Category Archives: Anglican Communion

Sermon preached at Christ Church, Lanark, on 28 February, 2016 (Lent 3)

Lk. 13:1–9

Last week, I purchased a birthday present for my wife. I searched for it online, in the course of which I discovered I could arrange to collect it on a stated day from a location near to where we live. In due course I received a text message telling me to check my e-mail, which would contain a bar code, which I was to print out and take to the collection point, along with some form of photo ID.

So far, so efficient; but also so impersonal, and so super-contractual. For although I had agreed to purchase the item, and paid online, I could not receive the package into my hands unless all the paperwork was in order. The bar code was useless without the photo ID, and vice-versa.

It set me thinking about how much of our interaction with others is contractual. Every day we enter into binding arrangements which impose obligations – to provide goods or services in exchange for payment, or to incur penalties in case of default. Our society makes intensive use of the discourse of entitlement, and much of our interaction is predicated on a system of rewards and punishments – every quid has a quo.

Even some of our intimate relationships with family and friends can have contractual character: ‘If you give up smoking, I’ll take you on a cruise to the Bahamas’ (‘and if you don’t, I’ll take you on a cruise to Rockall and leave you there’).

But God doesn’t make contracts with us, nor should we try to make contracts with God, even though we do it all the time, especially in Lent: ‘If I give up wine or chocolate for six weeks, can my daughter get that place in university she has applied for?’

True relationships, relationships of value, between humanity and God, and among human beings made in God’s image, are not contractual but covenantal. A covenant is a relationship of support and trust, in short, of love. We speak of marriage as a contract, and in respect of its legal status it is. But as an interpersonal commitment to lifetime fidelity, patience and support, it is, or should be, a covenant.

The trouble is, we go on thinking of our relationship with God in contractual and legal terms. So sin is thought of as the infringement of a rule, for which we have to pay a penalty. Today’s gospel provides a good example of our tendency to assume that evil and suffering are punishment for sin: those whom Pilate killed, and those on whom the tower of Siloam fell, must have been very wicked. Most of us can remember the beginning of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, when many people professing to be Christians were only too eager to say that this devastating illness was ‘the wages of sin’.

If our relationships, with God and with each other, are truly covenantal, impairment of any relationship is primarily a failure of trust and love. To be sure, there are occasions when restitution (say, of improperly obtained wealth) is a contractual necessity if the relationship is ever to be healed. But this is only the first step, and real restoration of trust and love can only happen through repentance and forgiveness.

Repentance is not quid-pro-quo restitution, but an acknowledgement of failure. It involves trusting that we shall be forgiven; it means dropping our defences and accepting our vulnerability. Jesus’ statement in today’s gospel (‘unless you repent, you will all perish as they did’ [Lk. 13:3, 5]) is not a threat or a statement about punishment or penalty, but a recognition of the destructive effects of lack of repentance, which is essentially the refusal to trust, to acknowledge our failure.

But what is the parable of the fig tree doing here? It provides a strange and seemingly irrelevant coda to the passage, but it is one of the many expressions in the Bible of the theme of the second chance, of the new beginning, of God’s patience. Time and time again, the Old Testament shows God ‘repenting of the evil which he had intended to do’. Even at the very end of the last book in the Bible, Revelation, that favourite of many a fundamentalist, with its dire warnings and terrifying images, the angel says (Rev. 22:10-11): ‘Do not seal up the words of the prophecy of this book, for the time is near. Let the evildoer still do evil, and the filthy still be filthy, and the righteous still do right, and the holy still be holy.’

Rowan Williams has said somewhere that hell can be envisaged as a place where God is trying to push the door open while those inside struggle to keep it shut. What these words from Revelation suggest is that up to very last second of time, God holds door open to our repentance and return, for God’s generosity and patience are infinite. If we want to enter into true Christian freedom, we have to realise this, not just in our minds, but in the depths of our being.

Lent, then, is not a time of ‘doing things’ or imposing mortifications in order to redress the contractual balance, but a time when we reflect on whether we are living as people of the covenant, a covenant of love and trust in one who is infinitely generous and patient:

For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts (Is. 55:8-9).

Taking care

I’m reading at the moment Eric Stoddart’s Theological Perspectives on a Surveillance Society: Watching and being Watched (Ashgate: Farnham and Burlington, 2011). Stoddart rightly recognises the legitimate anxieties most citizens harbour about surveillance, but also emphasises that surveillance can be undertaken for purposes of care. I was reminded of this at a recent meeting of the diocesan Ministry Development Review Supporters. Words like ‘review’ or ‘appraisal’ often evoke resistance among those on the receiving end, clergy being no more immune to this reaction than those who work in academic institutions, which is the environment I know best.

Review is often initially perceived as intrusive and threatening. My own experience of MDR, however, both as a review supporter and as a reviewee, suggests that the dimension of care is in practice uppermost. What struck me at the meeting in question was the degree of concern for the isolation experienced by clergy, especially full-time stipendiary clergy, and the unremitting nature of the demands made on them. A particular issue which is often overlooked, both by congregations and by church authorities, is the sense of bereavement that clergy are bound to experience when they retire from a ministry to which they have dedicated virtually all their waking hours. Sensitive application of mechanisms like MDR can be helpful, among other ways, in assisting clergy to prepare for retirement, and to develop (or recover) a life which is not wholly consumed by service to a congregation.

At the meeting, I announced that I wanted to retire from the role of MDR Supporter, one of several ‘ancillary’ ministerial jobs that I am gradually relinquishing.  I did so  in the belief that the care of ministerial colleagues demands a level of commitment and energy which I am finding harder to maintain as I get older.

Well done, Church of Ireland!

Joy and thankfulness that the Church of Ireland has elected the first woman bishop in these islands. Rev. Pat Storey, Rector of St Augustine’s, Derry, is to be the bishop of Meath and Kildare. And it is particularly satisfying that, for reasons which have to do with the history of that diocese, she will be known as ‘Most Reverend’. Alleluia!

Concelebration?

I recently took part in a concelebrated Eucharist, on the occasion of an ordination. I suppressed my long-held reservations about the notion of concelebration, out of courtesy to those whose guest I was, but I still have questions about the theology of the practice. It is clear that the role of president at the Eucharistic celebration was established from an early stage in the Church’s history, but there also seems to have been an understanding that the Eucharist was a celebration by the whole congregation. True concelebration would seem to me to require that the whole congregation be gathered round the table, rather than that some of the congregation be invited to join the president simply by virtue of the office they hold.

The fudge has turned rancid

A while ago, I posted here about my gratitude and joy at the announcement in 1992 that the Church of England had removed the canonical impediment to the ordination of women to the priesthood. My feelings last Tuesday were exactly the opposite: grief mixed with anger at the waste of an opportunity to set right a long-standing injustice. With hindsight, though, the seeds of Tuesday’s débacle were sown twenty years ago when ill-considered concessions were made to those who stubbornly held out against the settled will of the Church, concessions which gave a spurious legitimacy to continued discrimination against half the human race. A Church which behaves in this way cannot complain if it is regarded as an irrelevant anachronism by the rest of society.

‘The Holy Spirit is not a leaden stillness but a wind’.

Scottish Episcopalians worry a lot about declining congregational rolls, and understandably so. It is sobering to reflect that even the established Church of Scotland counts as regular worshippers only 9% of the total population of Scotland, and that Episcopalians constitute 10% of that 9%.

As a bit of encouragement to reflect on our strengths, which go well beyond numbers, you might like this.

I miss my flock

As a non-stipendiary assistant, I find myself in demand to cover various vacancies and absences in the Diocese, and will have been away from my own church most of the summer. Mostly I enjoy this. There is the freshness of new experiences, different environments and worship styles, and one always gets a warm welcome from congregations who are very appreciative of the opportunity to have the Eucharist, which otherwise they might have to forgo.

And yet, doubts are beginning to arise. Am I becoming a ‘Mass priest’, parachuted in at short notice to do the stuff that others are not licensed to do? It’s true that I’m developing a rapport with congregations I have visited more than once, but I miss the deep continuous immersion in community that one gets from being in the same place relating to the same people over time, the empathetic awareness of who is troubled, who is at odds with whom, who is displaying gifts which have potential for the building-up of the fellowship of faith.

Over and above my own personal anxieties, however, there are urgent questions for the whole Church about future patterns of ministry and worship. Is it realistic to assume, as our recruitment and training practices and our territorial organisation seem to assume, that the traditional model of a congregation led by someone in presbyteral orders is going to continue indefinitely? And if not, how soon are we going to get to work on evolving alternative patterns of congregational life?