October 31, 2009
This is a weird time of year. I remember Ned Sherrin on BBC Radio 4 welcoming Guy Fawkes Night (5 November – commemorating the attempt by Guido Fawkes and his mates to destroy Parliament in 1605) by saying that at least we had got past the spooks of Halloween and could now get back to the real business of burning Catholics. This, of course, was a response to the complaints by Christians about the commercial and cultural promotion of Halloween with its demons, devils and death. So, we have our bonfires and fireworks and forget what lies behind it.
Well, perhaps this year it is worth remembering. I heard this morning that the Vatican has warned against the dangers of Halloween and its association with all the spooky stuff. It might help if, instead of complaining, the Church worked positively at explaining that Halloween is a Christian festival that forces escapists to take seriously human mortality and questions of the meaning of death and beyond. Many churches will be celebrating ‘Bright Lights’ parties that hold together All Souls and All Saints and keeps the integrity of the two.
But, I think we can go one better. A couple of weeks ago the Pope very kindly offered to take some disaffected Anglicans into his fold. Today we would like to make a reciprocal offer to help his Church out over Halloween.
Today might be Halloween in the UK, but in Germany it is Reformation Day – the celebration of Martin Luther nailing his 95 Theses to the door of the Schlosskirche in Wittenberg in 1517 and setting off the Reformation in Europe. Three years ago I was in Wittenberg with the Archbishop of Canterbury and some others. The German Protestant Church (EKD) is going through a serious Reform Process which is intended to change the church and fit it (in the spirit of reformation) for the 500th anniversary of Luther’s action in 2017. I asked if the Roman Catholic Church would be involved in the celebrations in 2017 – and I didn’t get a clear answer. So, I wondered aloud if the RC Church would be celebrating the 500th anniversary of Luther’s ordination to the Catholic priesthood in 2007.
Er… no answer was forthcoming. Which was probably wise.
But it was a serious question – to do with how we cope with our histories and the bits we find uncomfortable. Do we just pretend they didn’t happen and wish they would go away? Just think of the damage such escapism or denial does in the life of an individual.
Anyway, I would like to offer the Vatican a way out of the Halloween conundrum. The German Pope Benedict could drive this with good reason and great credibility: celebrate Reformation Day, remember a difficult history and then link it all in to All Souls and All Saints.
I can’t see a downside.
October 28, 2009
The Evangelische Kirche in Deutschland (EKD) is meeting in Ulm for its annual Synod and I wish I could be there. My diary prohibited it, so the Meissen Commission/Church of England is being represented by one of my colleagues. The exciting thing about this year’s Synod is the election of the EKD’s new governing Council (Rat der EKD) for the next six years. The election of the Rat is followed immediately by the election from its numbers of the President/Chair (Ratsvorsitzender).
OK, that doesn’t sound exciting, does it? But it was always going to be a hard job to succeed the retiring Ratsvorsitzender, Bishop Wolfgang Huber, who, as well as leading the Church, has also driven the Reformprozess and is a superb communicator and representative of the Church in the public sphere.
The election this afternoon has seen the Hannoversche Landesbischöfin Margot Käßmann resoundingly elected- the first time a woman will have led the German Protestant Church.
I am biased. Margot Käßmann kindly wrote the foreword to the German-language version of my last book, Finding Faith (In höchsten Tönen, LVH 2009). She is a very popular church leader and bishop of the largest Landeskirche in Germany. She is a superb speaker, preacher, media operator and communicator both in and outside the church. She will bring a renewed and powerful dynamic to the Christian message in Germany and beyond.
It also makes the relations between the EKD and the Church of England interesting as we contemplate the consecration of women as bishops. It will make relations between the Roman Catholic Church and the EKD in Germany even more interesting to follow – with a German Pope and a female Ratsvorsitzenderin of the largest Protestant Church in Europe.
October 27, 2009
It’s time for some Bruce Cockburn again – just to keep a sense of perspective in all the other stuff going on.
The Church is a means to an end – a sign of the Kingdom of God (apparently), but not coterminus with the Kingdom of God. When we confuse ends with means we have a problem.
So, Cockburn brings us back to the bigger picture (with echoes of St Augustine) in the beautiful Lord of the Starfields:
Lord of the starfields
Ancient of Days
here’s a song in your praise.
wings of the storm cloud
beginning and end
you make my heart leap
like a banner in the wind.
O Love that fires the sun
keep me burning.
Lord of the starfields
sower of life,
heaven and earth are
full of your light.
Voice of the nova
smile of the dew
all of our yearning
only comes home to you.
O Love that fires the sun
keep me burning
[In the Falling Dark (1976)]
October 26, 2009
When the Pope issued his invitation to disaffected Anglicans to cross the Tiber and bolster ’the true Church’, it was hardly surprising that there was an explosion of interest. It will be interesting to see what happens and how it looks as the days, weeks and months go by.
In an interview with a journalist the other day I was asked what the problem was with the Archbishop of Canterbury (and everyone else, it seems) getting only two weeks notice of what was planned by the Vatican. After all, she said, two weeks is a lifetime in businesses where things move fast and judgements have to be made on the hoof.
I replied that although the media might be driven to make instant judgements – even before the facts are known and considered reflection can be given – in the church we generally take years, decades and centuries. I wasn’t being funny – nor was I being critical of the media who have no option but to act quickly these days. That is why the Archbishop of Canterbury once said to me that just because someone puts a microphone in front of your face doesn’t mean that you have to speak into it. Sometimes we need to hold our nerve, keep shtum and wait until the smoke begins to clear and our perspective has a bit more credibility.
So, I was delighted to read the great Diarmaid MacCulloch in yesterday’s Observer offering a wider perspective from the point of view of an expert in ecclesiastical history who is no longer a paid-up member of the Church of England (or even the Christian club). He says:
Equally extravagant claims that this could be the end of the Protestant Reformation need to be taken with several fontfuls of salt. It is in the interests of various discontented groups on the margins of Anglicanism to talk up the significance of the latest piece of papal theatre, while ignoring its wider context.
He then goes on to analyse briefly some of the issues going on in this debate and concludes:
In one sense, this is a storm in a teacup, stirred by an elderly cleric in the Vatican with a private agenda and a track record of ill-thought-out policy moves. In another, it is a fascinating moment in a confrontation as much a struggle for the soul of the Church of Rome as of the Church of England. Once we have got past the screaming headlines, we should keep an eye open for the real story.
Perhaps it is no surprise that MacCulloch (Professor of the History of the Church at Oxford University) shone new light on the Reformation in his magisterial book Reformation: Europe’s House Divided 1490-1700. He has now published a huge and readable A History of Christianity which also forms the basis of a Channel 4 television series starting on 5 November (which in English history was not a great day for ecumenical relations).
It is the perspective of centuries that will put this latest business into proper perspective. Perhaps a compulsory reading of MacCulloch’s book by all commentators is too much to ask?
October 25, 2009
I am writing this before Liverpool play Manchester United this afternoon. This is deliberate on my part. I cannot bear to be ‘public’ if Liverpool loses its fifth game in succession – especially if it involves the long-lamented Michael Owen playing any part in a United win. Call me feeble if you wish, but when it comes to anything bad happening to Liverpool and anything good happening to Manchester United (Chelsea, Arsenal, Everton, etc.) I am actually pretty … er … feeble.
When I was asked last week about Liverpool’s loss at home to Lyon in the Champions League, I boldly argued that this was simply yet another example of Scouse generosity – giving space for the little clubs to have their moments of glory after Liverpool had dominated European football for three decades. Of course, this would have to end before too long because generosity has its limits; but Liverpool’s critics should change the way they think about the current run of form and recognise instead the glorious generosity of a morally superior club … and be grateful.
I didn’t even convince myself. And now I’m worried about this afternoon’s game and the future of Rafa Benitez as Liverpool’s manager. When the club’s owners articulate publicly their support for the manager’s position, you can’t help feeling the severance package is already being worked out behind closed doors.
So, let me make a leap from one challenge to perceptions (of Liverpool’s ‘failure’ or ‘generosity’) to another.
Some time ago I was asked to write a book about Christmas – re-telling the story and reclaiming it for what it should be. Well, the result has now been published and has the following to commend it:
- It is short: only 75 pages.
- It is written in accessible language and should be easy to read and follow.
- It is written for people who might not be part of any church and, therefore, is written in language that isn’t ‘churchy’.
- It is a celebration of Christmas – even the dodgy accretions of a consumerist culture – that re-tells the story in different ways and tries to place it in the real lives we live in Britain during a financial recession.
- It has a nice cover.
People’s perceptions of Christmas can be weird – hence the bizarre staging of school nativity plays that include all sorts of characters who do not appear in the original story: lobsters, kangaroos, etc. God gets confused with Santa Claus, the ‘stable’ with Santa’s grotto, the shepherds and wise men with Santa’s elves… and so on. I was once told that the main character in the Christmas story was Cinderella.
So, we need to offer people a different ‘take’ on the over-familiar story that people think they know, but have forgotten. And the story needs to be told in a way that ordinary people can grasp – or be grasped by. And if churchy Christians hate the way I have written it (as some did my last book – which was also not written for them), then I have probably succeeded.
After all, we need to recognise that angels are not fairies, Santa is not Jesus, shepherds were dodgy, Magi were not kosher, Jesus grew up (and probably did cry) and carols sometimes give the wrong impression.
October 24, 2009
I have been asked why I titled my post on the Pope’s Apostolic Constitution ‘Roman Candles’. Was it because the Vatican’s initiative amounted to ecclesiastical fireworks? Actually, the reason was less dramatic: Roman Candles sparkle, but then fizzle out and everything looks the same afterwards. I think the big splash about the Pope’s decision might look a little different once people have begun to think through the consequences and implications.
This is what I tried to get across on a ‘live’ Channel 4 interview this evening. The following are some of the matters that will need to be weighed up:
1. Any individual accepting the papal invitation will have to ‘convert’ to Roman Catholicism. This will mean accepting the doctine and practices of the Roman Catholic Church and agreeing that the dogmas of the Church are ‘true’. This must, therefore, include the dogma of the Church that Anglican orders are ‘null and void’ – that the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Bishop of Chichester, the Provincial Episcopal Visitors and the rest of us are ‘dubiously baptised lay people’. If people agree with this, then they have knowingly and willingly accepted or perpetrated a fraud on their congregations for years: by definition the sacraments they have celebrated have been deficient – in the sense that the ‘celebrant’ has known that the ‘true’ church regards them as such.
2. Were the 600 or so priests (as reported) in Westminster today stipendiary parish priests? How many were retired, almost retired or non-stipendiary? This question is not a matter of pedantry, but will indicate the real impact on the Church of England if they all accept the Roman option. I note that Geoffrey Kirk has said that he intended all along to become a Roman Catholic – which is fine when he is about to retire and get his pension. But what of those beginning their ministry whose future might look different if they move onto a RC stipend and pension provision? Doctinal reasons for ‘moving’ will inevitably be affected by more carnal considerations such as money and property and prospects.
3. How will the acceptance of married Anglican priests affect the question of celibacy in Rome? Forward in Faith speakers today have (rightly in my view) suggested that Rome might have to become more ‘Anglican’ in reconsidering its celibacy rules if married Anglican join them and get re-ordained. I can see this only as bizarre fantasy on the part of FiF and wonder whether the acceptance of Anglicans who think this way might make the Vatican think again. After all, the Vatican has already made it clear that those who accept the Pope’s invitation will have to come on Rome’s terms and those who do come will not have the room to dissent or negotiate as they have done in the Church of England.
4. Much has been made today of the fact that this invitation does not end the search for full, visible untiy between the Churches begun with the ARCIC process. That is right and I am glad it has been made clear. The conversations towards unity will continue, but this latest move by the Vatican (and the manner of its making) will change the contours of the conversation. What it has clarified is that if Anglo-Catholics wish to accept the Roman invitation, they must do so lock, stock and barrel and not live with the fantasy of having their cake and eating it. It is important that the Vatican is clear about this and that those who leave their Church, their parish, their church building and (where it pertains to clergy) their vicarage, do so with a clear understanding of what they are doing and why.
There are other questions to be addressed, but there is time for that to be done over the next few months. What is indisputable is that the generous provision by the Pope has offered a way for disaffected Anglo-Catholics to resolve their problems with the Church of England in a way that takes their conscience seriously. But I suggest that the decision to be made will cause other crises of conscience. As the days go by, the euphoria might subside as the cost is counted. And, inevitably, it will make the lobby to oppose the consecration of women bishops much harder to press.
In short, I think this might clarify matters on all sides and prove ultimately healthy for the whole Church. But the Churhc of Rome will need to count the cost for itself of its invitation, too.
October 23, 2009
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There was a consultation recently at Cumberland Lodge about Religion in the News. I was invited, but couldn’t go. Bishop Alan Wilson went and I noticed earlier that Ruth Gledhill‘s contribution is now available to listen to.
October 23, 2009
I’ve just made the mistake of googling ‘griffin’. According to Wikipedia, it is a legendary creature (or, in another description, a ‘monster’) with the body of a lion and the head and wings of an eagle. As the lion was traditionally considered the king of the beasts and the eagle was the king of the birds, the griffin was thought to be an especially powerful and majestic creature. Griffins are normally known for guarding treasure. In antiquity it was a symbol of divine power and a guardian of the divine.
Good grief! Never has someone been as mis-named as Nick! But, as the description implies, however, the mythical bird is a complete mess of unjoined-up bits and the subject of fantasiesof greatness. Oh! So, that’s where the similarity is to be found…
Last night’s debate on the BBC’s Question Time was a bit of a dog’s breakfast. Griffin ducked and dived under a storm of vitriol, but the arguments didn’t take us anywhere. We know he lies about quotations and can’t be trusted on any matter. His claim to represent the ‘ordinary man in the street’ is ludicrous, givne his own social background. And his selective view of history is so ridiculous as to be hardly worth challenging – if, that is, it wasn’t the case that some people will want to appropriate the bits of history he cites in order to back up their prejudices.
What was lacking from Question Time – and continues to prove elusive in Britain generally – is an informed, intelligent and measured debate about immigration and population. It appears impossible to achieve without participants being caricatured by their opponents as either ‘stupidly liberal’ or ‘impossibly racist’. This surely feeds into the BNP agenda which is based not on fact and intelligence, but nasty prejudice and ridiculously half-baked claims. But the danger lies not in the BNP spouting vicious nonsense, but in the lack of a genuine debate by the other parties.
For example, I have just come across a report in my local freebie newspaper about the decision to close the UK Border Agency’s asylum screening unit in Liverpool – thus leaving Croydon as the only one in the country. Local politicians have gone mad over the sudden decision as this local community will have to cope with every asylum seeker in Britain coming through the town. No extra funding is granted to the Council or schools or medical services to help cope with the numbers involved.
Now, let me say loudly and clearly: every asylum seeker needs to be treated with dignity, respect and compassion. Each one needs to be taken with the utmost seriousness and not be subjected to the treatment that saw many of them escape from their own country. We should be offering a better alternative to people who have often been through experiences that would appal most ordinary Brits. Our local community and services are committed to doing that as well as possible.
But the lack of joined-up-ness in policy-making has consequences not only in terms of community service provision and funding, but also in the psychology of what worried people think is going on (which may bear no relation to the reality). Our politicians are going to have to facilitate a proper, informed, intelligent and rational debate on immigration that exposes the inhumanity of the extremes, allows for a humane expression of compassion and service and enables a genuine appropriation of a commonly owned social policy.
Nick Griffin can now build on his fantasy of self-importance. But his performance last night was more ridiculous than scary.
October 21, 2009
So, the Pope has invited Anglicans to cross the Tiber and join his family. And, it seems, the Church of England has been taken by surprise by this move. Or has it?
Well, yesterday I was unable to get to a keyboard and only really picked up on the details late at night. After a day of meetings today I have finally read the responses to the Vatican move and have been thinking about the implications. But the implications I have been thinking about have more to do with the Roman Catholic Church than with the Anglican Communion. What looks like a generous move might bring with it one or two unwelcome consequences.
First of all, the probability of Rome offering some sort of refuge to those wondering about their future in Anglicanism was high and, therefore, not unexpected. The way the deed was done will need to be interpreted by others and after a period of reflective time. But it can be seen as generous of the Pope to make the provision he has (although we still haven’t seen the details of the Apostolic Constitution). And many Anglicans who won’t be heading east will be glad that the distress of some Anglicans has been recognised and honourable provison made for them.
Of course, there will now be a greater clarity in the Church of England about women in the episcopate; and people who have complained about the C of E will now have to choose which way to go in the future. I guess this will cause even greater anguish for some clergy now that a clear way forward has been opened to them and the challenge to choose can no longer be avoided.
But, as it looks at present, individual priests will have to leave the Church of England, be re-ordained as Roman Catholic priests and taken into the polity and financial wings of the RC Church. Individual lay people can be accepted into the RC Church and come under RC pastoral care quite easily. It will be good if such transitions are made with good grace and generosity – after all, we are all Christians and members of the Body of Christ. Church of England churches will continue to be responsible for their parishes even if/when some people leave for Rome.
But how is the RC Church going to cope with the gay sub-culture in Anglo-Catholicism, given the Church’s stance on sexuality and sexual ethics? That isn’t a dig – it’s a genuine question.
Secondly, what will be the effect in the RC Church of an influx of married priests whose families will have to be supported and whose presence in the priesthood may undermine the sacrifice being made by many RC priests who struggle with celibacy and want to see change?
Thirdly, how will the ‘converts’ cope within a Church that has little room for the sort of negotiations that have characterised their experience of Anglicanism?
Inevitably the press has speculated (as have some of those contacted for comment) about the numbers of Anglicans who might cross over. My guess is that the numbers will be considerably smaller – simply because many priests who oppose the ordination of women to the priesthood and episcopate have maintained all along that they have no interest in becoming Roman. Or maybe the latest development will change that? We will see.
What I think does need challenging is the assumption by several journalists and observers that the departure of people from the ‘hard edges’ of the Church will leave the C of E with a ‘liberal rump’. Most of the C of E contains evangelicals of different persuasions, catholics of different complexions and liberals of all flavours – and we are committed to the unique mission of this Church. There won’t be a ‘liberal rump’ – there will be the huge majority of the Church of England who still will get stuck in to mission and ministry where they are for the sake of the Kingdom of God.
I think my own sticking point in all this will come as little surprise to those who know me: if I really believed that the Roman option was a valid one, then I could never have been an Anglican in the first place. If I have knowingly exercised a sacramental ministry in orders that I believe to be ‘invalid’ in the eyes of the ‘true’ Church, where does that put me theologcially, ecclesiologically and ethically?
I agree with other commentators that this is a time for sober reflection and prayer. The church exists for the sake of the world – not for the sake of the purity of the church. Whichever way people choose to go, we must not lose sight of that priority and we must learn to love and pray for one another with generosity and grace.
(Interesting comment by Frank Skinner.)
October 19, 2009
Yesterday I visited two thriving inner-urban churches in Croydon. I don’t often get emotional, but yesterday was different.
In the first church I confirmed ten people, including adults who have come from right outside the church and found here that God has found them. They have also found a church that offers beauty in worship, a lively engagement with the good news of Jesus Christ, and a multi-ethnic community of wonderful people who welcome all-comers. After the service everyone went through to the hall for coffee before returning to the (by now cleared) church for a huge lunch – about 100 of us. I didn’t want to leave. I love it there and would happily join the church if I lived there (and wasn’t the bishop).
In the afternoon I went to another parish in a neighbouring area for a formal visit. The Vicar went there nearly four years ago when the church had an average congregation of 15 and was an obvious candidate for closure. I promised her that if she found the job was not do-able, I would look for a good parish for her – for she had at least tried to do the impossible. She told me yesterday that she had asked her congregation what they would like to do on my visit to show the bishop what their church/parish was all about – and they had said they wanted to have a party.
Having had an hour with the vicar in the vicarage, we walked to the church with the possibility that nobody would be there. When we walked in there were in the region of 150 people from dozens of different ethnic origins, of all ages (from babies to very elderly) and all types. There was a brass band to play for the brief Harvest Celebration at the beginning of the party. And there was a huge feast of food and drink to be shared. When I was asked to say something, I got very choked up and struggled to get the words out.
Every image of heaven in the Bible seems to involve a feast. Jesus was criticised for partying too much – and with the wrong people. Yesterday I glimpsed heaven in two churches with inspired leadership, sacrificial ministry, encouraged people and a generous openness to their parishes.
And all this hides the day-by-day ministry of working quietly in some tough places in tough cirumstances and addressing some tough challenges. The clergy (and others) are fully involved in the life and institutions of their local parish communities. They command huge respect and affection from local people – including those who don’t darken the doors of the church.
I don’t want to identify the parishes as the attention won’t necessarily be helpful. But their clergy have my unmitigated admiration and I am immensely humbled and proud to be their bishop, to learn from them and to be inspired by them.
I realise this sounds a bit cheesy. And, yes, there are lots of parishes like this in South London. But I needed to say it about these two in particular today.
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