Maundy Thursday

Here’s my sermon for Maundy Thursday.

Tonight I simply want to share with you a story I shared recently on the radio. Something that happened to me a few years ago, in fact six years ago, almost to the day, one Sunny Maundy Thursday when I was in Linlithgow.

It was a Maundy Thursday afternoon, I’d come home from the Chrism mass at the cathedral and we had just adopted out son Gavin. Just – as in, he’d been with us for five days. And at the Rectory door knocked a young man who I’d got to know. He was homeless, and had been hanging around Linlithgow for a while. I had an arrangement with the local shops so if he went in and presented my card they would phone to say it was okay and I’d pay for the food, so I knew he’d been around.

So he turned up at my door, and it was a sunny day and I wasn’t going to let him in the house because Gavin was there and I was feeling a bit protective. So we sat in the Sun and asked for the money to go back to Edinburgh where his family was. We’d spoken a bit about his family and they weren’t very good for him.

He was only 17, althoguh looked older. I don’t know if he was ill but he was thin. He could never look me in the eye. In my job there are lots of different types of people in need. There are those who have mental health or addiction issues, there are those who can’t stop talking, those who want to challenge you those who feel the need to try and fool you into giving them money for their own sense of self worth, and there are those like this young man who couldn’t meet your eye, just was in need and didn’t know how to ask for help without feeling that a part of him was being taken away.

He asked me if I had any spare clothes, and I gave him some, and he wanted shoes. I had a spare pair, but when he took his shoes and socks off, his feet were a mess. I’d worked with homeless folk enough to know how easy it is to get some horrible infections in his feet, so I insisted that we wash them. He didn’t want to because they were painful, but I got a bowl and water and washed his feet. It hurt him, but I took my time, and we waited in the sun as his feet dried and hardened off. He wasn’t a talker so we didn’t really talk about what was to come, but I felt a closeness to him and I desperately wanted to take care of him. But he wanted to get back to Edinbrugh so I bought him a train ticket and put him on the train and that was that, I never saw him again.

And then that evening I did what we will do now, washed the feet of my congregation. Differerent feet, different ages, different people. The lesson I learned.

You can’t do everything for people. They won’t let you. And you mustn’t. But the very little that we can do,we have to do. We must do that little, tiny thing, because not doing it is to despair and doing it is to have hope.

I wonder often how Jesus felt when he said those words – it sounded as though there was a bit of desperation in there. “See to it that you love one another”. He didn’t say “make sure you hang on to my beliefs” or “see that you uphold the doctrine”. It was “whatever you do, don’t let do of love.” Somehitng that he practiced as well as preached, even to the bitter, painful end.

Why did it matter so much? Because it is all that does matter. Because those small acts of love are not a means to an end, they are the end.

I preached before about how Mary anointed Jesus’ feet with her perfume, her one treasure. A small little gesture, but the perfume would still have been on his feet today when, inspired by her, he washed his own disciples feet. When we

remember the words of the penitent thief on the cross, those tiny words of grace in a horrific situation, then those little things become enormous, huge. Don’t ever underestimate the small kindnesses we do.

Jesus never stopped, even at the end, giving acts of kindness. It’s not about results, it is about pouring love into the world by every means that love may choose. It is about simply filling the earth with goodness and making that our only aim. Love is an intrinsic good in itself. If we learn anything about the new commandment, it is that. Love is not a means to a better world. It is the end in itself.

I have no idea what happened to that young man. I hope his life got better. I suspect it didn’t. I don’t know if he’s still with us. But I hope he remembers that at least, someone thought enough of him to wash his feet. And I hope that you know tonight, that someone thinks enough of you to wash yours.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Philip North. The Jeffrey John of the conservatives?

Philip North has withdrawn his acceptance of the offer to become the Diocesan Bishop of Sheffield. He seems universally liked, and widely proclaimed as a “good man”. But as a theological conservative he  does not recognise the validity of women in holy orders. There was something of a storm of protest from those who could not reconcile his ministry with those he was called to serve and as a result he has decided to withdraw.

I feel desperately sorry for him – his translation to Sheffield must have been soon. Mentally he would already have been there, his thoughts and prayers being occupied with his new challenge.His statement on withdrawing has indicated his hurt at what has been said about him:

“The highly individualised nature of the attacks upon me have been extremely hard to bear. If, as Christians, we cannot relate to each other within the bounds of love, how can we possibly presume to transform a nation in the name of Christ? I hope though that this conversation can continue in the future without it being hung upon the shoulders of one individual.”

That indeed raises some very difficult issues for us as a church. A church which only consists of people who agree with me is not the sort of church I want to be a part of. Whilst I genuinely can’t understand his theological position, I have always wanted to find a way for them to stay not only part of the church but part of the conversation.

We are very bad at conversation in the church – so afraid of bad conflict that we refuse to exercise good conflict. When we do engage well, it is wonderful. When we don’t then the church slips into either boredom or acrimony.

What I find truly astonishing is that this scenario had not been thought through years ago and a plan devised. The strategic thinking of the C of E is breathtakingly bad sometimes. That I think is symptomatic of a church which does not talk to one another enough. Philip North is currently Bishop of Burnley, a suffrogan. That he is a suffrogan but not an assistant Bishop is significant. A suffrogan is a bishop under the juristiction of a Diocesan Bishop, but responsible for a specific area. Presumably in Burnley there were women priests, did anyone think to ask them how things had gone? The fact that, as far as I can see, North’s track record was good implies that they made it work somehow.

My own feeling is that I would feel very very uncomfortable working under a bishop who holds his views. I simply can’t see how my fellow clergy could manage it, male or female, to know that only half of our ministries are recognised – and of course for the women in his diocese that feeling would infinitely stronger. But could there have been anything done to make it work? The answer will always be yes – if there is the will to do it. Whether this was though a far more powerful assistant Bishop, or through alternative oversight, I’m sure a way could have been managed. In the church, the only things that are truly impossible are the things that we don’t want to happen.

I disagree with Philip North on most branches of theology and I fully accept that I am hardly in a position go be directly affected by his ministry. But if someone who seems to have been genuienly well regarded by everyone, cannot become a Bishop, then it does imply that there is a theological bar which is uncanonical and undoctrinal. Which is pretty much the complaint about how Jeffrey John was treated.

And let us not forget that the reason he has given for resignation is not the people of his diocese but the complaints and comments of those who opposed him online. This is a case where the more unpleasant tactics of my own theological community got their way. And that is not how I like it. I want to win the day with good theology, generous conduct and loving attentive listening. Not with anger and noise.

Posted in Uncategorized | 7 Comments

Thoughts on International Women’s day

I was on Thought for the Day on Radio Scotland this morning, but with it being International Women’s Day part of me thought I really ought to have been a woman. Or rather, a women ought to have been doing it. But it is to all our benefit that women are treated not just with equal status but equal function in society, me included. And on a day like this I find myself looking at the history of the church and seeing just how very different and how very much more close to God the church might be had we been better at preserving the role of women in the church.

I spoke this morning about a woman in the bible called Junia. She’s mentioned by St Paul in the last Chapter of the letter to the Romans, along with a load of prominent women and men in the church. In this last chapter, Paul greets and names a lot of folk, including Phoebe, Prisca, Julia, Mary – the praise of women in St Paul comes thick and fast. More interestingly, Paul wrote this as a letter of introduction for himself to the church in Rome. Normally of course, other people wrote letters of introduction, so the fact that Paul wrote one for himself is suggestive that he was running out of friends at this point – or perhaps he just thought he’d do a better job of it. But the fact he mentions these people indicates not only that these women were known to him, but that they were important people in the life of the church – this final chapter was part greeting, part name-dropping.

The reaon that Junia is so interesting is that Paul referred to her as “notable/prominent among the Apostles” – ie he conferred a title upon her which he fought for himself. Calling someone an Apostle was as high a praise as Paul could muster.

Only you won’t find Junia in most Bibles. Because sometime in the medieval period or before, those who were copying out the Bible read that a woman had been called an Apostle, and changed her name – Junia – a female name, to Junias, a male one. The only reason we know the change is that Junias is not a name – no-one else has ever been called it, so the editorial change was obvious.

The lesson of those powerful women in the church is not that progress was rarely made – it is that progress often slips back.

In my other chosen field, music, we see the same thing. It is simply not the case that there were very few female composers, in any genre or time period of music. It is just that most of them have been lost to history, or never recorded in the first place.

In the medieval world, perhaps the most extraordinary musical compositions were from Hildegaard of Bingen – soaring, spiritual pieces from the Abbes of Bingen, which, if she were a man, would I am sure have influenced the world of music in ways which would have changed it greatly.

Have a listen…

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UflHEjPmhNQ

Her music, along with her poetry and theology, didnt’ translate into Monasteries, partly I suspect because monks tended to stay within their own orders for visitations, and partly because convents and monasteries were regarded as different orders of importance.

Much monastic plainsong is anonymous, but by the time harmony was beginning to be introduced, in the 11th and 12th centuries, the composers became known. And as far as my limited research abilities tell me, there were in factpossibly as many female composers as male – many of whom like Hildegaard, lived lives of seclusion in convents and wrote for their nuns. Each monastery and convent, Priory and Nunnnery had it’s own musical tradition which woudl have required composers from each place.

For instance, the music of Herrad of Landsberg. Again, it is less plain a plainsong that most music of the time (she lived approx. 1130-1195) but although largely ignored today, was the author of “the garden of earthly delights”, a book of music, poetry and art. Like Hildegaard she spanned all disciplines, and her book is a compendium of other work as well as hers, but the music is regarded as coming from a single hand.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B0Y5jtvh1xE

Despite the popularity of Herrad’s work at the time, only one manuscript of her work was extant in the 19th century, and it was destroyed in a fire. What is left of her work is due to others copying that manuscript for their own studies.

It is interesting how easily (and how continually) the process of forgetting the role of women takes place. This is perhaps because of the “equal status, different function” ideas which separated women in convents from the theological and musical, artistic confluence of ideas in Medieval times. Hildegaard was not taught nor learned from any of the men in travelling Monasteries, and although her letters to the Pope were heeded because of her wisdom, her gender prevented male institutions using her as a theological resource, as would surely have happened had she been a man.

The only female composers who have anything at all left to us are nobles such as Castelloza or Iseut de Capio – and very little of their output survives. Not becasue it was no good, but because it was disregarded. It is interesting that there is a long list of “women composers” on wikipedia – but hardly any of them make it to the comparable “list of medieval composers”. Not because of quality or output, or even surviving output – just becasue… well becasue “women” are niche.

Just imagine what a female Bach might have done, or a woman Wagner. Imagine if all of Fanny Mendelssohn’s works were attributed to her and she became more famous than her brother. Imagine if Clara Schumann was listened to and had the same opportunities as her brother.

Imagine also, those still unjustifiably fringe voices of composers and theologians in our own churches and societies – and how easy it might be in times to come for them to fade from the memory as has done their ancestors. If we think this is less possible these days, then count the number of professional Cathedral Organists, conductors, composers, compared with the male. It’s not just easy, it’s very possible that their contribution could go the way of the women of the past. In a society where sexually assaulting men become Presidents, International Woman’s day should be a warning to us all. Equality for women isn’t something which will just happen because we think the world is probably going in that direction. It will only happen if we constantly, constantly strive for it.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

My children are in danger

I started one of those government petition things – to get the Government to debate the Dubs Amendment again. This is the Amendment which says the UK will allow child refugees from Syria into this country. It originally had a target of 3,000 on it.

Here’s the link – please please sign it and advertise it as widely as you can.

https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/183921

The 3,000 figure was in David Cameron’s time, and now the number the government is permitting to allow in is 350. This deals only – and I emphasise, only – with those children who were already in Europe before March 2016. Those since are not permitted. That number – ie the number of kids seeking refuge before March 2016 – is 130,000. We are permitting 350 of them.

Why no more than that? Partly because allowing more than 350 would act as a “magnet”

That is, the Government think that if we allowed in more than 350 out of the 130,000 that are have been stranded in Europe without protection before 2016, families in Syria might abandon their children and make them walk hundreds of miles, or go on perilous sea journeys without supervision to this country – despite the fact we are not letting in any children post march 2016

I call that a pretty thin argument.

We are told we can’t afford them. To my knowledge there are thousands of families who have said they will take them in free of charge. The government even set up a Sponsorship Scheme to allow people to do this. But the administration and on-costs are not, it seems something we are willing to pay as a society.

When we adopted our son, we took him out of a foster home of four other children. One was nine, and had severe behavioural issues. One was eight and still had to wear a nappy – because of emotional trauma which he had not been addressed. Our own, beautiful, wonderful son, was so desperately in need of a family. I met them all, and wanted to take them all home with me. I would have done it if I could, even though it would have been hell to deal with, because they had no chance of a decent future.

I look at these children, covered in dust and fear, vulnerable and alone, and I see my children. I see children I never had, but wanted, I see children who are the brothers and sisters of my own wonderful son, I see children made in God’s image, and who are pulling at my heart. They are my responsibility, and they are yours.

We talk about privilege as though it’s a bad thing. It’s not. I am a very privileged person. I am privileged to be in a position to exercise power and responsibility for these children. You see, they look around them, at others in their position and feel despair. But we look at them, and we see the power we have to change minds, to change policy, to change the law, to change governments, and we are privileged with the one thing they do not have – hope.

Please, exercise your privilage. They are my children. They are yours too.

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

The compassionless society.


The Government, amid all the noise and haste about Brexit, has quietly recinded it’s agreement known as the Dubs Amendment, to accept 3,000 unaccompanied migrant children to the UK.

These are children who are particularly vulnerable to trafficking, the reports on the BBC and others say.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-38912428

What that means is that there are 3000 children without mothers, fathers, or any adults to look after them. Eight, nine, ten year olds, four and five year olds, who are in danger of being sold and made to have sex for the profit of others.

3,000 children that we agreed to take, and now we’re not taking them into our country, because “we don’t have the resources”.

The fact that the government tried to do this quietly is iniquitous. The fact that it’s even possible is shameful.

Do the government really think it’s impossible to house 3,000 children? Does the government really think there are not 3,000 rooms in houses for children who have no parents?

I have heard the counter-arguemnt – that parents are sending their children out a lone because they think they have more chance of a better life that way – so allowing unaccompanied children means that this encourages the parents to abandon them.

The solution to that isn’t to stop unaccompanied children – it’s to start allowing accompanied ones. Can you imagine what sort of life it must be, that allowing your child to walk or sail hundreds of miles without you is a better option?

There has in the last year or so been a definitive “fin de siecle” feeling about the west. Brexit, Trump, the rise of Le Pen, the rise of intolerance, politicians who shamelessly lie, leaders whose bombast is more important than their integrity. But if anything signals a true end to the societies we have known and valued for the last century or so, it is this. When compassion is so thin that we refuse to help children – that is a society which doesn’t deserve to thrive.

St Paul wrote “be anxious for nothing – but in everythign with prayer and supplication and thanksgiving, let your request be made known to God – and the peace of God which passes all understanding will keep your hearts and minds through jesus Christ”. Whether you believe in God or not, there’s a central truth in that. Anxiety prevents us from being generous. And we are a very anxious society at the moment. That is not related to fact – we are richer, less prone to illness, less a victim  of crime, than we have ever been. It is related to how we feel.

A healthy society is one where we are not too anxious to be generous. And by that measure, we are not a healthy society.

Posted in Uncategorized | 6 Comments

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake. Have I done enough?

Sermon on the Beatitudes Matt 4:1-12

So today we have the most famous bit of the Sermon on the Mount, and on the surface it’s all lovely. Blessed are the poor, blessed are the meek, blessed are the pure in heart. That’s nice. As the life of Brian said, I’m glad the meek get something, because they have a terrible time of it.

All lovely on the surface. But underneath, these “blessings” show us just how very very hard it is to be a Christian.

I’ve been struck recently, since the Epiphany, about the notion of unwelcome gifts. The gifts which Christ was given by the Magi taught Jesus about his true self, about the person God was calling him to be. And that included unwelcome gifts of sacrifice and death.

The beautitudes is a similar giving of gifts. And similarly they teach us what God calls us to be. And they may be similarly unwelcome.

You are blessed, Jesus says, when you are poor in spirit, when you suffer for righteousness, when you are persecuted for Jesus’ sake. These are the moments of blessing. These are the times when God comes close.

Perhaps it would be better to think of these things, not as blessings, or gifts, but as tools which we are given, which we need to perform the job of being a Christian.

Because that job of being a Christian is the job of nurturing that true self which, as Paul says, is hidden with Christ in God. That self which God knows and made. And part of that nurturing requires us to set aside all the false-selves which build up over our lives.

False selves are everywhere. Almsot all the titles and labels we are given and give to people are false-self labels. We get labelled as Doctor, Reverend, Lord or Lady, Professor, Teacher, Mr or Mrs or Ms, we are called tax-payers, service-users, valued customers, consumers We are called British, Scottish, European, Episcopalian, Christian, rich, poor, upper class, working class, conservative, liberal, progressive, backward, Daily Mail readers, Guardian readers, silent majority, there is no end to the labels that people put upon us, and the labels we choose for ourselves. And none of them, not one of them, is remotely helpful in nurturing our true selves. Not one.

All of those identities, those false-self labels are about status, about grading ourselves and others. They are labels of ego, and they can be labels of disapproval and judgment. These are the identities which, if threatened or challenged, cause us to be angry and offended, because false identities, lilke all lies, can only be defneded by aggression. And none of that is helpful in nurturing our true selves.

Indeed, our Micah reading says this very thing – that those false identities are worthless to God. “Shall I bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil?”

Of course not.

But the true self – we know what that looks like. Think of those you really love. No-one thinks “I love my family because they are middle-class, Guardian-readers, I love my daughter because she is a professor. I love my mother because she is a consumer. All of those things are irrelevent to why we love those we love. We love them because we know their authentic self. We see them as they truly are.

It is the nurturing of that true self, stripped of all the false-selves, which is our task upon the earth. And in our readings this morning, from Micah and from Matthew, we are given the tools we need to nurture our true selves. And they are uncomfortable gifts to receive.

We are told to find our true selves, according to Micah, by doing Justice, loving mercy, walking humbly with our God.

In the Beatitudes, to find our true selves, we must be prepared to be “blessed” by being persecuted for the sake of righteousness, by being poor in Spirit, by being reviled for Christ’s sake.

And my thoughts were – Have I ever done enough to be persecuted for the righteousness that I have done? Have I ever risked persecution for what I believed was true? Have I ever sought justice and loved mercy enough for anyone to persecute me? Have I done enough to nurture my true self?

Because one thing is for sure. There is no lack of opportunity in our world for doing justice and seeking righteousness, and loving mercy.

We live in a world where every day there are headlines of hatred, bigotry and prejuice assailing us,and whereas when I was growing up these things were the stuff of foreign reports, of developing nations, they are now reports within the UK.

We have details each day of politicians and leaders who live only in those egocentric false-selves – people who live according to what flatters and what gives them status. Leaders who take offence and nurture anger and hatred.

We live in a country where last year in response to the Syria disaster, with 12 milliion people made homeless, the UK took in 215 refugees. Two bus loads in one year.

We live in a country where our own immigration laws would have turned away Mary Joseph and Jesus if they were fleeing Herod’s tyranny.

And last night I read the news that we live in a world where the largest democracy has now enacted laws which mean that people like Mo Farah our Gold medal winner, and the conservative Member of Parliament for Cambridge, Nadhim Zahawi, are now banned from going to the USA because of where they were born. And if people of that standing can be persecuted, the poor and the vulnerable are in real trouble. Here is no shortage of justice in need to be done.

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake. Have I done enough to be persecuted? What, exactly, have I risked for righteousness?

It’s squirmingly uncomfortable for me to preach sermons like this, about immigration and “real world” stuff. And when I saw those truths about the injustice which we can and should do something about, I thought, “why have I not preached about this before?”

The horrible truth is because I get worried that I might earn the disfavour of my congregation. That I might be labelled with one of those false-self labels of “bleeding heart liberal” or similar. That is the level of persecution I fear. I think you’ll agree that’s rather cowardly.

I have risked so little in my life for the sake of righteousness, and I have a pulpit, and so today I have risked a very little, in preaching on this subject in the hope that it may encourage you to risk a little too. Because you knnow we are powerful. We are wealthy. We have intelligence. We have influence. We have intellect. We can save lives. If we risk that very small risk of being persecuted in order to protect the vulnerable and safeguard the innocent, we can save lives.

Because it’s not just for their sake. It’s for ours. It is in that risk, and in that walking humbly with our God in the path of righteousness, that we find our true selves. It is in that risk that we truly wlk in righteousness. It is in that risk that we will find true peace.

Amen.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Seriously and literally. The madness of Donald Trump

We were told, when Trunp won, that the Press took him literally and not seriously, and that his voters took him seriously but not literally. Trumpseems to be taking himself seriously and literally. It’s a devastating combination.

It’s not my desire to write about people like this. I believe as a Christian my job is to be and to model good news, and to seek reconcilliation among people. I’ve tried to prevent myself defining my character by who I oppose, because I think that’s a false-self, a way of seeking to be better than my neighbours, which is in truth no real character at all.

I am not opposed to those who voted for Trump, for those who were desperate for change in America, to those who are on the right of Republicans, or those whose views of how to run a country or a society are diferent from mine. But I think that the current leader of the free world is dangerously delusional, possible a sociopath, and needs to be opposed before he grows into something we have all seen before.

Since being in the White House for less than a week, Trump has denied reality on a number of occasions. Some of these things of course do not matter – numbers at his inaguration, voter fraud wild theories ec. But the fact that a president can deny reality does matter, it matters very much.

He denies reality when it comes to building a border wall which the Mexicans will pay for. He denies reality when it comes to whether torture works or not. He denies reality when he says that abortion will decrease if he stops funding charities oversees whose work involves abortion. He denies reality when he says that climate change is a fraud perpetrated by China. None of his beliefs has basis in fact.

I think he believes all of these things to be true – which means that he is delusional. Combined with this, his ego is his morality. Over the coming years he will seek to disenfranchise sections of society who do not boost his ego. He will disenfranchise the media who rely on facts and call him to account. He will engage in viturperative behaviour in terms of other countries who disrespect him and do not flatter him, just as he will indulge people like Putin, because “he said nice things about me”.

The reason I think he has to be opposed by every country (instead of seeking accommodation, as Theresa May is currently doing) is because his has always operated on the verge of acceptable. He has enough nouse about him, and has enough people about him, to know that if he drifted into complete insanity he would be disregarded, and his ego could not permit that. But he will push and push to have his way in the maddest possible ways, until he is in danger of breaking that code which will feed his self-regard. The more leeway countries such as Britain give him, the more he will veer into the truly terrible.

That’s why there must be no accommodation on climate change, on trade deals, on “alternative facts”, on any of the lies he does not realise are lies. Because that just takes us further down a track towards madness. And that road is not very long – I have little doubt that if we make accommodation with him, by the end of his first term, the world will not only be a more dangerous place than it currently is, it may be in a spiral of conflict from which it cannot recover.

Recently the scientists in charge of the “nuclear clock” moved the time forward to two and a half minutes to midnight. It won’t be long before it will be moved closer.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment