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St Benedict on People Management: Rule 3

 

 

 

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St Benedict, Prague c. 1300 via Wikimedia commons

Yesterday was the Feast of St Benedict and many of my online friends were tweeting and blogging to remind of this fact. The Revd Bryony Taylor @vahva tweeted: “For leadership advice we couldn’t do much better than the Rule of Benedict in these turbulent times.” I replied “Roughly translated as ‘The Abbot Knows Best’ “. Over-simplification is the besetting sin of erstwhile teachers and I was well advised by my mentor, @DigitalNun, Sr Catherine Wybourne, “Not exactly…. read RB 3 (and forgive me for butting in.)”.

So naturally I turned to my well-thumbed copy of ‘Work and Prayer: the rule of st benedict for lay people’, translated by none other than one ‘catherine wybourne’.

It is extraordinarily apposite advice, at a time when the Church of England is thinking hard – again – about leadership, both at a senior clerical level and for the laity.

I offer you Rule 3 of St Benedict:


 

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Messy Conversations Between God, Church And People – by Andrew Bennison

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The success of a conversation is ultimately determined, I think, not by the answers we receive but by the questions we choose to ask. In the realm of dating, for instance, it is obvious that a romantic relationship cannot be built on small talk alone: since love requires knowledge, sooner or later we’re going to have to ask the questions that enable us to really know the other person. To communicate what is most important to us, we rely on being asked the right questions – or inviting those questions ourselves.

I sometimes wonder whether the Church’s problem in engaging with secular society is that it answers the wrong questions. There are two questions which contemporary culture commonly asks of religion in the public sphere: ‘Is it true?’ and ‘How should we behave?. These questions derive from the way that ‘religion’ is conceived in contemporary discourse: as a set of ideas about God, which influences our moral decision-making. ‘Religion’, in other words, is simply a tool that enables the autonomous individual to make choices and attain satisfaction. Religious Education in schools, for instance, commonly focuses on intellectual arguments for and against God’s existence, and on moral decision-making: religious faith is thus presented as an intellectual and moral framework, to be adopted in the manner of consumer choice – like putting on glasses.

Christianity will always struggle in a conversation which begins with these questions, because the New Testament shows relatively little interest in them. The contemporary conception of religious faith is very far from the message of Jesus in the Gospels, who invited his followers not to ‘bolt on’ a set of intellectual or ethical attitudes, but to something much deeper: a journey of loss and dispossession through which a new and radical life is discovered – ‘those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it’ (Matt. 10.39). St Paul likewise conceptualised the Christian life as an experience of deep transformation, through which we relate to ourselves in radical new ways – ‘it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me’ (Gal. 2.20).

So, what question should the Church be inviting instead? My suggestion is the following: ‘What does religious faith feel like?’ If Christians are those who, in the words of Rowan Williams, ‘have tasted the reality of new life’[1], then this question should yield fascinating and fruitful responses. Indeed, it is the question that I most enjoy answering, since I find the Christian life to be an experience of living more deeply: faith does not draw me principally to words and ideas about God, but to a fresh apprehension of the rich and varied texture of life. Because it frees me from fear, it allows me to face open-handedly the mysterious, complex and difficult feelings that life involves – shame, pride, sexual desire, grief, anxiety and anger: all these become much more interesting and easy to talk about! Indeed, perceptive theologians have noted that lived experience is where God-talk has most purchase: Luke Timothy Johnson insists for instance that ‘the human body is the pre-eminent arena for God’s revelation in the world’.[2] According to this understanding, words about God in Scripture exist not as abstract ideas to be grasped, but as resources for comprehending more fully the reality of our lives. Beginning the conversation with the question of what faith feels like thus allows us to place the question of ‘truth’ in a proper context: the ‘truth’ of religious claims lie not in their intellectual coherence but in their capacity to account for and reimagine human lived experience in all its depth and complexity. Doctrine that has no purchase on lived reality cannot be said to be ‘true’.

So, confronted by the deep missionary challenges of our time, I wish the Church would start talking more frankly about what faith actually feels like. But isn’t this a risky conversation? Asking about God’s reality in human lives begins a messy process: life – not least the life of faith – is complex and bewildering, and so the answers we receive will not always sound comfortable, orthodox or systematic. But herein lies an opportunity: beginning this messy conversation invites us to become more fully the Church – it invites churches to become inclusive and fearless communities where there are no ‘wrong’ answers; places where our confidence in the Gospel allows us to welcome, without judgement or anxiety, the witness of all those people whose lives God has touched.

And so perhaps inviting the right questions isn’t the only important thing; perhaps we also need to give honest answers. Maybe then we’ll be having a proper conversation.

Are We To Take God Seriously?: Andrew Bennison

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Image ID: 325612121 Copyright: monamis Shutterstock

This is a taster of Andrew’s latest blog Musings on Mystery, about one third of his full piece. I do hope you are tempted to follow this link  to read it in full. For me, it is one of those pieces of writing which hit me in the solar plexus – it might change the way you, too, look at everything?


Taking God Seriously

…..For the last month and a half I have been working for a church in central London. Keen and eager to please, I have been taking everything very seriously. After all, the business of a church affects people’s lives: worship, charitable work, pastoral care, forming community … So rotas, emails, deadlines and organisation are important. I need to be organised, efficient and well-prepared. Outcomes matter: a lot. Meanwhile, I have been observing with interest this week the results of elections to the Church of England’s General Synod (the Church’s governing body). Whatever you think of General Synod, it’s hard to deny that it is important: committees, measures, reports, canons, debates, votes… All. very. serious. stuff…..

Imagine my surprise, therefore, when I read yesterday in Matthew 10 of Jesus briefing his senior staff: the twelve disciples. To say they were underprepared would seem to be an understatement; Jesus seemed content to send them out woefully ill-equipped, with a flippant disregard for efficiency and outcomes. There was no clear to-do list, or emphasis on forward planning. ……..

But what if Jesus was, in fact, deadly serious? What if he didn’t care much about efficiency and productivity – or even about outcomes? What if he was actually quite relaxed about the possibility of mistakes, dead ends, difficulties and surprises? Perhaps what mattered most to him was not the outcome but the attitude: inviting people to a radical trust in God which transcended common sense, reason, etiquette and success. Perhaps the most important instruction he gave was not his practical advice, but simply: ‘do not be afraid’…………..

Indeed, when I think about it, I realise that the more I stick around Jesus – as he appears mysteriously in the pages of Scripture, the rhythm of worship and the silence of prayer – the less serious I become:……………..

Diary Of One Christian’s Response To The Refugees: Mike Tricker

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courtesy UNHCR

I have struggled all along with Matthew  6:1  Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.

However this deed needed doing in public or it would have failed and it wouldn’t have any impact? Christianity is never easy, is it.

It did however make me decide to stay focused and not deviate into politics, and make it about the simple human need.  That stays a good decision in my head.

It kept me clear of a lot of negativity that was prevalent in the beginning.

 

So I was sat on my laptop reading the news when I saw (about three weeks before the little boy) the picture of a man crying, about (I thought) to get on a boat.

I knew I had to do something, on my own, before the papers had cottoned on, before that small boy mobilised the world. I sent a late night email to Jane, and said more or less that. I have to help, it has to be something direct!

I really felt and feel I was called to action, and had to respond, it was my turn to react to need as a Christian should with action, love and compassion.

“Give to everyone who asks of you, and whoever takes away what is yours, do not demand it back. “Treat others the same way you want them to treat you.…”

That’s pretty clear and unambiguous, which left me puzzled why a couple of Christians on social media did not feel compelled as well. I decided to behave as I had been called to do.

 

So I searched around and via Jane (our local deacon)  found the diocese in Truro that was helping already by going to see what was going on in Calais. The church warden there was a real help and he gave me contacts that got me started. My first plan was to fill a van and go! But after speaking to the various agencies out there it was apparent this was NOT what was needed. Organised, Focussed relief of the stuff they need. Shoes, writing pads for the kids with PTSD (the kids have no words for what they have had done to them and those they love so they have to make pictures).

So it was shoes and drawing pads. Simple isn’t it, everyone would want that to happen?  Nope not so, when I raised this on social media myself and Jo were met by quite a strident voice of anger at our actions, on Christian social media and even more so on secular local pages.

Then I found Calaid, which is how the catholic mission in Calais had chosen to reach out to a wider audience (still before the little lad on the beach).

With lots of encouragement from all our clergy, we pressed on.   With a team that knew what it was doing (or seemed to, links into the mission and reacting to what THEY said they wanted I knew I had found our agency).  Some of the other churches reacted well as well, Christchurch offered to send stuff over.

 

The list went up, cue a little more negativity.   A freind called Margaret gave me some silly socks to take, as her husband Mick’s Christmas present wasn’t too impressive (she must love him).

I was happy at that point as someone had given something!  Also I could fit that in my car.
Then it happened, that poor child face down on the beach, and as we know the dialogue changed. We were ready, organised (ish) and set up to go. Perfect timing as the lord knew it would be.

Calaid had put our name down as the pickup point in Essex, our Facebook page went a little mad, and grew about 100 in 24 hours.  We had 80 on Monday and then it went whoosh!

I went to Men’s Breakfast and was asked to see if I could get a friend in the Gideons to speak for us. On the way home a day later he rang me and offered a 50 foot tarpaulin!

That’s God speaking to both of us, and yes, he is coming to our next men’s breakfast.

Meanwhile Facebook got busier and busier and busier, lots of promises or transport came and went, lots of promises of collections, encouragement. What little negativity was left was washed away by people losing their fear of being the one that spoke out. Now they felt like they had the voice and the right and the narrative changed.

 

I avoided the local press as I wanted this to stay focussed on the need and not get into a political debate. Action it seemed to me was the way to set an example.

Dialogue comes after success and we were a long way off that, Calaid were struggling with the level of response and it all got little wobbly when the last offer of a van gave way.

I went along to St Andrews to see a medium size pile in the choir vestry.   Also I felt the deed was the response to the anger and not a word needed to be spoken. The narrative change, the growing pile of stuff. That was more powerful than anything I could say. It was also hard to argue with, as so  many wanted to, these are shoes, and they are for people who have none.

Making sure it didn’t collide with the Gateway project, or the women’s refuge, answered the critics that said “need to look after ours at home”; my other work in Street Spirit proved my credentials as someone who saw and reacted to human need at home or abroad. Finally I got left alone to get on with the organising, the dissenting voices died down and St Andrews it seemed filled UP.

All our team kept our church open for the many promised donations (thank you to all of you who did so, including Father Jo, my Allie when it was a bit abusive in the early days, now keeping our church open).

 

Friday afternoon a medium size pile, Saturday afternoon, quite big. We filled my car.  I was determined to squeeze a little more into my car so I decide to go  for Saturday afternoon’s  late drops on Sunday morning, hoping a little more came.

I really didn’t sleep well the night before, “what ifs” ran round my head, what if I can’t find the place, how I would move it etc. This stuff has to make it…

Sunday morning and Jane opened the vestry and her words were “I thought from my email inbox my church might look like this”.

I wasn’t expecting it however, IT WAS LOTS!

My wife made sure I didn’t have to do this bit alone and helped me pack, my car sagged a little and we were off. As I got close to Dalston I said a little prayer.

I needn’t have worried, the place was teeming with people, Lots of eager hands too all the stuff and placed it in orderly piles, lots of smiling faces all looking very pleased.

Calaid had started from a sister and a brother, going to Calais, just before I wanted to, we got woken up at the same time by him.  They had lit a thing that was now all over the street in Dalston, filling two floors of a large office space and the place was called the “hive”. Well now a swarm of bees were moving this remarkably efficiently from cars into the building.  White van man, old ladies in Fiestas, lots of cars, people walking. Orderly but just incredibly busy.

I got back to St Andrews by ten and the second load fitted precisely, not too little not too much, Exactly two cars worth.

A little tear when I got back to London the second time, the place was HEAVING…. It had got busier and the piles much larger, the workers on the floor were more numerous and more busy.

I was just one among very very many…..

What did learn?
~

I learnt the reality of Proverbs 3:6

 

Trust in the Lord with all your heart ,
and do not lean on your own understanding.
In all your ways acknowledge Him,
And He will make your paths straight.
Do not be wise in your own eyes

 

Every line of that came true, every single line (let me break it down line by line)

If you trust him

Even when it seems silly, or when people get angry

And just say “Ok it’s my turn today, I acknowledge that”

He WILL make your paths straight, change the world, and change the narrative, because you’re not alone he calls as many as he needs to set his will in motion.

Don’t be wise in your own eyes, be foolish and wing it, and just go with it and if you follow his will, and his will alone everything will change.

Everything DID change.

The narrative of the whole world, from immigrants after our jobs and benefits, to human beings in need.

From anger to happiness, the good people came forward.

All the things I needed got given

That week I went on training, passed an exam (my first in 40 years),  had a busy week at work, went on a course and everything went smoothly beyond belief.

The thing I worried about which was detracting from other things also didn’t happen.

Gateway had a bumper crop, and all those people who wanted to do baby stuff for calaid are now going to help out for the womens refuge 🙂

Our church was advertised for a Christian act enough to be known by the local press, our town and lots of others in Essex got to hear about our work.

Bishops were made aware, and so many other people , learned from the contacts I made.

Calaid are probably going to be offered 4 7.5 tonne trucks to take the stuff to Calais, and the angry people saw so many of their arguments made weak just by reality.

That’s his work shown in the power it has, how the world works when we are a human race not a tribe holding on to our goods and chattels as tight as we can.

We all benefit, we have all benefited.

 

The next one is the 4th of October, we have transport

 

With our little town, our nation, Europe and our politicians behind it having done a 360 degree turn.

That is his power.

 

Praise him!

 

Milk And Sugar?

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A Parsee (Parsi) Family, by William Johnson, Western India ca. 1855-1862 via SMU Central University Libraries @ Flickr Commons

Be not forgetful to entertain strangers, for  thereby some have entertained angels unawares (Hebrews 13.2)

Did you see Yasmeen’s story on Facebook? She has kindly allowed me to reproduce it here:

I am British/Egyptian and currently live in Egypt. Here there are now hundreds of thousands of Syrians if not more. In the past years since the Syrians started coming here to get away from the violence in their country, I have to say people here have been impressed and humbled by how they have dealt with their misfortunes. They have been very industrious, working hard, starting small businesses and in general doing whatever they can to make a living instead of burdening society. They are well known for their cooking, especially their sweets, and many of them have opened small dessert shops and the less well-off sometimes sell their pastries ready-packaged to passers by.
Keep in mind that Egypt is a country with its own poverty problems already and we have thousands of beggars on the streets. Many of the Syrians who came could easily have joined in the throngs of people waiting for hand-outs. But they are proud, hard- working people who will not accept extra money you try to give them when buying things from them even. They want to work for what they have. They have rented the homes they are now living in too.
Before the Syrian crisis, I knew several Syrian people who are well-educated and well-travelled and some are even dual nationals. But they are very patriotic to their country and although they could have lived in western countries most chose to stay in Syria.
My point is that Syrians are only travelling to the west because they are desperate to survive. Not because they want the western way of life as some are accusing them. Their country was beautiful with breathtaking landscapes and a rich culture. Also, they are hardworking, skillful people who, if given a chance, will gladly work hard and add to society and the economy and not depend on aid.

“Like sugar in milk”

But this is of course not the first time in history that large numbers of displaced people have sought sanctuary in other lands.

Do you know the story of how the Zorastrian Parsis first arrived in India? More than 1,000 years ago, at the time of the Islamisation of Persia, Zoroastrians went in several different directions in an effort to protect their religion and culture. The ones who went to India became known as Parsis, but there are other large Zoroastrian communities on the border of present-day Iran and Afghanistan.

A Zoroastrian priest arrived with a group of refugees in what is now the state of Gujarat. The Qissa  tells how about 18,000 Parsis came in seven junks, five of them landing in Div, one at Variav near Surat and one at Cambay. They asked the local king, Jadi Rana, for asylum But the king pointed to a vessel of milk, filled to the very brim, to signify that his kingdom was already full and could not accept any more additions to the population. In response, the priest asked for some sugar, which he stirred into the milk, where it dissolved without trace – and without a drop being spilled. He asked the king again: “If you take us into your kingdom, we will be like the sugar in the milk: we will become one with your kingdom, and will only make it sweeter.” 

Finding the argument unanswerable, Jadi Rana stipulated only that

  • they were to adopt the local language (Gujarati);
  • their women were to wear the garments of the local women (the Sari);
  • they were to cease to carry weapons; and
  • marriages were only to be performed in the evenings (as the Hindus do).

He then gave shelter to the refugees and permitted them to practice their religion and traditions freely.

Lord Bilimoria discusses the Zoroastrian Parsis in India:

Bilimoria points out that despite their small number, Parsees have achieved international acclaim in almost every field. Among the best known are the conductor Zubin Mehta, Ratan Tata (who turned the Tata Group into a global business), former cricketer Farokh Engineer and the Indian war hero Field Marshal Manekshaw. Parsees excel in the arts too – not many people realise that Freddie Mercury was a Parsee. Bilimoria himself is best known for starting the Cobra beer company, but his first entrepreneurial venture involved supplying Indian-made polo sticks to British outlets, including the exclusive department store Harrods.

He attributes the community’s success to the way Parsees are raised. “You are brought up in this principled way. You see the charitable work that’s being done, the way Parsees not only look after each other but put back into the wider community,” he says. “You just have to go to Bombay, where my father’s family are from, and see the number of Parsee charitable buildings and communities, hospitals, schools – you can’t help but notice it and it’s been done over the generations.”

 

 

Who is to say that those who now throw themselves on the mercy of the West would not similarly sweeten our nations were we to welcome them in?

Review of ‘Writing On The Word’ by Malcolm Guite

guite advent 001Like the rest of his many fans, I look forward eagerly to publication of the latest poems of everyone’s favourite troubadour. We have not met, but we have corresponded when he allowed me to quote from The Green Man in the guide to St Peter’s Church, Hurstbourne Tarrant. And it pleases me, partly for the sake of symmetry, but chiefly for Malcolm Guite’s fresh insights, to complete the cycle of birth, death and renewal afforded by reading The Green Man and this new book together.

The Revd Malcolm Guite puts it like this in the introduction:

“Advent falls in winter, at the end of the year, in the dark and cold, but its focus is on the coming of light and life, when the Ancient of Days becomes a young child and says, ‘Behold, I make all things new.’  Perhaps only poetry can help us fathom the depths and inhabit the tensions of these paradoxes”.

We begin, appropriately, on Advent Sunday, with Christina Rossetti’s poem of that name. Poems for every day follow, right up until 6 January, with William Blake’s The Divine Image. Each page provides a new insight by perhaps the greatest living poet with a Christian sensibility, so, although you will know many of the poems already (including one or two of Malcolm Guite’s own), each page is also a journey of discovery.

Between the first and the second coming, says Guite, “there are many other advents…in our encounters with the poor and the stranger, in the mystery of the sacraments, in those unexpected moments of transfiguration surely there is also an advent and Christ comes to us. Perhaps that is why the other sense we have of the word ‘advent’ is to find it beginning the word ‘adventure’. The knights in Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur say to one another, ‘Let us take the adventure that God sends us’, recognizing that the God in whom we live and move and have our being may come and meet us when and where he pleases, and any door we open may be the door to the ‘chapel perilous’. God may send the adventure, but you will find a door to it through Malcolm Guite and this book.

§§§§§§§§§§

10 December

(pp 40-42)

In drear nighted December John Keats

In drear-nighted December,
Too happy, happy tree,
Thy branches ne’er remember
Their green felicity:
The north cannot undo them
With a sleety whistle through them;
Nor frozen thawings glue them
From budding at the prime.

In drear-nighted December,
Too happy, happy brook,
Thy bubblings ne’er remember
Apollo’s summer look;
But with a sweet forgetting,
They stay their crystal fretting,
Never, never petting
About the frozen time.

Ah! would ’twere so with many
A gentle girl and boy!
But were there ever any
Writhed not at passed joy?
The feel of not to feel it,
When there is none to heal it
Nor numbed sense to steel it,
Was never said in rhyme.

…Keats’ felicitous phrase ‘drear nighted December’, sums up the way many people feel in the dreary darkness of encroaching winter. But, much as I love his poetry, I think in this case Keats is wrong about the tree. Indeed it is just because those bleak, rain-lashed December branches do ‘remember their green felicity’, and retain, hidden within themselves, the patterns and energy of their former green-ness, that they will unfold into leaf again in spring and be able, as Larkin said, of trees in May, to ‘begin afresh, afresh, afresh’.

It can be the same with us: we manage to get through the winter, and also perhaps the severer seasons of the heart, because we carry the memories of spring; we are sustained by a kind of parley between memory and hope. So George Herbert, trying to cope with severe experiences of depression and loss, writes in his poem ‘The Flower‘:

Who would have thought my shrivel’d heart
Could have recover’d greennesse? It was gone
Quite under ground; as flowers depart
To see their mother-root, when they have blown;
Where they together
All the hard weather,
Dead to the world, keep house unknown.

But Herbert knew, even in the depths of winter, that

Grief melts away
Like snow in May,
As if there were no such cold thing.

And so in that great poem of recovery he writes:

And now in age I bud again,
After so many deaths I live…

And what about us? We too, in ‘drear nighted December’, need to remember our ‘green felicity’, and surely that is just what we do in Advent, and in the whole approach to and celebration of Christmas. In the darkest time of the year Christ, the life within us and the seed of light, is sown. The root of Jesse, the stock of that true vine from which we all spring, is planted in our hearts, just when our hearts may feel at their darkest and most ploughed up. So through the dark days of Advent I pray for him to come so deeply and quietly into our hearts that, as Lancelot Andrewes said, ‘He may with one word make all green again’.


Waiting On The Word: A poem a day for Advent, Christmas and Epiphany

is published by Canterbury Press on 31 August 2015, but advance copies are available.

 

Author(s): Malcolm Guite

ISBN-13: 9781848258006

 

For every day from Advent Sunday to Christmas Day and beyond, the bestselling poet Malcolm Guite chooses a favourite poem from across the Christian spiritual and English literary traditions and offers incisive seasonal reflections on it. A scholar of poetry as well as a renowned poet himself, his knowledge is deep and wide and he offers readers a soul-food feast for Advent.

Among the classic writers he includes are: George Herbert, John Donne, Milton, Tennyson,and Christina Rossetti,as well as contemporary poets like Scott Cairns, Luci Shaw, and Grevel Lindop. He also includes a selection of his own highly praised work.

Author Information

Malcolm Guite

Malcolm Guite is Chaplain of Girton College, Cambridge. A performance poet and singer/songwriter, he lectures widely on poetry and theology in Britain and the US and has a large following on his website, www.malcolmguite.wordpress.com.

 

 

Feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary: Sermon by Taylor Carey

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A 12th-century rendition of the Dormition by a Novgorod artist via Wikipedia

 

 Sermon Preached at Evensong, Church of St Mary the Virgin, Holy Island of Lindisfarne

William Golding will be remembered favourably for many literary accomplishments. From these, alas, his use of potatoes in philosophical argument may be omitted. In his fourth novel, Free Fall, Golding has his protagonist declare that ‘free-will cannot be debated but only experienced, like a colour or the taste of potatoes’. This kind of freedom, it transpires, is the freedom of childhood, a carefree, detached, and frictionless navigation of endless possibilities. A little later in the text, our narrator gives us an example: ‘I was sitting on the stone surround of the pool and fountain in the centre of the park…The gravelled paths of the park radiated from me: and all at once I was overcome by a new knowledge. I could take whichever I would of these paths…’.[1]

Philosophers have wasted little time in frying Golding’s potatoes.[2] The exercise of the will, at least with regard to any morally significant decision, is never a matter of abstract choice, freed from constraints both internal and external. To hold such a model is to entertain an unsustainable dualism which attempts the absolute separation of thought and fleshy material matter. The notion that the will is an autonomous, free-floating capacity irrespective of our material conditions is as problematic as its polar opposite: the view that choice is an illusion, and that we are already determined by our material processes. Neither will withstand scrutiny, and yet both exercise a disturbing grip on our contemporary politics.[3]

Today, the Church wades into this hallowed territory in celebrating a woman who made a choice, who said ‘yes’ instead of ‘no’, and who declared her ‘will’ to be in accordance with God’s. How then are we to avoid casting this story in the mould of the regrettable extremes already described? What is really meant by Mary’s choice? And in what way might her story shed new light on our understanding of our decision-making and learning in the Body of Christ?

Our New Testament reading offers a startling clue. ‘I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of Glory’, says St Paul, ‘may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him’.[4] This is not a spontaneous matter, but rather an extended process of relationship; the ‘eyes of our hearts’ are not ‘enlightened’ by the momentary apprehension of a set of facts about God. This would be too quick, too painless, and too easy. Instead, we are invited patiently to attend the call of the Spirit, which moulds and shapes us as we participate in the ‘groaning of all Creation’.[5] Again, such a venture may be far from comfortable, but it is precisely in this patient disposition of openness to the calling of the Spirit that we grow into the fullness of God’s image. In the words of St Augustine, ‘our pilgrimage on earth is a school in which God is the only teacher…[and] we learn something new every day’.[6]

What this picture really resists is the notion of a ‘fixed’ or ‘rigid’ identity, an entrenched and stable stance from which to attempt to control and manipulate our social environment. Our rigidities and our certainties, the very language with which we articulate our own identities, are constantly being overwhelmed, broken, and rendered incomplete as we encounter the self-giving Spirit of God in Word and Sacrament. We are compelled repeatedly to look again at who we are, to look again at who we are called to be, and to find again that place where Jesus Himself stands, and to which he calls us. And then we can ask, ‘what kind of choice can I make here?’, and ‘which course of action seems most open to the possibility of communion and growth?’. The way we attend to ‘the world’ will change the world which we see and to which we respond; our ‘free choices’ are thus inextricably intertwined with our imaginative capacities, with the kind of world we see laid open and made possible, in hope, before us.

It is of course for this patient disposition towards the Lord – so memorably captured in many paintings of the Annunciation, or icons of the Hodegetria – that we venerate Our Lady. Western Catholic piety can, in the depths of kitsch, forget the messy materiality of it all; perhaps this is corrected most effectively in the Eastern tradition, and its talk of Mary as Theotokos, as ‘God-bearer’, as that most earthily grounded woman, filled with fear, desire, conflict, awe, and, through all of this, enormous love and trust. Mary’s ‘yes’ in this regard must be seen as an instinctive opening, the moral reflex of one who has nurtured the material conditions of her freedom through self-criticism and reflection, through humility and sensitivity. It must be regarded as akin to so many ‘yes’s’ throughout Christian history – the ‘yes’, for example, of St Maximilian Kolbe, whom we remembered on Friday, and who opted to forfeit his life for the life of another in the unimaginable hell of Auschwitz. His and Mary’s ‘yes’s’ are not choices ‘above’ the messy conditions and tragic conflicts of our shared world; rather they are the results of stances of attention and reflection which align action with the very essence of who we are called to be, precisely in the midst of the most desperate human strife. They are responses which align our will with God’s.

Hence, the Church is a school, and we learn together, each of us at different stages, yet each of us aware that we need only touch the hem of Christ’s garment to be drawn into his loving embrace.[7] Mary’s example calls us to a lifetime of sensitive discernment, a commitment to seeking out the call of the Spirit, and a rejection of any model that sees the exercise of our will as somehow detached from and indifferent to the material conditions of our shared world. This is precisely why our societal institutions of education and care are worth fighting for. Above all, this is a slow pilgrimage; in the words of Iris Murdoch, ‘if you aren’t moving at a snail’s pace, you aren’t moving at all’.[8]

For all this, we must thank the one who gave her ‘yes’ to God, who allowed herself to become the site of His Grace and creativity, that our world might be thrown open to the infinite depths of His love. To her, we simply say, ‘Hail Mary, full of Grace, the Lord is with you’.

Amen.


 
 
 
 
 
 
 

[1] William Golding, Free Fall (London, 2013), p.2.

[2] For a lucid summary of recent developments, see Rowan Williams, ‘Can we ever be in charge of our own lives?’, New Statesman (4th May 2015) .

[3] Exemplified perhaps by the ‘privatised gain, socialised risk’ culture of the banking industry pre-2008. For a sound articulation of a democratic ‘capabilities’ approach which owes much to the writings of Martha Nussbaum, see Julian Baggini, Freedom Regained: The Possibility of Free Will (London, 2015). For a highly sophisticated argument which demonstrates how our understanding of ‘free will’ has tended to alienate us from our natural and social environment, see John Gray, The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom (London, 2015).

[4] Ephesians 1:16-17.

[5] Romans 8:22.

[6] St Augustine, Sermon 16A.1.

[7] Matthew 9:21.

[8] Iris Murdoch, ‘Above the Gods: A Dialogue about Religion’, in Existentialism and Mystics: Writings on Philosophy and Literature (London, 1997), p.500.

Review of ‘Questions Are The Answer’ by David Hayward (@nakedpastor)

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‘Graffiti artist on the walls of religion. Dinner guest & conversationalist at The Lasting Supper. Cartoonist, Thinker, Painter, Blogger. Join the Journey!’

I urge everyone to read this book, from the Archbishop of Canterbury to the church mouse . You will find it stimulating and a page-turner. If you are comfortable in your Church and your church, you may see them in a new light which will illumine your path. And if you are unhappy, David offers you a possible way out of the labyrinth that is organised Christendom.

Right. End of review. Or at least, that is where David hints he would like me to stop: “I …still know what it means to put my work out there and have it and me analyzed as a result. I draw something I think is true, and others analyze my art with interest and concern and draw conclusions about me. There exists within me this tension between not wanting to draw attention to myself but doing the things that accomplish exactly that” (p.2). But the publishers might feel a little short-changed, and I would feel frustrated. So, with apologies in advance to David, I am going to attempt to analyse him and his book, and even draw a few tentative conclusions….

On the face of it, ‘Questions Are the Answer’ is David Hayward’s testimony, an autobiographical account of his relationship with the Church and the Body of Christ. This is a notoriously difficult thing to communicate.

  “We live together, we act on, and react to, one another; but always and in all circumstances we are by ourselves…By its very nature every embodied spirit is doomed to suffer and enjoy in solitude. Sensations, feelings, insights, fancies—all these are private and, except through symbols and at second hand, incommunicable. We can pool information about experiences, but never the experiences themselves.” Aldous Huxley in ‘Heaven and Hell’ (1954).

David is helped in communicating his experiences through the accompanying drawings, liberally scattered throughout the text. These do much more than simply illustrate what he is saying: as Sir Kenneth Clark said in Civilisation ” ‘What is too silly to be said may be sung’ — well, yes; but what is too subtle to be said, or too deeply felt, or too revealing or too mysterious — these things can also be sung and can only be sung”. In ‘Questions Are The Answer’, the author draws what is too subtle, too deeply felt, too revealing or too mysterious to be expressed in words. The word ‘cartoon‘ conveys something more frivolous than ‘the naked pastor’s, which can be as penetrating and uncomfortable as those of Ralph Steadman, but they may also make you smile at our human foolishness.

David does not spare us the pain that he has suffered in response to the challenge to take up his cross. He uses the simplest language to convey this, which is all the more effective as a result. But he also says at the end that he is one of the happiest people he knows, and that he has achieved theological peace (p.122). He attributes this in part to having been released from the cage, not of Christianity itself, but the barnacles (my metaphor, not his), the accretions which have covered the hull of the ship in which all worshipping Christians sail. And – as the title says – one of the purposes of this book is to encourage the asking of questions. And when the answers prompt further questions, as they usually do, to continue to ask questions.

For the testimony is only the first layer of the onion, the answer to the first question. Those prepared to take him at his word, and peel off layer by layer, will find they are taking a journey, first into Christendom, and then deep into themselves:

The third kind of questions is open questions. The answer to these questions is that there isn’t an answer. Oh, there may be an answer, but we don’t know what it is, we don’t pretend that there is, and we remain open in order to discern it when or if it should arrive. I would characterize this period as a time of contentment. (p.15)

David is extraordinarily approachable for someone in his league of celebrity – he has nearly ten thousand followers on twitter and five thousand followers on Facebook. He has considerable charm, and I find his ‘company’ curiously compelling. Watching this hangout from ‘The Lasting Supper’ potluck feels rather like looking at the Rublev icon, being drawn into the dance, as if there is a place waiting just for you to join. And this is a beguiling offer in the 21st century.

But David Hayward has become a pastor to many of these people. I must ask him why he is ‘naked’, but I presume it is because he has no baggage in the way of a church building or diocesan officials breathing down his neck.

He also travels light – at one stage he was bankrupt and, although I hope he is now solvent, he could never be confused with a proponent of the prosperity gospel.

David ends his book:

I compare our journeys to taking a canoe trip down a river…

I like to have my own canoe, but I like to meet up with other canoeists with their own canoes when I want. This is how I integrate my intoverted and extroverted self. Of course, I am aware that sometimes I have no choice in the matter. Sometimes I just find myself very alone. At other times I suddenly find myself surrounded by other canoes…

I feel like we are all in our own canoes making our own trips, but that we have the privilege of meeting up with others who are on the same kind of river. Before, I often felt like I was the only living soul on the whole river. I now now there are many others on the same river and they are my companions. ..

I’m not going nowhere. The river is taking me somewhere. While for me the river is the destination, it is also a way. I’m taking in every minute of it now, but I also feel, deep down, that I’m being taken to a more wonderful place somehow and that I’m going to be a better person for it.

The Church and Discipleship – a Problem of Expectations? – Andrew Bennison

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Valentina Razumova via Shutterstock Image ID: 132844280

 

The soft bigotry of low expectations’. It’s a phrase oft-quoted in education circles: the idea that poorer pupils are disadvantaged by the well-meaning, but ultimately pernicious, attitudes of their teachers, who assume that certain students are unable to achieve highly – assumptions which then become self-fulfilling. Thankfully, considerable attention and resources have been committed in recent years to tackling this ‘soft bigotry’ in education, and there is evidence that these efforts are beginning to pay off: raising our expectations does result in real positive change.

What relevance does this have to the Church? Well, to put it bluntly: could it be that a similar problem of low expectations inhibits the mission of the Church of England? In our parishes and congregations, do we actually expect people to be transformed ‘from one degree of glory to another’? If this isn’t visibly happening, are we concerned about it? More fundamentally, do we actually believe in the transformative power of the gospel we seek to proclaim?

Reading accounts of the early Church and patristic writings, one cannot help but be struck by the dedication and perseverance displayed by the early Christians: through their wholehearted commitment to prayer, worship and community life, their lives attested to the demanding, countercultural nature of Christian discipleship. The Church grew as people encountered the mystery of God in Christ and orientated their lives around it, pursuing what St Paul described as ‘the renewing of your minds’. In contrast, much Anglican parish life today seems to ‘be conformed to this world’: lacklustre worship, a dearth of prayer and spirituality, and overstretched clergy contribute to a culture of low expectations, in which widespread theological illiteracy amongst the laity is tolerated. Recently I read through the ‘Grow Stage’ of the Church of England’s flagship Pilgrim resources, which seeks to help Christians ‘continue in the Apostles’ teaching and fellowship’. As the material encouraged me to reflect on and establish a ‘pattern of worship and daily prayer’, it struck me that I almost never discuss my spiritual growth and discipleship at church: a culture of etiquette and small talk ensures that we – the laity – are rarely challenged to discuss the depth and development of our faith. A forceful speech made by the Archbishop of Canterbury last week surprised me in its willingness to confront this culture of mediocrity: his uncompromising assertion that ‘the quality of our Christian lives matters very seriously to God’ took aim at the ‘cultural Christianity’ which implicitly views the laity as consumers to be satisfied, rather than ‘living stones’ to be built into ‘a spiritual house, a holy priesthood’. Low expectations are not clearly confined to one wing or tradition of the Church.

To state this critique plainly is not, of course, to invite blame and recrimination – particularly as I am aware of my own complicity in this culture of low expectations. I should also be wary of exaggeration: there are many examples of church communities who are committed to deepening the holiness and discipleship of the whole people of God. The Revd Dr Ian Mobsby has written at length about how ‘new monastic’ communities, for instance, are enabling ‘the empowering of the people of God, the laity, to be the Church, moving away from passivity and “church going” to participation and “church being”’.[1] Moreover, we are rightly suspicious of an overbearing clericalism which seeks to impose a ‘one-size-fits-all’ model of discipleship, based on crude understandings of theology and spirituality; many Anglicans would push back firmly against such a model, emphasising instead the need for humility and freedom in discipleship, open to the promptings of the Spirit. Nonetheless, it is appropriate and necessary for clergy and lay leaders to provide resources, guidance and teaching to support ordinary Christians in their spiritual journeys. Often, this will involve explicit guidance in the practice of contemplative prayer – described by Rowan Williams as ‘the only ultimate answer to the unreal and insane world that our financial systems and our advertising culture and our chaotic and unexamined emotions encourage us to inhabit’.[2] Seeking to live as a Christian in today’s sceptical postmodern climate can be a difficult and bewildering task; providing spiritual guidance and direction is thus vital to the priestly role of guiding God’s people ‘through [the world’s] confusions, that they may be saved through Christ for ever’.[3] To affirm that Christian faith is ultimately a mystery does not mean abdicating responsibility for helping the faithful to plumb the depths of this mystery in prayer and wonder, and in doing so to grow into the likeness of Christ.

The Church of England is currently facing an existential crisis. Disagreements abound over whether the Church should be prioritising spiritual or numerical growth. The answer, of course, is that these priorities can’t be separated: the Church becomes attractive not through its hyperactive apologetics, or through the frantic multiplying of worship styles and ‘fresh expressions’ to meet consumer demand. Rather, the Church becomes attractive when it models a new way of living: when a gathered community of disciples worship God in faith, hope, and love, bearing witness to the image of God in Christ through their very being and living. ‘You are the light of the world’, said Jesus. Perhaps it’s time to raise our expectations.

 

[1] Ian Mobsby, God Unknown: The Trinity in contemporary spirituality and mission (Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2012), p. 65.
[2] Rowan Williams, ‘Archbishop’s Address to the Synod of Rome’, 10 October 2012, available here.
[3] Extract from the Church of England Ordinal for priests, available here.

St Aidan – A Model for Mission? – by Taylor Carey

Aidan

Hagiography is not biography, and what we know of the ministry of St Aidan – principally through the Ecclesiastical History of Bede – must not be considered forensic material, so much as the rich echo of a dynamic and striking life. Nonetheless, these facts we may ascertain: that in 634, Aidan, a monk from Iona, was invited by King Oswald of Northumbria, recently restored from exile, to preach the Gospel to a largely pagan people in the North East of England. Here the pagan gods were apparently in the ascendant; in either 632 or 633, King Edwin of Northumbria, who had himself deposed Oswald’s father Aelthelfrith in 616, was killed by Penda, the powerful leader of Anglo-Saxon Mercia, who joined forces with Cadwallon, King of Gwynedd to deliver a crushing blow to the Christian ruler. Though Oswald would defeat Cadwallon and regain Northumbria, he too was to meet his end at the hands of the Mercians some ten years later – though Penda never considered Oswald’s murder to constitute any particular obstacle to his own son’s marriage to Eanfled, daughter of the slain king’s brother Oswiu. These were interestingly complex times.[1]

Into this violent arena strolled Aidan, an Irish monk. We might suppose that he considered the task at hand with a biblically sound mixture of fear and trembling. On the one hand, there is just a hint in Bede’s History that he might have harboured ambitions: a previous mission from Iona had failed to win over a sceptical Northumbrian population, and Aidan, though hardly the most senior member of his community, emerges rapidly as the candidate for a second try. On the other hand, almost every aspect of his subsequent ministry directly repudiated the prevailing social assumptions of his day. Aidan served several kings, enjoying their support, yet never confusing political patronage with friendship. He impressed nobles and could speak eloquently, yet he walked everywhere, and considered peasants as human individuals, not faceless subjects. One story even has Aidan giving away a fine horse, forced upon him by Oswiu, to a beggar. In a time when travelling unarmed was a reckless invitation to beasts both human and non-human, Aidan’s monks preached the Gospel of peace with integrity, wielding not swords but ploughshares, and asking for nothing but a little patience from the communities they visited with regularity. Aidan founded a school to educate English boys, many of whom (voluntarily) became monks on Lindisfarne, where Aidan had chosen to situate his community, and had built a wooden church in 635. Out of the pages of this particular chapter of history walk countless lives touched by Aidan’s witness, many of whom benefitted from his patronage and instruction – Cedd, Chad, and Hild most directly, but, perhaps most famously, the future Bishop of Lindisfarne, and much exalted, St Cuthbert.

Whilst hagiography is not biography, what emerges from the sources regarding St Aidan is a vivid portrait of a distinctive model of mission. Admittedly, too much has often been made of so-called ‘Celtic Christianity’, an unduly romanticised construct emphasising the ‘free’ and ‘natural’ spirit of early mediaeval ecclesiology in the ‘Gaelic world’, so beloved of the post-industrial mindset. It would be worth remembering here that Aidan always sought to found an English monastery with English monks, participating in the ordered mission of the universal Church.[2] Nonetheless, I think we ought to be able to discern, within the life and witness of Aidan’s community, one or two images which may serve to enrich our own discussions of ‘mission’, which are certainly plentiful in today’s churches. In the ministry of St Aidan, then, we may find some valuable pointers for thinking more thoroughly about what ‘mission’ really entails.

Firstly, Aidan’s model of evangelism was humble, gentle, and personal. We are told by Bede that the first monk from Iona to attempt the conversion of the Northumbrian pagans met with failure. Bede names him simply as austerior, or the ‘more severe’, and implies that an impersonal and somewhat aggressive approach to demythologising the Anglo-Saxon pantheon merely aroused hostility and incredulity. By contrast, Aidan’s understanding of evangelism centred on meeting people on their own terms, rushing out to them like the father of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:20). To ‘win the neighbour for Christ’ was, in reality, the enterprise of so opening up the space and time of a shared world that God could be present to and for others. In a sense, then, Aidan’s ministry emphasised the importance of getting out of God’s way, rather than attempting to force others into a preconceived framework for holiness. In such sentiment is the clear imprint of the spirituality of the Desert Fathers, memorably recorded and broadcast to Western Christendom through the Conferences and Institutes of John Cassian (c.360 – 435), whose ascetical theology was immensely popular in early Christian Ireland.[3] Aidan’s ministry thus conformed to an ‘inculturated’ pattern which sought to avoid sharp narrative conflict with existing societal landscapes, instead working through them in a manner vividly repeated by Vincent Donovan amongst the Masai in east Africa in the 1960s.[4] The central element of mission, for Aidan, was not the performance of an act or the imparting of a particular piece of knowledge, but the relation of prayerful charity and hospitality which opened up the possibility of God’s continuous creative activity being allowed to shine through and touch others afresh. In the memorable words of one desert monk, which Aidan may even have known, ‘My rule is to welcome you with hospitality, and to send you on your way in peace’.[5]

This understanding of the activity of mission opens up a second, and perhaps more profound, realisation. Amongst the recorded conversations in Cassian’s Conferences is a warning that ‘a monk’s prayer is not perfect if in the course of it he is aware of himself or of the fact that he is praying’.[6] Evagrian spirituality, and particularly its understanding of prayer as a form of ascent to and mystical union with God, formed an influential strand of Christian thought for much of the Western Church’s formative years (itself being influenced by the Neoplatonic tinge of the Cappadocian Fathers). For Cassian, as for many influenced by his presentations of Patristic teachings, spirituality was, fundamentally, the occupation of a certain place in the world, standing ‘where Christ stands’ in relation to the Father. To ‘put on’ Christ in this way was never primarily a matter of exercising a certain set of skills or activities, but rather, to so attune one’s life to response to God and neighbour that we are ‘swept up into the Son’s journey towards the Father, his eternal and temporal pouring of his life into the life of the Father who eternally pours his life into the Son’.[7]

For the Christian, the life of the spirit is an invitation into the ‘way’ of Jesus Christ, the crucified God. It should thus be clear that any understanding of mission must take as its basic point of reference a particular located narrative; a series of (diverse, challenging, problematic) images which serve as further invitations into the depths of Jesus’ divine life, and which are, as such, sources of the radical re-description of our environment. To ask, then, what ‘mission’ would look like in such a scheme would be rapidly to find the fundamental inseparability of Jesus’ life and work. As Rowan Williams puts it, ‘The mission of Jesus is his concrete reality: God’s purpose is satisfied when the lost and the lawless come into specific relationship with Jesus… There is no mission which is not this sort of involvement…in Jesus, mission and person are identical’.[8]

Hence, perhaps, for Aidan, as for countless Christians before and since, the inseparability of contemplation and mission. The grounding of Christian ‘activity’ in a rigorous pattern of asceticism might be seen as a form of guarantee against the separation of these two images of Jesus’ own life – his personhood, and his being ‘sent by the Father’. Holding these images together, for all their tensions and difficulties, provides the space for a radical understanding of what the proclamation of the Gospel might be: nothing less than our own immersion in the depths of divine creativity and love, through which our environment may be so opened and transformed, that something of God’s grandeur may show forth and prove a spectacle most wonderful for all. This, we might dare to assume – though of course we cannot let ourselves think he would have expressed it in such language – was the inspired vision of St Aidan, and the pattern to which he sought to conform as he rejected so many other assumptions of his day. Plodding humbly through peasants’ fields and villages, teaching with patience and courtesy, and finding where God spoke through others before he presumed to tell them anything, St Aidan might just be a model for our contemporary understanding of mission. In the words of a prayer ascribed to him:[9]

Leave me alone with God as much as may be.

As the tide draws the waters close in upon the shore make me an island, set apart, alone with you, God, holy to you.

Then with the turning of the tide prepare me to carry your presence to the busy world beyond, the world that rushes in on me till the waters come again and fold me back to you.


 

[1] For a lucid and accessible account of these developments, and their relation to St Aidan and Lindisfarne, see Kate Tristram, The Story of Holy Island (Norwich, 2009).

[2] This is a contentious issue. Quite obviously, the spiritual offshoots deriving (consciously or otherwise!) from Alexander Carmichael’s Carmina Gadelica (first published in 1900) constitute, in a non-cognitivist sense, an authentic ‘Celtic Christianity’. The difficulty arises when such frameworks are then read back into the historical record (sketchy and agenda-ridden as Bede’s account, for example, often is). Such recent developments must also be seen in the light of various post-Reformation attempts to play up the importance of the Synod of Whitby in 664.

[3] Irish monasticism was marked by a twofold emphasis on biblical theology (due to the necessity of learning Latin in order to absorb the wisdom of the Scriptures, which orientated Irish theology towards an understanding of its task as the true revelation of the hidden depths of the Word of God), and rigorous asceticism, which aided the gruelling enterprise of memorising the Scriptures and other important texts, including Cassian’s Institutes and Conferences. For a fascinating portrait of Irish monastic spirituality as evidenced by the life of one of its earliest ‘celebrities’, see Kate Tristram, Columbanus: The Earliest Voice of Christian Ireland (Blackrock, 2010).

[4] See Vincent J. Donovan, Christianity Rediscovered (London, 1982).

[5] Benedicta Ward (ed.), The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks (London, 2003), p.136.

[6] John Cassian, Conference 9:31.

[7] Rowan Williams, ‘To Stand Where Christ Stands’, in Ralph Waller and Benedicta Ward (eds.) An Introduction to Christian Spirituality, pp.6-7. See in the same volume Kallistos Ware, ‘Prayer in Evagrius of Pontus and the Macarian Homilies’, pp.14-30.

[8] Rowan Williams, Open to Judgement (London, 1994), pp.254-255.

[9] Though, of course, not written by him.

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