Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Thanks, but no thanks!

We had a wonderful day yesterday starting with the awards ceremony where Ruth, our youngest child, received her degree - a 2:1- after three years of hard work. The ceremony in Bristol Cathedral lasted just short of an hour during which everyone was thanked for their hard work - students, lecturers, and family - with rapturous applause and hoots and greetings as each person appeared on the stage to shake the hand of one of the senior staff in congratulations for their achievement. And in a nice little touch at the end the vice-chancellor(?) encouraged the body of students who had received their awards to, in turn, applaud the parents and relatives for their help and support over the years.

But in all the thank-you's that resounded throughout that impressive building - started in the 12th Century and dedicated to the glory of God - one Name was noticeable its absence in the list of who to thank.  God Himself. True the students had studied and sat the exams.True the parents had provided the financial and emotional help that supported their flagging and struggling children. True the authorities had provided the grants - which will one day have to be paid back in full - and true the university had been great in its teaching etc. But all of this - and I mean ALL of this - would not have come to pass if God had not made the world and is, at this very moment, sustaining His creation so that life is made possible.

And who made people, food, material things, people capable of learning and growing, thinking and developing? Who gave the free will to enable us to choose what subject to take and what careers to engage in? Who - through His church - gave universities and colleges and education for all in the first place? Who created many of the subjects and encouraged their research and development over the centuries, making all this possible? Who helped create the environment in which we live, the love we enjoy and the law and order that gives us the freedom in which to flourish? And what about health, hospitals, family structures, values, morality etc.. The list is endless what God has done for us. And so for God to be excluded and overlooked, sidelined and rejected IN HIS OWN HOUSE seems to me to be the height of ingratitude.

It was not always so. In years past this kind of event would have taken place within the context of a service of thanksgiving or at least with a nod in God's direction via prayers and maybe a sermon and a few hymns. But not anymore. God is surplus to requirements, incidental and excluded. the world doesn't need Him and His presence creates too many problems in this religiously diversified world we live in. How far we have fallen. How short our memories. How ungracious and thankless we are. And how stupid and short-sighted.

I am so grateful God is not petty and small-minded, but loving, gracious and kind, otherwise He would have pulled the rug from under this nation years ago and where would we be then.

But, as someone once reminded me, when you point a finger at someone in accusation, you usually find that there are three pointing back at you. And so rather than carp and complain, I must ensure that I am more grateful, more often. Like Paul I must practice what I preach lest "after preaching to others I myself might be disqualified"  (1 Corinthians 9:27).

Tuesday, 4 July 2017

Keep It Simple Stupid

I don't know if it about getting older, but I am getting more and more fed up with some of the unnecessary complexities of church life and more and more concerned to simplify things.

That is something we are trying to do in our church of St. James in Swansea where I am currently Vicar. Okay, some of the things have just stopped of their own accord e.g. processions led by someone carrying the cross etc. While prayers for the dead (me), no longer passing round the collection plate (the PCC and me ) and lately the use of wardens wands or staves to help usher people towards the front for Holy Communion (the PCC and me) have also disappeared. But there is still too much complexity for me, especially surrounding the Lord's Supper - or is it Mass, Holy Eucharist, Holy Communion etc?

The following article excerpted from Christian Today takes aim at the main service of the Church and - at least for me - hits the mark on so many things. Take a look:

"Sometimes when as a church leader I contemplate everything connected with this thing we call 'church' I ask myself: 'Did Jesus ever really intend all this to be as complex as we often seem to make it?' I am 99.9 per cent sure the answer to that question is 'no'!

Communion is a case in point......Take the Lord's Supper...

...'While they were eating, he took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it, he broke it, gave it to them, and said, "Take; this is my body." Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, and all of them drank from it. He said to them, "This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many. Truly I tell you, I will never again drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.' (Mark 10v22-25).

Let's just pause for a moment and consider what Jesus did not say. He did not say, for example: 'And by the way, when you do this in remembrance of me, please ensure that you use the following items of linen and silverware: a burse, a chalice veil, a pall, a paten, a purificator, chalice and corporal – and let me just pause to sketch out a diagram here to make sure you get it right. Please also ensure you have at least two lighted candles nearby.'

Nor did he say: 'By the way, chaps, I am sure it goes without saying – you need a special table which should be called an altar on which to place all this stuff. And – nearly forgot this one – keep up with your note-taking Peter – make sure that as the months of the year go by, you change the colour of the vestments and also the hangings regularly: violet, white, green, red, gold, black, rose and so on. Got it?'

Jesus did not say: 'My friends, please be clear that when sharing bread and wine in the future, this ceremony should be presided over by someone who has received three years of theological training, ideally in a city far away from where they live. They should then have a kind of apprenticeship for a year before being licensed at a service in a cathedral to say something similar – albeit much, much longer – to the words I have just now shared with you.'

He did not then go on to say: 'Please notice what I am wearing as I share this meal with you – namely an alb, cincture, chasuble, dalmatic, cassock, surplice and stole, plus clerical collar of course! – and make sure you are dressed likewise.'

.............where do you find them in the teaching of Jesus? Where indeed do you see them in the rest of the New Testament?

I am not – let us be absolutely clear – seeking to make light in any way of Holy Communion itself. Indeed, one thing the New Testament makes clear is that anyone 'who eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord' (1 Corinthians 11). We are to 'examine ourselves' before we eat, as that chapter goes on (11v28) 'for all who eat and drink without discerning the body eat and drink judgement against themselves'. No, this is mighty serious stuff and we dare not take it lightly.

Moreover, we do not want to disregard 2,000 years of church history, and the wisdom of those who have gone before us..... But.....let us pause and ask: is it just possible that our Communion services.....
have become so cluttered – by rules and traditions Jesus never instituted, and by routines that have grown over-familiar and stale – that we have lost sight of the cross? "

A good question. Just as it is possible to put so many clothes on a man that you are no longer able to see who he really is, so it is possible - and we do it - to overlay something as simple as a communal meal where Jesus asks us to break bread and drink wine together in His name, with so many extraneous things that we forget it's simple message. Remember Jesus who died and rose again for you.

And so as much as it goes against the grain for some, or changes something we are familiar with BACK into something more simple and meaningful in and of itself, I think we should take another look at Holy Communion (or Mass, the Lord's Supper etc) and see if we can't get back to what it really is. Let's remove some of the layers and see what we can find?

Monday, 19 June 2017

Church for beginners?

In her book "The Word on the Wind" Alison Morgan makes reference to a young woman Sharon who was a respondent to a survey about faith. She tried going to church to find out about Christianity but came out more mystified than she went in. She said:

"I think they ought to do like a church for beginners really, because if you're not used to going, because they always have communion here. [She goes on to explain how she was encouraged to go forward for communion]. It was a really awkward situation, do you know what I mean? And he was giving us the sip of the wine, and the um, and he beckoned us to bring the children up as well, and they give you, whatever it is they give you to eat. Is it rice paper?"

Alison quotes the Church of England's report Mission-Shaped Church:

"The reality is that for most people across England the Church as it is is peripheral, obscure, confusing or irrelevant."

Another respondent Matthew who was also seeking said of people who go to church:

"I think they get a lot out [of it]; this is probably envy in me, but why don't they invent one that I can go to?"
The Word on the Wind page 104-105

Is it time to consider changing our weekly service pattern (again) to one where we either have a 'seeker' service once a month (not communion) or a non-communion service every other week? If the above survey is anything to go by there are people seeking God but are put off by a church that is for the 'found' not the ones who are lost.

Friday, 16 June 2017

And I thought we lived in a free country?

I wonder what people mean when they use the word 'tolerant'? I thought it meant being able to live with people who hold differing opinions to yourself in the freedom of what is meant to be a democratic country? I thought it meant - in the words of Voltaire - being able to say:

"I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it".
And I thought the Liberal Democrats represented that view. But clearly, they don't. Here is a short article from Christian Today which underlines what an intolerant society we now live in:

David Alton, a crossbench peer and former Liberal Democrat MP, is warning his party has become 'narrow and intolerant' after Tim Farron resigned claiming it was 'impossible' to be a 'faithful Christian' and political leader.

In a damning indictment Lord Alton, an outspoken Catholic and former chief whip of the now-defunct Liberal Party, said the Lib Dems have become a 'sect'.

He wrote on Facebook: 'In turning themselves into a secular version of the Exclusive Brethren they become a sect rather than a broad-based political party. And they should reflect that millions of British people share his Christian beliefs.'

He added: 'It is ironic that a Party, which I joined as a teenager, because of its belief in conscience, human rights and free speech, has morphed into something so narrow and intolerant that, in resigning, its leader says "we are kidding ourselves if we think we yet live in a tolerant, liberal society" and has been forced to choose between his Faith and his Party.'

David Alton was formerly an MP for 18 years before becoming a cross-bench independent peer in the House of Lords

Tim Farron resigned on Wednesday night saying he felt 'torn between living as a faithful Christian and serving as a political leader'.

He told party activists: 'To be a political leader - especially of a progressive, liberal party in 2017 - and to live as a committed Christian, to hold faithfully to the Bible's teaching, has felt impossible for me.

'I'm a liberal to my fingertips, and that liberalism means that I am passionate about defending the rights and liberties of people who believe different things to me.'

He said he had been the 'subject of suspicion because of what I believe and who my faith is in', adding: 'We are kidding ourselves if we think we yet live in a tolerant, liberal society.'

His statement drew praise and concern from a number of church leaders including the Archbishop of Canterbury and raised questions over whether a socially conservative Christian will ever lead a political party again.

Lord Alton finished his rebuke by saying: 'This same narrow intolerance characteristic of the commentariat and the political elites has also fed into the creation of the less tolerant and unreasonable world in which we live.

'Tim Farron should never have been forced to make this choice but has made the right call and should be admired for doing so.'

Tuesday, 13 June 2017

The other side in the gay marriage debate

 "The pain for those who are both gay and celibate, when a church changes its doctrine on marriage".
As the media and public opinion throw their weight behind the gay marriage debate and the voice of Christians who oppose this are being drowned out, and in some cases frankly denied, the following article by David Bennett is worthly (calmly) reading:

David Bennett 13 June 2017 | 2:25 PM (see Christian Today website:
https://www.christiantoday.com/

The Scottish Episcopalian Church was brave to apologise to LGBT people for the prejudices and horrors of the past weeks and yet no one has asked the question of why saying sorry for the past has anything to do with playing God's role in the present by redefining marriage.

Instead, the Scottish Episcopal Church, among many others, has trampled on celibate LGB people with the decision to depart from God's own teaching in scripture. Next year, when I move to Scotland to study, I may not be able to attend a Scottish Episcopalian Church. The question of whether I can continue to attend in line with the Anglican church I attend in the south of England hangs over my head.

A certain comment from the recent synod flagged this for me. 'Gay people can now be married in God's eyes.' Such a view highlighted the danger we first witnessed in humanity's parents. This danger is making God in our own image by eating from a kind of knowledge and role that God has. We are redefining things that God has already defined for the Church. We hear that voice whisper 'Did God REALLY say [that he made them male and female for marriage]?'

When quoting directly from the creation narrative in Genesis, Jesus does so by rendering what appears in the Hebrew as God's voice, straight from the Creator's own 'mouth'. In Matthew 19:4, 'Have you not read that the one who made them at the beginning made them male and female and said, for this reason a man shall leave his father.' When one decides who and what God's image is in contradiction to what he has said, one puts themselves in the place of God. When the Church exalts herself above God, she breaks covenant with God.

As a former agnostic gay rights activist involved in campaigns for gay marriage, I thought the Christian God was the justification of homophobes and a moral monster. He was a weapon in the hands of conservatives who deprived LGBTQI people of their rights. A God of such objectionable character, who wrathfully rejected homosexual people and yet 'made them that way' was beyond the pale of existence. It wasn't until I experienced God's love in a pub in 2009 that my life was turned entirely upside down. I discovered that what I thought at that time, in fact couldn't be further from the truth. God's incredible love for all people, beyond any label, is the reality that must be stressed above all, shown most principally in the giving of Himself on a cross to save us from our own self-made destruction.

The journey from agnosticism to Christian faith was what pushed me, among other obvious reasons, for gay marriage rights. I wanted to marry my partner in the holiness of Christian marriage. However, as I mined the depths of scripture, and came to know Jesus Christ more profoundly, deep doubts about the revisionist theology I had adopted to quickly started to emerge.

Why would this God of love make us male and female to the exclusion of other realities? What was the effect of our fall from relationship with God in these bodies and our sexuality? From these discussion, I discovered I wasn't created this way but like all human beings, I was born as a beautiful but broken creation.

As I discovered who God was in worship, I came to realise that marriage was not for just the sake of procreation or to exclude homosexual people from marriage as I often heard from conservative Christians. Rather, marriage between one man and one woman was designed as one way that our Earthly lives can reflect our deepest unity with God in Christ. The creation of physical sexes was to allow us to enjoy an allegory of this greater hope, not to exclude LGBT people. To enshrine gay marriage in the Church as the Scottish Episcopal Church has done is to erase the unique humanity of the sexes, and to 'exchange the image of the Creator' expressed in the designation of male and female sexes for another image. This is a false reformation, an anathema, equivalent to those who taught the Law had to be added to salvation.

And yet part of the issue lies in the Reformation, and that it did not go far enough. When Martin Luther reformed the church, he threw celibacy out as the pendulum swung one way against the corruptions of Catholicism at the time. He made celibacy into a 'lofty asceticism', and marriage, the godly ideal of the average Christian. This has done damage ever since, especially to those like myself who want to follow Christ with our homosexuality. Celibacy is now seen as some cruel deprivation of a human right, and absolute necessity for human flourish. Scripture teaches the exact opposite.

What I see in this recent decision by the Scottish Episcopalian Church is not just a decision on a societal issue, but a complete misunderstanding of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The Gospel is built on the good news that your worth or value is not dependent on marrying; our worth and value and acceptance are based in Christ and in our identity as children of God.

As a gay celibate man, who has given my whole self to God, and He, His Son, I am not interested in self-justifying theology – I am interested in the truth of the unchanging, holy God, our Father in Heaven. By standing against His image in creation in such a decision also disenfranchises one group of LGBTQI people, gay Christian celibate people like myself. We are already a minority within a minority, with the loud voices of the romantic sectarianism, which will continue to insist that we need romantic love to be whole. We are often treated with contempt, spat at and treated with contempt by many in secular society. Now we will have to enter churches in the future where our deep sacrifice for Christ is dismissed as a joke.

My heart mourns for the church of Jesus Christ who is forgetting the everlasting wisdom repeated by God since humanity fell: 'Flee Idols, and worship me alone.' Anything less is not worth the deathly dividend. If the whole church was living in the costly sacrifice of normal Christian discipleship, homosexuality and celibacy would not be an issue in the slightest.

The decision to legalise gay marriage reflects our cultures inability to see nuance, and shows that the damaging effects of polarisation and the ignorance of the culture war. This ignorance has become so deeply ingrained we have opted to change God to accommodate our hurt, brokenness and fallen desires.

I am deeply grieved for LGB people like myself, who have denied ourselves, picked up our cross and followed Jesus. We will have to find our place in the wilderness as activists and churches continue to ignore, neglect, culturally marginalise, malign and close their doors to us. Our voice is left unheard. For many of us our choice to be celibate is not some easy gift, but a costly sacrifice that speaks louder than these words ever can. I wish my family walked the narrow path of righteousness with me. Nothing has really changed since Jesus' own life – his true followers, like him, will be thrown out of the places of worship as he predicts in John 16. Perhaps we are better off there.

David Bennett has recently completed postgraduate studies in theology at the University of Oxford and is currently completing his first book, A War of Loves: A Gay Rights Activist Encounters Jesus Christ, with Zondervan to be released mid-next year.

Friday, 9 June 2017

Trust the Bible

Praying for Five Friends #ThyKingdomCome from Thy Kingdom Come on Vimeo.

Monday, 5 June 2017

Muslims and dreams of Jesus

Abdul met Jesus in a dream while awaiting deportation at Heathrow.

‘I came to the UK because I had a problem in Afghanistan,’ says Abdul Ahmad (32). That’s a bit of an understatement, as it turns out.

Abdul is currently being held at Heathrow’s Immigration Removal Centre awaiting deportation. And it is here that he has discovered the Bible.

‘I committed adultery with my neighbour’s wife,’ he says. ‘The father of the man came and I ran away, because in Afghanistan when you commit adultery, they will kill you. I was afraid that I would be killed.’

Abdul fled to his uncle’s house in Kabul. There he paid $6,000 to a trafficker to bring him to the UK in the back of a lorry. This is ten years’ ago.

For four years he sofa surfed and lived a hand-to-mouth existence. Then, in 2011 he was stopped, randomly by the police. This revealed that he had no legal status in the UK, and so he finds himself at Heathrow awaiting deportation.

Here, he was befriended by a Nigerian Christian detainee who introduced Abdul to the Bible. Then one night, he had a dream.

‘I was asleep at 4.30am and I had a dream,’ he says. ‘All the world was very dark, but then a person came who was shining light. I couldn’t look at his face. I said, “Who are you?” He said, “I am Jesus, the Messiah”.

‘I said, “Who are all these other people?” He said, “These are all the people who love me.” And then I woke up. I couldn’t sleep. I stood and thought about it and then I came to the chapel.

‘I think that Jesus is my friend to tell me about himself like that,’ he says.

Abdul’s been reading a Bible in his native language. ‘The Bible gives me everything I need really,’ he says. ‘When I read it I become relaxed and I forget that I’m in the detention centre. It makes me very happy.’

Abdul’s future is at best uncertain. ‘I’m afraid for my life if I go back to Afghanistan,’ he says. ‘People aren’t educated. They will just kill me because I am a Christian as well as for the adultery.’

Abdul received a Bible in his native language thanks to our supporters. Find out more about our work in Heathrow’s Immigration Removal Centre.
Author: Bible Society, 2 June 2017

Thanks, but no thanks!

We had a wonderful day yesterday starting with the awards ceremony where Ruth, our youngest child, received her degree - a 2:1- after thre...