The Rood reality

Below is the text of my sermon at St Aldhelm’s on Sunday, 17th September. The readings were Romans 14, 1-12 and Matthew 18, 21-35.

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It’s all of 10 days since I became your vicar. People ask me how it’s going. ‘Well’, I reply, ‘I’m surviving, so far…’ I hope that doesn’t suggest to anyone the story of the person who in mid-fall from the top of a skyscraper receives a call on his mobile half way down, asking how it’s going: ‘No problem so far…’

 

We live by faith, and God’s goodness and providence are enough, poured forth as they are each day in so many and varied ways. I went for the fourth or fifth time to collect some curtains from Aga’s sewing shop and left her some more to adjust and shorten. Her eyes widened, ‘How many windows you have?’ ‘Oh, there’s quite a few more yet’, I explained, ‘It’s a big house that comes with the job,’ I thought I should explain. Another day, I went to Tesco’s to get a few items, among them refreshments for my first meeting with the Church Council. The girl at the checkout was very pleasant. She didn’t seem fazed by the boxes of beer and port I had for the PCC and for the concert this week. Instead she exclaimed, ‘Oh, it seems funny somehow, a vicar buying pizza.’ Like I say, our Lord lifts our hearts each day in many and varied ways…

 

This week I visited Bishop Aldhelm’s school. I introduced Fr Cornelius to the children at Busy Bodies. I met the Church Council and was delighted to encounter an impressive array of experienced and skilled people, unafraid to speak their minds and to disagree with each other (and with me) without falling out. They will make the Chairman’s job a challenging but rewarding one and I think together we can do some good. I have held the ladder while a church member cheerfully ascended to change a bulb and then dusted down our rather cobwebbed Rood. I have accompanied the choir in their cheerful weekly practice. I have seen an upstanding member of the congregation dressed as a clown signalling to the passing traffic our Saturday morning sale (his efforts may not have swollen hugely the crowds attending but gave real delight to passing bus drivers and their passengers.) I celebrated Mass with the Friends of St Aldhelm’s and discussed with them how our church building might make its wonder and beauty somehow more accessible to the community of those who live or work or pass nearby. And I have talked with many people, and prayed with several as we reflected together on the past or on current changes in their lives. It has been a tiring and exhilarating and an awesome start to a ministry that I know I am unequal to but which fortunately is in God’s hand, not mine.

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Our Lord – of this I feel sure – has been equally active in your lives this past week: in ways just as obvious, or hidden, or ingenious as those I have dared to describe here. It is all because we live in a kingdom called Grace. We suppose we belong to a world where money rules and power controls and distrust is the only common language; where pleasure must be stolen and love earned; where terror and fear reign and where we must guard what we suppose belongs to us. This, we say, is the real world. But no. In truth, that world is a dream, or a nightmare. In truth we belong to what the poet and priest R S Thomas called The Kingdom:

 

It’s a long way off but inside it

There are quite different things going on:

Festivals at which the poor man

Is king and the consumptive is

Healed; mirrors in which the blind look

At themselves and love looks at them

Back; and industry is for mending

The bent bones and the minds fractured

By life. It’s a long way off, but to get

There takes no time and admission

Is free, if you will purge yourself

Of desire, and present yourself with

Your need only and the simple offering

Of your faith, green as a leaf.

 

I suppose you could say our challenge and our hope as a Church community is to live a little more consciously in that Kingdom, the Kingdom of God, of which Jesus so frequently spoke and to which all his teaching, his healing, his miracles, his forgiveness, and his passion and death and life renewed, testify. Typically in today’s Gospel reading he makes the point plain by means of a story. A servant who is in huge debt must fear disaster when accosted by his master but is amazingly and wondrously released by him with no payment due. In turn he does what we, fearful and defensive creatures as we are, so often do and demands full payment of all that is owed to him. We are like that servant in that we have been forgiven our debts and our faults. We must therefore live out our luck by extending grace to others. Slightly more prosaically, St Paul makes a similar point in today’s first reading from his letter to the Roman Church: ‘Who are you to pass judgement on servants of another?’ We are all servants of God. We may indeed be liked and loved and lifted up into the company of Christ’s friends but we should not forget we are all still just servants and none of us is the gaffer.

 

In yesterday’s Mass I used the readings for Holy Cross Day, 14th September. At the end of the simple, short service we gathered beneath the Rood – newly dusted – and reflected that in the figures of Mary and John at the foot of the cross we see a template for our life as the Church. ‘Behold your son’, ‘Behold your mother’, Jesus says to each from the cross. We are entrusted one to another, within a body – Christ’s body – that shares some of his pain and all of his risen life – and forgiveness, 70 times 7 times and counting, is that body’s lifeblood. ‘We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves,’ writes Paul. ‘If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord…’

 

And so it is that I must ask – of myself and of us all – the question posed by Paul at the conclusion of today’s first reading: ‘Why do you pass judgement on your brother or sister? Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister? For we all stand before the judgement seat of God.’

 

In conclusion this prayer, provided for us to use at the end of today’s communion:

 

Lord God, the source of truth and love, keep us faithful to the apostle’s teaching and fellowship, united in prayer and the breaking of bread, and one in joy and simplicity of heart, in Jesus Christ our Lord.’

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Finding myself in Branksome…

Below is the text of my first Sunday sermon at St Aldhelm’s, Poole, on Sunday 10th September, 2017. The readings used in celebrating the Eucaharist were Romans 13, 8-14 and Matthew 18, 15-20.

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‘Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.’ (Matthew 18)

 

Leaving, moving, and arriving have made for a bewildering time. After 26 years in Alderholt, I knew what was what – and where it was. Translated to Branksome I have been a little disorientated. Nothing is where it should be. I wander to and fro in my splendid large kitchen wondering in which cupboard I placed the cafetiere. Having discovered it I cast around for where I last placed the coffee. Then I find that, having mistaken the newly acquired cooker controls, I have heated the main oven and so the croissant in the top oven is still frozen.

 

It isn’t much different in Church. Since Monday I have been coming in to say my daily prayers and at first I had no idea where to sit and read the Psalms and lessons for the day. My previous Church building would pretty well fit within our sanctuary. Here is so big and so awesome, it took me a few days to find a place to settle. When I at last did, I then had to walk the length of the church to find the correct switch for the light above me.  I fear I might lose my way among its many processional possibilities. I was glad to have the choir and servers to follow this morning, else there’s no saying where I might end up. If Andrew had solemnly led us out the door to Lidl’s, I would have dutifully followed.

 

In all seriousness, it has all been a slightly disorientating, and tiring, experience. I have felt like a young person beginning at a new school. You’re glad to be there, and you know it’s all somehow going to be ok, but you feel a little undefended, unsure, vulnerable, disabled.

 

And I think, actually, that’s no bad thing. Because deep down that’s how many of us, perhaps most of us at times, in fact feel. Even if we are settled and secure in our homes and our work and our families, deep down there is a struggling, stumbling child, feeling far from home and vulnerable. It’s no bad thing, too, because it is more from our vulnerability than from our self-confidence that we begin to step forward in faith. It’s our need that we bring with us to church, not our success. Our human frailty is what we all have in common. And when we step inside this place, whether clinging to our parent’s hand or to our walking aid – or to our tattered pride – we all breathe an instinctive, if inaudible, sigh of relief. Here we are welcomed, and understood, forgiven, liked and loved. Here our stuttering attempts to pray are lifted into the song of angels, so polyphonic that our cries only add to the harmony.

 

In truth, my friends, our strength as a community begins with the admission of our brokenness as individuals. We are not impressive, but we are impressionable – and we sense that here is where our souls can be imprinted with the marks of Christ’s suffering, death and resurrection and healing love and grace. Here the sign of the cross, placed invisibly on our forehead at baptism, is written anew and again, and again, as we admit and confess our sins, share in Christ’s fond forgiveness, attend to his word through scripture and receive his broken and risen presence in Holy Communion. Our eyes are lifted so that we might recognise his presence too in each other, and in the world whose beauty and busyness, hurt and hopefulness press so closely as we step from this building.

 

The Gospel reading at first sounds rather stern with its suggested procedure for complaints and grievances, a process that may lead to exclusion. But I am reassured by this passage. First, it confirms that rows and disagreements are par for the course in the church. Not all will be sweetness and fond regards among us all. Secondly, it implies that there is usually a way to resolve our differences that will both preserve and enhance our fellowship, and that we have the capacity to do so from amongst ourselves. Thirdly, this reading gives to us the privilege, the awesome responsibility, of pronouncing his forgiveness – or its denial –  but when we remember how profoundly, and even shockingly, Christ forgave and healed the excluded and blame-worthy, then we know with what spirit we must forgive and with what holy dread we must ever deny forgiveness towards others. Finally, even the way it describes those who might ultimately be in the wrong gives hope: let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax-collector. And Jesus makes abundantly clear that there is a welcome in his community for publicans, Centurions, prostitutes, the deaf, the blind – and, yes, the Gentiles and the tax-collectors, so, if I be excluded, and if I’m happy to re-join that queue: Yippee! Straight back in I come!

 

St Paul in today’s first reading sums up this aspect to the Christian Gospel by writing, Owe no one anything except, to love one another. In the matter of love, of course, we are each of us always the debtor – when we remember how freely and undeservedly and how abundantly we have been loved. It is God’s love that brings the light to each day, the beauty to each moment, the air to each breath and the hope to each of our souls. If his love might be stopped we should die more assuredly than through any calamity Mr Kim Jong Un’s terror (or Mr Trump’s tweets) might lead us. A few days ago I popped into Lidl for a single item and was in the queue to pay when a computer glitch meant all the several check outs were unable to process payment. We all looked at each other, somewhat at a loss. Lucia and Daniel and the other assistants at their tills could only sit there helplessly. Eventually, rather sheepishly, I replaced my bunch of flowers and sloped away. If God’s love could ever cease, just imagine that queue, without end…

 

Today, in our awesome Church building, whether we be many or few or just two or three gathered in his name, we return to the fount of grace. The queue we may form as we go forward to receive Holy Communion depends upon no computer check out and we are offered grace abundant, with no payment on our part, other than the admission of our weakness and our need.

 

My friends, I join with you with little to offer but what I have I will share with you, knowing that our generous and loving God gives more abundantly than we can understand or comprehend.

So, using again today’s special ‘Collect’, let us pray:

‘Almighty God, who called your Church to bear witness that you were in Christ reconciling the world to yourself: help us to proclaim the good news of your love, that all who hear it may be drawn to you; through him who was lifted up on the cross, and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever…’

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And, finally…

My last sermon as Vicar of St James’. It was, you might say, just another Sunday: I rose early to continue writing the sermon, then celebrated the 8 am Holy Communion, with its welcome, tangible quietness. Parish Communion on this second Sunday of the month has a smaller congregation than other weeks as all the children and families attend Messy Church in the village school – but the baptism that followed featured any number of lovely, lively children. 

The readings (for the fourth Sunday after Trinity) were from the Old Testament’s Zechariah 9, 9-12 and from Matthew’s Gospel 11, 16-19 and 25-30.

‘I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and intelligent and have revealed them to infants…’

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Last Sunday, along with many of you, I attended the ordination – among 10 other deacons – of our friend Lewis Pearson. The service at the Cathedral was a moving, if lengthy, occasion, with much impressive music and ceremony, and a subtle and powerful sermon. That was perhaps enough inspiration for a normal week, but on Monday, my car was returned by Tim, the village mechanic I use, unexpectedly (and untypically) promptly. I took it as a sign from God that I should indeed attend the triennial Salisbury Diocese Clergy Conference, held in Derbyshire (for which unlikely location there are strong, mainly financial, reasons.) More than three hundred of us clergy engaged with the chosen theme of Faith in an age of Uncertainty. As usual, the highlight for me was the company of so many congenial and interesting colleagues, rather than the official presentations and talks. Wiser clergy did not try to attend everything expected of them. Meeting a friend one morning at breakfast I remarked that I was being selective about what I went to. It turned out he was also being selective, and I suspect wise: he spent the two full days of the conference by taking himself off to Chesterfield to watch the cricket match taking place between Derbyshire and Durham…

 

Returning to St James’ after these forays into the fine-tuned Cathedral and the slightly prescribed enthusiasm of the clergy conference, I breathe a sigh of relief. If we live in an age of uncertainty, then we best adapt to it in our parishes and our places of work. If we are to learn anew how faith can guide us in our perplexity, then that faith is best regained or renewed not amid the extraordinary life of the Cathedral or conference but here amid the ordinary life of a parish church like St James’ and in a down to earth community such as Alderholt.

 

This is because Christianity is less a theory that can ‘in general’ provide a faith in a time of uncertainty. Much more, Christianity is always specific, always incarnate, always particular not general. Christianity is the means by which individual people, you or I, can find our way amid the unique circumstances that make up your or my life, your or my specific ‘time of uncertainty.’ A conference can certainly help and encourage us. Worship in a cathedral – or other remarkable place – can inspire us. But just as after a holiday, back home, back at work, back amid the family and friends and neighbours, is where it’s really at, so Christianity is always parochial, always grounded, always personal.

 

In this, I think Christianity has our measure. I for one am very confident at discerning what is good for other people. I can tell you at length what is wrong with the world. What matters however and what is much more of a challenge is to challenge my own egoism, my own pride, my own fear, my own recurrent failings. I will gladly help remove the speck from your eye – or, more likely, give you a theory about your speck or my thoughts on specks in general. Anything rather than attend to the awkward plank that protrudes from and somewhat obscures the vision of my own.

 

But our Lord – Zechariah the prophet predicts in our first reading – will arrive humbly and lowly, upon a donkey not a charger. Our Lord will sometimes come to you in an arresting moment of shock and disclosure so that you have to stop the car and weep in the layby. But more often he will come to you in the momentary reminder occasioned by a beggar on the street, or the recurrent challenge provided by a difficult colleague at work, or the kindly courtesy shown by a stranger – or adversary whom we had despised.

 

Jesus was all about particularity not generality. He taught by parables not theories. He responded to individual cries for help. He revealed the one overarching God in a particular place and at a particular time. The incarnation – God taking flesh – is a scandal that always offends our preference for generality over personal change. God asks you, and me, What do you – truly – want? He says, Come to me, each person who is weary and heavy burdened, each one who wishes to find their true home, their true rest, amid this world. And to each of us is given the assurance that his yoke is easy, his burden light. A recovering alcoholic, or addict, will tell you that the first essential steps on the road to recovery are both the simplest and the most difficult: to recognise one’s addiction and one’s own utter helplessness – that you cannot make it on your own. I suggest that in practice the vast majority of us are addicted in one way or another, we each have our go-to means of escape and avoidance. Certainly I think all of us are addicted to a false way of thinking that projects our own needs and failings on to others. And I suspect that this in turn infects and therefore explains so much that also goes wrong in our communities, our nation and our world.

 

To each of us, Jesus gently says (but it always feels like a shock to our complacency) Stop play-acting, I much prefer the real you with all your ugly faults to the false you with all your manicured pretence. I love you, not the mask you put on.

 

I guess this is the reason why – it seems – my Lord kept me here among you such a long time. I’m a slow learner and I’m not a bad actor. By being here for over quarter of a century I had to face a few of my own failures and a few of my own failings and I had time to learn from a few of my mistakes. After so many years, reality has a chance to crack the façade so that grace can find a way in. ‘I let love in’, sings Nick Cave, but only when all attempts to keep love out have failed.

 

Over the past few years I have developed as something of a parish side-line a series of concerts here in the church, featuring artists who I feel in their various ways help us to think outside our usual boxes. Tonight at 7 pm we will welcome two performers who each I think flies a flag for being truthful.19989303_10209909533194512_8208360801180313938_n

Owen Moore is a dexterous and polished singer, but behind his practised skill and kindly courtesy there lies – one can tell, if only from his voice’s melancholic edge – a person who knows what it is to walk the streets. His music makes no claim to be profound but is from the heart. Gordon Hoyles, whom you may recognise this morning (he looks like your childhood’s image of God, but with a Lancashire accent) is, with Blossom his wife, a remarkable person.IMG_20170710_102158

His friendship with both Pippa and me goes back more than 30 years. He and I disagree profoundly about every political issue you care to mention. Despite his being wrong about everything however he – and his often funny, sometimes outrageous, always original poetry – remind me that being human is not about being human, not about being a person, it is about being you, or me.

 

I hope that this church– partly through and partly despite my ministry – has been a place and a community where honesty has been valued more than pretence and where you and I have been able to turn from the false idols of our own inventing and our own projecting to see our truer selves, ugly in our own eyes and very precious and beautiful in God’s. I hope this Church of St James has been for you a mirror in which the blind look at themselves and love looks at them back…

 

And so to conclude, the poem from which that last phrase derives, The Kingdom by R. S. Thomas

 

It’s a long way off but inside it

There are quite different things going on:

Festivals at which the poor man

Is king and the consumptive is

Healed; mirrors in which the blind look

At themselves and love looks at them

Back; and industry is for mending

The bent bones and the minds fractured

By life. It’s a long way off, but to get

There takes no time and admission

Is free, if you purge yourself

Of desire, and present yourself with

Your need only and the simple offering

Of your faith, green as a leaf.

Handing back the key

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Dear Friends,

 

A few days before writing this, I conducted a wedding, for Matt and Natalie.

I was thoughtful as I signed the marriage register for the last time as ‘Vicar’. The occasion itself was a typically joyful event but also touched with a sad memory that in some ways only made the joy more real, more profound. This was because 22 years earlier I had conducted the funeral of Jo, Natalie’s older sister, who died unexpectedly aged 10.

 

Such experiences – of a wedding and a funeral – are just two of the strands that make up a parish priest’s connection with a community. Sometimes it can seem almost a burden; more often it feels like a precious gift. But now, as my time as your Vicar draws to a close, I think it has been a rich and rare privilege of which I was never worthy but for which I will be forever thankful.

 

I was 32 years old when I came to the village in the autumn of 1990. I had no plans to stay, but nor did I have any towards advancement (whatever form that might take for a priest.) As the years passed I learned a lot but in the process realised I knew very little. I made mistakes and, thanks be to God, gained from those the confidence to go on and make bigger and better mistakes. Meanwhile, a couple of generations of young children waved to me on my bike, then avoided with embarrassment my salute as they waited for the bus to take them to bigger school and finally, with awkward and I think fond respect, came to ask me to arrange their weddings or baptise their children.

 

Through it all, I have begun and ended most days by stepping across to St James’ Church building (the huge cast iron key weighing like a handy weapon) lighting candles, sitting, kneeling, praying, sometimes raging, sometimes crying, sometimes wondering if anyone listened to me at all, and sometimes receiving as if in answer the quiet conviction that my every gasp for air is breathed into me (as is breathed into each one of us) by a Spirit whose breath speaks the name ‘Jes-us.’

 

After my departure, and that of my excellent colleague Lewis (to be himself ordained on 2nd July and begin a ‘training curacy’ at St James’ Church in the Old Town, Poole), there will be a period of consultation as the Salisbury Diocese considers how to maintain the ministry of our church in the face of the inevitable shortage of clergy (and money with which to pay for them.) There is an excellent team of Church Wardens, their assistants and other volunteers in place to help our – your – church continue as much as possible its wide-ranging ministry in and for the village. Please wish them well, support them if you can – and if it is your spiritual practice to pray, remember them and pray for both St James’ Church and for this amazing, unique village of Alderholt.

 

The St James’ Festival will be my last weekend among you as Vicar. I’ll enjoy it, and try not to cry. I celebrate a Eucharist for St James’ Day at 7.15 pm on Tuesday 25th July. Afterwards there will be a party with food, music and something to celebrate. You are most welcome but if you can call a church warden and let them know you are coming it will help them cater adequately.

 

At the conclusion of that service I will lay the church key upon the altar, with a heavy but also very grateful heart. After all, it never was ‘my’ Church. It was and always will be God’s – and therefore…

…YOUR Church. Its doors – and God’s embrace – are always open for you.

 

With much love (and using the signature from that final wedding register…)

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Falling forwards

Below is the text of a sermon I preached at the Eucharist in St James’ Church to mark the start of a new three-year period (‘triennial’) of the Wimborne Deanery Synod (whose members are shown in the photograph gathered outside for coffee by the Coach in the Community.) I return in the address to the theological subject of another recent sermon here: the mystery and (I argue) the relevance of our understanding God as Holy Trinity. The readings were 1 John 4,7-end  (‘He that loveth not knoweth not God’) and Luke 16,19-end (‘There was a certain rich man, which was clothed in purple and fine linen, and fared sumptuously every day. And there was a certain beggar named Lazarus, which was laid at his gate full of sores, and desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man’s table…’)

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The scriptural readings this evening were not chosen as a politically-correct response to the rather extreme contrast between distinct parts of one London borough, exposed in the most graphic and hellish way by the Grenfell Tower fire. The readings are those for this past Sunday, the First after Trinity, in the Book of Common Prayer.

 

Quite possibly Cranmer and his colleagues simply translated into English the readings that had long been in use before the Reformation. Whatever the origin of the Prayer Book’s lectionary in this instance, we may ask ourselves why, on the first Sunday following the festival of the Holy Trinity, the readings bring us up so sharp with their challenge: to see God present in each and every person; to focus on love rather than judgement; to fear wealth and its attendant inequality as we would flee from death itself.

 

In reality, that it should surprise us itself reveals our theological poverty. How many of us have heard a cleric on Trinity Sunday self-deprecatingly lament his or her place on the preaching rota that day (and whose subsequent sermon makes clear that the bad luck all belonged to the congregation)? However did we come to suppose that the Christian revelation of a triune God was somehow an awkward and complicated intellectual challenge rather than the good news for the poor and the confused and the lost that it is?

 

Christian faith is not an intellectual labyrinth. We are not like the Queen in Alice through the Looking Glass who boasted of her ability to believe as many as six impossible things before breakfast. Everyone here can give the lie to such a conception of religious belief. However you may struggle to articulate your stumbling, struggling faith, it is certainly not like that! Our faith feels, does it not, much more as if our centre of gravity were always in front of us. Our experience of faith is as it were of  falling forwards, constantly in fear and trembling, constantly discovering that our falling is but the opportunity grace requires to lift us into the Kingdom where love reigns. Our barbeque and bouncy castle on Sunday following Lewis’s last service with us prior to his ordination in a week or two concluded with an impromptu water slide set up in the churchyard with some thick plastic, a hose and all the available washing up liquid. How the dead around must have enjoyed it as those kids slipped and slid their way down, and then felt the heavier thuds and hilarious descents as we grown-ups were persuaded to join in! Christian faith is a little like that. The worst thing is to keep your footing. To find your way you have first to fall.

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That God as Father is beyond and beneath all that exists, yet close, with open arms, with the human face, of Jesus his eternal Son, and who also in-spires us, in-spirits us, with every breath, every in-spiration, that we take articulating the name of Je-sus… Such is our God. And such is the reason why the Sunday after Trinity gives us the readings we heard. For as there is no contradiction within the mystery of the Trinitarian faith, so – of course! – there is no contradiction between love of God and love of neighbour, between prayer and practical help given to others, between silence and singing, between private wealth and public common-wealth, between worshipping God in the beauty of holiness and tending to the wounds of the poor amid the ugliness of squalor. How did we ever forget such home truths, other than the reason why we forget the sight of ourselves reflected in a moral mirror – it’s sin what gets in the way, and repentance that can clear the way?

 

As we begin a new synodical triennial let us not be fearful, or anxious, about the challenges we face. God knows it’s hard enough for each one of us to live as humans. Being a Christian and being the Church was never easy and is not easy today. But let us take heart and be encouraged – and give encouragement – as we face all the challenges the coming years bring. As you came into this church you stepped through gates that are decorated with the pilgrim’s shell of St James. Each time you step aside from your daily duties and make time for prayer, you make a space for the Triune God to breathe and work through you. Each time you remember the poor – by word or deed or banker’s order – you turn aside to tend your brother or sister who is Jesus. Each time you step forward and stretch out your hands for communion, One who loves you fills your palm with bread that is his life. And each time you fall on your knees, or cry out with tears to him, you fall forwards into grace. Think of the Church from which you come. Then picture that water slide. Keep both those images alongside each other… And may God the Father strengthen us by his Holy Spirit breathed constantly into us through his dear Son Jesus Christ. Amen.

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Dear Simon…

Simon Hoare is a really good MP for our North Dorset constituency. I like him. He is bright, carries his intelligence behind a comfortable and courteous county-Tory front, stands on the more liberal, inclusive wing of the Conservative Party – and displays commitment and compassion towards all his constituents. He came to the Election Open Forum in St James’ Church last night and answered all questions with a thoughtful openness, never with cliches or soundbites. But I won’t vote for him and I have sent him this open letter to explain why.

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Dear Simon,

 

Thank you for coming to the Election Open Forum at St James’ Church. I want to wish you well and to assure you of my support and prayers when you are (I have no doubt) re-elected. You are an excellent MP who listens to and cares about all your constituents. I, however, will not be voting for you and I owe you an explanation why.

 

Your party is committed (against your and the majority of your colleagues’) better judgements to leaving the European Union even if the deal is bad for Britain, and has ruled out allowing the British people a direct say once the details of that deal are clear. I cannot support you in what I strongly believe is a wrong course for our country.

 

In the face of increasingly clear signs of economic difficulty your party has no plans to change policies that have greatly exacerbated the divisions between rich and poor. In the face of cuts that affect the poor most your party only offers the hope that a ‘stronger economy’ will in due course be to the benefit of all. In the absence of any such prospect, however, we must expect further cuts and increased inequality if your party is elected to Government.

 

Your party’s manifesto is vague and un-costed and has already, in several instances, been contradicted by your senior colleagues. Your party’s campaign has no vision or hope and is focused on supporting a single individual, your leader. I cannot place any confidence in such a programme for governing our country through its current crises.

 

Your leader does not in fact seem to me capable of being a good Prime Minister. Her changes of mind (for instance over Brexit, calling this General Election, and the ‘dementia tax’) as well as her reluctance to engage with ordinary people or take part in probing interviews, and her refusal to debate on equal terms with other party leaders, all suggest a personality that is anxious and controlling rather than strong and stable. In foreign policy (perhaps a Prime Minister’s most serious responsibility) her appointment of Boris Johnson to represent our country is insulting both to the British people and to our foreign partners. Her ‘holding hands’ (metaphorically even if only briefly in literal fact) with Donald Trump is shameful, as is her anxiety to please Saudi Arabia. Her statements in response to recent terrorist outrages have consisted of clichés and unspecific soundbites more suited (I hate to say it) to electoral advantage than as serious policy proposals. By contrast, the leader of the Labour Party has through this campaign refused to react to personal smears and unfair attacks, he has focused on policies rather than personalities, and he seems to have a calmness under pressure and a modest recognition of the need to work with others in response to the challenges we face that seem to me much more appropriate to a Prime Minister.

 

So, Simon, although I look forward to supporting you as our next Member of Parliament, I will not be voting for you and will cast my vote, in this instance, for the Liberal Democrat candidate, Tom Panton, who seems to be a thoughtful and committed young man and in this constituency the closest contender.

 

With my very best wishes, and prayers,

Pip

 

Pentecost: God’s indiscriminate embrace

Below is the text of my sermon at St James’ Church, Alderholt, on Whit Sunday, 4th June 2017. It attempts to ‘locate’ the gift of God’s Spirit not so much within stained glass windows or particular ‘Charismatic’ Churches but amid the encounters and challenges of our daily lives.1b4966a8757e40a9a86078a01e990719

‘I talk to you, and you talk to me, and if we talk for long enough something may happen!’ … Such was the relaxed account of his business strategy given by a quietly effective Salisbury estate agent. He would be amused to think that his remark, in reply to a question about how houses get sold, would be quoted at the head of a sermon today – but I think his technique describes rather well God’s genius expressed through the festival of Pentecost.

Pentecost, and the gift of the Holy Spirit, can seem rather overwhelming, portrayed through stained glass images of saints with flames on their heads and all about them looking agog, or through the (for most of us) equally inaccessible experience of those who loudly proclaim they are filled with the Spirit. Most of us may feel unsuited however either to stained glass or to charismatic confidence.

But Pentecost, and the promise, and the problematic challenges, of God’s Holy Spirit, are for us all, I believe. Today’s Bible readings if we read or hear them without pre-judgement, confirm what I will dare to describe as the indiscriminate embrace of the Spirit. God is like the slightly tipsy host of the party who just wants to hug everyone.

 

Take the account in Acts – our first reading – of all those gathered from various nations hearing, and communicating, in their own languages. Yes, it is astonishing, but, underneath, the point being made is that God’s Spirit is the means by which real communication, listening, and understanding take place. Here is a democratisation of God’s gifts. That which was previously reserved to prophets or kings is now bequeathed to uncle Tom and aunty Thomasina Cobley and all. The Holy Spirit makes possible real communication, and community, and, by the same token, where there is real communication and real community, there the Holy Spirit is at work. For this reason the Church should have as its focus both the building up of trust and relationships within its membership, and its enabling, celebrating and cherishing all that builds up community (including of course family) life. That is why the church celebrates and blesses marriages (and also welcomes and supports other forms of generous-hearted commitment between people, whatever may be our varying views about gay marriage.) It is why too we at St James’ arrange and promote things like the reCreate Festival, the Christmas Bazaar, St James’ Festival, and the Parish News (itself a remarkable contribution to the life of the community)

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‘I speak to you and you speak to me…and something will happen.’ The second, Gospel reading points to the kind of things that will indeed happen. Peace will be spread. Reconciliation will become real and actual and experienced in ordinary lives. Forgiveness (and the immense, profound healing that that brings) will be given and received amongst us.

‘I speak to you, you speak to me.’ It really is that simple. It is God’s way with us and we are invited to do something similar. What else is prayer, when you look at it plainly? There’s that nice story of the priest, puzzled by the simple old man who spent so much time just sitting in his country church, gazing towards the altar with its cross. ‘What do you do there for so long each day?’, the priest at last asks. The old boy replies, ‘Oi looks at ‘im, and ‘ee looks at I.’

 

So God, when he comes to us in the form of the Spirit, is drawing us into the divine conversation, into the cherishing and love that flow between the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. In the process we encounter and are drawn into closer fellowship with Jesus. ‘We each hear the other as if in our own language’ they report at Pentecost. At a time when we more and more inhabit separate ‘echo chambers’ – of ‘people like us’ and those who read the same newspapers, or share the same views about Brexit and of course the same likes on Facebook – such a fearless and extensive possibility of fellowship and understanding, such as is evoked through Pentecost, is not only radical, it is almost shocking. We could all do with a lot more of this kind of shocking. When we enjoy a moment of generous-hearted conversation in a supermarket queue, when we overcome prejudice or fear towards a stranger, when we find some way to traverse the negative assumptions we hold about younger people, or older people, or poor people, or rich people, or posh people or rough people, of people who live in big houses and people who have no house to live in at all….we risk meeting Jesus who changes lives. And this is the dance of love we are drawn into by the Holy Spirit, who is as it were the beguiling tune that leads us, played by the Lord of the Dance himself.

 

The whole point, then, of Pentecost, and of the Christian teaching about the Holy Spirit, is to help us into a living, and life-changing, life-challenging – and above all a life-enlarging – relationship with Jesus and (which is almost the same thing) with one another. It is all about you, Jesus.

One of my regrets as I prepare to leave St James’ is not having pressed harder my idea of commissioning a sculpture of Jesus that would have been placed in the front right corner of the nave. The idea was of a piece that would not represent Jesus crucified or resurrected, but would imagine Jesus the person who so attracted and intrigued all who were humble or honest enough to own their need of help. The sculpture was to have been of a seated figure, with a wild mountain kid goat to one side. It would have also posed the question that Jesus put to his friends, ‘Who do you say that I am? I think it is less the Church’s place today to inform people who or what Jesus is (Resurrected Lord, Miracle Worker, Divine Teacher, Prophet, etc.) Rather, the Church should help keep conversation alive about him and invite all who will pause to reflect for themselves: Who is Jesus for me?

A sculpture, however, is only a symbol. The reality of our living this relationship with Jesus is the more important and more difficult priority. I can only hope that during my time among you we have each of us learned something more of this mystery of living with Jesus in our midst, of encountering him in one another, and of being surprised and humbled by meeting him among the poor, the suffering, the dying, the difficult, and the outsider. I hope our friendship with Jesus has at times led us to question our certainties as well as to reassure our doubts. I hope even now his company with us provokes us to question our political representatives, and our own political prejudices, during this General Election. I hope too that after I leave, when there will be a lengthy interregnum (as it is called for some reason) and uncertainty as to our future as a parish, that you will commit all the more to a kind of sacred awe in your relationships with one another. I know very well the many ways in which Church life – as in any family – can bring out the best and the worst in us, especially when the symbolic leader (even one as halt and blind as me) is absent. Make sure your words to each other are encouraging ones. Make sure your complaints are few – and best suppressed altogether! In the absence of a symbolic leader (the Vicar) make more recognition of the real leader of this church, who is present in and among you all: Jesus.

Today, Jesus breathes his Spirit upon you. ‘Peace be with you,’ he says fondly but with real authority. He shows you his hands and his side to warn or reassure you that nothing very good happens without at least some costly sharing in his cross. ‘As the Father has sent me, so I send you. If you forgive the sins of any they are forgiven them…’ Nothing new happens without apology and forgiveness. It is the divine technology for the regeneration of every age and every situation. And, the unbound ones are the best prepared to unbind the rest of the world.’ (Richard Rohr)

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