregation that Churches never make a better investment than putting a love of the word of God into the heart minds and spirits of the young. That has long been his number one priority

Remembering that many good faithful followers of Jesus don’t yet have a fully translated set of Bible books – Brother Ivo was not downhearted if his own bible showed a bias to the Gospels – declaring

“I’d rather share the Good News of the Gospel a hundred times from the small parts I know well – than have read the whole Bible a hundred times over and told nobody about it “.

Spurgeon was himself critical of the undisturbed bible. In one of his sermons he declared

“Most people treat the Bible very politely . They have a small pocket volume, neatly bound; they put a white pocket-handkerchief round it and carry it to their places of worship; when they get home, they lay it up in a drawer till next Sunday morning; then it comes out again for a little bit of a treat, and goes to chapel; that is all the poor Bible gets in the way of an airing. That is your style of entertaining this heavenly messenger. There is dust enough on some of your Bibles to write “damnation” with your fingers”

If that inspires you to both read and share insights from reflecting upon your own Bible, Spurgeon will have inspired you to get in touch with your own inner Evangelical, Bible Sunday will have been productive, and you will have helped Brother Ivo’s in his own necessary quest to repent and offer some reparation for his own petty larceny.

Remembering Names on Holocaust Remembrance Day

Names are important.

We correct those who mistake our names.

We ask the names of others early in relationships.

We name our pets, and sometimes our treasured possessions. This is beyond utilitarianism, it makes sense to name places for identification purposes, but naming is more than that. The bestowing of a name gives value. The removing of a name removes personality, denies individuality and deliberately demeans

In the Bible, names abound. They are given at birth, and are sometimes changed to denote a significantly changed relationship.

Thus, Nehemiah tells us that “Thou art the Lord the God, who didst choose Abram, and broughtest him forth out of Ur of the Chaldees, and gavest him the name of Abraham “.

When Simon was chosen to lead the disciples, he became Peter – the rock. After a transforming encounter with Christ,  Saul became Paul.

In our culture, we remember those who have gone before. We record names on War Memorials, and when we are unable to do this, we use Rudyard Kipling’s lovely phrase “Known unto God”. It is the gentler , more loving alternative to either ignoring existence or choosing the French rationalist version
“Unconnu” – unknown.

Each week in Churches throughout the the world we pray intercessions for the recently departed and those whose anniversaries of death occur at this time.

January the 27th  is observed in the United Kingdom as Holocaust Remembrance Day.

We are asked to remember those who were killed in one of the worst genocides in history. We tend to do so with reference to the enormity represented by that number 6 million.

Some have pointed out that there have been -and continue to be –  many similar dreadful mass murderings of God’s children. Sometimes these are politically motivated, other times it is religious or tribal hatred that cause the horror. THey continue even now, yet tragically the victims are rarely identified to us

There is a continuing holocaust of the inconvenient unborn which some condemn on the basis of denied Human Rights, but others condemn with a recollection of the words of Jeremiah, “I knew you before you were formed within your mother’s womb”.

Few of those rejected, will have been given the dignity of a name, but each individual is ” known unto God”. It is more difficult to reject those to whom one has ascribed the dignity of a name. Paradoxically, most still born children will be honoured with the recognition of their uniqueness and many are named.

The holocaust was not only about the Jews, although they were especially targetted by the Nazi anti-Semitists. It is no bad thing to be broad in our recollection.

Unlike many other such tragedies, the Germans documented their victims, we have their names. We can, and should remember them and their individualism.

Throughout Holocaust Remembrance Day Brother Ivo will be tweeting names of the victims . The names will be chosen at random. They will be from different countries. Most will inevitably be Jews. That is fitting when we commemorate the greatest, if, tragically and shamefully, not the only planned European genocide in living memory. Its conception started with the Jews.

As Europe’s Jews begin to feel less safe in recent weeks it is especially important to assert the value and worth of Jewish lives.

The “Final Solution” was powerfully recorded on film. Because of the film and documentation we are well placed to find and remember names. It is always touching to read them. It puts humanity back into the horrifying statistics.

We have the records and the knowledge and the images to both remember and contribute to the promise made when the death camps were liberated, “Never again”.

We can now address our natural human response to turn away, by restoring humanity to those to whom it was so dreadfully denied.

That stripping of humanity began by assigning to victims a category and a number instead of addressing them by name, the name given and shared by those who love them.

To mark the day, Brother Ivo will be tweeting the names of some who died in the death camps. He invites you to share those names on your time lines. You may care to offer a brief prayer for them though they now be in God’s safe keeping. The prayer is probably more for us than them. Remembrance is for the living as well as the dead.

These individuals will have come from various countries, the majority, though not all will be Jewish, others will be communist, gay, Jehovah’s Witnesses, gypsies, some will be criminals  – It matters not.

On that day, let us remember them indescriminately simply to affirm the humanity of all God’s children

If you want to contemplate or share recollection, you may find names and restore the dignity of individual remembrance here

http://www.ushmm.org/m/pdfs/20141010-dor-names-list.pdf

 

Toxic Transience

When Brother Ivo was elected to serve on General Synod, he resolved to worship with other parishes from time to time. He has tried to vary the churchmanship beyond familiarity, and has prioritised those in the poorer areas. Yesterday, he joined a congregation which is drawn from the poorest parish in the Diocese.

It was well attended, welcoming and instructive.

The Diocese has supported it well and it is well used in various guises, throughout the week. Debt counselling, a lunch club, silver surfers, youth activities, are but some of the activities which comprise their weekly offering to the community, and yet they are worried.

Because of their deprived area, they have attracted grants over the years, from European, Diocesan and Local Government sources but these were for capital projects, so far so good, but they are now entering the next phase, running on hope and prayer.

When asked directly what they would say to General Synod, given the chance, worshippers answered  Brother Ivo in similar vein, –  essentially “Don’t forget the poor”.

They like what they hear about Archbishop Justin, and when pressed, acknowledge that the institutional church has been supportive up to now, but they feel especially insecure. They are a church on the margins, they are not self supporting, and what they rightly suspect, though most probably do not know, is that the Anglican Church is about to embark on a major review (General Synod paper GS 1978) of how we should be “Resourcing the future of the Church of England”.

If there is any comfort to them and churches like them, it has been conveniently highlighted for them.
“We believe that equal weight should be given to the purposes of a) the support and development of mission work in the most deprived communities and b) proactive investment in new opportunities for growth across the country”.

It is hard to think the Church will not endorse that strategy, but it will come at a price.

If the Angican church puts its financial priorities into the inner city/ deprived town centres inevitably there will be smaller, perhaps equally faithful and prayerful congregations which will find their churches amalgamated or closed. Ancient buildings may be abandoned like eroded coastlines left to crumble.

Having voted in the last session to allow rural churchyards to be grazed by sheep, the resting places of past forebears may well be given over to benign neglect.

Synod may decide “So be it”.

Talking to those struggling to sustain mission in hard pressed urban areas one interesting feature emerged. “Transience” is a major problem. WE all talk of poverty and “lack of resources” but “transience” is an under-discussed factor>

Brother Ivo heard how the community has changed in and around the church where he worshipped. Once the surrounding streets would have housed workers for s single large blue collar employing facility. The houses would have been owner occupied, and the shops, pubs voluntary organisations, sports clubs, and churches would have made up the community.

Now, the principal employer having gone. Those in work began commuting elsewhere and with higher income moved to “better areas”.

Local business has declined, housing stock has been bought by absentee, often neglectful, landlords. The police are not seen, crime has risen and with it drug addiction and anti-social behaviour. The resilience of the local community has been sapped not least by disillusion. But also because the local families- the social glue – are much in decline. People are not marrying and separation which is higher amongst those living together – especially in poverty – compounds the transience.Those who move away from extended are more isolated and often more transient.

London Boroughs have re-located people to these communities, the rentals are on short hold tenancies, into sue standard housing where nobody wishes to remain. THere are no legal aid housing lawyers to fight their cases as Government has all but killed the sector. Many of the newcomers happen to be Eastern European who do not speak English, and thus community is further undermined.  Where it exists it is not in touch with the indigenous poor and suspicion arises, even from the Churchgoers. THere is suspicion of undetected criminality and people trafficking. These areas may be ” multi-cultural” . What is less in evidence is “community”.

It is this scarce ” asset ” which the Church can and does supply, and why “transience” is a factor we need to bring specifically into account more frequently, when discussing the problem.

What will help such communities?

Two frequent answers are “resources” and “education”.

What is particularly striking about Brother Ivo’s visit is that he learnt that the local school is failing.

That may not seem surprising until one hears that not 400 yards from the church in question, massive investment has been made in a school which Brother Ivo visited at its re-opening in 2010. It is a fine and well resourced building. There were more IMacs in a single classroom than in the nearby Bluewater Apple Superstore.

“Resources” cannot be the answer there. Results are the third worst in the country.

” Transience ” may be part of that problem, not least in the school leadership: they are on their third Headteacher since the re-build. Children come and go. Middle class parents who do remain in the catchment area do not want their children at a failing school. THe school fails partly because of the poor results imported with every newly disrupted transient child. That is a diagnosis not a criticism.

How one addresses “transience” may be complex. Labour mobility may be a good thing in certain circumstances, but plainly in the poorest communities it is also potentially toxic.

One cannot halt community decline unless and until one can give the very poor some semblance of stability from which we can build strategies to set them back on a path to integration into mainstream society.

Whether that strategy be one of debt management, language tuition, skills training or whatever, the halting of transience appears to be an early priority. The support of  local Churches with their community mission as part of spreading the Gospel must surely be an early part of the bringing of much needed stability and re-generation.

When the police, housing office, scout troops, and business community have moved out, our Churches are frequently the only foundation stone left . We surely don’t need too much discussion to decide what Christ would have us do.

The irony of Charlie Hebdo’s agreement with the Koran

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We have been talking about satirical cartoons in recent days, so, in order to demonstrate his commitment to the free speech which he supports, Brother Ivo reproduces the earliest example of an anti-Christian one. It is savage, dates from the 2nd century, and was found during excavations of Carthage in North Africa.

A man beholds the crucifixion of a donkey, and the inscription reads

” Alexamenos worshipping his God.”

We do not know who Alexamenos was. He probably did not kill the cartoonist.

We do know that to the average person of the 2nd century the conflation of the divine and the crucified was as outrageous as it was ludicrous. That form of execution was designed not only to be literally excruciating and prolonged, but so demeaning, as to be as far removed from godly presence as it was possible to conceive. It ws also a warning against following.

No legitimate prophet would embrace crucifixion and only a fool like Alexamenos would worship such a figure.

So outrageous was the melding of the crucified and the divine that it was a major point of difference between those we now call “Orthodox Christians” and heretics like the Arians, who  devised a very different theology of the crucifixion, arguing that since God was so holy that he could neither be humiliated or die, the reality of the crucifixion must be different.  The crucifixion could therefore only be a show, a cosmic deception – a practical joke even. The ” real Jesus ” escaped such humiliation rejection and pain at the hands of mankind.

It was this controversy that resulted in our Nicene Creed in which the winners (by only one vote) insisted on the unambiguous credal statement that Jesus  “was crucified, dead and buried”.

Imagine the late Ian Paisley thumping his fist on the table next time with each word as you next repeat that phrase and you will get a sense of the controversy.

People died during that hammering out of orthodox expression of what happened at Calvary, Christians killed each other over that point of interpretation, and the defeated Arians retreated to the Arabian peninsular where, one might speculate, its continuation in the currency of theological thought would have been encountered by Mahomed in his trading days.

Islam rejects the idea of Jesus dying for our sins on that outrageously offensive cross. Muslims deny the redemptive sacrifice of Christ on the cross. In a rather vague reference to the events of Calvary, there is clarity of assertion that Jesus did not die, and some Islamic schools of thought continue suggestion of a substitution, some say that it was Simon of Cyrene who was substituted.

Here is the actual Koranic text

That they said (in boast), “We killed Christ Jesus the son of Mary, theMessenger of Allah”;- but they killed him not, nor crucified him, but so it was made to appear to them, and those who differ therein are full of doubts, with no (certain) knowledge, but only conjecture to follow, for of a surety they killed him not:-

Nay, Allah raised him up unto Himself; and Allah is Exalted in Power,
—Qur’an, sura 4 (An-Nisa) ayat 157-158[1]

In short, the Muslim shares the view of Alexamenos’ tormentor that Godliness has no place on the cross.

This matters greatly in defining our understanding of God.

A God who embraces our humanity, enters His creation, shares an ordinary life within His creation, and dies the worst of deaths  is very different from a God who, by sleight of hand, excuses himself from the sufferings of his children.

We now meet a very considerable irony.

The only newspaper that carried any of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons was the Sun which printed three front covers on an inside page. One was an anti-Christian depiction of the crucifixion which bore the slogan “I’m a celebrity, get out of here”.

Charlie Hebdo shared the Islamic incredulity that God redeemed us by the suffering on cross.

So here we have the same idea spanning two thousand years; the mockery rejects the centrality of Christ’s redeeming sacrifice.

We hear the Parisian murderers described as radical, and outrageous.

Perhaps they are not.

It is we Christians, who are are asserting the greatest historic outrageous challenge to a world which insults and rejects our message of Christ’s embracing of the cross. That rejection unites Roman, Muslim, and modern day Atheists alike.

And what is the proper response of Jesus s followers?

Why, to suffer the insult and repay it with love.

That is the transforming example of Christ and what sets us apart, and sets us on “The Way”

#CountingOurBlessings

In the old soviet era, the bolder more stoical Russians sustained themselves like oppressed peoples all over the world with humour. One of the popular formats for jokes was to repeat to ones friends and neighbours reports from  a fictional radio station – Radio Yerevan (Radio Armenia)

One such joke ran that the station had reported the economic forecasts for the following year.

“It will be terrible,” ran one such report, “Natural disasters will strike, the crops will  fail, tractor production will plummet. The rouble will collapse, and there will be widespread hunger and demoralisation- but happily, there is good news”.

“What’s that the?” neighbour would ask.

“It will be a whole lot better than the year after”.

Well, things did change for the Russian people, and notwithstanding current difficulties, most Russians would not want to go back to their old regime. Things did eventually get better, if not yet perfect.

We would do well to remind ourselves of how optimism lifts people in times of change as we enter our own period of modest uncertainty with the approach of a General Election in May 2015.

No sooner have the Magi arrived in our churches with their gifts to lay before our mangers, than our party leaders are similarly out on the road bringing less tangible largesse in an attempt to close the Christmas season down, and bring the news spotlight back onto themselves. This will continue as we observe the circumcision of Christ and that troubling account for all,parents, when the young Jesus is left behind in the Temple by oversight of Mary and Joseph,,

Thereafter, Jesus and his family disappear from history until his cousin calls him to his mission many years later.

During that time Jesus lived an ordinary life, and so shall we, whatever the politicians and even the liturgy may say to us.

It occurred to Brother Ivo that before we get caught up in the partisan battle, it will do us no harm to encourage each other during the remainder of the Christmas Season by counting our blessings during these early days of 2015.

Brother Ivo was taught to be methodical about such analyses so here are a few headings for you to consider , and perhaps add thoughts of your own as we learn to start #CountingOurBlessings .

Our Constitution is under discussion, yet none of us fears greatly for our lives and freedoms under our present current constitutional arrangements.

We have a Monarch of unquestioned and unrivalled probiity. Her vast experience may be called for if the election yields a multi-party parliament with various permutations of Government needing to be negotiated. We know and trust the Queen to play her part with impartiality, and the Armed Firces and Police will stay out of the matter entirely. Happy is the country with such stability.

Our politics are robust, yet despite widespread cynicism, the remarkable question is not why our politicians  are so bad, but why- looking at others around the world- they are they so much better than in most other countries. Opponents will not be imprisoned, and notwithstanding occasional malfeasance., you would not now how to go about bribing one, the ballots will be honest and true. Do we value our politicians and their parties for that most comfortable of political expectations? Are we yet #CountingOurBlessings

The economy is a contentious issue, yet it will do us no harm to remind ourselves that the difference between the parties in the previous Party Leaders debates was over budgets differing by only one or two billion pounds. The contentious ground was remarkably narrow. Whatever happens, the supermarkets will be full, we shall overspend next Christmas, the holiday industry will be advertising on full throttle in the next months and even the unfortunate  will find the food banks fully provisioned.

Our “austerity” debate is largely about whether our government spending should return to the level of of few short years ago, when few of us were feeling despondent at Radio Yerevin levels. Our NHS will continue to do sterling work so that many will be healed and restored, whilst our hospice movement confers upon most of us the blessings of palliative care.

This is not to say that there are insignificant differences, yet we are the fifth largest economy in the world and even the worst scenario is infinitely better than the prospects for most of the world’s inhabitants.

A UK welfare claimant receiving the highest allowance under the benefit cap of £26,000 pa stands in the richest 1% of the world population’s income  income – and that is before one factors in the value of a lifelong pension, free healthcare and schooling for children.

Brother Ivo is no Dr Pangloss: he simply does not need to have pointed out that come what may, we shall continue to be vastly blessed in comparison with our brothers and sisters across the globe. None of us turns on a tap expecting to drink infected water, we have a temporate climate which yields few natural disasters, and our security at many levels is greatly to be envied from abroad.This is why so many people would love to come and live in these islands.

We have religious freedom despite there being concerns at encroachment, and despite anxiety at the arrival of newcomers, the North/South divide and the problems of our young getting on the housing ladder, we are a nation largely at social peace one with another.

These are great benefits to acknowledge in these early days of the year.

The Kings knelt in thanks for the gift of the Christ child, the saviour of the world. We too should do so, firstly and foremost,

Whilst we are there, however, it will do us no harm at all to close our ears to those who would have us fearful, anxious, suspicious or be-littling of each other.

This week Brother Ivo will be tweeting on the hashtag #CountingOurBlessings in a small protest against the negativity that the spin doctors will try to stampede us towards.

Please retweet and feel to join his modest campaign if you too, wish to start the year with a proper sense of proportion, giving thanks that notwithstanding proper concerns for what needs to be done to address our nation’s problems, we are indeed of clear mind and full of thankfulness that we are indeed a most fortunate people.

Is our diversity only skin deep?

The choice of Lennie Henry to guest edit the flagship BBC radio programme Today inevitably brought the question of diversity into the public mind.

He is a much loved figure, amiable, “just like us”, and an excellent ambassador for “the Black Country” in both senses of the word.

You can’t not like Lennie.

If you looked for an example of an integrated person, in some ways different but in most ways not, it is hard to think of anyone better to choose.

Nevertheless, given a full , open choice of issues to explore, this very English man of colour felt it appropriate to go back to issues of diversity and exclusion. That was his right and his choice, but it is interesting that he felt obliged to look primarily  in that direction rather than others; he identified with exclusion even though he has been as well embraced as anyone you might care to name.

Brother Ivo has lived long enough to have seen much change in this regard.

His own mother spoke of her fear of seeing the first black man in herstreet in the North of England, the children fleeing,  lest he take them back to wherever he might have come from.

She was not initially comfortable around such strangers. She was troubled when the teenage Brother Ivo and a friend brought home a very pretty girl of Indian origin, yet to her credit she later  learnt her own similarity with people of difference by badinage, whilst buying dress making materials from an Indian young man in the local market. Shared interests bridged  cultural gaps

When she saw the fervour of dislike amongst some parts of the community with the early rise of the National Front,  she confronted her own discomfort and by an act of will put it aside, for which Brother Ivo always admired her.

If you have never felt difficulty with difference, you have no claim to virtue in espousing tolerance.

Listening to Lennie Henry exploring issues such as the numerical disparity of BME managers in professional football, the problems of securing more ethnic minority MPs and black authors breaking out of their traditionally niche subject areas, Brother Ivo began thinking about another side of the  diversity coin.

We regard ourselves as tolerant towards a diverse society because most of our major towns and cities have a variety of cultures in situ and  readily visible, with Dreadlocks, Turbans, and Hijabs abounding, but does that really tell us much?

Happily we have relatively little racial tension and no “rivers of blood” yet if we drill down looking for hard data,  how is the mutuality of acceptance really playing out?

Brother Ivo would have found it very interesting to hear not from those who have been motivated to integrate but rather to hear from those who have not yet done so.

Diane Abbott, Sajid Javid, Amjad Basir MEP and Chris Hughton had important and interesting stories to tell, and yet they are all people who have moved towards the values of the “indigenous community”: the story of those communities which are more inward looking is less explored. and it is a shame that Lennie did not go there.

That surely is the story that truly needs to be explored.

Brother Ivo was moved to explore this thought when he recalled a discussion he recently had with a colleague from another Church who sought his help in locating somebody willing and able to facilitate conversations within his own Church which had a number of people from a specific African region.

The colleague had made a mistake and did not want to compound it. He also had a problem, which he explained.

When he found people from the same country gravitating to his church he thought it was  a good idea to promptly introduce the newcomers to each other and expected that alone to be a successful strategy.

He had not appreciated the tribal dimension.

He soon learnt that there were plainly issues that he did not know and yet they were issues which his congregation did not feel comfortable discussing with him. They feared he might disapprove of their reservations and so, he was effectively excluded from a dimension of his own ministry. He may have been all for diversity and yet found that he needed needed  informed specialist help to penetrate the cultural issues that were holding back fellowship. Brother Ivo was able to suggest a source of such assistance.

There was another problem.

His new congregation members were very supportive of the Church. If he wanted simple things done his requests were met with enthusiasm yet those tasks embraced  tended to be of a more menial capacity. Recruiting people to join the PCC, to become Treasurers or Church Wardens had never been successful. He was concerned by this.

He did not want outsiders to speculate about racial glass ceilings. He was genuinely bothered that he was unable to extend his opportunities with this new generation of worshipers. There may be to be a very prosaic answer. The new immigrants may be young, have working long hours, have family commitments in other towns; in that they may be no different from other young people with too much to do, yet he cannot be sure.

It is these conversations that need to be had. It does take two to tango.

Brother Ivo shall be seeing him again in a couple of months and will be interested to see see how he is getting on with the support suggested.

The story from this local Church is the kind that does not reach the media.

There are many new cultures and communities now in the UK. Some are still not wholly comfortable with the language and the culture. With 4 million newcomers in the last decade, it would be highly unlikely that all the potential issues of integration will have even  yet been identified, let alone solved.

We should, as a larger community be keen to ensure that ours in not an exclusionary culture; In Christ there is no Jew or Gentile, slave or free male or female. Yet the British have tended to be a pragmatic people relying on evolutionary practice rather than grand schemes of intellectual design. THis is both a blessing and a curse.

Seeing diversity on the street it may look ordinary enough, yet until we know and understand the various communities – and not least how they inter-react one with another – any declaration of diversity having been easily achieved is premature.

It may be too early to “celebrate diversity” not because we should not aspire to it, but simply because our success is greeted prematurely. Integrating  two  communities is of a different order of magnitude than integrating forty or a hundred. in many ways we have not yet begun.

Lennie Henry did a good job, but he skimmed the real depth of the problem

It will take time for so much diversity to bed down: the problems are exponentially complex and not exclusively caused by the “indigenous majority” – howsoever one defines it.

We can, however take a degree of comfort that the vast majority of folk do want to see this happen peacefully and naturally.

We in the Churches have an important role in facilitating acceptance on all sides, but we will help nobody if we allow the problem to be defined in the one dimension of indigenous intolerance only.

 

 

The Soft Power of Christ

nativity-icon

Whatever account one accepts about the birth of the infant Jesus, there is no doubt that he came into the world in the most humble of circumstances.

He lived in the  most humble of circumstances, first as a tradesman and then as an itinerant preacher.

He died in circumstances that were worse than humble and swiftly put away on the eve of a major religious festival, so that the embarrassing presence of a beaten and bloody corpse should not defile the festivities.

He never wielded any power that would have been recognised by any of his contemporaries. To them power took many forms, but all of them were coercive.

There was the Imperial power of Rome, the local power of the client King Herod, the religious power of the Sanhedrin, and not least the capricious power of the mob that could stone a woman for adultery whilst leaving the errant man unpunished.

The values of that society were replicated across the world. The power which ruled the world  was built upon violence.

Jesus changed that.

His power was founded on teaching, service and example.

He healed by forgiving sin. He embraced the leper. He lifted up the fallen woman,

He broke the heart of the centurion who crucified him, restoring him to wholeness so that he could be the first to recognise that here indeed was the son of God.

He broke the power of death by calling forth Lazarus, restoring Jairus’ daughter and overcoming the death by which which the powerful had sought to silence him

His teaching was never predicated upon violence, but pointed “The Way” accompanied by the simple injunction to “Go and do thou likewise.”

Soft power proved to be costly to those who exercised it, but it did not depend upon power from the top. On the contrary, the Church was really built by the 72, sent out on the road with the minimum of resources, but the maximum of faith;  that this was “The Way” things should be done. Christian communities have never been built to last without the soft power foundation of quiet Christ-like service.

There is only one difficult thing about the soft power of Christ.

There is no excuse for not exercising it. There is nobody who cannot reach out to another with an offer of a helping hand, a re-assuring word, or a prayer.

As we kneel in adoration this Christmas, let us pray that we shall be inspired by the soft power of Christ, to love as he loved us, and to do unto others as we would be done by.

Brother Ivo goes to General Synod

In the 19th Century Victor Hugo described the conditions of the prisoner Jean Valjean who was de-humanised by the assignment of the number 24601. In the mid-21st Century, Nelson Mandela became prisoner number 46664. In George Orwell’s futuristic novel 1984, Winston Smith cries ” I am not a number!” Upon joining General Synod in the 21st century one is immediately allocated a number. There is no remission for good behaviour.

Despite that apparent anachronism, one of the striking things on entering the forum is a pleasing and genuine diversity. At early morning coffee on the first day Brother Ivo was warmly welcomed and assisted by a colleague with significant disability, an armed forces chaplain and a nun. In the chamber he sat behind the deaf representatives enjoying the expressiveness of the language of translation, especially the gesture for “angels” which we should surely all adopt whenever we use the word. Think descending fluttering hands- delightful.

The promulgation of Canon on Women Bishops was undertaken with dignity and the varied legislative agenda was well explained and frequently laced with bonhomie when a potentially dull subject needed enlivening.

Sincere conviction was never far beneath the surface. Discussing Clergy Discipline Guidance we heard heartfelt devotion to the integrity of the confessional, and no less determination to banish laxity from our safeguarding procedures.

Brother Ivo made an immediate maiden speech on this issue seeking to strengthen the guidance when Clergy think there “may” an exception to the usual rules on confidentiality.

Instead of stating that clergy “should” take the advice of Safeguarding Officers he proposed that they “must” take that advice. It does not of course require them to identify those under suspicion at that evaluation point, but where the safety of the vulnerable is concerned, Brother Ivo stressed ” This is no time for amateur hour”.

The need for disciplined prayer in clergy life was emphasised as was the sheer stress and volume of advice and regulation upon our clergy.

We are to be encouraged to go ” paperless” as the cost of our a Synod paperwork now exceeds £20,000 per session. As an apostle of systemic modernity, Brother Ivo was hoist with his own petard and has resolved to make the change. He has suggested that we need a fringe meeting at the next Synod with an on hand “techie” to help the less confident Synod members to download the materials and organise them for ready access. Many will worry about doing it themselves but an ounce of practice is worth any amount of exhortation.

The highlight of the first day was unquestionably the address by Archbishop Justin. If you have not read it, it is highly recommended.
( http://www.archbishopofcanterbury.org/articles.php/5443/archbishop-justins-presidential-address-to-the-general-synod-video)

To Brother Ivo, the key paragraph is the one in which he says

” the potential of the Communion under God is beyond anything we can imagine or think about. We need to hold on to that, there is a prize, the quest for which it is worth almost anything to achieve. The prize is visible unity in Christ despite functional diversity. It is a prize that is not only of infinite value, but also requires enormous sacrifice and struggle to achieve. Yet if we even get near it we can speak with authority to a world where over the last year we have seen more than ever an incapacity to deal with difference, and a desire to oversimplify the complex and diverse nature of human existence for no better reason than we cannot manage difference and dealing with The Other. Yet in Christ we are held together. In Christ the barriers are broken, peace is held out to us as a gift established, which needs living. In Christ there is hope of a life that provides hope of peace.”

The more he has considers these words, the more Brother Ivo is impressed with the boldness of that vision.

Is he not challenging us to review the very nature of Anglicanism?

For too long we have had doctrinal strivings, aimed at winning an inter-party struggle. Do we not need to step back from even attempting theological uniformity?

With the approval of women priests we created an enclave for our Anglo-Catholic friends. We shall soon be asked to ensure that other colleagues who hold to the “headship” principle shall have a guaranteed place in the House of Bishops. Having embarked upon that institutionalisation of difference, what possible reason can we advance for not reaching similar accommodations with other sections of the communion, not least those who wish to participate in gay “marriage”.

Brother Ivo opposed the redefinition of marriage: he is on record in that view. That debate was lost.

That law  is now in place and many liberal clergy would wish to conduct such services in accordance with it. We know their views, they are open and plain in their support, even as we share the bread and the cup together. They will want no less acceptance and respect for that approach, than they were asked to accept on behalf of Anglo-Catholics and Evangelicals for their issues of conscience and interpretation.

Given a vitally necessary strong defence on behalf of those who can never accept participation in such services, will this not be part of the “functional diversity” to which Archbishop Justin alludes?

To those worried about too much diversity in our gender views it is worth reflecting for a moment on the once unimaginable diversity in theology with which we currently live.

We have within the Communion, those who regard the Bible as the literal word of God, but there are others who regard it as the “inspired” word of God. Some are strongly for the historicity the Virgin birth whilst others see only an expressive truth. The reverence of some for the Virgin or Icons is for others but one step removed from idolatry. The literal body and blood of Christ for one,  is the “token of sacrifice”  another. One man’s altar is another woman’s table. To some, prayers for the dead are efficacious, for others a pointless exercise. There will be other examples.

In short, we have all swallowed so many theological camels to preserve unity, that choking on the gender gnat should be almost easy. If we are finding it hard, we need to look again at Archbishop Justin’s vision.

Of course our disagreements are a cause for repentance. Yet is that continued, and even additional, division enough for us to call it a day? Is this the time for some of us to walk away?

The reality is that we have become a federation of belief- a “federation of failure” if you like – but still with enough shared love for God to make it worth our while not to throw in our hands. There is still much we agree upon.

On Tuesday we looked at Middle Eastern issues. In that context we hoped that the protagonists will somehow, with the Grace of God, come together. Notwithstanding  the blood and rhetoric currently in evidence there,  if we can still conceive of reconciliation between Middle Eastern Jew, Muslim, and Christian , we surely cannot regard division from those currently in communion with each other whilst plainly of different gender views, just because we are approaching a decision point on gay marriage?

There will be more to say on Tuesday’s business which saw debates on the Middle East, the Methodist Covenant and the “Bedroom Subsidy” as well as a fringe meeting on Gaza. These will be the subject of the next post.